Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 30

It was almost her last outbreak of passive grief; at least, she never indulged in another that the world knew anything about. But this one was long and terrible; she flung herself on the sofa and gave herself up to her misery. She hardly knew what had happened; ostensibly she had only had a difference with her lover, as other girls had had before, and the thing was not only not a rupture, but she was under no obligation to regard it even as a menace. Nevertheless, she felt a wound, even if he had not dealt it; it seemed to her that a mask had suddenly fallen from his face. He had wished to get away from her; he had been angry and cruel, and said strange things, with strange looks. She was smothered and stunned; she buried her head in the cushions, sobbing and talking to herself. But at last she raised herself, with the fear that either her father or Mrs. Penniman would come in; and then she sat there, staring before her, while the room grew darker. She said to herself that perhaps he would come back to tell her he had not meant what he said; and she listened for his ring at the door, trying to believe that this was probable. A long time passed, but Morris remained absent; the shadows gathered; the evening settled down on the meagre elegance of the light, clear-coloured room; the fire went out. When it had grown dark, Catherine went to the window and looked out; she stood there for half an hour, on the mere chance that he would come up the steps. At last she turned away, for she saw her father come in. He had seen her at the window looking out, and he stopped a moment at the bottom of the white steps, and gravely, with an air of exaggerated courtesy, lifted his hat to her. The gesture was so incongruous to the condition she was in, this stately tribute of respect to a poor girl despised and forsaken was so out of place, that the thing gave her a kind of horror, and she hurried away to her room. It seemed to her that she had given Morris up.

She had to show herself half an hour later, and she was sustained at table by the immensity of her desire that her father should not perceive that anything had happened. This was a great help to her afterwards, and it served her (though never as much as she supposed) from the first. On this occasion Dr. Sloper was rather talkative. He told a great many stories about a wonderful poodle that he had seen at the house of an old lady whom he visited professionally. Catherine not only tried to appear to listen to the anecdotes of the poodle, but she endeavoured to interest herself in them, so as not to think of her scene with Morris. That perhaps was an hallucination; he was mistaken, she was jealous; people didn’t change like that from one day to another. Then she knew that she had had doubts before — strange suspicions, that were at once vague and acute — and that he had been different ever since her return from Europe: whereupon she tried again to listen to her father, who told a story so remarkably well. Afterwards she went straight to her own room; it was beyond her strength to undertake to spend the evening with her aunt. All the evening, alone, she questioned herself. Her trouble was terrible; but was it a thing of her imagination, engendered by an extravagant sensibility, or did it represent a clear-cut reality, and had the worst that was possible actually come to pass? Mrs. Penniman, with a degree of tact that was as unusual as it was commendable, took the line of leaving her alone. The truth is, that her suspicions having been aroused, she indulged a desire, natural to a timid person, that the explosion should be localised. So long as the air still vibrated she kept out of the way.

She passed and repassed Catherine’s door several times in the course of the evening, as if she expected to hear a plaintive moan behind it. But the room remained perfectly still; and accordingly, the last thing before retiring to her own couch, she applied for admittance. Catherine was sitting up, and had a book that she pretended to be reading. She had no wish to go to bed, for she had no expectation of sleeping. After Mrs. Penniman had left her she sat up half the night, and she offered her visitor no inducement to remain. Her aunt came stealing in very gently, and approached her with great solemnity.

“I am afraid you are in trouble, my dear. Can I do anything to help you?”

“I am not in any trouble whatever, and do not need any help,” said Catherine, fibbing roundly, and proving thereby that not only our faults, but our most involuntary misfortunes, tend to corrupt our morals.

“Has nothing happened to you?”

“Nothing whatever.”

“Are you very sure, dear?”

“Perfectly sure.”

“And can I really do nothing for you?”

“Nothing, aunt, but kindly leave me alone,” said Catherine.

Mrs. Penniman, though she had been afraid of too warm a welcome before, was now disappointed at so cold a one; and in relating afterwards, as she did to many persons, and with considerable variations of detail, the history of the termination of her niece’s engagement, she was usually careful to mention that the young lady, on a certain occasion, had “hustled” her out of the room. It was characteristic of Mrs. Penniman that she related this fact, not in the least out of malignity to Catherine, whom she very sufficiently pitied, but simply from a natural disposition to embellish any subject that she touched.

