Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 25

The voyage was indeed uncomfortable, and Catherine, on arriving in New York, had not the compensation of “going off,” in her father’s phrase, with Morris Townsend. She saw him, however, the day after she landed; and, in the meantime, he formed a natural subject of conversation between our heroine and her Aunt Lavinia, with whom, the night she disembarked, the girl was closeted for a long time before either lady retired to rest.

“I have seen a great deal of him,” said Mrs. Penniman. “He is not very easy to know. I suppose you think you know him; but you don’t, my dear. You will some day; but it will only be after you have lived with him. I may almost say I have lived with him,” Mrs. Penniman proceeded, while Catherine stared. “I think I know him now; I have had such remarkable opportunities. You will have the same — or rather, you will have better!” and Aunt Lavinia smiled. “Then you will see what I mean. It’s a wonderful character, full of passion and energy, and just as true!”

Catherine listened with a mixture of interest and apprehension. Aunt Lavinia was intensely sympathetic, and Catherine, for the past year, while she wandered through foreign galleries and churches, and rolled over the smoothness of posting roads, nursing the thoughts that never passed her lips, had often longed for the company of some intelligent person of her own sex. To tell her story to some kind woman — at moments it seemed to her that this would give her comfort, and she had more than once been on the point of taking the landlady, or the nice young person from the dressmaker’s, into her confidence. If a woman had been near her she would on certain occasions have treated such a companion to a fit of weeping; and she had an apprehension that, on her return, this would form her response to Aunt Lavinia’s first embrace. In fact, however, the two ladies had met, in Washington Square, without tears, and when they found themselves alone together a certain dryness fell upon the girl’s emotion. It came over her with a greater force that Mrs. Penniman had enjoyed a whole year of her lover’s society, and it was not a pleasure to her to hear her aunt explain and interpret the young man, speaking of him as if her own knowledge of him were supreme. It was not that Catherine was jealous; but her sense of Mrs. Penniman’s innocent falsity, which had lain dormant, began to haunt her again, and she was glad that she was safely at home. With this, however, it was a blessing to be able to talk of Morris, to sound his name, to be with a person who was not unjust to him.

“You have been very kind to him,” said Catherine. “He has written me that, often. I shall never forget that, Aunt Lavinia.”

“I have done what I could; it has been very little. To let him come and talk to me, and give him his cup of tea — that was all. Your Aunt Almond thought it was too much, and used to scold me terribly; but she promised me, at least, not to betray me.”

“To betray you?”

“Not to tell your father. He used to sit in your father’s study!” said Mrs. Penniman, with a little laugh.

Catherine was silent a moment. This idea was disagreeable to her, and she was reminded again, with pain, of her aunt’s secretive habits. Morris, the reader may be informed, had had the tact not to tell her that he sat in her father’s study. He had known her but for a few months, and her aunt had known her for fifteen years; and yet he would not have made the mistake of thinking that Catherine would see the joke of the thing. “I am sorry you made him go into father’s room,” she said, after a while.

“I didn’t make him go; he went himself. He liked to look at the books, and all those things in the glass cases. He knows all about them; he knows all about everything.”

Catherine was silent again; then, “I wish he had found some employment,” she said.

“He has found some employment! It’s beautiful news, and he told me to tell you as soon as you arrived. He has gone into partnership with a commission merchant. It was all settled, quite suddenly, a week ago.”

This seemed to Catherine indeed beautiful news; it had a fine prosperous air. “Oh, I’m so glad!” she said; and now, for a moment, she was disposed to throw herself on Aunt Lavinia’s neck.

“It’s much better than being under some one; and he has never been used to that,” Mrs. Penniman went on. “He is just as good as his partner — they are perfectly equal! You see how right he was to wait. I should like to know what your father can say now! They have got an office in Duane Street, and little printed cards; he brought me one to show me. I have got it in my room, and you shall see it to-morrow. That’s what he said to me the last time he was here —‘You see how right I was to wait!’ He has got other people under him, instead of being a subordinate. He could never be a subordinate; I have often told him I could never think of him in that way.”

Catherine assented to this proposition, and was very happy to know that Morris was his own master; but she was deprived of the satisfaction of thinking that she might communicate this news in triumph to her father. Her father would care equally little whether Morris were established in business or transported for life. Her trunks had been brought into her room, and further reference to her lover was for a short time suspended, while she opened them and displayed to her aunt some of the spoils of foreign travel. These were rich and abundant; and Catherine had brought home a present to every one — to every one save Morris, to whom she had brought simply her undiverted heart. To Mrs. Penniman she had been lavishly generous, and Aunt Lavinia spent half an hour in unfolding and folding again, with little ejaculations of gratitude and taste. She marched about for some time in a splendid cashmere shawl, which Catherine had begged her to accept, settling it on her shoulders, and twisting down her head to see how low the point descended behind.

