Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 5

He learned what he had asked some three or four days later, after Morris Townsend, with his cousin, had called in Washington Square. Mrs. Penniman did not tell her brother, on the drive home, that she had intimated to this agreeable young man, whose name she did not know, that, with her niece, she should be very glad to see him; but she was greatly pleased, and even a little flattered, when, late on a Sunday afternoon, the two gentlemen made their appearance. His coming with Arthur Townsend made it more natural and easy; the latter young man was on the point of becoming connected with the family, and Mrs. Penniman had remarked to Catherine that, as he was going to marry Marian, it would be polite in him to call. These events came to pass late in the autumn, and Catherine and her aunt had been sitting together in the closing dusk, by the firelight, in the high back parlour.

Arthur Townsend fell to Catherine’s portion, while his companion placed himself on the sofa, beside Mrs. Penniman. Catherine had hitherto not been a harsh critic; she was easy to please — she liked to talk with young men. But Marian’s betrothed, this evening, made her feel vaguely fastidious; he sat looking at the fire and rubbing his knees with his hands. As for Catherine, she scarcely even pretended to keep up the conversation; her attention had fixed itself on the other side of the room; she was listening to what went on between the other Mr. Townsend and her aunt. Every now and then he looked over at Catherine herself and smiled, as if to show that what he said was for her benefit too. Catherine would have liked to change her place, to go and sit near them, where she might see and hear him better. But she was afraid of seeming bold — of looking eager; and, besides, it would not have been polite to Marian’s little suitor. She wondered why the other gentleman had picked out her aunt — how he came to have so much to say to Mrs. Penniman, to whom, usually, young men were not especially devoted. She was not at all jealous of Aunt Lavinia, but she was a little envious, and above all she wondered; for Morris Townsend was an object on which she found that her imagination could exercise itself indefinitely. His cousin had been describing a house that he had taken in view of his union with Marian, and the domestic conveniences he meant to introduce into it; how Marian wanted a larger one, and Mrs. Almond recommended a smaller one, and how he himself was convinced that he had got the neatest house in New York.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said; “it’s only for three or four years. At the end of three or four years we’ll move. That’s the way to live in New York — to move every three or four years. Then you always get the last thing. It’s because the city’s growing so quick — you’ve got to keep up with it. It’s going straight up town — that’s where New York’s going. If I wasn’t afraid Marian would be lonely, I’d go up there — right up to the top — and wait for it. Only have to wait ten years — they’d all come up after you. But Marian says she wants some neighbours — she doesn’t want to be a pioneer. She says that if she’s got to be the first settler she had better go out to Minnesota. I guess we’ll move up little by little; when we get tired of one street we’ll go higher. So you see we’ll always have a new house; it’s a great advantage to have a new house; you get all the latest improvements. They invent everything all over again about every five years, and it’s a great thing to keep up with the new things. I always try and keep up with the new things of every kind. Don’t you think that’s a good motto for a young couple — to keep ‘going higher’? That’s the name of that piece of poetry — what do they call it? — Excelsior!”

Catherine bestowed on her junior visitor only just enough attention to feel that this was not the way Mr. Morris Townsend had talked the other night, or that he was talking now to her fortunate aunt. But suddenly his aspiring kinsman became more interesting. He seemed to have become conscious that she was affected by his companion’s presence, and he thought it proper to explain it.

“My cousin asked me to bring him, or I shouldn’t have taken the liberty. He seemed to want very much to come; you know he’s awfully sociable. I told him I wanted to ask you first, but he said Mrs. Penniman had invited him. He isn’t particular what he says when he wants to come somewhere! But Mrs. Penniman seems to think it’s all right.”

“We are very glad to see him,” said Catherine. And she wished to talk more about him; but she hardly knew what to say. “I never saw him before,” she went on presently.

Arthur Townsend stared.

“Why, he told me he talked with you for over half an hour the other night.”

“I mean before the other night. That was the first time.”

“Oh, he has been away from New York — he has been all round the world. He doesn’t know many people here, but he’s very sociable, and he wants to know every one.”

“Every one?” said Catherine.

“Well, I mean all the good ones. All the pretty young ladies — like Mrs. Penniman!” and Arthur Townsend gave a private laugh.

“My aunt likes him very much,” said Catherine.

“Most people like him — he’s so brilliant.”

“He’s more like a foreigner,” Catherine suggested.

