Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 29

He came again, without managing the last parting; and again and again, without finding that Mrs. Penniman had as yet done much to pave the path of retreat with flowers. It was devilish awkward, as he said, and he felt a lively animosity for Catherine’s aunt, who, as he had now quite formed the habit of saying to himself, had dragged him into the mess and was bound in common charity to get him out of it. Mrs. Penniman, to tell the truth, had, in the seclusion of her own apartment — and, I may add, amid the suggestiveness of Catherine’s, which wore in those days the appearance of that of a young lady laying out her trousseau — Mrs. Penniman had measured her responsibilities, and taken fright at their magnitude. The task of preparing Catherine and easing off Morris presented difficulties which increased in the execution, and even led the impulsive Lavinia to ask herself whether the modification of the young man’s original project had been conceived in a happy spirit. A brilliant future, a wider career, a conscience exempt from the reproach of interference between a young lady and her natural rights — these excellent things might be too troublesomely purchased. From Catherine herself Mrs. Penniman received no assistance whatever; the poor girl was apparently without suspicion of her danger. She looked at her lover with eyes of undiminished trust, and though she had less confidence in her aunt than in a young man with whom she had exchanged so many tender vows, she gave her no handle for explaining or confessing. Mrs. Penniman, faltering and wavering, declared Catherine was very stupid, put off the great scene, as she would have called it, from day to day, and wandered about very uncomfortably, primed, to repletion, with her apology, but unable to bring it to the light. Morris’s own scenes were very small ones just now; but even these were beyond his strength. He made his visits as brief as possible, and while he sat with his mistress, found terribly little to talk about. She was waiting for him, in vulgar parlance, to name the day; and so long as he was unprepared to be explicit on this point it seemed a mockery to pretend to talk about matters more abstract. She had no airs and no arts; she never attempted to disguise her expectancy. She was waiting on his good pleasure, and would wait modestly and patiently; his hanging back at this supreme time might appear strange, but of course he must have a good reason for it. Catherine would have made a wife of the gentle old-fashioned pattern — regarding reasons as favours and windfalls, but no more expecting one every day than she would have expected a bouquet of camellias. During the period of her engagement, however, a young lady even of the most slender pretensions counts upon more bouquets than at other times; and there was a want of perfume in the air at this moment which at last excited the girl’s alarm.

“Are you sick?” she asked of Morris. “You seem so restless, and you look pale.”

“I am not at all well,” said Morris; and it occurred to him that, if he could only make her pity him enough, he might get off.

“I am afraid you are overworked; you oughtn’t to work so much.”

“I must do that.” And then he added, with a sort of calculated brutality, “I don’t want to owe you everything!”

“Ah, how can you say that?”

“I am too proud,” said Morris.

“Yes — you are too proud!”

“Well, you must take me as I am,” he went on, “you can never change me.”

“I don’t want to change you,” she said gently. “I will take you as you are!” And she stood looking at him.

“You know people talk tremendously about a man’s marrying a rich girl,” Morris remarked. “It’s excessively disagreeable.”

“But I am not rich?” said Catherine.

“You are rich enough to make me talked about!”

“Of course you are talked about. It’s an honour!”

“It’s an honour I could easily dispense with.”

She was on the point of asking him whether it were not a compensation for this annoyance that the poor girl who had the misfortune to bring it upon him, loved him so dearly and believed in him so truly; but she hesitated, thinking that this would perhaps seem an exacting speech, and while she hesitated, he suddenly left her.

The next time he came, however, she brought it out, and she told him again that he was too proud. He repeated that he couldn’t change, and this time she felt the impulse to say that with a little effort he might change.

Sometimes he thought that if he could only make a quarrel with her it might help him; but the question was how to quarrel with a young woman who had such treasures of concession. “I suppose you think the effort is all on your side!” he was reduced to exclaiming. “Don’t you believe that I have my own effort to make?”

“It’s all yours now,” she said. “My effort is finished and done with!”

“Well, mine is not.”

“We must bear things together,” said Catherine. “That’s what we ought to do.”

Morris attempted a natural smile. “There are some things which we can’t very well bear together — for instance, separation.”

“Why do you speak of separation?”

“Ah! you don’t like it; I knew you wouldn’t!”

“Where are you going, Morris?” she suddenly asked.

He fixed his eye on her for a moment, and for a part of that moment she was afraid of it. “Will you promise not to make a scene?”

“A scene! — do I make scenes?”

“All women do!” said Morris, with the tone of large experience.

“I don’t. Where are you going?”

“If I should say I was going away on business, should you think it very strange?”

She wondered a moment, gazing at him. “Yes — no. Not if you will take me with you.”

“Take you with me — on business?”

