Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 24

The Doctor, during the first six months he was abroad, never spoke to his daughter of their little difference; partly on system, and partly because he had a great many other things to think about. It was idle to attempt to ascertain the state of her affections without direct inquiry, because, if she had not had an expressive manner among the familiar influences of home, she failed to gather animation from the mountains of Switzerland or the monuments of Italy. She was always her father’s docile and reasonable associate — going through their sight-seeing in deferential silence, never complaining of fatigue, always ready to start at the hour he had appointed over-night, making no foolish criticisms and indulging in no refinements of appreciation. “She is about as intelligent as the bundle of shawls,” the Doctor said; her main superiority being that while the bundle of shawls sometimes got lost, or tumbled out of the carriage, Catherine was always at her post, and had a firm and ample seat. But her father had expected this, and he was not constrained to set down her intellectual limitations as a tourist to sentimental depression; she had completely divested herself of the characteristics of a victim, and during the whole time that they were abroad she never uttered an audible sigh. He supposed she was in correspondence with Morris Townsend; but he held his peace about it, for he never saw the young man’s letters, and Catherine’s own missives were always given to the courier to post. She heard from her lover with considerable regularity, but his letters came enclosed in Mrs. Penniman’s; so that whenever the Doctor handed her a packet addressed in his sister’s hand, he was an involuntary instrument of the passion he condemned. Catherine made this reflexion, and six months earlier she would have felt bound to give him warning; but now she deemed herself absolved. There was a sore spot in her heart that his own words had made when once she spoke to him as she thought honour prompted; she would try and please him as far as she could, but she would never speak that way again. She read her lover’s letters in secret.

One day at the end of the summer, the two travellers found themselves in a lonely valley of the Alps. They were crossing one of the passes, and on the long ascent they had got out of the carriage and had wandered much in advance. After a while the Doctor descried a footpath which, leading through a transverse valley, would bring them out, as he justly supposed, at a much higher point of the ascent. They followed this devious way, and finally lost the path; the valley proved very wild and rough, and their walk became rather a scramble. They were good walkers, however, and they took their adventure easily; from time to time they stopped, that Catherine might rest; and then she sat upon a stone and looked about her at the hard-featured rocks and the glowing sky. It was late in the afternoon, in the last of August; night was coming on, and, as they had reached a great elevation, the air was cold and sharp. In the west there was a great suffusion of cold, red light, which made the sides of the little valley look only the more rugged and dusky. During one of their pauses, her father left her and wandered away to some high place, at a distance, to get a view. He was out of sight; she sat there alone, in the stillness, which was just touched by the vague murmur, somewhere, of a mountain brook. She thought of Morris Townsend, and the place was so desolate and lonely that he seemed very far away. Her father remained absent a long time; she began to wonder what had become of him. But at last he reappeared, coming towards her in the clear twilight, and she got up, to go on. He made no motion to proceed, however, but came close to her, as if he had something to say. He stopped in front of her and stood looking at her, with eyes that had kept the light of the flushing snow-summits on which they had just been fixed. Then, abruptly, in a low tone, he asked her an unexpected question:

“Have you given him up?”

The question was unexpected, but Catherine was only superficially unprepared.

“No, father!” she answered.

He looked at her again for some moments, without speaking.

“Does he write to you?” he asked.

“Yes — about twice a month.”

The Doctor looked up and down the valley, swinging his stick; then he said to her, in the same low tone:

“I am very angry.”

She wondered what he meant — whether he wished to frighten her. If he did, the place was well chosen; this hard, melancholy dell, abandoned by the summer light, made her feel her loneliness. She looked around her, and her heart grew cold; for a moment her fear was great. But she could think of nothing to say, save to murmur gently, “I am sorry.”

“You try my patience,” her father went on, “and you ought to know what I am, I am not a very good man. Though I am very smooth externally, at bottom I am very passionate; and I assure you I can be very hard.”

She could not think why he told her these things. Had he brought her there on purpose, and was it part of a plan? What was the plan? Catherine asked herself. Was it to startle her suddenly into a retractation — to take an advantage of her by dread? Dread of what? The place was ugly and lonely, but the place could do her no harm. There was a kind of still intensity about her father, which made him dangerous, but Catherine hardly went so far as to say to herself that it might be part of his plan to fasten his hand — the neat, fine, supple hand of a distinguished physician — in her throat. Nevertheless, she receded a step. “I am sure you can be anything you please,” she said. And it was her simple belief.

