Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 9

It was a regular custom with the family in Washington Square to go and spend Sunday evening at Mrs. Almond’s. On the Sunday after the conversation I have just narrated, this custom was not intermitted and on this occasion, towards the middle of the evening, Dr. Sloper found reason to withdraw to the library, with his brother-in-law, to talk over a matter of business. He was absent some twenty minutes, and when he came back into the circle, which was enlivened by the presence of several friends of the family, he saw that Morris Townsend had come in and had lost as little time as possible in seating himself on a small sofa, beside Catherine. In the large room, where several different groups had been formed, and the hum of voices and of laughter was loud, these two young persons might confabulate, as the Doctor phrased it to himself, without attracting attention. He saw in a moment, however, that his daughter was painfully conscious of his own observation. She sat motionless, with her eyes bent down, staring at her open fan, deeply flushed, shrinking together as if to minimise the indiscretion of which she confessed herself guilty.

The Doctor almost pitied her. Poor Catherine was not defiant; she had no genius for bravado; and as she felt that her father viewed her companion’s attentions with an unsympathising eye, there was nothing but discomfort for her in the accident of seeming to challenge him. The Doctor felt, indeed, so sorry for her that he turned away, to spare her the sense of being watched; and he was so intelligent a man that, in his thoughts, he rendered a sort of poetic justice to her situation.

“It must be deucedly pleasant for a plain inanimate girl like that to have a beautiful young fellow come and sit down beside her and whisper to her that he is her slave — if that is what this one whispers. No wonder she likes it, and that she thinks me a cruel tyrant; which of course she does, though she is afraid — she hasn’t the animation necessary — to admit it to herself. Poor old Catherine!” mused the Doctor; “I verily believe she is capable of defending me when Townsend abuses me!”

And the force of this reflexion, for the moment, was such in making him feel the natural opposition between his point of view and that of an infatuated child, that he said to himself that he was perhaps, after all, taking things too hard and crying out before he was hurt. He must not condemn Morris Townsend unheard. He had a great aversion to taking things too hard; he thought that half the discomfort and many of the disappointments of life come from it; and for an instant he asked himself whether, possibly, he did not appear ridiculous to this intelligent young man, whose private perception of incongruities he suspected of being keen. At the end of a quarter of an hour Catherine had got rid of him, and Townsend was now standing before the fireplace in conversation with Mrs. Almond.

“We will try him again,” said the Doctor. And he crossed the room and joined his sister and her companion, making her a sign that she should leave the young man to him. She presently did so, while Morris looked at him, smiling, without a sign of evasiveness in his affable eye.

“He’s amazingly conceited!” thought the Doctor; and then he said aloud: “I am told you are looking out for a position.”

“Oh, a position is more than I should presume to call it,” Morris Townsend answered. “That sounds so fine. I should like some quiet work — something to turn an honest penny.”

“What sort of thing should you prefer?”

“Do you mean what am I fit for? Very little, I am afraid. I have nothing but my good right arm, as they say in the melodramas.”

“You are too modest,” said the Doctor. “In addition to your good right arm, you have your subtle brain. I know nothing of you but what I see; but I see by your physiognomy that you are extremely intelligent.”

“Ah,” Townsend murmured, “I don’t know what to answer when you say that! You advise me, then, not to despair?”

And he looked at his interlocutor as if the question might have a double meaning. The Doctor caught the look and weighed it a moment before he replied. “I should be very sorry to admit that a robust and well-disposed young man need ever despair. If he doesn’t succeed in one thing, he can try another. Only, I should add, he should choose his line with discretion.”

“Ah, yes, with discretion,” Morris Townsend repeated sympathetically. “Well, I have been indiscreet, formerly; but I think I have got over it. I am very steady now.” And he stood a moment, looking down at his remarkably neat shoes. Then at last, “Were you kindly intending to propose something for my advantage?” he inquired, looking up and smiling.

“Damn his impudence!” the Doctor exclaimed privately. But in a moment he reflected that he himself had, after all, touched first upon this delicate point, and that his words might have been construed as an offer of assistance. “I have no particular proposal to make,” he presently said; “but it occurred to me to let you know that I have you in my mind. Sometimes one hears of opportunities. For instance — should you object to leaving New York — to going to a distance?”

“I am afraid I shouldn’t be able to manage that. I must seek my fortune here or nowhere. You see,” added Morris Townsend, “I have ties — I have responsibilities here. I have a sister, a widow, from whom I have been separated for a long time, and to whom I am almost everything. I shouldn’t like to say to her that I must leave her. She rather depends upon me, you see.”

