Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 35

Her refreshed attention to this gentleman had not those limits of which Catherine desired, for herself, to be conscious; it lasted long enough to enable her to wait another week before speaking of him again. It was under the same circumstances that she once more attacked the subject. She had been sitting with her niece in the evening; only on this occasion, as the night was not so warm, the lamp had been lighted, and Catherine had placed herself near it with a morsel of fancy-work. Mrs. Penniman went and sat alone for half an hour on the balcony; then she came in, moving vaguely about the room. At last she sank into a seat near Catherine, with clasped hands, and a little look of excitement.

“Shall you be angry if I speak to you again about HIM?” she asked.

Catherine looked up at her quietly. “Who is HE?”

“He whom you once loved.”

“I shall not be angry, but I shall not like it.”

“He sent you a message,” said Mrs. Penniman. “I promised him to deliver it, and I must keep my promise.”

In all these years Catherine had had time to forget how little she had to thank her aunt for in the season of her misery; she had long ago forgiven Mrs. Penniman for taking too much upon herself. But for a moment this attitude of interposition and disinterestedness, this carrying of messages and redeeming of promises, brought back the sense that her companion was a dangerous woman. She had said she would not be angry; but for an instant she felt sore. “I don’t care what you do with your promise!” she answered.

Mrs. Penniman, however, with her high conception of the sanctity of pledges, carried her point. “I have gone too far to retreat,” she said, though precisely what this meant she was not at pains to explain. “Mr. Townsend wishes most particularly to see you, Catherine; he believes that if you knew how much, and why, he wishes it, you would consent to do so.”

“There can be no reason,” said Catherine; “no good reason.”

“His happiness depends upon it. Is not that a good reason?” asked Mrs. Penniman impressively.

“Not for me. My happiness does not.”

“I think you will be happier after you have seen him. He is going away again — going to resume his wanderings. It is a very lonely, restless, joyless life. Before he goes he wishes to speak to you; it is a fixed idea with him — he is always thinking of it. He has something very important to say to you. He believes that you never understood him — that you never judged him rightly, and the belief has always weighed upon him terribly. He wishes to justify himself; he believes that in a very few words he could do so. He wishes to meet you as a friend.”

Catherine listened to this wonderful speech without pausing in her work; she had now had several days to accustom herself to think of Morris Townsend again as an actuality. When it was over she said simply, “Please say to Mr. Townsend that I wish he would leave me alone.”

She had hardly spoken when a sharp, firm ring at the door vibrated through the summer night. Catherine looked up at the clock; it marked a quarter-past nine — a very late hour for visitors, especially in the empty condition of the town. Mrs. Penniman at the same moment gave a little start, and then Catherine’s eyes turned quickly to her aunt. They met Mrs. Penniman’s and sounded them for a moment, sharply. Mrs. Penniman was blushing; her look was a conscious one; it seemed to confess something. Catherine guessed its meaning, and rose quickly from her chair.

“Aunt Penniman,” she said, in a tone that scared her companion, “have you taken the LIBERTY . . .?”

“My dearest Catherine,” stammered Mrs. Penniman, “just wait till you see him!”

Catherine had frightened her aunt, but she was also frightened herself; she was on the point of rushing to give orders to the servant, who was passing to the door, to admit no one; but the fear of meeting her visitor checked her.

“Mr. Morris Townsend.”

This was what she heard, vaguely but recognisably articulated by the domestic, while she hesitated. She had her back turned to the door of the parlour, and for some moments she kept it turned, feeling that he had come in. He had not spoken, however, and at last she faced about. Then she saw a gentleman standing in the middle of the room, from which her aunt had discreetly retired.

She would never have known him. He was forty-five years old, and his figure was not that of the straight, slim young man she remembered. But it was a very fine person, and a fair and lustrous beard, spreading itself upon a well-presented chest, contributed to its effect. After a moment Catherine recognised the upper half of the face, which, though her visitor’s clustering locks had grown thin, was still remarkably handsome. He stood in a deeply deferential attitude, with his eyes on her face. “I have ventured — I have ventured,” he said; and then he paused, looking about him, as if he expected her to ask him to sit down. It was the old voice, but it had not the old charm. Catherine, for a minute, was conscious of a distinct determination not to invite him to take a seat. Why had he come? It was wrong for him to come. Morris was embarrassed, but Catherine gave him no help. It was not that she was glad of his embarrassment; on the contrary, it excited all her own liabilities of this kind, and gave her great pain. But how could she welcome him when she felt so vividly that he ought not to have come? “I wanted so much — I was determined,” Morris went on. But he stopped again; it was not easy. Catherine still said nothing, and he may well have recalled with apprehension her ancient faculty of silence. She continued to look at him, however, and as she did so she made the strangest observation. It seemed to be he, and yet not he; it was the man who had been everything, and yet this person was nothing. How long ago it was — how old she had grown — how much she had lived! She had lived on something that was connected with HIM, and she had consumed it in doing so. This person did not look unhappy. He was fair and well-preserved, perfectly dressed, mature and complete. As Catherine looked at him, the story of his life defined itself in his eyes; he had made himself comfortable, and he had never been caught. But even while her perception opened itself to this, she had no desire to catch him; his presence was painful to her, and she only wished he would go.

