Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 8

If it were true that she was in love, she was certainly very quiet about it; but the Doctor was of course prepared to admit that her quietness might mean volumes. She had told Morris Townsend that she would not mention him to her father, and she saw no reason to retract this vow of discretion. It was no more than decently civil, of course, that after having dined in Washington Square, Morris should call there again; and it was no more than natural that, having been kindly received on this occasion, he should continue to present himself. He had had plenty of leisure on his hands; and thirty years ago, in New York, a young man of leisure had reason to be thankful for aids to self-oblivion. Catherine said nothing to her father about these visits, though they had rapidly become the most important, the most absorbing thing in her life. The girl was very happy. She knew not as yet what would come of it; but the present had suddenly grown rich and solemn. If she had been told she was in love, she would have been a good deal surprised; for she had an idea that love was an eager and exacting passion, and her own heart was filled in these days with the impulse of self-effacement and sacrifice. Whenever Morris Townsend had left the house, her imagination projected itself, with all its strength, into the idea of his soon coming back; but if she had been told at such a moment that he would not return for a year, or even that he would never return, she would not have complained nor rebelled, but would have humbly accepted the decree, and sought for consolation in thinking over the times she had already seen him, the words he had spoken, the sound of his voice, of his tread, the expression of his face. Love demands certain things as a right; but Catherine had no sense of her rights; she had only a consciousness of immense and unexpected favours. Her very gratitude for these things had hushed itself; for it seemed to her that there would be something of impudence in making a festival of her secret. Her father suspected Morris Townsend’s visits, and noted her reserve. She seemed to beg pardon for it; she looked at him constantly in silence, as if she meant to say that she said nothing because she was afraid of irritating him. But the poor girl’s dumb eloquence irritated him more than anything else would have done, and he caught himself murmuring more than once that it was a grievous pity his only child was a simpleton. His murmurs, however, were inaudible; and for a while he said nothing to any one. He would have liked to know exactly how often young Townsend came; but he had determined to ask no questions of the girl herself — to say nothing more to her that would show that he watched her. The Doctor had a great idea of being largely just: he wished to leave his daughter her liberty, and interfere only when the danger should be proved. It was not in his manner to obtain information by indirect methods, and it never even occurred to him to question the servants. As for Lavinia, he hated to talk to her about the matter; she annoyed him with her mock romanticism. But he had to come to this. Mrs. Penniman’s convictions as regards the relations of her niece and the clever young visitor who saved appearances by coming ostensibly for both the ladies — Mrs. Penniman’s convictions had passed into a riper and richer phase. There was to be no crudity in Mrs. Penniman’s treatment of the situation; she had become as uncommunicative as Catherine herself. She was tasting of the sweets of concealment; she had taken up the line of mystery. “She would be enchanted to be able to prove to herself that she is persecuted,” said the Doctor; and when at last he questioned her, he was sure she would contrive to extract from his words a pretext for this belief.

“Be so good as to let me know what is going on in the house,” he said to her, in a tone which, under the circumstances, he himself deemed genial.

“Going on, Austin?” Mrs. Penniman exclaimed. “Why, I am sure I don’t know! I believe that last night the old grey cat had kittens!”

“At her age?” said the Doctor. “The idea is startling — almost shocking. Be so good as to see that they are all drowned. But what else has happened?”

“Ah, the dear little kittens!” cried Mrs. Penniman. “I wouldn’t have them drowned for the world!”

Her brother puffed his cigar a few moments in silence. “Your sympathy with kittens, Lavinia,” he presently resumed, “arises from a feline element in your own character.”

“Cats are very graceful, and very clean,” said Mrs. Penniman, smiling.

“And very stealthy. You are the embodiment both of grace and of neatness; but you are wanting in frankness.”

“You certainly are not, dear brother.”

“I don’t pretend to be graceful, though I try to be neat. Why haven’t you let me know that Mr. Morris Townsend is coming to the house four times a week?”

Mrs. Penniman lifted her eyebrows. “Four times a week?”

“Five times, if you prefer it. I am away all day, and I see nothing. But when such things happen, you should let me know.”

Mrs. Penniman, with her eyebrows still raised, reflected intently. “Dear Austin,” she said at last, “I am incapable of betraying a confidence. I would rather suffer anything.”