Catherine, as I have said, sat up half the night, as if she still expected to hear Morris Townsend ring at the door. On the morrow this expectation was less unreasonable; but it was not gratified by the reappearance of the young man. Neither had he written; there was not a word of explanation or reassurance. Fortunately for Catherine she could take refuge from her excitement, which had now become intense, in her determination that her father should see nothing of it. How well she deceived her father we shall have occasion to learn; but her innocent arts were of little avail before a person of the rare perspicacity of Mrs. Penniman. This lady easily saw that she was agitated, and if there was any agitation going forward, Mrs. Penniman was not a person to forfeit her natural share in it. She returned to the charge the next evening, and requested her niece to lean upon her — to unburden her heart. Perhaps she should be able to explain certain things that now seemed dark, and that she knew more about than Catherine supposed. If Catherine had been frigid the night before, to-day she was haughty.

“You are completely mistaken, and I have not the least idea what you mean. I don’t know what you are trying to fasten on me, and I have never had less need of any one’s explanations in my life.”

In this way the girl delivered herself, and from hour to hour kept her aunt at bay. From hour to hour Mrs. Penniman’s curiosity grew. She would have given her little finger to know what Morris had said and done, what tone he had taken, what pretext he had found. She wrote to him, naturally, to request an interview; but she received, as naturally, no answer to her petition. Morris was not in a writing mood; for Catherine had addressed him two short notes which met with no acknowledgment. These notes were so brief that I may give them entire. “Won’t you give me some sign that you didn’t mean to be so cruel as you seemed on Tuesday?”— that was the first; the other was a little longer. “If I was unreasonable or suspicious on Tuesday — if I annoyed you or troubled you in any way — I beg your forgiveness, and I promise never again to be so foolish. I am punished enough, and I don’t understand. Dear Morris, you are killing me!” These notes were despatched on the Friday and Saturday; but Saturday and Sunday passed without bringing the poor girl the satisfaction she desired. Her punishment accumulated; she continued to bear it, however, with a good deal of superficial fortitude. On Saturday morning the Doctor, who had been watching in silence, spoke to his sister Lavinia.

“The thing has happened — the scoundrel has backed out!”

“Never!” cried Mrs. Penniman, who had bethought herself what she should say to Catherine, but was not provided with a line of defence against her brother, so that indignant negation was the only weapon in her hands.

“He has begged for a reprieve, then, if you like that better!”

“It seems to make you very happy that your daughter’s affections have been trifled with.”

“It does,” said the Doctor; ‘“for I had foretold it! It’s a great pleasure to be in the right.”

“Your pleasures make one shudder!” his sister exclaimed.

Catherine went rigidly through her usual occupations; that is, up to the point of going with her aunt to church on Sunday morning. She generally went to afternoon service as well; but on this occasion her courage faltered, and she begged of Mrs. Penniman to go without her.

“I am sure you have a secret,” said Mrs. Penniman, with great significance, looking at her rather grimly.

“If I have, I shall keep it!” Catherine answered, turning away.

Mrs. Penniman started for church; but before she had arrived, she stopped and turned back, and before twenty minutes had elapsed she re-entered the house, looked into the empty parlours, and then went upstairs and knocked at Catherine’s door. She got no answer; Catherine was not in her room, and Mrs. Penniman presently ascertained that she was not in the house. “She has gone to him, she has fled!” Lavinia cried, clasping her hands with admiration and envy. But she soon perceived that Catherine had taken nothing with her — all her personal property in her room was intact — and then she jumped at the hypothesis that the girl had gone forth, not in tenderness, but in resentment. “She has followed him to his own door — she has burst upon him in his own apartment!” It was in these terms that Mrs. Penniman depicted to herself her niece’s errand, which, viewed in this light, gratified her sense of the picturesque only a shade less strongly than the idea of a clandestine marriage. To visit one’s lover, with tears and reproaches, at his own residence, was an image so agreeable to Mrs. Penniman’s mind that she felt a sort of aesthetic disappointment at its lacking, in this case, the harmonious accompaniments of darkness and storm. A quiet Sunday afternoon appeared an inadequate setting for it; and, indeed, Mrs. Penniman was quite out of humour with the conditions of the time, which passed very slowly as she sat in the front parlour in her bonnet and her cashmere shawl, awaiting Catherine’s return.