“Well, I never knew a foreigner!” said young Townsend, in a tone which seemed to indicate that his ignorance had been optional.

“Neither have I,” Catherine confessed, with more humility. “They say they are generally brilliant,” she added vaguely.

“Well, the people of this city are clever enough for me. I know some of them that think they are too clever for me; but they ain’t!”

“I suppose you can’t be too clever,” said Catherine, still with humility.

“I don’t know. I know some people that call my cousin too clever.”

Catherine listened to this statement with extreme interest, and a feeling that if Morris Townsend had a fault it would naturally be that one. But she did not commit herself, and in a moment she asked: “Now that he has come back, will he stay here always?”

“Ah,” said Arthur, “if he can get something to do.”

“Something to do?”

“Some place or other; some business.”

“Hasn’t he got any?” said Catherine, who had never heard of a young man — of the upper class — in this situation.

“No; he’s looking round. But he can’t find anything.”

“I am very sorry,” Catherine permitted herself to observe.

“Oh, he doesn’t mind,” said young Townsend. “He takes it easy — he isn’t in a hurry. He is very particular.”

Catherine thought he naturally would be, and gave herself up for some moments to the contemplation of this idea, in several of its bearings.

“Won’t his father take him into his business — his office?” she at last inquired.

“He hasn’t got any father — he has only got a sister. Your sister can’t help you much.”

It seemed to Catherine that if she were his sister she would disprove this axiom. “Is she — is she pleasant?” she asked in a moment.

“I don’t know — I believe she’s very respectable,” said young Townsend. And then he looked across to his cousin and began to laugh. “Look here, we are talking about you,” he added.

Morris Townsend paused in his conversation with Mrs. Penniman, and stared, with a little smile. Then he got up, as if he were going.

“As far as you are concerned, I can’t return the compliment,” he said to Catherine’s companion. “But as regards Miss Sloper, it’s another affair.”

Catherine thought this little speech wonderfully well turned; but she was embarrassed by it, and she also got up. Morris Townsend stood looking at her and smiling; he put out his hand for farewell. He was going, without having said anything to her; but even on these terms she was glad to have seen him.

“I will tell her what you have said — when you go!” said Mrs. Penniman, with an insinuating laugh.

Catherine blushed, for she felt almost as if they were making sport of her. What in the world could this beautiful young man have said? He looked at her still, in spite of her blush; but very kindly and respectfully.

“I have had no talk with you,” he said, “and that was what I came for. But it will be a good reason for coming another time; a little pretext — if I am obliged to give one. I am not afraid of what your aunt will say when I go.”

With this the two young men took their departure; after which Catherine, with her blush still lingering, directed a serious and interrogative eye to Mrs. Penniman. She was incapable of elaborate artifice, and she resorted to no jocular device — to no affectation of the belief that she had been maligned — to learn what she desired.

“What did you say you would tell me?” she asked.

Mrs. Penniman came up to her, smiling and nodding a little, looked at her all over, and gave a twist to the knot of ribbon in her neck. “It’s a great secret, my dear child; but he is coming a-courting!”

Catherine was serious still. “Is that what he told you!”

“He didn’t say so exactly. But he left me to guess it. I’m a good guesser.”

“Do you mean a-courting me?”

“Not me, certainly, miss; though I must say he is a hundred times more polite to a person who has no longer extreme youth to recommend her than most of the young men. He is thinking of some one else.” And Mrs. Penniman gave her niece a delicate little kiss. “You must be very gracious to him.”

Catherine stared — she was bewildered. “I don’t understand you,” she said; “he doesn’t know me.”

“Oh yes, he does; more than you think. I have told him all about you.”

“Oh, Aunt Penniman!” murmured Catherine, as if this had been a breach of trust. “He is a perfect stranger — we don’t know him.” There was infinite, modesty in the poor girl’s “we.”

Aunt Penniman, however, took no account of it; she spoke even with a touch of acrimony. “My dear Catherine, you know very well that you admire him!”

“Oh, Aunt Penniman!” Catherine could only murmur again. It might very well be that she admired him — though this did not seem to her a thing to talk about. But that this brilliant stranger — this sudden apparition, who had barely heard the sound of her voice — took that sort of interest in her that was expressed by the romantic phrase of which Mrs. Penniman had just made use: this could only be a figment of the restless brain of Aunt Lavinia, whom every one knew to be a woman of powerful imagination.

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