Washington square, p.8
IF it were true that she was in love, she was certainly very quiet aboutit; but the Doctor was of course prepared to admit that her quietnessmight mean volumes. She had told Morris Townsend that she would notmention him to her father, and she saw no reason to retract this vow ofdiscretion. It was no more than decently civil, of course, that afterhaving dined in Washington Square, Morris should call there again; and itwas no more than natural that, having been kindly received on thisoccasion, he should continue to present himself. He had had plenty ofleisure on his hands; and thirty years ago, in New York, a young man ofleisure had reason to be thankful for aids to self-oblivion. Catherinesaid nothing to her father about these visits, though they had rapidlybecome the most important, the most absorbing thing in her life. Thegirl was very happy. She knew not as yet what would come of it; but thepresent had suddenly grown rich and solemn. If she had been told she wasin love, she would have been a good deal surprised; for she had an ideathat love was an eager and exacting passion, and her own heart was filledin these days with the impulse of self-effacement and sacrifice.Whenever Morris Townsend had left the house, her imagination projecteditself, with all its strength, into the idea of his soon coming back; butif she had been told at such a moment that he would not return for ayear, or even that he would never return, she would not have complainednor rebelled, but would have humbly accepted the decree, and sought forconsolation in thinking over the times she had already seen him, thewords he had spoken, the sound of his voice, of his tread, the expressionof his face. Love demands certain things as a right; but Catherine hadno sense of her rights; she had only a consciousness of immense andunexpected favours. Her very gratitude for these things had husheditself; for it seemed to her that there would be something of impudencein making a festival of her secret. Her father suspected MorrisTownsend’s visits, and noted her reserve. She seemed to beg pardon forit; she looked at him constantly in silence, as if she meant to say thatshe said nothing because she was afraid of irritating him. But the poorgirl’s dumb eloquence irritated him more than anything else would havedone, and he caught himself murmuring more than once that it was agrievous pity his only child was a simpleton. His murmurs, however, wereinaudible; and for a while he said nothing to any one. He would haveliked to know exactly how often young Townsend came; but he haddetermined to ask no questions of the girl herself—to say nothing more toher that would show that he watched her. The Doctor had a great idea ofbeing largely just: he wished to leave his daughter her liberty, andinterfere only when the danger should be proved. It was not in hismanner to obtain information by indirect methods, and it never evenoccurred to him to question the servants. As for Lavinia, he hated totalk 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 therelations of her niece and the clever young visitor who saved appearancesby coming ostensibly for both the ladies—Mrs. Penniman’s convictions hadpassed into a riper and richer phase. There was to be no crudity in Mrs.Penniman’s treatment of the situation she had become as uncommunicativeas Catherine herself. She was tasting of the sweets of concealment; shehad taken up the line of mystery. “She would be enchanted to be able toprove to herself that she is persecuted,” said the Doctor; and when atlast he questioned her, he was sure she would contrive to extract fromhis words a pretext for this belief.
“Be so good as to let me know what is going on in the house,” he said toher, in a tone which, under the circumstances, he himself deemed genial.
“Going on, Austin?” Mrs. Penniman exclaimed. “Why, I am sure I don’tknow! 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 hashappened?”
“Ah, the dear little kittens!” cried Mrs. Penniman. “I wouldn’t havethem drowned for the world!”
Her brother puffed his cigar a few moments in silence. “Your sympathywith kittens, Lavinia,” he presently resumed, “arises from a felineelement 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 ofneatness; 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’tyou let me know that Mr. Morris Townsend is coming to the house fourtimes 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. “DearAustin,” she said at last, “I am incapable of betraying a confidence. Iwould 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 hasnot been very trustful.”
“It is the young man, then, who has made you his confidante? Allow me tosay that it is extremely indiscreet of you to form secret alliances withyoung men. You don’t know where they may lead you.”
“I don’t know what you mean by an alliance,” said Mrs. Penniman. “I takea 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 ofyour 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 himinteresting?—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 toldme 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 toyou, I am sure, if he thought you would listen to him kindly. Withkindness you may do anything with him.”
The Doctor gave a laugh. “I shall request him very kindly, then, toleave Catherine alone.”
“Ah!” said Mrs. Penniman, shaking her forefinger at her brother, with herlittle finger turned out, “Catherine had probably said something to himkinder than that.”
“Said that she loved him? Do you mean that?”
Mrs. Penniman fixed her eyes on the floor. “As I tell you, Austin, shedoesn’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 asconclusive.”
Mrs. Penniman’s gaze continued to rest on the carpet; but at last shelifted it, and then her brother thought it very expressive. “I thinkCatherine 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 theDoctor, “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 mostcharming things about her. He would say them to you, if he were sure youwould listen to him—gently.”
“He is a sympathetic, sensitive nature,” said Mrs. Penniman.
Her brother puffed his cigar again in silence. “These delicate qualitieshave survived his vicissitudes, eh? All this while you haven’t told meabout his misfortunes.”
“It is a long story,” said Mrs. Penniman, “and I regard it as a sacredtrust. But I suppose there is no objection to my saying that he has beenwild—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 himup?”
“He has had false friends, who have deceived and betrayed him.”
“He seems to have some good ones too. He has a devoted sister, andhalf-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 helives upon her.”
“Lives upon her?”
“Lives with her, and does nothing for himself; it is about the samething.”
“He is looking for a position—most earnestly,” said Mrs. Penniman. “Hehopes 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 wouldsuit him to perfection!”
Mrs. Penniman was truly amiable, but she now gave signs of temper. Sherose with much animation, and stood for a moment looking at her brother.“My dear Austin,” she remarked, “if you regard Catherine as a weak-mindedwoman, you are particularly mistaken!” And with this she movedmajestically away.
Washington Square by Henry James / Romance & Love have rating 4.2 out of 5 / Based on46 votes