This event at last took place. She saw her — at the window — mount the steps, and she went to await her in the hall, where she pounced upon her as soon as she had entered the house, and drew her into the parlour, closing the door with solemnity. Catherine was flushed, and her eye was bright. Mrs. Penniman hardly knew what to think.

“May I venture to ask where you have been?” she demanded.

“I have been to take a walk,” said Catherine. “I thought you had gone to church.”

“I did go to church; but the service was shorter than usual. And pray, where did you walk?”

“I don’t know!” said Catherine.

“Your ignorance is most extraordinary! Dear Catherine, you can trust me.”

“What am I to trust you with?”

“With your secret — your sorrow.”

“I have no sorrow!” said Catherine fiercely.

“My poor child,” Mrs. Penniman insisted, “you can’t deceive me. I know everything. I have been requested to — a — to converse with you.”

“I don’t want to converse!”

“It will relieve you. Don’t you know Shakespeare’s lines? —‘the grief that does not speak!’ My dear girl, it is better as it is.”

“What is better?” Catherine asked.

She was really too perverse. A certain amount of perversity was to be allowed for in a young lady whose lover had thrown her over; but not such an amount as would prove inconvenient to his apologists. “That you should be reasonable,” said Mrs. Penniman, with some sternness. “That you should take counsel of worldly prudence, and submit to practical considerations. That you should agree to — a — separate.”

Catherine had been ice up to this moment, but at this word she flamed up. “Separate? What do you know about our separating?”

Mrs. Penniman shook her head with a sadness in which there was almost a sense of injury. “Your pride is my pride, and your susceptibilities are mine. I see your side perfectly, but I also”— and she smiled with melancholy suggestiveness —“I also see the situation as a whole!”

This suggestiveness was lost upon Catherine, who repeated her violent inquiry. “Why do you talk about separation; what do you know about it?”

“We must study resignation,” said Mrs. Penniman, hesitating, but sententious at a venture.

“Resignation to what?”

“To a change of — of our plans.”

“My plans have not changed!” said Catherine, with a little laugh.

“Ah, but Mr. Townsend’s have,” her aunt answered very gently.

“What do you mean?”

There was an imperious brevity in the tone of this inquiry, against which Mrs. Penniman felt bound to protest; the information with which she had undertaken to supply her niece was, after all, a favour. She had tried sharpness, and she had tried sternness: but neither would do; she was shocked at the girl’s obstinacy. “Ah, well,” she said, “if he hasn’t told you! . . . “ and she turned away.

Catherine watched her a moment in silence; then she hurried after her, stopping her before she reached the door. “Told me what? What do you mean? What are you hinting at and threatening me with?”

“Isn’t it broken off?” asked Mrs. Penniman.

“My engagement? Not in the least!”

“I beg your pardon in that case. I have spoken too soon!”

“Too soon! Soon or late,” Catherine broke out, “you speak foolishly and cruelly!”

“What has happened between you, then?” asked her aunt, struck by the sincerity of this cry. “For something certainly has happened.”

“Nothing has happened but that I love him more and more!”

Mrs. Penniman was silent an instant. “I suppose that’s the reason you went to see him this afternoon.”

Catherine flushed as if she had been struck. “Yes, I did go to see him! But that’s my own business.”

“Very well, then; we won’t talk about it.” And Mrs. Penniman moved towards the door again. But she was stopped by a sudden imploring cry from the girl.

“Aunt Lavinia, WHERE has he gone?”

“Ah, you admit, then, that he has gone away? Didn’t they know at his house?”

“They said he had left town. I asked no more questions; I was ashamed,” said Catherine, simply enough.

“You needn’t have taken so compromising a step if you had had a little more confidence in me,” Mrs. Penniman observed, with a good deal of grandeur.

