Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 4

Mrs. Penniman, with more buckles and bangles than ever, came, of course, to the entertainment, accompanied by her niece; the Doctor, too, had promised to look in later in the evening. There was to be a good deal of dancing, and before it had gone very far, Marian Almond came up to Catherine, in company with a tall young man. She introduced the young man as a person who had a great desire to make our heroine’s acquaintance, and as a cousin of Arthur Townsend, her own intended.

Marian Almond was a pretty little person of seventeen, with a very small figure and a very big sash, to the elegance of whose manners matrimony had nothing to add. She already had all the airs of a hostess, receiving the company, shaking her fan, saying that with so many people to attend to she should have no time to dance. She made a long speech about Mr. Townsend’s cousin, to whom she administered a tap with her fan before turning away to other cares. Catherine had not understood all that she said; her attention was given to enjoying Marian’s ease of manner and flow of ideas, and to looking at the young man, who was remarkably handsome. She had succeeded, however, as she often failed to do when people were presented to her, in catching his name, which appeared to be the same as that of Marian’s little stockbroker. Catherine was always agitated by an introduction; it seemed a difficult moment, and she wondered that some people — her new acquaintance at this moment, for instance — should mind it so little. She wondered what she ought to say, and what would be the consequences of her saying nothing. The consequences at present were very agreeable. Mr. Townsend, leaving her no time for embarrassment, began to talk with an easy smile, as if he had known her for a year.

“What a delightful party! What a charming house! What an interesting family! What a pretty girl your cousin is!”

These observations, in themselves of no great profundity, Mr. Townsend seemed to offer for what they were worth, and as a contribution to an acquaintance. He looked straight into Catherine’s eyes. She answered nothing; she only listened, and looked at him; and he, as if he expected no particular reply, went on to say many other things in the same comfortable and natural manner. Catherine, though she felt tongue-tied, was conscious of no embarrassment; it seemed proper that he should talk, and that she should simply look at him. What made it natural was that he was so handsome, or rather, as she phrased it to herself, so beautiful. The music had been silent for a while, but it suddenly began again; and then he asked her, with a deeper, intenser smile, if she would do him the honour of dancing with him. Even to this inquiry she gave no audible assent; she simply let him put his arm round her waist — as she did so it occurred to her more vividly than it had ever done before, that this was a singular place for a gentleman’s arm to be — and in a moment he was guiding her round the room in the harmonious rotation of the polka. When they paused she felt that she was red; and then, for some moments, she stopped looking at him. She fanned herself, and looked at the flowers that were painted on her fan. He asked her if she would begin again, and she hesitated to answer, still looking at the flowers.

“Does it make you dizzy?” he asked, in a tone of great kindness.

Then Catherine looked up at him; he was certainly beautiful, and not at all red. “Yes,” she said; she hardly knew why, for dancing had never made her dizzy.

“Ah, well, in that case,” said Mr. Townsend, “we will sit still and talk. I will find a good place to sit.”

He found a good place — a charming place; a little sofa that seemed meant only for two persons. The rooms by this time were very full; the dancers increased in number, and people stood close in front of them, turning their backs, so that Catherine and her companion seemed secluded and unobserved. “WE will talk,” the young man had said; but he still did all the talking. Catherine leaned back in her place, with her eyes fixed upon him, smiling and thinking him very clever. He had features like young men in pictures; Catherine had never seen such features — so delicate, so chiselled and finished — among the young New Yorkers whom she passed in the streets and met at parties. He was tall and slim, but he looked extremely strong. Catherine thought he looked like a statue. But a statue would not talk like that, and, above all, would not have eyes of so rare a colour. He had never been at Mrs. Almond’s before; he felt very much like a stranger; and it was very kind of Catherine to take pity on him. He was Arthur Townsend’s cousin — not very near; several times removed — and Arthur had brought him to present him to the family. In fact, he was a great stranger in New York. It was his native place; but he had not been there for many years. He had been knocking about the world, and living in far-away lands; he had only come back a month or two before. New York was very pleasant, only he felt lonely.

“You see, people forget you,” he said, smiling at Catherine with his delightful gaze, while he leaned forward obliquely, turning towards her, with his elbows on his knees.

It seemed to Catherine that no one who had once seen him would ever forget him; but though she made this reflexion she kept it to herself, almost as you would keep something precious.

They sat there for some time. He was very amusing. He asked her about the people that were near them; he tried to guess who some of them were, and he made the most laughable mistakes. He criticised them very freely, in a positive, off-hand way. Catherine had never heard any one — especially any young man — talk just like that. It was the way a young man might talk in a novel; or better still, in a play, on the stage, close before the footlights, looking at the audience, and with every one looking at him, so that you wondered at his presence of mind. And yet Mr. Townsend was not like an actor; he seemed so sincere, so natural. This was very interesting; but in the midst of it Marian Almond came pushing through the crowd, with a little ironical cry, when she found these young people still together, which made every one turn round, and cost Catherine a conscious blush. Marian broke up their talk, and told Mr. Townsend — whom she treated as if she were already married, and he had become her cousin — to run away to her mother, who had been wishing for the last half-hour to introduce him to Mr. Almond.

“We shall meet again!” he said to Catherine as he left her, and Catherine thought it a very original speech.

Her cousin took her by the arm, and made her walk about. “I needn’t ask you what you think of Morris!” the young girl exclaimed.

“Is that his name?”

“I don’t ask you what you think of his name, but what you think of himself,” said Marian.