“What is your business? Your business is to be with me.”

“I don’t earn my living with you,” said Morris. “Or rather,” he cried with a sudden inspiration, “that’s just what I do — or what the world says I do!”

This ought perhaps to have been a great stroke, but it miscarried. “Where are you going?” Catherine simply repeated.

“To New Orleans. About buying some cotton.”

“I am perfectly willing to go to New Orleans.” Catherine said.

“Do you suppose I would take you to a nest of yellow fever?” cried Morris. “Do you suppose I would expose you at such a time as this?”

“If there is yellow fever, why should you go? Morris, you must not go!”

“It is to make six thousand dollars,” said Morris. “Do you grudge me that satisfaction?”

“We have no need of six thousand dollars. You think too much about money!”

“You can afford to say that? This is a great chance; we heard of it last night.” And he explained to her in what the chance consisted; and told her a long story, going over more than once several of the details, about the remarkable stroke of business which he and his partner had planned between them.

But Catherine’s imagination, for reasons best known to herself, absolutely refused to be fired. “If you can go to New Orleans, I can go,” she said. “Why shouldn’t you catch yellow fever quite as easily as I? I am every bit as strong as you, and not in the least afraid of any fever. When we were in Europe, we were in very unhealthy places; my father used to make me take some pills. I never caught anything, and I never was nervous. What will be the use of six thousand dollars if you die of a fever? When persons are going to be married they oughtn’t to think so much about business. You shouldn’t think about cotton, you should think about me. You can go to New Orleans some other time — there will always be plenty of cotton. It isn’t the moment to choose — we have waited too long already.” She spoke more forcibly and volubly than he had ever heard her, and she held his arm in her two hands.

“You said you wouldn’t make a scene!” cried Morris. “I call this a scene.”

“It’s you that are making it! I have never asked you anything before. We have waited too long already.” And it was a comfort to her to think that she had hitherto asked so little; it seemed to make her right to insist the greater now.

Morris bethought himself a little. “Very well, then; we won’t talk about it any more. I will transact my business by letter.” And he began to smooth his hat, as if to take leave.

“You won’t go?” And she stood looking up at him.

He could not give up his idea of provoking a quarrel; it was so much the simplest way! He bent his eyes on her upturned face, with the darkest frown he could achieve. “You are not discreet. You mustn’t bully me!”

But, as usual, she conceded everything. “No, I am not discreet; I know I am too pressing. But isn’t it natural? It is only for a moment.”

“In a moment you may do a great deal of harm. Try and be calmer the next time I come.”

“When will you come?”

“Do you want to make conditions?” Morris asked. “I will come next Saturday.”

“Come to-morrow,” Catherine begged; “I want you to come to-morrow. I will be very quiet,” she added; and her agitation had by this time become so great that the assurance was not becoming. A sudden fear had come over her; it was like the solid conjunction of a dozen disembodied doubts, and her imagination, at a single bound, had traversed an enormous distance. All her being, for the moment, centred in the wish to keep him in the room.

Morris bent his head and kissed her forehead. “When you are quiet, you are perfection,” he said; “but when you are violent, you are not in character.”

It was Catherine’s wish that there should be no violence about her save the beating of her heart, which she could not help; and she went on, as gently as possible, “Will you promise to come to-morrow?”

“I said Saturday!” Morris answered, smiling. He tried a frown at one moment, a smile at another; he was at his wit’s end.

“Yes, Saturday too,” she answered, trying to smile. “But to-morrow first.” He was going to the door, and she went with him quickly. She leaned her shoulder against it; it seemed to her that she would do anything to keep him.

“If I am prevented from coming to-morrow, you will say I have deceived you!” he said.

“How can you be prevented? You can come if you will.”

“I am a busy man — I am not a dangler!” cried Morris sternly.

His voice was so hard and unnatural that, with a helpless look at him, she turned away; and then he quickly laid his hand on the door-knob. He felt as if he were absolutely running away from her. But in an instant she was close to him again, and murmuring in a tone none the less penetrating for being low, “Morris, you are going to leave me.”

“Yes, for a little while.”

“For how long?”

“Till you are reasonable again.”

“I shall never be reasonable in that way!” And she tried to keep him longer; it was almost a struggle. “Think of what I have done!” she broke out. “Morris, I have given up everything!”

“You shall have everything back!”

“You wouldn’t say that if you didn’t mean something. What is it? — what has happened? — what have I done? — what has changed you?”

“I will write to you — that is better,” Morris stammered.

“Ah, you won’t come back!” she cried, bursting into tears.

“Dear Catherine,” he said, “don’t believe that I promise you that you shall see me again!” And he managed to get away and to close the door behind him.

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