Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 23

If Morris Townsend was not to be included in this journey, no more was Mrs. Penniman, who would have been thankful for an invitation, but who (to do her justice) bore her disappointment in a perfectly ladylike manner. “I should enjoy seeing the works of Raphael and the ruins — the ruins of the Pantheon,” she said to Mrs. Almond; “but, on the other hand, I shall not be sorry to be alone and at peace for the next few months in Washington Square. I want rest; I have been through so much in the last four months.” Mrs. Almond thought it rather cruel that her brother should not take poor Lavinia abroad; but she easily understood that, if the purpose of his expedition was to make Catherine forget her lover, it was not in his interest to give his daughter this young man’s best friend as a companion. “If Lavinia had not been so foolish, she might visit the ruins of the Pantheon,” she said to herself; and she continued to regret her sister’s folly, even though the latter assured her that she had often heard the relics in question most satisfactorily described by Mr. Penniman. Mrs. Penniman was perfectly aware that her brother’s motive in undertaking a foreign tour was to lay a trap for Catherine’s constancy; and she imparted this conviction very frankly to her niece.

“He thinks it will make you forget Morris,” she said (she always called the young man “Morris” now); “out of sight, out of mind, you know. He thinks that all the things you will see over there will drive him out of your thoughts.”

Catherine looked greatly alarmed. “If he thinks that, I ought to tell him beforehand.”

Mrs. Penniman shook her head. “Tell him afterwards, my dear! After he has had all the trouble and the expense! That’s the way to serve him.” And she added, in a softer key, that it must be delightful to think of those who love us among the ruins of the Pantheon.

Her father’s displeasure had cost the girl, as we know, a great deal of deep-welling sorrow — sorrow of the purest and most generous kind, without a touch of resentment or rancour; but for the first time, after he had dismissed with such contemptuous brevity her apology for being a charge upon him, there was a spark of anger in her grief. She had felt his contempt; it had scorched her; that speech about her bad taste made her ears burn for three days. During this period she was less considerate; she had an idea — a rather vague one, but it was agreeable to her sense of injury — that now she was absolved from penance, and might do what she chose. She chose to write to Morris Townsend to meet her in the Square and take her to walk about the town. If she were going to Europe out of respect to her father, she might at least give herself this satisfaction. She felt in every way at present more free and more resolute; there was a force that urged her. Now at last, completely and unreservedly, her passion possessed her.

Morris met her at last, and they took a long walk. She told him immediately what had happened — that her father wished to take her away. It would be for six months, to Europe; she would do absolutely what Morris should think best. She hoped inexpressibly that he would think it best she should stay at home. It was some time before he said what he thought: he asked, as they walked along, a great many questions. There was one that especially struck her; it seemed so incongruous.

“Should you like to see all those celebrated things over there?”

“Oh no, Morris!” said Catherine, quite deprecatingly.

“Gracious Heaven, what a dull woman!” Morris exclaimed to himself.

“He thinks I will forget you,” said Catherine: “that all these things will drive you out of my mind.”

“Well, my dear, perhaps they will!”

“Please don’t say that,” Catherine answered gently, as they walked along. “Poor father will be disappointed.”

Morris gave a little laugh. “Yes, I verily believe that your poor father will be disappointed! But you will have seen Europe,” he added humorously. “What a take-in!”

“I don’t care for seeing Europe,” Catherine said.

“You ought to care, my dear. And it may mollify your father.”

Catherine, conscious of her obstinacy, expected little of this, and could not rid herself of the idea that in going abroad and yet remaining firm, she should play her father a trick. “Don’t you think it would be a kind of deception?” she asked.

“Doesn’t he want to deceive you?” cried Morris. “It will serve him right! I really think you had better go.”

“And not be married for so long?”

