Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 7

He was, however, by no means so much in earnest as this might seem to indicate; and, indeed, he was more than anything else amused with the whole situation. He was not in the least in a state of tension or of vigilance with regard to Catherine’s prospects he was even on his guard against the ridicule that might attach itself to the spectacle of a house thrown into agitation by its daughter and heiress receiving attentions unprecedented in its annals. More than this, he went so far as to promise himself some entertainment from the little drama — if drama it was — of which Mrs. Penniman desired to represent the ingenious Mr. Townsend as the hero. He had no intention, as yet, of regulating the denouement. He was perfectly willing, as Elizabeth had suggested, to give the young man the benefit of every doubt. There was no great danger in it; for Catherine, at the age of twenty-two, was, after all, a rather mature blossom, such as could be plucked from the stem only by a vigorous jerk. The fact that Morris Townsend was poor — was not of necessity against him; the Doctor had never made up his mind that his daughter should marry a rich man. The fortune she would inherit struck him as a very sufficient provision for two reasonable persons, and if a penniless swain who could give a good account of himself should enter the lists, he should be judged quite upon his personal merits. There were other things besides. The Doctor thought it very vulgar to be precipitate in accusing people of mercenary motives, inasmuch as his door had as yet not been in the least besieged by fortune-hunters; and, lastly, he was very curious to see whether Catherine might really be loved for her moral worth. He smiled as he reflected that poor Mr. Townsend had been only twice to the house, and he said to Mrs. Penniman that the next time he should come she must ask him to dinner.

He came very soon again, and Mrs. Penniman had of course great pleasure in executing this mission. Morris Townsend accepted her invitation with equal good grace, and the dinner took place a few days later. The Doctor had said to himself, justly enough, that they must not have the young man alone; this would partake too much of the nature of encouragement. So two or three other persons were invited; but Morris Townsend, though he was by no means the ostensible, was the real, occasion of the feast. There is every reason to suppose that he desired to make a good impression; and if he fell short of this result, it was not for want of a good deal of intelligent effort. The Doctor talked to him very little during dinner; but he observed him attentively, and after the ladies had gone out he pushed him the wine and asked him several questions. Morris was not a young man who needed to be pressed, and he found quite enough encouragement in the superior quality of the claret. The Doctor’s wine was admirable, and it may be communicated to the reader that while he sipped it Morris reflected that a cellar-full of good liquor — there was evidently a cellar-full here — would be a most attractive idiosyncrasy in a father-in-law. The Doctor was struck with his appreciative guest; he saw that he was not a commonplace young man. “He has ability,” said Catherine’s father, “decided ability; he has a very good head if he chooses to use it. And he is uncommonly well turned out; quite the sort of figure that pleases the ladies. But I don’t think I like him.” The Doctor, however, kept his reflexions to himself, and talked to his visitors about foreign lands, concerning which Morris offered him more information than he was ready, as he mentally phrased it, to swallow. Dr. Sloper had travelled but little, and he took the liberty of not believing everything this anecdotical idler narrated. He prided himself on being something of a physiognomist, and while the young man, chatting with easy assurance, puffed his cigar and filled his glass again, the Doctor sat with his eyes quietly fixed on his bright, expressive face. “He has the assurance of the devil himself,” said Morris’s host; “I don’t think I ever saw such assurance. And his powers of invention are most remarkable. He is very knowing; they were not so knowing as that in my time. And a good head, did I say? I should think so — after a bottle of Madeira and a bottle and a half of claret!”

After dinner Morris Townsend went and stood before Catherine, who was standing before the fire in her red satin gown.

“He doesn’t like me — he doesn’t like me at all!” said the young man.

“Who doesn’t like you?” asked Catherine.

“Your father; extraordinary man!”

“I don’t see how you know,” said Catherine, blushing.

“I feel; I am very quick to feel.”

“Perhaps you are mistaken.”

“Ah, well; you ask him and you will see.”

“I would rather not ask him, if there is any danger of his saying what you think.”

Morris looked at her with an air of mock melancholy.

“It wouldn’t give you any pleasure to contradict him?”

“I never contradict him,” said Catherine.

“Will you hear me abused without opening your lips in my defence?”

“My father won’t abuse you. He doesn’t know you enough.”

Morris Townsend gave a loud laugh, and Catherine began to blush again.

“I shall never mention you,” she said, to take refuge from her confusion.

“That is very well; but it is not quite what I should have liked you to say. I should have liked you to say: ‘If my father doesn’t think well of you, what does it matter?’”

“Ah, but it would matter; I couldn’t say that!” the girl exclaimed.

He looked at her for a moment, smiling a little; and the Doctor, if he had been watching him just then, would have seen a gleam of fine impatience in the sociable softness of his eye. But there was no impatience in his rejoinder — none, at least, save what was expressed in a little appealing sigh. “Ah, well, then, I must not give up the hope of bringing him round!”

He expressed it more frankly to Mrs. Penniman later in the evening. But before that he sang two or three songs at Catherine’s timid request; not that he flattered himself that this would help to bring her father round. He had a sweet, light tenor voice, and when he had finished every one made some exclamation — every one, that is, save Catherine, who remained intensely silent. Mrs. Penniman declared that his manner of singing was “most artistic,” and Dr. Sloper said it was “very taking — very taking indeed”; speaking loudly and distinctly, but with a certain dryness.

“He doesn’t like me — he doesn’t like me at all,” said Morris Townsend, addressing the aunt in the same manner as he had done the niece. “He thinks I’m all wrong.”

Unlike her niece, Mrs. Penniman asked for no explanation. She only smiled very sweetly, as if she understood everything; and, unlike Catherine too, she made no attempt to contradict him. “Pray, what does it matter?” she murmured softly.

“Ah, you say the right thing!” said Morris, greatly to the gratification of Mrs. Penniman, who prided herself on always saying the right thing.

The Doctor, the next time he saw his sister Elizabeth, let her know that he had made the acquaintance of Lavinia’s protege.

“Physically,” he said, “he’s uncommonly well set up. As an anatomist, it is really a pleasure to me to see such a beautiful structure; although, if people were all like him, I suppose there would be very little need for doctors.”

“Don’t you see anything in people but their bones?” Mrs. Almond rejoined. “What do you think of him as a father?”

“As a father? Thank Heaven I am not his father!”

“No; but you are Catherine’s. Lavinia tells me she is in love.”

“She must get over it. He is not a gentleman.”

“Ah, take care! Remember that he is a branch of the Townsends.”

“He is not what I call a gentleman. He has not the soul of one. He is extremely insinuating; but it’s a vulgar nature. I saw through it in a minute. He is altogether too familiar — I hate familiarity. He is a plausible coxcomb.”

“Ah, well,” said Mrs. Almond; “if you make up your mind so easily, it’s a great advantage.”

“I don’t make up my mind easily. What I tell you is the result of thirty years of observation; and in order to be able to form that judgement in a single evening, I have had to spend a lifetime in study.”

“Very possibly you are right. But the thing is for Catherine to see it.”

“I will present her with a pair of spectacles!” said the Doctor.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56