Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 28

The letter was a word of warning; it informed him that the Doctor had come home more impracticable than ever. She might have reflected that Catherine would supply him with all the information he needed on this point; but we know that Mrs. Penniman’s reflexions were rarely just; and, moreover, she felt that it was not for her to depend on what Catherine might do. She was to do her duty, quite irrespective of Catherine. I have said that her young friend took his ease with her, and it is an illustration of the fact that he made no answer to her letter. He took note of it, amply; but he lighted his cigar with it, and he waited, in tranquil confidence that he should receive another. “His state of mind really freezes my blood,” Mrs. Penniman had written, alluding to her brother; and it would have seemed that upon this statement she could hardly improve. Nevertheless, she wrote again, expressing herself with the aid of a different figure. “His hatred of you burns with a lurid flame — the flame that never dies,” she wrote. “But it doesn’t light up the darkness of your future. If my affection could do so, all the years of your life would be an eternal sunshine. I can extract nothing from C.; she is so terribly secretive, like her father. She seems to expect to be married very soon, and has evidently made preparations in Europe — quantities of clothing, ten pairs of shoes, etc. My dear friend, you cannot set up in married life simply with a few pairs of shoes, can you? Tell me what you think of this. I am intensely anxious to see you; I have so much to say. I miss you dreadfully; the house seems so empty without you. What is the news down town? Is the business extending? That dear little business — I think it’s so brave of you! Couldn’t I come to your office? — just for three minutes? I might pass for a customer — is that what you call them? I might come in to buy something — some shares or some railroad things. TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK OF THIS PLAN. I would carry a little reticule, like a woman of the people.”

In spite of the suggestion about the reticule, Morris appeared to think poorly of the plan, for he gave Mrs. Penniman no encouragement whatever to visit his office, which he had already represented to her as a place peculiarly and unnaturally difficult to find. But as she persisted in desiring an interview — up to the last, after months of intimate colloquy, she called these meetings “interviews”— he agreed that they should take a walk together, and was even kind enough to leave his office for this purpose, during the hours at which business might have been supposed to be liveliest. It was no surprise to him, when they met at a street corner, in a region of empty lots and undeveloped pavements (Mrs. Penniman being attired as much as possible like a “woman of the people”), to find that, in spite of her urgency, what she chiefly had to convey to him was the assurance of her sympathy. Of such assurances, however, he had already a voluminous collection, and it would not have been worth his while to forsake a fruitful avocation merely to hear Mrs. Penniman say, for the thousandth time, that she had made his cause her own. Morris had something of his own to say. It was not an easy thing to bring out, and while he turned it over the difficulty made him acrimonious.

“Oh yes, I know perfectly that he combines the properties of a lump of ice and a red-hot coal,” he observed. “Catherine has made it thoroughly clear, and you have told me so till I am sick of it. You needn’t tell me again; I am perfectly satisfied. He will never give us a penny; I regard that as mathematically proved.”

Mrs. Penniman at this point had an inspiration.

“Couldn’t you bring a lawsuit against him?” She wondered that this simple expedient had never occurred to her before.

“I will bring a lawsuit against YOU,” said Morris, “if you ask me any more such aggravating questions. A man should know when he is beaten,” he added, in a moment. “I must give her up!”

Mrs. Penniman received this declaration in silence, though it made her heart beat a little. It found her by no means unprepared, for she had accustomed herself to the thought that, if Morris should decidedly not be able to get her brother’s money, it would not do for him to marry Catherine without it. “It would not do” was a vague way of putting the thing; but Mrs. Penniman’s natural affection completed the idea, which, though it had not as yet been so crudely expressed between them as in the form that Morris had just given it, had nevertheless been implied so often, in certain easy intervals of talk, as he sat stretching his legs in the Doctor’s well-stuffed armchairs, that she had grown first to regard it with an emotion which she flattered herself was philosophic, and then to have a secret tenderness for it. The fact that she kept her tenderness secret proves, of course, that she was ashamed of it; but she managed to blink her shame by reminding herself that she was, after all, the official protector of her niece’s marriage. Her logic would scarcely have passed muster with the Doctor. In the first place, Morris MUST get the money, and she would help him to it. In the second, it was plain it would never come to him, and it would be a grievous pity he should marry without it — a young man who might so easily find something better. After her brother had delivered himself, on his return from Europe, of that incisive little address that has been quoted, Morris’s cause seemed so hopeless that Mrs. Penniman fixed her attention exclusively upon the latter branch of her argument. If Morris had been her son, she would certainly have sacrificed Catherine to a superior conception of his future; and to be ready to do so as the case stood was therefore even a finer degree of devotion. Nevertheless, it checked her breath a little to have the sacrificial knife, as it were, suddenly thrust into her hand.