“Be married when you come back. You can buy your wedding clothes in Paris.” And then Morris, with great kindness of tone, explained his view of the matter. It would be a good thing that she should go; it would put them completely in the right. It would show they were reasonable and willing to wait. Once they were so sure of each other, they could afford to wait — what had they to fear? If there was a particle of chance that her father would be favourably affected by her going, that ought to settle it; for, after all, Morris was very unwilling to be the cause of her being disinherited. It was not for himself, it was for her and for her children. He was willing to wait for her; it would be hard, but he could do it. And over there, among beautiful scenes and noble monuments, perhaps the old gentleman would be softened; such things were supposed to exert a humanising influence. He might be touched by her gentleness, her patience, her willingness to make any sacrifice but THAT one; and if she should appeal to him some day, in some celebrated spot — in Italy, say, in the evening; in Venice, in a gondola, by moonlight — if she should be a little clever about it and touch the right chord, perhaps he would fold her in his arms and tell her that he forgave her. Catherine was immensely struck with this conception of the affair, which seemed eminently worthy of her lover’s brilliant intellect; though she viewed it askance in so far as it depended upon her own powers of execution. The idea of being “clever” in a gondola by moonlight appeared to her to involve elements of which her grasp was not active. But it was settled between them that she should tell her father that she was ready to follow him obediently anywhere, making the mental reservation that she loved Morris Townsend more than ever.

She informed the Doctor she was ready to embark, and he made rapid arrangements for this event. Catherine had many farewells to make, but with only two of them are we actively concerned. Mrs. Penniman took a discriminating view of her niece’s journey; it seemed to her very proper that Mr. Townsend’s destined bride should wish to embellish her mind by a foreign tour.

“You leave him in good hands,” she said, pressing her lips to Catherine’s forehead. (She was very fond of kissing people’s foreheads; it was an involuntary expression of sympathy with the intellectual part.) “I shall see him often; I shall feel like one of the vestals of old, tending the sacred flame.”

“You behave beautifully about not going with us,” Catherine answered, not presuming to examine this analogy.

“It is my pride that keeps me up,” said Mrs. Penniman, tapping the body of her dress, which always gave forth a sort of metallic ring.

Catherine’s parting with her lover was short, and few words were exchanged.

“Shall I find you just the same when I come back?” she asked; though the question was not the fruit of scepticism.

“The same — only more so!” said Morris, smiling.

It does not enter into our scheme to narrate in detail Dr. Sloper’s proceedings in the eastern hemisphere. He made the grand tour of Europe, travelled in considerable splendour, and (as was to have been expected in a man of his high cultivation) found so much in art and antiquity to interest him, that he remained abroad, not for six months, but for twelve. Mrs. Penniman, in Washington Square, accommodated herself to his absence. She enjoyed her uncontested dominion in the empty house, and flattered herself that she made it more attractive to their friends than when her brother was at home. To Morris Townsend, at least, it would have appeared that she made it singularly attractive. He was altogether her most frequent visitor, and Mrs. Penniman was very fond of asking him to tea. He had his chair — a very easy one at the fireside in the back parlour (when the great mahogany sliding-doors, with silver knobs and hinges, which divided this apartment from its more formal neighbour, were closed), and he used to smoke cigars in the Doctor’s study, where he often spent an hour in turning over the curious collections of its absent proprietor. He thought Mrs. Penniman a goose, as we know; but he was no goose himself, and, as a young man of luxurious tastes and scanty resources, he found the house a perfect castle of indolence. It became for him a club with a single member. Mrs. Penniman saw much less of her sister than while the Doctor was at home; for Mrs. Almond had felt moved to tell her that she disapproved of her relations with Mr. Townsend. She had no business to be so friendly to a young man of whom their brother thought so meanly, and Mrs. Almond was surprised at her levity in foisting a most deplorable engagement upon Catherine.

“Deplorable?” cried Lavinia. “He will make her a lovely husband!”

“I don’t believe in lovely husbands,” said Mrs. Almond; “I only believe in good ones. If he marries her, and she comes into Austin’s money, they may get on. He will be an idle, amiable, selfish, and doubtless tolerably good-natured fellow. But if she doesn’t get the money and he finds himself tied to her, Heaven have mercy on her! He will have none. He will hate her for his disappointment, and take his revenge; he will be pitiless and cruel. Woe betide poor Catherine! I recommend you to talk a little with his sister; it’s a pity Catherine can’t marry HER!”

Mrs. Penniman had no appetite whatever for conversation with Mrs. Montgomery, whose acquaintance she made no trouble to cultivate; and the effect of this alarming forecast of her niece’s destiny was to make her think it indeed a thousand pities that Mr. Townsend’s generous nature should be embittered. Bright enjoyment was his natural element, and how could he be comfortable if there should prove to be nothing to enjoy? It became a fixed idea with Mrs. Penniman that he should yet enjoy her brother’s fortune, on which she had acuteness enough to perceive that her own claim was small.

“If he doesn’t leave it to Catherine, it certainly won’t be to leave it to me,” she said.

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