“Oh, nothing particular!” Catherine answered, dissembling for the first time in her life.

“I have half a mind to tell him that!” cried Marian. “It will do him good. He’s so terribly conceited.”

“Conceited?” said Catherine, staring.

“So Arthur says, and Arthur knows about him.”

“Oh, don’t tell him!” Catherine murmured imploringly.

“Don’t tell him he’s conceited? I have told him so a dozen times.”

At this profession of audacity Catherine looked down at her little companion in amazement. She supposed it was because Marian was going to be married that she took so much on herself; but she wondered too, whether, when she herself should become engaged, such exploits would be expected of her.

Half an hour later she saw her Aunt Penniman sitting in the embrasure of a window, with her head a little on one side, and her gold eye-glass raised to her eyes, which were wandering about the room. In front of her was a gentleman, bending forward a little, with his back turned to Catherine. She knew his back immediately, though she had never seen it; for when he had left her, at Marian’s instigation, he had retreated in the best order, without turning round. Morris Townsend — the name had already become very familiar to her, as if some one had been repeating it in her ear for the last half-hour — Morris Townsend was giving his impressions of the company to her aunt, as he had done to herself; he was saying clever things, and Mrs. Penniman was smiling, as if she approved of them. As soon as Catherine had perceived this she moved away; she would not have liked him to turn round and see her. But it gave her pleasure — the whole thing. That he should talk with Mrs. Penniman, with whom she lived and whom she saw and talked with every day — that seemed to keep him near her, and to make him even easier to contemplate than if she herself had been the object of his civilities; and that Aunt Lavinia should like him, should not be shocked or startled by what he said, this also appeared to the girl a personal gain; for Aunt Lavinia’s standard was extremely high, planted as it was over the grave of her late husband, in which, as she had convinced every one, the very genius of conversation was buried. One of the Almond boys, as Catherine called him, invited our heroine to dance a quadrille, and for a quarter of an hour her feet at least were occupied. This time she was not dizzy; her head was very clear. Just when the dance was over, she found herself in the crowd face to face with her father. Dr. Sloper had usually a little smile, never a very big one, and with his little smile playing in his clear eyes and on his neatly-shaved lips, he looked at his daughter’s crimson gown.

“Is it possible that this magnificent person is my child?” he said.

You would have surprised him if you had told him so; but it is a literal fact that he almost never addressed his daughter save in the ironical form. Whenever he addressed her he gave her pleasure; but she had to cut her pleasure out of the piece, as it were. There were portions left over, light remnants and snippets of irony, which she never knew what to do with, which seemed too delicate for her own use; and yet Catherine, lamenting the limitations of her understanding, felt that they were too valuable to waste and had a belief that if they passed over her head they yet contributed to the general sum of human wisdom.

“I am not magnificent,” she said mildly, wishing that she had put on another dress.

“You are sumptuous, opulent, expensive,” her father rejoined. “You look as if you had eighty thousand a year.”

“Well, so long as I haven’t —” said Catherine illogically. Her conception of her prospective wealth was as yet very indefinite.

“So long as you haven’t you shouldn’t look as if you had. Have you enjoyed your party?”

Catherine hesitated a moment; and then, looking away, “I am rather tired,” she murmured. I have said that this entertainment was the beginning of something important for Catherine. For the second time in her life she made an indirect answer; and the beginning of a period of dissimulation is certainly a significant date. Catherine was not so easily tired as that.

Nevertheless, in the carriage, as they drove home, she was as quiet as if fatigue had been her portion. Dr. Sloper’s manner of addressing his sister Lavinia had a good deal of resemblance to the tone he had adopted towards Catherine.

“Who was the young man that was making love to you?” he presently asked.

“Oh, my good brother!” murmured Mrs. Penniman, in deprecation.

“He seemed uncommonly tender. Whenever I looked at you, for half an hour, he had the most devoted air.”

“The devotion was not to me,” said Mrs. Penniman. “It was to Catherine; he talked to me of her.”

Catherine had been listening with all her ears. “Oh, Aunt Penniman!” she exclaimed faintly.

“He is very handsome; he is very clever; he expressed himself with a great deal — a great deal of felicity,” her aunt went on.

“He is in love with this regal creature, then?” the Doctor inquired humorously.

“Oh, father,” cried the girl, still more faintly, devoutly thankful the carriage was dark.

“I don’t know that; but he admired her dress.”

Catherine did not say to herself in the dark, “My dress only?” Mrs. Penniman’s announcement struck her by its richness, not by its meagreness.

“You see,” said her father, “he thinks you have eighty thousand a year.”

“I don’t believe he thinks of that,” said Mrs. Penniman; “he is too refined.”

“He must be tremendously refined not to think of that!”

“Well, he is!” Catherine exclaimed, before she knew it.

“I thought you had gone to sleep,” her father answered. “The hour has come!” he added to himself. “Lavinia is going to get up a romance for Catherine. It’s a shame to play such tricks on the girl. What is the gentleman’s name?” he went on, aloud.

“I didn’t catch it, and I didn’t like to ask him. He asked to be introduced to me,” said Mrs. Penniman, with a certain grandeur; “but you know how indistinctly Jefferson speaks.” Jefferson was Mr. Almond. “Catherine, dear, what was the gentleman’s name?”

For a minute, if it had not been for the rumbling of the carriage, you might have heard a pin drop.

“I don’t know, Aunt Lavinia,” said Catherine, very softly. And, with all his irony, her father believed her.

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