“Never fear; you shall not suffer. To whose confidence is it you allude? Has Catherine made you take a vow of eternal secrecy?”

“By no means. Catherine has not told me as much as she might. She has not been very trustful.”

“It is the young man, then, who has made you his confidante? Allow me to say that it is extremely indiscreet of you to form secret alliances with young men. You don’t know where they may lead you.”

“I don’t know what you mean by an alliance,” said Mrs. Penniman. “I take a great interest in Mr. Townsend; I won’t conceal that. But that’s all.”

“Under the circumstances, that is quite enough. What is the source of your interest in Mr. Townsend?”

“Why,” said Mrs. Penniman, musing, and then breaking into her smile, “that he is so interesting!”

The Doctor felt that he had need of his patience. “And what makes him interesting? — his good looks?”

“His misfortunes, Austin.”

“Ah, he has had misfortunes? That, of course, is always interesting. Are you at liberty to mention a few of Mr. Townsend’s?”

“I don’t know that he would like it,” said Mrs. Penniman. “He has told me a great deal about himself — he has told me, in fact, his whole history. But I don’t think I ought to repeat those things. He would tell them to you, I am sure, if he thought you would listen to him kindly. With kindness you may do anything with him.”

The Doctor gave a laugh. “I shall request him very kindly, then, to leave Catherine alone.”

“Ah!” said Mrs. Penniman, shaking her forefinger at her brother, with her little finger turned out, “Catherine had probably said something to him kinder than that.”

“Said that she loved him? Do you mean that?”

Mrs. Penniman fixed her eyes on the floor. “As I tell you, Austin, she doesn’t confide in me.”

“You have an opinion, I suppose, all the same. It is that I ask you for; though I don’t conceal from you that I shall not regard it as conclusive.”

Mrs. Penniman’s gaze continued to rest on the carpet; but at last she lifted it, and then her brother thought it very expressive. “I think Catherine is very happy; that is all I can say.”

“Townsend is trying to marry her — is that what you mean?”

“He is greatly interested in her.”

“He finds her such an attractive girl?”

“Catherine has a lovely nature, Austin,” said Mrs. Penniman, “and Mr. Townsend has had the intelligence to discover that.”

“With a little help from you, I suppose. My dear Lavinia,” cried the Doctor, “you are an admirable aunt!”

“So Mr. Townsend says,” observed Lavinia, smiling.

“Do you think he is sincere?” asked her brother.

“In saying that?”

“No; that’s of course. But in his admiration for Catherine?”

“Deeply sincere. He has said to me the most appreciative, the most charming things about her. He would say them to you, if he were sure you would listen to him — gently.”

“I doubt whether I can undertake it. He appears to require a great deal of gentleness.”

“He is a sympathetic, sensitive nature,” said Mrs. Penniman.

Her brother puffed his cigar again in silence. “These delicate qualities have survived his vicissitudes, eh? All this while you haven’t told me about his misfortunes.”

“It is a long story,” said Mrs. Penniman, “and I regard it as a sacred trust. But I suppose there is no objection to my saying that he has been wild — he frankly confesses that. But he has paid for it.”

“That’s what has impoverished him, eh?”

“I don’t mean simply in money. He is very much alone in the world.”

“Do you mean that he has behaved so badly that his friends have given him up?”

“He has had false friends, who have deceived and betrayed him.”

“He seems to have some good ones too. He has a devoted sister, and half-a-dozen nephews and nieces.”

Mrs. Penniman was silent a minute. “The nephews and nieces are children, and the sister is not a very attractive person.”

“I hope he doesn’t abuse her to you,” said the Doctor; “for I am told he lives upon her.”

“Lives upon her?”

“Lives with her, and does nothing for himself; it is about the same thing.”

“He is looking for a position — most earnestly,” said Mrs. Penniman. “He hopes every day to find one.”

“Precisely. He is looking for it here — over there in the front parlour. The position of husband of a weak-minded woman with a large fortune would suit him to perfection!”

Mrs. Penniman was truly amiable, but she now gave signs of temper. She rose with much animation, and stood for a moment looking at her brother. “My dear Austin,” she remarked, “if you regard Catherine as a weak-minded woman, you are particularly mistaken!” And with this she moved majestically away.

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