“I am very angry,” he replied, more sharply.

“Why has it taken you so suddenly?”

“It has not taken me suddenly. I have been raging inwardly for the last six months. But just now this seemed a good place to flare out. It’s so quiet, and we are alone.”

“Yes, it’s very quiet,” said Catherine vaguely, looking about her. “Won’t you come back to the carriage?”

“In a moment. Do you mean that in all this time you have not yielded an inch?”

“I would if I could, father; but I can’t.”

The Doctor looked round him too. “Should you like to be left in such a place as this, to starve?”

“What do you mean?” cried the girl.

“That will be your fate — that’s how he will leave you.”

He would not touch her, but he had touched Morris. The warmth came back to her heart. “That is not true, father,” she broke out, “and you ought not to say it! It is not right, and it’s not true!”

He shook his head slowly. “No, it’s not right, because you won’t believe it. But it IS true. Come back to the carriage.”

He turned away, and she followed him; he went faster, and was presently much in advance. But from time to time he stopped, without turning round, to let her keep up with him, and she made her way forward with difficulty, her heart beating with the excitement of having for the first time spoken to him in violence. By this time it had grown almost dark, and she ended by losing sight of him. But she kept her course, and after a little, the valley making a sudden turn, she gained the road, where the carriage stood waiting. In it sat her father, rigid and silent; in silence, too, she took her place beside him.

It seemed to her, later, in looking back upon all this, that for days afterwards not a word had been exchanged between them. The scene had been a strange one, but it had not permanently affected her feeling towards her father, for it was natural, after all, that he should occasionally make a scene of some kind, and he had let her alone for six months. The strangest part of it was that he had said he was not a good man; Catherine wondered a great deal what he had meant by that. The statement failed to appeal to her credence, and it was not grateful to any resentment that she entertained. Even in the utmost bitterness that she might feel, it would give her no satisfaction to think him less complete. Such a saying as that was a part of his great subtlety — men so clever as he might say anything and mean anything. And as to his being hard, that surely, in a man, was a virtue.

He let her alone for six months more — six months during which she accommodated herself without a protest to the extension of their tour. But he spoke again at the end of this time; it was at the very last, the night before they embarked for New York, in the hotel at Liverpool. They had been dining together in a great dim, musty sitting-room; and then the cloth had been removed, and the Doctor walked slowly up and down. Catherine at last took her candle to go to bed, but her father motioned her to stay.

“What do you mean to do when you get home?” he asked, while she stood there with her candle in her hand.

“Do you mean about Mr. Townsend?”

“About Mr. Townsend.”

“We shall probably marry.”

The Doctor took several turns again while she waited. “Do you hear from him as much as ever?”

“Yes; twice a month,” said Catherine promptly.

“And does he always talk about marriage?”

“Oh yes! That is, he talks about other things too, but he always says something about that.”

“I am glad to hear he varies his subjects; his letters might otherwise be monotonous.”

“He writes beautifully,” said Catherine, who was very glad of a chance to say it.

“They always write beautifully. However, in a given case that doesn’t diminish the merit. So, as soon as you arrive, you are going off with him?”

This seemed a rather gross way of putting it, and something that there was of dignity in Catherine resented it. “I cannot tell you till we arrive,” she said.

“That’s reasonable enough,” her father answered. “That’s all I ask of you — that you DO tell me, that you give me definite notice. When a poor man is to lose his only child, he likes to have an inkling of it beforehand.”

“Oh, father, you will not lose me!” Catherine said, spilling her candle-wax.

“Three days before will do,” he went on, “if you are in a position to be positive then. He ought to be very thankful to me, do you know. I have done a mighty good thing for him in taking you abroad; your value is twice as great, with all the knowledge and taste that you have acquired. A year ago, you were perhaps a little limited — a little rustic; but now you have seen everything, and appreciated everything, and you will be a most entertaining companion. We have fattened the sheep for him before he kills it!” Catherine turned away, and stood staring at the blank door. “Go to bed,” said her father; “and, as we don’t go aboard till noon, you may sleep late. We shall probably have a most uncomfortable voyage.”

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