Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 22

He had slightly misrepresented the matter in saying that Catherine had consented to take the great step. We left her just now declaring that she would burn her ships behind her; but Morris, after having elicited this declaration, had become conscious of good reasons for not taking it up. He avoided, gracefully enough, fixing a day, though he left her under the impression that he had his eye on one. Catherine may have had her difficulties; but those of her circumspect suitor are also worthy of consideration. The prize was certainly great; but it was only to be won by striking the happy mean between precipitancy and caution. It would be all very well to take one’s jump and trust to Providence; Providence was more especially on the side of clever people, and clever people were known by an indisposition to risk their bones. The ultimate reward of a union with a young woman who was both unattractive and impoverished ought to be connected with immediate disadvantages by some very palpable chain. Between the fear of losing Catherine and her possible fortune altogether, and the fear of taking her too soon and finding this possible fortune as void of actuality as a collection of emptied bottles, it was not comfortable for Morris Townsend to choose; a fact that should be remembered by readers disposed to judge harshly of a young man who may have struck them as making but an indifferently successful use of fine natural parts. He had not forgotten that in any event Catherine had her own ten thousand a year; he had devoted an abundance of meditation to this circumstance. But with his fine parts he rated himself high, and he had a perfectly definite appreciation of his value, which seemed to him inadequately represented by the sum I have mentioned. At the same time he reminded himself that this sum was considerable, that everything is relative, and that if a modest income is less desirable than a large one, the complete absence of revenue is nowhere accounted an advantage. These reflexions gave him plenty of occupation, and made it necessary that he should trim his sail. Dr. Sloper’s opposition was the unknown quantity in the problem he had to work out. The natural way to work it out was by marrying Catherine; but in mathematics there are many short cuts, and Morris was not without a hope that he should yet discover one. When Catherine took him at his word and consented to renounce the attempt to mollify her father, he drew back skilfully enough, as I have said, and kept the wedding-day still an open question. Her faith in his sincerity was so complete that she was incapable of suspecting that he was playing with her; her trouble just now was of another kind. The poor girl had an admirable sense of honour; and from the moment she had brought herself to the point of violating her father’s wish, it seemed to her that she had no right to enjoy his protection. It was on her conscience that she ought to live under his roof only so long as she conformed to his wisdom. There was a great deal of glory in such a position, but poor Catherine felt that she had forfeited her claim to it. She had cast her lot with a young man against whom he had solemnly warned her, and broken the contract under which he provided her with a happy home. She could not give up the young man, so she must leave the home; and the sooner the object of her preference offered her another the sooner her situation would lose its awkward twist. This was close reasoning; but it was commingled with an infinite amount of merely instinctive penitence. Catherine’s days at this time were dismal, and the weight of some of her hours was almost more than she could bear. Her father never looked at her, never spoke to her. He knew perfectly what he was about, and this was part of a plan. She looked at him as much as she dared (for she was afraid of seeming to offer herself to his observation), and she pitied him for the sorrow she had brought upon him. She held up her head and busied her hands, and went about her daily occupations; and when the state of things in Washington Square seemed intolerable, she closed her eyes and indulged herself with an intellectual vision of the man for whose sake she had broken a sacred law. Mrs. Penniman, of the three persons in Washington Square, had much the most of the manner that belongs to a great crisis. If Catherine was quiet, she was quietly quiet, as I may say, and her pathetic effects, which there was no one to notice, were entirely unstudied and unintended. If the Doctor was stiff and dry and absolutely indifferent to the presence of his companions, it was so lightly, neatly, easily done, that you would have had to know him well to discover that, on the whole, he rather enjoyed having to be so disagreeable. But Mrs. Penniman was elaborately reserved and significantly silent; there was a richer rustle in the very deliberate movements to which she confined herself, and when she occasionally spoke, in connexion with some very trivial event, she had the air of meaning something deeper than what she said. Between Catherine and her father nothing had passed since the evening she went to speak to him in his study. She had something to say to him — it seemed to her she ought to say it; but she kept it back, for fear of irritating him. He also had something to say to her; but he was determined not to speak first. He was interested, as we know, in seeing how, if she were left to herself, she would “stick.” At last she told him she had seen Morris Townsend again, and that their relations remained quite the same.

“I think we shall marry — before very long. And probably, meanwhile, I shall see him rather often; about once a week, not more.”

The Doctor looked at her coldly from head to foot, as if she had been a stranger. It was the first time his eyes had rested on her for a week, which was fortunate, if that was to be their expression. “Why not three times a day?” he asked. “What prevents your meeting as often as you choose?”

She turned away a moment; there were tears in her eyes. Then she said, “It is better once a week.”

“I don’t see how it is better. It is as bad as it can be. If you flatter yourself that I care for little modifications of that sort, you are very much mistaken. It is as wrong of you to see him once a week as it would be to see him all day long. Not that it matters to me, however.”

Catherine tried to follow these words, but they seemed to lead towards a vague horror from which she recoiled. “I think we shall marry pretty soon,” she repeated at last.

Her father gave her his dreadful look again, as if she were some one else. “Why do you tell me that? It’s no concern of mine.”

“Oh, father!” she broke out, “don’t you care, even if you do feel so?”

“Not a button. Once you marry, it’s quite the same to me when or where or why you do it; and if you think to compound for your folly by hoisting your flag in this way, you may spare yourself the trouble.”

With this he turned away. But the next day he spoke to her of his own accord, and his manner was somewhat changed. “Shall you be married within the next four or five months?” he asked.

“I don’t know, father,” said Catherine. “It is not very easy for us to make up our minds.”

“Put it off, then, for six months, and in the meantime I will take you to Europe. I should like you very much to go.”

It gave her such delight, after his words of the day before, to hear that he should “like” her to do something, and that he still had in his heart any of the tenderness of preference, that she gave a little exclamation of joy. But then she became conscious that Morris was not included in this proposal, and that — as regards really going — she would greatly prefer to remain at home with him. But she blushed, none the less, more comfortably than she had done of late. “It would be delightful to go to Europe,” she remarked, with a sense that the idea was not original, and that her tone was not all it might be.

“Very well, then, we will go. Pack up your clothes.”

“I had better tell Mr. Townsend,” said Catherine.

Her father fixed his cold eyes upon her. “If you mean that you had better ask his leave, all that remains to me is to hope he will give it.”

The girl was sharply touched by the pathetic ring of the words; it was the most calculated, the most dramatic little speech the Doctor had ever uttered. She felt that it was a great thing for her, under the circumstances, to have this fine opportunity of showing him her respect; and yet there was something else that she felt as well, and that she presently expressed. “I sometimes think that if I do what you dislike so much, I ought not to stay with you.”

“To stay with me?”

“If I live with you, I ought to obey you.”

“If that’s your theory, it’s certainly mine,” said the Doctor, with a dry laugh.

“But if I don’t obey you, I ought not to live with you — to enjoy your kindness and protection.”

This striking argument gave the Doctor a sudden sense of having underestimated his daughter; it seemed even more than worthy of a young woman who had revealed the quality of unaggressive obstinacy. But it displeased him — displeased him deeply, and he signified as much. “That idea is in very bad taste,” he said. “Did you get it from Mr. Townsend?”

“Oh no; it’s my own!” said Catherine eagerly.

“Keep it to yourself, then,” her father answered, more than ever determined she should go to Europe.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38