Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 31

Though she had forced herself to be calm, she preferred practising this virtue in private, and she forbore to show herself at tea — a repast which, on Sundays, at six o’clock, took the place of dinner. Dr. Sloper and his sister sat face to face, but Mrs. Penniman never met her brother’s eye. Late in the evening she went with him, but without Catherine, to their sister Almond’s, where, between the two ladies, Catherine’s unhappy situation was discussed with a frankness that was conditioned by a good deal of mysterious reticence on Mrs. Penniman’s part.

“I am delighted he is not to marry her,” said Mrs. Almond, “but he ought to be horsewhipped all the same.”

Mrs. Penniman, who was shocked at her sister’s coarseness, replied that he had been actuated by the noblest of motives — the desire not to impoverish Catherine.

“I am very happy that Catherine is not to be impoverished — but I hope he may never have a penny too much! And what does the poor girl say to YOU?” Mrs. Almond asked.

“She says I have a genius for consolation,” said Mrs. Penniman.

This was the account of the matter that she gave to her sister, and it was perhaps with the consciousness of genius that, on her return that evening to Washington Square, she again presented herself for admittance at Catherine’s door. Catherine came and opened it; she was apparently very quiet.

“I only want to give you a little word of advice,” she said. “If your father asks you, say that everything is going on.”

Catherine stood there, with her hand on the knob looking at her aunt, but not asking her to come in. “Do you think he will ask me?”

“I am sure he will. He asked me just now, on our way home from your Aunt Elizabeth’s. I explained the whole thing to your Aunt Elizabeth. I said to your father I know nothing about it.”

“Do you think he will ask me when he sees — when he sees —?” But here Catherine stopped.

“The more he sees the more disagreeable he will be,” said her aunt.

“He shall see as little as possible!” Catherine declared.

“Tell him you are to be married.”

“So I am,” said Catherine softly; and she closed the door upon her aunt.

She could not have said this two days later — for instance, on Tuesday, when she at last received a letter from Morris Townsend. It was an epistle of considerable length, measuring five large square pages, and written at Philadelphia. It was an explanatory document, and it explained a great many things, chief among which were the considerations that had led the writer to take advantage of an urgent “professional” absence to try and banish from his mind the image of one whose path he had crossed only to scatter it with ruins. He ventured to expect but partial success in this attempt, but he could promise her that, whatever his failure, he would never again interpose between her generous heart and her brilliant prospects and filial duties. He closed with an intimation that his professional pursuits might compel him to travel for some months, and with the hope that when they should each have accommodated themselves to what was sternly involved in their respective positions — even should this result not be reached for years — they should meet as friends, as fellow-sufferers, as innocent but philosophic victims of a great social law. That her life should be peaceful and happy was the dearest wish of him who ventured still to subscribe himself her most obedient servant. The letter was beautifully written, and Catherine, who kept it for many years after this, was able, when her sense of the bitterness of its meaning and the hollowness of its tone had grown less acute, to admire its grace of expression. At present, for a long time after she received it, all she had to help her was the determination, daily more rigid, to make no appeal to the compassion of her father.

He suffered a week to elapse, and then one day, in the morning, at an hour at which she rarely saw him, he strolled into the back parlour. He had watched his time, and he found her alone. She was sitting with some work, and he came and stood in front of her. He was going out, he had on his hat and was drawing on his gloves.

“It doesn’t seem to me that you are treating me just now with all the consideration I deserve,” he said in a moment.

“I don’t know what I have done,” Catherine answered, with her eyes on her work.

“You have apparently quite banished from your mind the request I made you at Liverpool, before we sailed; the request that you would notify me in advance before leaving my house.”

“I have not left your house!” said Catherine.

“But you intend to leave it, and by what you gave me to understand, your departure must be impending. In fact, though you are still here in body, you are already absent in spirit. Your mind has taken up its residence with your prospective husband, and you might quite as well be lodged under the conjugal roof, for all the benefit we get from your society.”

“I will try and be more cheerful!” said Catherine.

“You certainly ought to be cheerful, you ask a great deal if you are not. To the pleasure of marrying a brilliant young man, you add that of having your own way; you strike me as a very lucky young lady!”

Catherine got up; she was suffocating. But she folded her work, deliberately and correctly, bending her burning face upon it. Her father stood where he had planted himself; she hoped he would go, but he smoothed and buttoned his gloves, and then he rested his hands upon his hips.

“It would be a convenience to me to know when I may expect to have an empty house,” he went on. “When you go, your aunt marches.”

She looked at him at last, with a long silent gaze, which, in spite of her pride and her resolution, uttered part of the appeal she had tried not to make. Her father’s cold grey eye sounded her own, and he insisted on his point.

“Is it to-morrow? Is it next week, or the week after?”

“I shall not go away!” said Catherine.

The Doctor raised his eyebrows. “Has he backed out?”

“I have broken off my engagement.”

“Broken it off?”

“I have asked him to leave New York, and he has gone away for a long time.”

The Doctor was both puzzled and disappointed, but he solved his perplexity by saying to himself that his daughter simply misrepresented — justifiably, if one would? but nevertheless misrepresented — the facts; and he eased off his disappointment, which was that of a man losing a chance for a little triumph that he had rather counted on, by a few words that he uttered aloud.

“How does he take his dismissal?”

“I don’t know!” said Catherine, less ingeniously than she had hitherto spoken.

“You mean you don’t care? You are rather cruel, after encouraging him and playing with him for so long!”

The Doctor had his revenge, after all.

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