“Is it to New Orleans?” Catherine went on irrelevantly.

It was the first time Mrs. Penniman had heard of New Orleans in this connexion; but she was averse to letting Catherine know that she was in the dark. She attempted to strike an illumination from the instructions she had received from Morris. “My dear Catherine,” she said, “when a separation has been agreed upon, the farther he goes away the better.”

“Agreed upon? Has he agreed upon it with you?” A consummate sense of her aunt’s meddlesome folly had come over her during the last five minutes, and she was sickened at the thought that Mrs. Penniman had been let loose, as it were, upon her happiness.

“He certainly has sometimes advised with me,” said Mrs. Penniman.

“Is it you, then, that have changed him and made him so unnatural?” Catherine cried. “Is it you that have worked on him and taken him from me? He doesn’t belong to you, and I don’t see how you have anything to do with what is between us! Is it you that have made this plot and told him to leave me? How could you be so wicked, so cruel? What have I ever done to you; why can’t you leave me alone? I was afraid you would spoil everything; for you DO spoil everything you touch; I was afraid of you all the time we were abroad; I had no rest when I thought that you were always talking to him.” Catherine went on with growing vehemence, pouring out in her bitterness and in the clairvoyance of her passion (which suddenly, jumping all processes, made her judge her aunt finally and without appeal) the uneasiness which had lain for so many months upon her heart.

Mrs. Penniman was scared and bewildered; she saw no prospect of introducing her little account of the purity of Morris’s motives. “You are a most ungrateful girl!” she cried. “Do you scold me for talking with him? I am sure we never talked of anything but you!”

“Yes; and that was the way you worried him; you made him tired of my very name! I wish you had never spoken of me to him; I never asked your help!”

“I am sure if it hadn’t been for me he would never have come to the house, and you would never have known what he thought of you,” Mrs. Penniman rejoined, with a good deal of justice.

“I wish he never had come to the house, and that I never had known it! That’s better than this,” said poor Catherine.

“You are a very ungrateful girl,” Aunt Lavinia repeated.

Catherine’s outbreak of anger and the sense of wrong gave her, while they lasted, the satisfaction that comes from all assertion of force; they hurried her along, and there is always a sort of pleasure in cleaving the air. But at the bottom she hated to be violent, and she was conscious of no aptitude for organised resentment. She calmed herself with a great effort, but with great rapidity, and walked about the room a few moments, trying to say to herself that her aunt had meant everything for the best. She did not succeed in saying it with much conviction, but after a little she was able to speak quietly enough.

“I am not ungrateful, but I am very unhappy. It’s hard to be grateful for that,” she said. “Will you please tell me where he is?”

“I haven’t the least idea; I am not in secret correspondence with him!” And Mrs. Penniman wished indeed that she were, so that she might let him know how Catherine abused her, after all she had done.

“Was it a plan of his, then, to break off —?” By this time Catherine had become completely quiet.

Mrs. Penniman began again to have a glimpse of her chance for explaining. “He shrank — he shrank,” she said. “He lacked courage, but it was the courage to injure you! He couldn’t bear to bring down on you your father’s curse.”

Catherine listened to this with her eyes fixed upon her aunt, and continued to gaze at her for some time afterwards. “Did he tell you to say that?”

“He told me to say many things — all so delicate, so discriminating. And he told me to tell you he hoped you wouldn’t despise him.”

“I don’t,” said Catherine. And then she added: “And will he stay away for ever?”

“Oh, for ever is a long time. Your father, perhaps, won’t live for ever.”

“Perhaps not.”

“I am sure you appreciate — you understand — even though your heart bleeds,” said Mrs. Penniman. “You doubtless think him too scrupulous. So do I, but I respect his scruples. What he asks of you is that you should do the same.”

Catherine was still gazing at her aunt, but she spoke at last, as if she had not heard or not understood her. “It has been a regular plan, then. He has broken it off deliberately; he has given me up.”

“For the present, dear Catherine. He has put it off only.”

“He has left me alone,” Catherine went on.

“Haven’t you ME?” asked Mrs. Penniman, with much expression.

Catherine shook her head slowly. “I don’t believe it!” and she left the room.

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