Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 6

Mrs. Penniman even took for granted at times that other people had as much imagination as herself; so that when, half an hour later, her brother came in, she addressed him quite on this principle.

“He has just been here, Austin; it’s such a pity you missed him.”

“Whom in the world have I missed?” asked the Doctor.

“Mr. Morris Townsend; he has made us such a delightful visit.”

“And who in the world is Mr. Morris Townsend?”

“Aunt Penniman means the gentleman — the gentleman whose name I couldn’t remember,” said Catherine.

“The gentleman at Elizabeth’s party who was so struck with Catherine,” Mrs. Penniman added.

“Oh, his name is Morris Townsend, is it? And did he come here to propose to you?”

“Oh, father,” murmured the girl for all answer, turning away to the window, where the dusk had deepened to darkness.

“I hope he won’t do that without your permission,” said Mrs. Penniman, very graciously.

“After all, my dear, he seems to have yours,” her brother answered.

Lavinia simpered, as if this might not be quite enough, and Catherine, with her forehead touching the window-panes, listened to this exchange of epigrams as reservedly as if they had not each been a pin-prick in her own destiny.

“The next time he comes,” the Doctor added, “you had better call me. He might like to see me.”

Morris Townsend came again, some five days afterwards; but Dr. Sloper was not called, as he was absent from home at the time. Catherine was with her aunt when the young man’s name was brought in, and Mrs. Penniman, effacing herself and protesting, made a great point of her niece’s going into the drawing-room alone.

“This time it’s for you — for you only,” she said. “Before, when he talked to me, it was only preliminary — it was to gain my confidence. Literally, my dear, I should not have the COURAGE to show myself to-day.”

And this was perfectly true. Mrs. Penniman was not a brave woman, and Morris Townsend had struck her as a young man of great force of character, and of remarkable powers of satire; a keen, resolute, brilliant nature, with which one must exercise a great deal of tact. She said to herself that he was “imperious,” and she liked the word and the idea. She was not the least jealous of her niece, and she had been perfectly happy with Mr. Penniman, but in the bottom of her heart she permitted herself the observation: “That’s the sort of husband I should have had!” He was certainly much more imperious — she ended by calling it imperial — than Mr. Penniman.

So Catherine saw Mr. Townsend alone, and her aunt did not come in even at the end of the visit. The visit was a long one; he sat there — in the front parlour, in the biggest armchair — for more than an hour. He seemed more at home this time — more familiar; lounging a little in the chair, slapping a cushion that was near him with his stick, and looking round the room a good deal, and at the objects it contained, as well as at Catherine; whom, however, he also contemplated freely. There was a smile of respectful devotion in his handsome eyes which seemed to Catherine almost solemnly beautiful; it made her think of a young knight in a poem. His talk, however, was not particularly knightly; it was light and easy and friendly; it took a practical turn, and he asked a number of questions about herself — what were her tastes — if she liked this and that — what were her habits. He said to her, with his charming smile, “Tell me about yourself; give me a little sketch.” Catherine had very little to tell, and she had no talent for sketching; but before he went she had confided to him that she had a secret passion for the theatre, which had been but scantily gratified, and a taste for operatic music — that of Bellini and Donizetti, in especial (it must be remembered in extenuation of this primitive young woman that she held these opinions in an age of general darkness)— which she rarely had an occasion to hear, except on the hand-organ. She confessed that she was not particularly fond of literature. Morris Townsend agreed with her that books were tiresome things; only, as he said, you had to read a good many before you found it out. He had been to places that people had written books about, and they were not a bit like the descriptions. To see for yourself — that was the great thing; he always tried to see for himself. He had seen all the principal actors — he had been to all the best theatres in London and Paris. But the actors were always like the authors — they always exaggerated. He liked everything to be natural. Suddenly he stopped, looking at Catherine with his smile.

“That’s what I like you for; you are so natural! Excuse me,” he added; “you see I am natural myself!”

And before she had time to think whether she excused him or not — which afterwards, at leisure, she became conscious that she did — he began to talk about music, and to say that it was his greatest pleasure in life. He had heard all the great singers in Paris and London — Pasta and Rubini and Lablache — and when you had done that, you could say that you knew what singing was.

“I sing a little myself,” he said; “some day I will show you. Not to-day, but some other time.”

And then he got up to go; he had omitted, by accident, to say that he would sing to her if she would play to him. He thought of this after he got into the street; but he might have spared his compunction, for Catherine had not noticed the lapse. She was thinking only that “some other time” had a delightful sound; it seemed to spread itself over the future.

This was all the more reason, however, though she was ashamed and uncomfortable, why she should tell her father that Mr. Morris Townsend had called again. She announced the fact abruptly, almost violently, as soon as the Doctor came into the house; and having done so — it was her duty — she took measures to leave the room. But she could not leave it fast enough; her father stopped her just as she reached the door.

“Well, my dear, did he propose to you to-day?” the Doctor asked.

This was just what she had been afraid he would say; and yet she had no answer ready. Of course she would have liked to take it as a joke — as her father must have meant it; and yet she would have liked, also, in denying it, to be a little positive, a little sharp; so that he would perhaps not ask the question again. She didn’t like it — it made her unhappy. But Catherine could never be sharp; and for a moment she only stood, with her hand on the door-knob, looking at her satiric parent, and giving a little laugh.

“Decidedly,” said the Doctor to himself, “my daughter is not brilliant.”

But he had no sooner made this reflexion than Catherine found something; she had decided, on the whole, to take the thing as a joke.

“Perhaps he will do it the next time!” she exclaimed, with a repetition of her laugh. And she quickly got out of the room.