“I shall regard it only as a loan,” she said. “I will leave it to you again when I die; or rather,” she added, kissing her niece again, “I will leave it to your first-born little girl!” And draped in her shawl, she stood there smiling.

“You had better wait till she comes,” said Catherine.

“I don’t like the way you say that,” Mrs. Penniman rejoined, in a moment. “Catherine, are you changed?”

“No; I am the same.”

“You have not swerved a line?”

“I am exactly the same,” Catherine repeated, wishing her aunt were a little less sympathetic.

“Well, I am glad!” and Mrs. Penniman surveyed her cashmere in the glass. Then, “How is your father?” she asked in a moment, with her eyes on her niece. “Your letters were so meagre — I could never tell!”

“Father is very well.”

“Ah, you know what I mean,” said Mrs. Penniman, with a dignity to which the cashmere gave a richer effect. “Is he still implacable!”

“Oh yes!”

“Quite unchanged?”

“He is, if possible, more firm.”

Mrs. Penniman took off her great shawl, and slowly folded it up. “That is very bad. You had no success with your little project?”

“What little project?”

“Morris told me all about it. The idea of turning the tables on him, in Europe; of watching him, when he was agreeably impressed by some celebrated sight — he pretends to be so artistic, you know — and then just pleading with him and bringing him round.”

“I never tried it. It was Morris’s idea; but if he had been with us, in Europe, he would have seen that father was never impressed in that way. He IS artistic — tremendously artistic; but the more celebrated places we visited, and the more he admired them, the less use it would have been to plead with him. They seemed only to make him more determined — more terrible,” said poor Catherine. “I shall never bring him round, and I expect nothing now.”

“Well, I must say,” Mrs. Penniman answered, “I never supposed you were going to give it up.”

“I have given it up. I don’t care now.”

“You have grown very brave,” said Mrs. Penniman, with a short laugh. “I didn’t advise you to sacrifice your property.”

“Yes, I am braver than I was. You asked me if I had changed; I have changed in that way. Oh,” the girl went on, “I have changed very much. And it isn’t my property. If HE doesn’t care for it, why should I?”

Mrs. Penniman hesitated. “Perhaps he does care for it.”

“He cares for it for my sake, because he doesn’t want to injure me. But he will know — he knows already — how little he need be afraid about that. Besides,” said Catherine, “I have got plenty of money of my own. We shall be very well off; and now hasn’t he got his business? I am delighted about that business.” She went on talking, showing a good deal of excitement as she proceeded. Her aunt had never seen her with just this manner, and Mrs. Penniman, observing her, set it down to foreign travel, which had made her more positive, more mature. She thought also that Catherine had improved in appearance; she looked rather handsome. Mrs. Penniman wondered whether Morris Townsend would be struck with that. While she was engaged in this speculation, Catherine broke out, with a certain sharpness, “Why are you so contradictory, Aunt Penniman? You seem to think one thing at one time, and another at another. A year ago, before I went away, you wished me not to mind about displeasing father; and now you seem to recommend me to take another line. You change about so.”

This attack was unexpected, for Mrs. Penniman was not used, in any discussion, to seeing the war carried into her own country — possibly because the enemy generally had doubts of finding subsistence there. To her own consciousness, the flowery fields of her reason had rarely been ravaged by a hostile force. It was perhaps on this account that in defending them she was majestic rather than agile.

“I don’t know what you accuse me of, save of being too deeply interested in your happiness. It is the first time I have been told I am capricious. That fault is not what I am usually reproached with.”

“You were angry last year that I wouldn’t marry immediately, and now you talk about my winning my father over. You told me it would serve him right if he should take me to Europe for nothing. Well, he has taken me for nothing, and you ought to be satisfied. Nothing is changed — nothing but my feeling about father. I don’t mind nearly so much now. I have been as good as I could, but he doesn’t care. Now I don’t care either. I don’t know whether I have grown bad; perhaps I have. But I don’t care for that. I have come home to be married — that’s all I know. That ought to please you, unless you have taken up some new idea; you are so strange. You may do as you please; but you must never speak to me again about pleading with father. I shall never plead with him for anything; that is all over. He has put me off. I am come home to be married.”

This was a more authoritative speech than she had ever heard on her niece’s lips, and Mrs. Penniman was proportionately startled. She was indeed a little awestruck, and the force of the girl’s emotion and resolution left her nothing to reply. She was easily frightened, and she always carried off her discomfiture by a concession; a concession which was often accompanied, as in the present case, by a little nervous laugh.

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