They had of course immediately spoken of Catherine. "Did she send me a message, or--or anything?" Morris asked. He appeared to think that she might have sent him a trinket or a lock of her hair.
Mrs. Penniman was slightly embarrassed, for she had not told her niece of her intended expedition. "Not exactly a message," she said; "I didn't ask her for one, because I was afraid to--to excite her."
"I am afraid she is not very excitable!" And Morris gave a smile of some bitterness.
"She is better than that. She is steadfast--she is true!"
"Do you think she will hold fast, then?"
"To the death!"
"Oh, I hope it won't come to that," said Morris.
"We must be prepared for the worst, and that is what I wish to speak to you about."
"What do you call the worst?"
"Well," said Mrs. Penniman, "my brother's hard, intellectual nature."
"Oh, the devil!"
"He is impervious to pity," Mrs. Penniman added, by way of explanation.
"Do you mean that he won't come round?"
"He will never be vanquished by argument. I have studied him. He will be vanquished only by the accomplished fact."
"The accomplished fact?"
"He will come round afterwards," said Mrs. Penniman, with extreme significance. "He cares for nothing but facts; he must be met by facts!"
"Well," rejoined Morris, "it is a fact that I wish to marry his daughter. I met him with that the other day, but he was not at all vanquished."
Mrs. Penniman was silent a little, and her smile beneath the shadow of her capacious bonnet, on the edge of which her black veil was arranged curtain-wise, fixed itself upon Morris's face with a still more tender brilliancy. "Marry Catherine first and meet him afterwards!" she exclaimed.
"Do you recommend that?" asked the young man, frowning heavily.
She was a little frightened, but she went on with considerable boldness. "That is the way I see it: a private marriage--a private marriage." She repeated the phrase because she liked it.
"Do you mean that I should carry Catherine off? What do they call it--elope with her?"
"It is not a crime when you are driven to it," said Mrs. Penniman. "My husband, as I have told you, was a distinguished clergyman; one of the most eloquent men of his day. He once married a young couple that had fled from the house of the young lady's father. He was so interested in their story. He had no hesitation, and everything came out beautifully. The father was afterwards reconciled, and thought everything of the young man. Mr. Penniman married them in the evening, about seven o'clock. The church was so dark, you could scarcely see; and Mr. Penniman was intensely agitated; he was so sympathetic. I don't believe he could have done it again."
"Unfortunately Catherine and I have not Mr. Penniman to marry us," said Morris.
"No, but you have me!" rejoined Mrs. Penniman expressively. "I can't perform the ceremony, but I can help you. I can watch."
"The woman's an idiot," thought Morris; but he was obliged to say something different. It was not, however, materially more civil. "Was it in order to tell me this that you requested I would meet you here?"
Mrs. Penniman had been conscious of a certain vagueness in her errand, and of not being able to offer him any very tangible reward for his long walk. "I thought perhaps you would like to see one who is so near to Catherine," she observed, with considerable majesty. "And also," she added, "that you would value an opportunity of sending her something."
Morris extended his empty hands with a melancholy smile. "I am greatly obliged to you, but I have nothing to send."
"Haven't you a WORD?" asked his companion, with her suggestive smile coming back.
Morris frowned again. "Tell her to hold fast," he said rather curtly.
"That is a good word--a noble word. It will make her happy for many days. She is very touching, very brave," Mrs. Penniman went on, arranging her mantle and preparing to depart. While she was so engaged she had an inspiration. She found the phrase that she could boldly offer as a vindication of the step she had taken. "If you marry Catherine at all risks" she said, "you will give my brother a proof of your being what he pretends to doubt."
"What he pretends to doubt?"
"Don't you know what that is?" Mrs. Penniman asked almost playfully.
"It does not concern me to know," said Morris grandly.
"Of course it makes you angry."
"I despise it," Morris declared.
"Ah, you know what it is, then?" said Mrs. Penniman, shaking her finger at him. "He pretends that you like--you like the money."
Morris hesitated a moment; and then, as if he spoke advisedly--"I DO like the money!"