“Will you not sit down?” he asked.

“I think we had better not,” said Catherine.

“I offend you by coming?” He was very grave; he spoke in a tone of the richest respect.

“I don’t think you ought to have come.”

“Did not Mrs. Penniman tell you — did she not give you my message?”

“She told me something, but I did not understand.”

“I wish you would let ME tell you — let me speak for myself.”

“I don’t think it is necessary,” said Catherine.

“Not for you, perhaps, but for me. It would be a great satisfaction — and I have not many.” He seemed to be coming nearer; Catherine turned away. “Can we not be friends again?” he said.

“We are not enemies,” said Catherine. “I have none but friendly feelings to you.”

“Ah, I wonder whether you know the happiness it gives me to hear you say that!” Catherine uttered no intimation that she measured the influence of her words; and he presently went on, “You have not changed — the years have passed happily for you.”

“They have passed very quietly,” said Catherine.

“They have left no marks; you are admirably young.” This time he succeeded in coming nearer — he was close to her; she saw his glossy perfumed beard, and his eyes above it looking strange and hard. It was very different from his old — from his young — face. If she had first seen him this way she would not have liked him. It seemed to her that he was smiling, or trying to smile. “Catherine,” he said, lowering his voice, “I have never ceased to think of you.”

“Please don’t say those things,” she answered.

“Do you hate me?”

“Oh no,” said Catherine.

Something in her tone discouraged him, but in a moment he recovered himself. “Have you still some kindness for me, then?”

“I don’t know why you have come here to ask me such things!” Catherine exclaimed.

“Because for many years it has been the desire of my life that we should be friends again”

“That is impossible.”

“Why so? Not if you will allow it.”

“I will not allow it!” said Catherine.

He looked at her again in silence. “I see; my presence troubles you and pains you. I will go away; but you must give me leave to come again.”

“Please don’t come again,” she said.

“Never? — never?”

She made a great effort; she wished to say something that would make it impossible he should ever again cross her threshold. “It is wrong of you. There is no propriety in it — no reason for it.”

“Ah, dearest lady, you do me injustice!” cried Morris Townsend. “We have only waited, and now we are free.”

“You treated me badly,” said Catherine.

“Not if you think of it rightly. You had your quiet life with your father — which was just what I could not make up my mind to rob you of.”

“Yes; I had that.”

Morris felt it to be a considerable damage to his cause that he could not add that she had had something more besides; for it is needless to say that he had learnt the contents of Dr. Sloper’s will. He was nevertheless not at a loss. “There are worse fates than that!” he exclaimed, with expression; and he might have been supposed to refer to his own unprotected situation. Then he added, with a deeper tenderness, “Catherine, have you never forgiven me?”

“I forgave you years ago, but it is useless for us to attempt to be friends.”

“Not if we forget the past. We have still a future, thank God!”

“I can’t forget — I don’t forget,” said Catherine. “You treated me too badly. I felt it very much; I felt it for years.” And then she went on, with her wish to show him that he must not come to her this way, “I can’t begin again — I can’t take it up. Everything is dead and buried. It was too serious; it made a great change in my life. I never expected to see you here.”

“Ah, you are angry!” cried Morris, who wished immensely that he could extort some flash of passion from her mildness. In that case he might hope.

“No, I am not angry. Anger does not last, that way, for years. But there are other things. Impressions last, when they have been strong. But I can’t talk.”

Morris stood stroking his beard, with a clouded eye. “Why have you never married?” he asked abruptly. “You have had opportunities.”

“I didn’t wish to marry.”

“Yes, you are rich, you are free; you had nothing to gain.”

“I had nothing to gain,” said Catherine.

Morris looked vaguely round him, and gave a deep sigh. “Well, I was in hopes that we might still have been friends.”

“I meant to tell you, by my aunt, in answer to your message — if you had waited for an answer — that it was unnecessary for you to come in that hope.”

“Good-bye, then,” said Morris. “Excuse my indiscretion.”

He bowed, and she turned away — standing there, averted, with her eyes on the ground, for some moments after she had heard him close the door of the room.

In the hall he found Mrs. Penniman, fluttered and eager; she appeared to have been hovering there under the irreconcilable promptings of her curiosity and her dignity.

“That was a precious plan of yours!” said Morris, clapping on his hat.

“Is she so hard?” asked Mrs. Penniman.

“She doesn’t care a button for me — with her confounded little dry manner.”

“Was it very dry?” pursued Mrs. Penniman, with solicitude.

Morris took no notice of her question; he stood musing an instant, with his hat on. “But why the deuce, then, would she never marry?”

“Yes — why indeed?” sighed Mrs. Penniman. And then, as if from a sense of the inadequacy of this explanation, “But you will not despair — you will come back?”

“Come back? Damnation!” And Morris Townsend strode out of the house, leaving Mrs. Penniman staring.

Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlour, picking up her morsel of fancy work, had seated herself with it again — for life, as it were.

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