“Ah, that’s very proper; family feeling is very proper,” said Dr. Sloper. “I often think there is not enough of it in our city. I think I have heard of your sister.”

“It is possible, but I rather doubt it; she lives so very quietly.”

“As quietly, you mean,” the Doctor went on, with a short laugh, “as a lady may do who has several young children.”

“Ah, my little nephews and nieces — that’s the very point! I am helping to bring them up,” said Morris Townsend. “I am a kind of amateur tutor; I give them lessons.”

“That’s very proper, as I say; but it is hardly a career.”

“It won’t make my fortune!” the young man confessed.

“You must not be too much bent on a fortune,” said the Doctor. “But I assure you I will keep you in mind; I won’t lose sight of you!”

“If my situation becomes desperate I shall perhaps take the liberty of reminding you!” Morris rejoined, raising his voice a little, with a brighter smile, as his interlocutor turned away.

Before he left the house the Doctor had a few words with Mrs. Almond.

“I should like to see his sister,” he said. “What do you call her? Mrs. Montgomery. I should like to have a little talk with her.”

“I will try and manage it,” Mrs. Almond responded. “I will take the first opportunity of inviting her, and you shall come and meet her. Unless, indeed,” Mrs. Almond added, “she first takes it into her head to be sick and to send for you.”

“Ah no, not that; she must have trouble enough without that. But it would have its advantages, for then I should see the children. I should like very much to see the children.”

“You are very thorough. Do you want to catechise them about their uncle!”

“Precisely. Their uncle tells me he has charge of their education, that he saves their mother the expense of school-bills. I should like to ask them a few questions in the commoner branches.”

“He certainly has not the cut of a schoolmaster!” Mrs. Almond said to herself a short time afterwards, as she saw Morris Townsend in a corner bending over her niece, who was seated.

And there was, indeed, nothing in the young man’s discourse at this moment that savoured of the pedagogue.

“Will you meet me somewhere to-morrow or next day?” he said, in a low tone, to Catherine.

“Meet you?” she asked, lifting her frightened eyes.

“I have something particular to say to you — very particular.”

“Can’t you come to the house? Can’t you say it there?”

Townsend shook his head gloomily. “I can’t enter your doors again!”

“Oh, Mr. Townsend!” murmured Catherine. She trembled as she wondered what had happened, whether her father had forbidden it.

“I can’t in self-respect,” said the young man. “Your father has insulted me.”

“Insulted you!”

“He has taunted me with my poverty.”

“Oh, you are mistaken — you misunderstood him!” Catherine spoke with energy, getting up from her chair.

“Perhaps I am too proud — too sensitive. But would you have me otherwise?” he asked tenderly.

“Where my father is concerned, you must not be sure. He is full of goodness,” said Catherine.

“He laughed at me for having no position! I took it quietly; but only because he belongs to you.”

“I don’t know,” said Catherine; “I don’t know what he thinks. I am sure he means to be kind. You must not be too proud.”

“I will be proud only of you,” Morris answered. “Will you meet me in the Square in the afternoon?”

A great blush on Catherine’s part had been the answer to the declaration I have just quoted. She turned away, heedless of his question.

“Will you meet me?” he repeated. “It is very quiet there; no one need see us — toward dusk?”

“It is you who are unkind, it is you who laugh, when you say such things as that.”

“My dear girl!” the young man murmured.

“You know how little there is in me to be proud of. I am ugly and stupid.”

Morris greeted this remark with an ardent murmur, in which she recognised nothing articulate but an assurance that she was his own dearest.

But she went on. “I am not even — I am not even —” And she paused a moment.

“You are not what?”

“I am not even brave.”

“Ah, then, if you are afraid, what shall we do?”

She hesitated a while; then at last —“You must come to the house,” she said; “I am not afraid of that.”

“I would rather it were in the Square,” the young man urged. “You know how empty it is, often. No one will see us.”

“I don’t care who sees us! But leave me now.”

He left her resignedly; he had got what he wanted. Fortunately he was ignorant that half an hour later, going home with her father and feeling him near, the poor girl, in spite of her sudden declaration of courage, began to tremble again. Her father said nothing; but she had an idea his eyes were fixed upon her in the darkness. Mrs. Penniman also was silent; Morris Townsend had told her that her niece preferred, unromantically, an interview in a chintz-covered parlour to a sentimental tryst beside a fountain sheeted with dead leaves, and she was lost in wonderment at the oddity — almost the perversity — of the choice.

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