"Ah, but not--but not as he means it. You don't like it more than Catherine?"
He leaned his elbows on the table and buried his head in his hands. "You torture me!" he murmured. And, indeed, this was almost the effect of the poor lady's too importunate interest in his situation.
But she insisted on making her point. "If you marry her in spite of him, he will take for granted that you expect nothing of him, and are prepared to do without it. And so he will see that you are disinterested."
Morris raised his head a little, following this argument, "And what shall I gain by that?"
"Why, that he will see that he has been wrong in thinking that you wished to get his money."
"And seeing that I wish he would go to the deuce with it, he will leave it to a hospital. Is that what you mean?" asked Morris.
"No, I don't mean that; though that would be very grand!" Mrs. Penniman quickly added. "I mean that having done you such an injustice, he will think it his duty, at the end, to make some amends."
Morris shook his head, though it must be confessed he was a little struck with this idea. "Do you think he is so sentimental?"
"He is not sentimental," said Mrs. Penniman; "but, to be perfectly fair to him, I think he has, in his own narrow way, a certain sense of duty."
There passed through Morris Townsend's mind a rapid wonder as to what he might, even under a remote contingency, be indebted to from the action of this principle in Dr. Sloper's breast, and the inquiry exhausted itself in his sense of the ludicrous. "Your brother has no duties to me," he said presently, "and I none to him."
"Ah, but he has duties to Catherine."
"Yes, but you see that on that principle Catherine has duties to him as well."
Mrs. Penniman got up, with a melancholy sigh, as if she thought him very unimaginative. "She has always performed them faithfully; and now, do you think she has no duties to YOU?" Mrs. Penniman always, even in conversation, italicised her personal pronouns.
"It would sound harsh to say so! I am so grateful for her love," Morris added.
"I will tell her you said that! And now, remember that if you need me, I am there." And Mrs. Penniman, who could think of nothing more to say, nodded vaguely in the direction of Washington Square.
Morris looked some moments at the sanded floor of the shop; he seemed to be disposed to linger a moment. At last, looking up with a certain abruptness, "It is your belief that if she marries me he will cut her off?" he asked.
Mrs. Penniman stared a little, and smiled. "Why, I have explained to you what I think would happen--that in the end it would be the best thing to do."
"You mean that, whatever she does, in the long run she will get the money?"
"It doesn't depend upon her, but upon you. Venture to appear as disinterested as you are!" said Mrs. Penniman ingeniously. Morris dropped his eyes on the sanded floor again, pondering this; and she pursued. "Mr. Penniman and I had nothing, and we were very happy. Catherine, moreover, has her mother's fortune, which, at the time my sister-in-law married, was considered a very handsome one."
"Oh, don't speak of that!" said Morris; and, indeed, it was quite superfluous, for he had contemplated the fact in all its lights.
"Austin married a wife with money--why shouldn't you?"
"Ah! but your brother was a doctor," Morris objected.
"Well, all young men can't be doctors!"
"I should think it an extremely loathsome profession," said Morris, with an air of intellectual independence. Then in a moment, he went on rather inconsequently, "Do you suppose there is a will already made in Catherine's favour?"
"I suppose so--even doctors must die; and perhaps a little in mine," Mrs. Penniman frankly added.
"And you believe he would certainly change it--as regards Catherine?"
"Yes; and then change it back again."
"Ah, but one can't depend on that!" said Morris.
"Do you want to DEPEND on it?" Mrs. Penniman asked.
Morris blushed a little. "Well, I am certainly afraid of being the cause of an injury to Catherine."
"Ah! you must not be afraid. Be afraid of nothing, and everything will go well!"
And then Mrs. Penniman paid for her cup of tea, and Morris paid for his oyster stew, and they went out together into the dimly-lighted wilderness of the Seventh Avenue. The dusk had closed in completely and the street lamps were separated by wide intervals of a pavement in which cavities and fissures played a disproportionate part. An omnibus, emblazoned with strange pictures, went tumbling over the dislocated cobble-stones.