Morris walked along a moment, and then he repeated harshly: “I must give her up!”

“I think I understand you,” said Mrs. Penniman gently.

“I certainly say it distinctly enough — brutally and vulgarly enough.”

He was ashamed of himself, and his shame was uncomfortable; and as he was extremely intolerant of discomfort, he felt vicious and cruel. He wanted to abuse somebody, and he began, cautiously — for he was always cautious — with himself.

“Couldn’t you take her down a little?” he asked.

“Take her down?”

“Prepare her — try and ease me off.”

Mrs. Penniman stopped, looking at him very solemnly.

“My poor Morris, do you know how much she loves you?”

“No, I don’t. I don’t want to know. I have always tried to keep from knowing. It would be too painful.”

“She will suffer much,” said Mrs. Penniman.

“You must console her. If you are as good a friend to me as you pretend to be, you will manage it.”

Mrs. Penniman shook her head sadly.

“You talk of my ‘pretending’ to like you; but I can’t pretend to hate you. I can only tell her I think very highly of you; and how will that console her for losing you?”

“The Doctor will help you. He will be delighted at the thing being broken off, and, as he is a knowing fellow, he will invent something to comfort her.”

“He will invent a new torture!” cried Mrs. Penniman. “Heaven deliver her from her father’s comfort. It will consist of his crowing over her and saying, ‘I always told you so!’”

Morris coloured a most uncomfortable red.

“If you don’t console her any better than you console me, you certainly won’t be of much use! It’s a damned disagreeable necessity; I feel it extremely, and you ought to make it easy for me.”

“I will be your friend for life!” Mrs. Penniman declared.

“Be my friend NOW!” And Morris walked on.

She went with him; she was almost trembling.

“Should you like me to tell her?” she asked. “You mustn’t tell her, but you can — you can —” And he hesitated, trying to think what Mrs. Penniman could do. “You can explain to her why it is. It’s because I can’t bring myself to step in between her and her father — to give him the pretext he grasps at — so eagerly (it’s a hideous sight) for depriving her of her rights.”

Mrs. Penniman felt with remarkable promptitude the charm of this formula.

“That’s so like you,” she said; “it’s so finely felt.”

Morris gave his stick an angry swing.

“Oh, botheration!” he exclaimed perversely.

Mrs. Penniman, however, was not discouraged.

“It may turn out better than you think. Catherine is, after all, so very peculiar.” And she thought she might take it upon herself to assure him that, whatever happened, the girl would be very quiet — she wouldn’t make a noise. They extended their walk, and, while they proceeded, Mrs. Penniman took upon herself other things besides, and ended by having assumed a considerable burden; Morris being ready enough, as may be imagined, to put everything off upon her. But he was not for a single instant the dupe of her blundering alacrity; he knew that of what she promised she was competent to perform but an insignificant fraction, and the more she professed her willingness to serve him, the greater fool he thought her.

“What will you do if you don’t marry her?” she ventured to inquire in the course of this conversation.

“Something brilliant,” said Morris. “Shouldn’t you like me to do something brilliant?”

The idea gave Mrs. Penniman exceeding pleasure.

“I shall feel sadly taken in if you don’t.”

“I shall have to, to make up for this. This isn’t at all brilliant, you know.”

Mrs. Penniman mused a little, as if there might be some way of making out that it was; but she had to give up the attempt, and, to carry off the awkwardness of failure, she risked a new inquiry.

“Do you mean — do you mean another marriage?”

Morris greeted this question with a reflexion which was hardly the less impudent from being inaudible. “Surely, women are more crude than men!” And then he answered audibly:

“Never in the world!”

Mrs. Penniman felt disappointed and snubbed, and she relieved herself in a little vaguely-sarcastic cry. He was certainly perverse.

“I give her up, not for another woman, but for a wider career!” Morris announced.

This was very grand; but still Mrs. Penniman, who felt that she had exposed herself, was faintly rancorous.

“Do you mean never to come to see her again?” she asked, with some sharpness.

“Oh no, I shall come again; but what is the use of dragging it out? I have been four times since she came back, and it’s terribly awkward work. I can’t keep it up indefinitely; she oughtn’t to expect that, you know. A woman should never keep a man dangling!” he added finely.

“Ah, but you must have your last parting!” urged his companion, in whose imagination the idea of last partings occupied a place inferior in dignity only to that of first meetings.

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