The Doctor stood staring; he wondered whether his daughter were serious. Catherine went straight to her own room, and by the time she reached it she bethought herself that there was something else — something better — she might have said. She almost wished, now, that her father would ask his question again, so that she might reply: “Oh yes, Mr. Morris Townsend proposed to me, and I refused him!”

The Doctor, however, began to put his questions elsewhere; it naturally having occurred to him that he ought to inform himself properly about this handsome young man who had formed the habit of running in and out of his house. He addressed himself to the younger of his sisters, Mrs. Almond — not going to her for the purpose; there was no such hurry as that — but having made a note of the matter for the first opportunity. The Doctor was never eager, never impatient nor nervous; but he made notes of everything, and he regularly consulted his notes. Among them the information he obtained from Mrs. Almond about Morris Townsend took its place.

“Lavinia has already been to ask me,” she said. “Lavinia is most excited; I don’t understand it. It’s not, after all, Lavinia that the young man is supposed to have designs upon. She is very peculiar.”

“Ah, my dear,” the Doctor replied, “she has not lived with me these twelve years without my finding it out!”

“She has got such an artificial mind,” said Mrs. Almond, who always enjoyed an opportunity to discuss Lavinia’s peculiarities with her brother. “She didn’t want me to tell you that she had asked me about Mr. Townsend; but I told her I would. She always wants to conceal everything.”

“And yet at moments no one blurts things out with such crudity. She is like a revolving lighthouse; pitch darkness alternating with a dazzling brilliancy! But what did you tell her?” the Doctor asked.

“What I tell you; that I know very little of him.”

“Lavinia must have been disappointed at that,” said the Doctor; “she would prefer him to have been guilty of some romantic crime. However, we must make the best of people. They tell me our gentleman is the cousin of the little boy to whom you are about to entrust the future of your little girl.”

“Arthur is not a little boy; he is a very old man; you and I will never be so old. He is a distant relation of Lavinia’s protege. The name is the same, but I am given to understand that there are Townsends and Townsends. So Arthur’s mother tells me; she talked about ‘branches’— younger branches, elder branches, inferior branches — as if it were a royal house. Arthur, it appears, is of the reigning line, but poor Lavinia’s young man is not. Beyond this, Arthur’s mother knows very little about him; she has only a vague story that he has been ‘wild.’ But I know his sister a little, and she is a very nice woman. Her name is Mrs. Montgomery; she is a widow, with a little property and five children. She lives in the Second Avenue.”

“What does Mrs. Montgomery say about him?”

“That he has talents by which he might distinguish himself.”

“Only he is lazy, eh?”

“She doesn’t say so.”

“That’s family pride,” said the Doctor. “What is his profession?”

“He hasn’t got any; he is looking for something. I believe he was once in the Navy.”

“Once? What is his age?”

“I suppose he is upwards of thirty. He must have gone into the Navy very young. I think Arthur told me that he inherited a small property — which was perhaps the cause of his leaving the Navy — and that he spent it all in a few years. He travelled all over the world, lived abroad, amused himself. I believe it was a kind of system, a theory he had. He has lately come back to America, with the intention, as he tells Arthur, of beginning life in earnest.”

“Is he in earnest about Catherine, then?”

“I don’t see why you should be incredulous,” said Mrs. Almond. “It seems to me that you have never done Catherine justice. You must remember that she has the prospect of thirty thousand a year.”

The Doctor looked at his sister a moment, and then, with the slightest touch of bitterness: “You at least appreciate her,” he said.

Mrs. Almond blushed.

“I don’t mean that is her only merit; I simply mean that it is a great one. A great many young men think so; and you appear to me never to have been properly aware of that. You have always had a little way of alluding to her as an unmarriageable girl.”

“My allusions are as kind as yours, Elizabeth,” said the Doctor frankly. “How many suitors has Catherine had, with all her expectations — how much attention has she ever received? Catherine is not unmarriageable, but she is absolutely unattractive. What other reason is there for Lavinia being so charmed with the idea that there is a lover in the house? There has never been one before, and Lavinia, with her sensitive, sympathetic nature, is not used to the idea. It affects her imagination. I must do the young men of New York the justice to say that they strike me as very disinterested. They prefer pretty girls — lively girls — girls like your own. Catherine is neither pretty nor lively.”

“Catherine does very well; she has a style of her own — which is more than my poor Marian has, who has no style at all,” said Mrs. Almond. “The reason Catherine has received so little attention is that she seems to all the young men to be older than themselves. She is so large, and she dresses — so richly. They are rather afraid of her, I think; she looks as if she had been married already, and you know they don’t like married women. And if our young men appear disinterested,” the Doctor’s wiser sister went on, “it is because they marry, as a general thing, so young; before twenty-five, at the age of innocence and sincerity, before the age of calculation. If they only waited a little, Catherine would fare better.”

“As a calculation? Thank you very much,” said the Doctor.

“Wait till some intelligent man of forty comes along, and he will be delighted with Catherine,” Mrs. Almond continued.

“Mr. Townsend is not old enough, then; his motives may be pure.”

“It is very possible that his motives are pure; I should be very sorry to take the contrary for granted. Lavinia is sure of it, and, as he is a very prepossessing youth, you might give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Dr. Sloper reflected a moment.

“What are his present means of subsistence?”

“I have no idea. He lives, as I say, with his sister.”

“A widow, with five children? Do you mean he lives UPON her?”

Mrs. Almond got up, and with a certain impatience: “Had you not better ask Mrs. Montgomery herself?” she inquired.

“Perhaps I may come to that,” said the Doctor. “Did you say the Second Avenue?” He made a note of the Second Avenue.

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