"How will you go home?" Morris asked, following this vehicle with an interested eye. Mrs. Penniman had taken his arm.
She hesitated a moment. "I think this manner would be pleasant," she said; and she continued to let him feel the value of his support.
So he walked with her through the devious ways of the west side of the town, and through the bustle of gathering nightfall in populous streets, to the quiet precinct of Washington Square. They lingered a moment at the foot of Dr. Sloper's white marble steps, above which a spotless white door, adorned with a glittering silver plate, seemed to figure, for Morris, the closed portal of happiness; and then Mrs. Penniman's companion rested a melancholy eye upon a lighted window in the upper part of the house.
"That is my room--my dear little room!" Mrs. Penniman remarked.
Morris started. "Then I needn't come walking round the Square to gaze at it."
"That's as you please. But Catherine's is behind; two noble windows on the second floor. I think you can see them from the other street."
"I don't want to see them, ma'am!" And Morris turned his back to the house.
"I will tell her you have been HERE, at any rate," said Mrs. Penniman, pointing to the spot where they stood; "and I will give her your message--that she is to hold fast!"
"Oh, yes! of course. You know I write her all that."
"It seems to say more when it is spoken! And remember, if you need me, that I am THERE"; and Mrs. Penniman glanced at the third floor.
On this they separated, and Morris, left to himself, stood looking at the house a moment; after which he turned away, and took a gloomy walk round the Square, on the opposite side, close to the wooden fence. Then he came back, and paused for a minute in front of Dr. Sloper's dwelling. His eyes travelled over it; they even rested on the ruddy windows of Mrs. Penniman's apartment. He thought it a devilish comfortable house.
Mrs. Penniman told Catherine that evening--the two ladies were sitting in the back parlour--that she had had an interview with Morris Townsend; and on receiving this news the girl started with a sense of pain. She felt angry for the moment; it was almost the first time she had ever felt angry. It seemed to her that her aunt was meddlesome; and from this came a vague apprehension that she would spoil something.
"I don't see why you should have seen him. I don't think it was right," Catherine said.
"I was so sorry for him--it seemed to me some one ought to see him."
"No one but I," said Catherine, who felt as if she were making the most presumptuous speech of her life, and yet at the same time had an instinct that she was right in doing so.
"But you wouldn't, my dear," Aunt Lavinia rejoined; "and I didn't know what might have become of him."
"I have not seen him, because my father has forbidden it," Catherine said very simply.
There was a simplicity in this, indeed, which fairly vexed Mrs. Penniman. "If your father forbade you to go to sleep, I suppose you would keep awake!" she commented.
Catherine looked at her. "I don't understand you. You seem to be very strange."
"Well, my dear, you will understand me some day!" And Mrs. Penniman, who was reading the evening paper, which she perused daily from the first line to the last, resumed her occupation. She wrapped herself in silence; she was determined Catherine should ask her for an account of her interview with Morris. But Catherine was silent for so long, that she almost lost patience; and she was on the point of remarking to her that she was very heartless, when the girl at last spoke.
"What did he say?" she asked.
"He said he is ready to marry you any day, in spite of everything."
Catherine made no answer to this, and Mrs. Penniman almost lost patience again; owing to which she at last volunteered the information that Morris looked very handsome, but terribly haggard.
"Did he seem sad?" asked her niece.
"He was dark under the eyes," said Mrs. Penniman. "So different from when I first saw him; though I am not sure that if I had seen him in this condition the first time, I should not have been even more struck with him. There is something brilliant in his very misery."
This was, to Catherine's sense, a vivid picture, and though she disapproved, she felt herself gazing at it. "Where did you see him?" she asked presently.
"In--in the Bowery; at a confectioner's," said Mrs. Penniman, who had a general idea that she ought to dissemble a little.
"Whereabouts is the place?" Catherine inquired, after another pause.
"Do you wish to go there, my dear?" said her aunt.
"Oh no!" And Catherine got up from her seat and went to the fire, where she stood looking a while at the glowing coals.
"Why are you so dry, Catherine?" Mrs. Penniman said at last.
"So cold--so irresponsive."
The girl turned very quickly. "Did HE say that?"
Mrs. Penniman hesitated a moment. "I will tell you what he said. He said he feared only one thing--that you would be afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"Afraid of your father."
Catherine turned back to the fire again, and then, after a pause, she said--"I AM afraid of my father."
Mrs. Penniman got quickly up from her chair and approached her niece. "Do you mean to give him up, then?"
Catherine for some time never moved; she kept her eyes on the coals. At last she raised her head and looked at her aunt. "Why do you push me so?" she asked.
"I don't push you. When have I spoken to you before?"
"It seems to me that you have spoken to me several times."
"I am afraid it is necessary, then, Catherine," said Mrs. Penniman, with a good deal of solemnity. "I am afraid you don't feel the importance--" She paused a little; Catherine was looking at her. "The importance of not disappointing that gallant young heart!" And Mrs. Penniman went back to her chair, by the lamp, and, with a little jerk, picked up the evening paper again.
Catherine stood there before the fire, with her hands behind her, looking at her aunt, to whom it seemed that the girl had never had just this dark fixedness in her gaze. "I don't think you understand- -or that you know me," she said.
"If I don't, it is not wonderful; you trust me so little."
Catherine made no attempt to deny this charge, and for some time more nothing was said. But Mrs. Penniman's imagination was restless, and the evening paper failed on this occasion to enchain it.
"If you succumb to the dread of your father's wrath," she said, "I don't know what will become of us."
"Did HE tell you to say these things to me?"
"He told me to use my influence."
"You must be mistaken," said Catherine. "He trusts me."
"I hope he may never repent of it!" And Mrs. Penniman gave a little sharp slap to her newspaper. She knew not what to make of her niece, who had suddenly become stern and contradictious.
This tendency on Catherine's part was presently even more apparent. "You had much better not make any more appointments with Mr. Townsend," she said. "I don't think it is right."
Mrs. Penniman rose with considerable majesty. "My poor child, are you jealous of me?" she inquired.
"Oh, Aunt Lavinia!" murmured Catherine, blushing.
"I don't think it is your place to teach me what is right."
On this point Catherine made no concession. "It can't be right to deceive."
"I certainly have not deceived YOU!"
"Yes; but I promised my father--"
"I have no doubt you promised your father. But I have promised him nothing!"
Catherine had to admit this, and she did so in silence. "I don't believe Mr. Townsend himself likes it," she said at last.
"Doesn't like meeting me?"
"Not in secret."
"It was not in secret; the place was full of people."
"But it was a secret place--away off in the Bowery."
Mrs. Penniman flinched a little. "Gentlemen enjoy such things," she remarked presently. "I know what gentlemen like."
"My father wouldn't like it, if he knew."
"Pray, do you propose to inform him?" Mrs. Penniman inquired.
"No, Aunt Lavinia. But please don't do it again."
"If I do it again, you will inform him: is that what you mean? I do not share your dread of my brother; I have always known how to defend my own position. But I shall certainly never again take any step on your behalf; you are much too thankless. I knew you were not a spontaneous nature, but I believed you were firm, and I told your father that he would find you so. I am disappointed--but your father will not be!" And with this, Mrs. Penniman offered her niece a brief good-night, and withdrew to her own apartment.
Catherine sat alone by the parlour fire--sat there for more than an hour, lost in her meditations. Her aunt seemed to her aggressive and foolish, and to see it so clearly--to judge Mrs. Penniman so positively--made her feel old and grave. She did not resent the imputation of weakness; it made no impression on her, for she had not the sense of weakness, and she was not hurt at not being appreciated. She had an immense respect for her father, and she felt that to displease him would be a misdemeanour analogous to an act of profanity in a great temple; but her purpose had slowly ripened, and she believed that her prayers had purified it of its violence. The evening advanced, and the lamp burned dim without her noticing it; her eyes were fixed upon her terrible plan. She knew her father was in his study--that he had been there all the evening; from time to time she expected to hear him move. She thought he would perhaps come, as he sometimes came, into the parlour. At last the clock struck eleven, and the house was wrapped in silence; the servants had gone to bed. Catherine got up and went slowly to the door of the library, where she waited a moment, motionless. Then she knocked, and then she waited again. Her father had answered her, but she had not the courage to turn the latch. What she had said to her aunt was true enough--she was afraid of him; and in saying that she had no sense of weakness she meant that she was not afraid of herself. She heard him move within, and he came and opened the door for her.
"What is the matter?" asked the Doctor. "You are standing there like a ghost."
She went into the room, but it was some time before she contrived to say what she had come to say. Her father, who was in his dressing- gown and slippers, had been busy at his writing-table, and after looking at her for some moments, and waiting for her to speak, he went and seated himself at his papers again. His back was turned to her--she began to hear the scratching of his pen. She remained near the door, with her heart thumping beneath her bodice; and she was very glad that his back was turned, for it seemed to her that she could more easily address herself to this portion of his person than to his face. At last she began, watching it while she spoke.
"You told me that if I should have anything more to say about Mr. Townsend you would be glad to listen to it."
"Exactly, my dear," said the Doctor, not turning round, but stopping his pen.
Catherine wished it would go on, but she herself continued. "I thought I would tell you that I have not seen him again, but that I should like to do so."
"To bid him good-bye?" asked the Doctor.
The girl hesitated a moment. "He is not going away."
The Doctor wheeled slowly round in his chair, with a smile that seemed to accuse her of an epigram; but extremes meet, and Catherine had not intended one. "It is not to bid him good-bye, then?" her father said.
"No, father, not that; at least, not for ever. I have not seen him again, but I should like to see him," Catherine repeated.
The Doctor slowly rubbed his under lip with the feather of his quill.
"Have you written to him?"
"Yes, four times."
"You have not dismissed him, then. Once would have done that."
"No," said Catherine; "I have asked him--asked him to wait."
Her father sat looking at her, and she was afraid he was going to break out into wrath; his eyes were so fine and cold.
"You are a dear, faithful child," he said at last. "Come here to your father." And he got up, holding out his hands toward her.
The words were a surprise, and they gave her an exquisite joy. She went to him, and he put his arm round her tenderly, soothingly; and then he kissed her. After this he said:
"Do you wish to make me very happy?"
"I should like to--but I am afraid I can't," Catherine answered.
"You can if you will. It all depends on your will."
"Is it to give him up?" said Catherine.
"Yes, it is to give him up."
And he held her still, with the same tenderness, looking into her face and resting his eyes on her averted eyes. There was a long silence; she wished he would release her.
"You are happier than I, father," she said, at last.
"I have no doubt you are unhappy just now. But it is better to be unhappy for three months and get over it, than for many years and never get over it."
"Yes, if that were so," said Catherine.
"It would be so; I am sure of that." She answered nothing, and he went on. "Have you no faith in my wisdom, in my tenderness, in my solicitude for your future?"
"Oh, father!" murmured the girl.
"Don't you suppose that I know something of men: their vices, their follies, their falsities?"
She detached herself, and turned upon him. "He is not vicious--he is not false!"
Her father kept looking at her with his sharp, pure eye. "You make nothing of my judgement, then?"
"I can't believe that!"
"I don't ask you to believe it, but to take it on trust."
Catherine was far from saying to herself that this was an ingenious sophism; but she met the appeal none the less squarely. "What has he done--what do you know?"
"He has never done anything--he is a selfish idler."
"Oh, father, don't abuse him!" she exclaimed pleadingly.
"I don't mean to abuse him; it would be a great mistake. You may do as you choose," he added, turning away.
"I may see him again?"
"Just as you choose."
"Will you forgive me?"
"By no means."
"It will only be for once."
"I don't know what you mean by once. You must either give him up or continue the acquaintance."
"I wish to explain--to tell him to wait."
"To wait for what?"
"Till you know him better--till you consent."
"Don't tell him any such nonsense as that. I know him well enough, and I shall never consent."
"But we can wait a long time," said poor Catherine, in a tone which was meant to express the humblest conciliation, but which had upon her father's nerves the effect of an iteration not characterised by tact.
The Doctor answered, however, quietly enough: "Of course you can wait till I die, if you like." Catherine gave a cry of natural horror.
"Your engagement will have one delightful effect upon you; it will make you extremely impatient for that event."
Catherine stood staring, and the Doctor enjoyed the point he had made. It came to Catherine with the force--or rather with the vague impressiveness--of a logical axiom which it was not in her province to controvert; and yet, though it was a scientific truth, she felt wholly unable to accept it.
"I would rather not marry, if that were true," she said.
"Give me a proof of it, then; for it is beyond a question that by engaging yourself to Morris Townsend you simply wait for my death."
She turned away, feeling sick and faint; and the Doctor went on. "And if you wait for it with impatience, judge, if you please, what HIS eagerness will be!"
Catherine turned it over--her father's words had such an authority for her that her very thoughts were capable of obeying him. There was a dreadful ugliness in it, which seemed to glare at her through the interposing medium of her own feebler reason. Suddenly, however, she had an inspiration--she almost knew it to be an inspiration.
"If I don't marry before your death, I will not after," she said.
To her father, it must be admitted, this seemed only another epigram; and as obstinacy, in unaccomplished minds, does not usually select such a mode of expression, he was the more surprised at this wanton play of a fixed idea.
"Do you mean that for an impertinence?" he inquired; an inquiry of which, as he made it, he quite perceived the grossness.
"An impertinence? Oh, father, what terrible things you say!"
"If you don't wait for my death, you might as well marry immediately; there is nothing else to wait for."
For some time Catherine made no answer; but finally she said:
"I think Morris--little by little--might persuade you."
"I shall never let him speak to me again. I dislike him too much."
Catherine gave a long, low sigh; she tried to stifle it, for she had made up her mind that it was wrong to make a parade of her trouble, and to endeavour to act upon her father by the meretricious aid of emotion. Indeed, she even thought it wrong--in the sense of being inconsiderate--to attempt to act upon his feelings at all; her part was to effect some gentle, gradual change in his intellectual perception of poor Morris's character. But the means of effecting such a change were at present shrouded in mystery, and she felt miserably helpless and hopeless. She had exhausted all arguments, all replies. Her father might have pitied her, and in fact he did so; but he was sure he was right.
"There is one thing you can tell Mr. Townsend when you see him again," he said: "that if you marry without my consent, I don't leave you a farthing of money. That will interest him more than anything else you can tell him."
"That would be very right," Catherine answered. "I ought not in that case to have a farthing of your money."
"My dear child," the Doctor observed, laughing, "your simplicity is touching. Make that remark, in that tone, and with that expression of countenance, to Mr. Townsend, and take a note of his answer. It won't be polite--it will, express irritation; and I shall be glad of that, as it will put me in the right; unless, indeed--which is perfectly possible--you should like him the better for being rude to you."
"He will never be rude to me," said Catherine gently.
"Tell him what I say, all the same."
She looked at her father, and her quiet eyes filled with tears.
"I think I will see him, then," she murmured, in her timid voice.
"Exactly as you choose!" And he went to the door and opened it for her to go out. The movement gave her a terrible sense of his turning her off.
"It will be only once, for the present," she added, lingering a moment.
"Exactly as you choose," he repeated, standing there with his hand on the door. "I have told you what I think. If you see him, you will be an ungrateful, cruel child; you will have given your old father the greatest pain of his life."
This was more than the poor girl could bear; her tears overflowed, and she moved towards her grimly consistent parent with a pitiful cry. Her hands were raised in supplication, but he sternly evaded this appeal. Instead of letting her sob out her misery on his shoulder, he simply took her by the arm and directed her course across the threshold, closing the door gently but firmly behind her. After he had done so, he remained listening. For a long time there was no sound; he knew that she was standing outside. He was sorry for her, as I have said; but he was so sure he was right. At last he heard her move away, and then her footstep creaked faintly upon the stairs.
The Doctor took several turns round his study, with his hands in his pockets, and a thin sparkle, possibly of irritation, but partly also of something like humour, in his eye. "By Jove," he said to himself, "I believe she will stick--I believe she will stick!" And this idea of Catherine "sticking" appeared to have a comical side, and to offer a prospect of entertainment. He determined, as he said to himself, to see it out.
It was for reasons connected with this determination that on the morrow he sought a few words of private conversation with Mrs. Penniman. He sent for her to the library, and he there informed her that he hoped very much that, as regarded this affair of Catherine's, she would mind her p's and q's.
"I don't know what you mean by such an expression," said his sister. "You speak as if I were learning the alphabet."
"The alphabet of common sense is something you will never learn," the Doctor permitted himself to respond.
"Have you called me here to insult me?" Mrs. Penniman inquired.
"Not at all. Simply to advise you. You have taken up young Townsend; that's your own affair. I have nothing to do with your sentiments, your fancies, your affections, your delusions; but what I request of you is that you will keep these things to yourself. I have explained my views to Catherine; she understands them perfectly, and anything that she does further in the way of encouraging Mr. Townsend's attentions will be in deliberate opposition to my wishes. Anything that you should do in the way of giving her aid and comfort will be--permit me the expression--distinctly treasonable. You know high treason is a capital offence; take care how you incur the penalty."
Mrs. Penniman threw back her head, with a certain expansion of the eye which she occasionally practised. "It seems to me that you talk like a great autocrat."
"I talk like my daughter's father."
"Not like your sister's brother!" cried Lavinia. "My dear Lavinia," said the Doctor, "I sometimes wonder whether I am your brother. We are so extremely different. In spite of differences, however, we can, at a pinch, understand each other; and that is the essential thing just now. Walk straight with regard to Mr. Townsend; that's all I ask. It is highly probable you have been corresponding with him for the last three weeks--perhaps even seeing him. I don't ask you--you needn't tell me." He had a moral conviction that she would contrive to tell a fib about the matter, which it would disgust him to listen to. "Whatever you have done, stop doing it. That's all I wish."
"Don't you wish also by chance to murder our child?" Mrs. Penniman inquired.
"On the contrary, I wish to make her live and be happy."
"You will kill her; she passed a dreadful night."
"She won't die of one dreadful night, nor of a dozen. Remember that I am a distinguished physician."
Mrs. Penniman hesitated a moment. Then she risked her retort. "Your being a distinguished physician has not prevented you from already losing TWO MEMBERS of your family!"
She had risked it, but her brother gave her such a terribly incisive look--a look so like a surgeon's lancet--that she was frightened at her courage. And he answered her in words that corresponded to the look: "It may not prevent me, either, from losing the society of still another."
Mrs. Penniman took herself off, with whatever air of depreciated merit was at her command, and repaired to Catherine's room, where the poor girl was closeted. She knew all about her dreadful night, for the two had met again, the evening before, after Catherine left her father. Mrs. Penniman was on the landing of the second floor when her niece came upstairs. It was not remarkable that a person of so much subtlety should have discovered that Catherine had been shut up with the Doctor. It was still less remarkable that she should have felt an extreme curiosity to learn the result of this interview, and that this sentiment, combined with her great amiability and generosity, should have prompted her to regret the sharp words lately exchanged between her niece and herself. As the unhappy girl came into sight, in the dusky corridor, she made a lively demonstration of sympathy. Catherine's bursting heart was equally oblivious. She only knew that her aunt was taking her into her arms. Mrs. Penniman drew her into Catherine's own room, and the two women sat there together, far into the small hours; the younger one with her head on the other's lap, sobbing and sobbing at first in a soundless, stifled manner, and then at last perfectly still. It gratified Mrs. Penniman to be able to feel conscientiously that this scene virtually removed the interdict which Catherine had placed upon her further communion with Morris Townsend. She was not gratified, however, when, in coming back to her niece's room before breakfast, she found that Catherine had risen and was preparing herself for this meal.
"You should not go to breakfast," she said; "you are not well enough, after your fearful night."
"Yes, I am very well, and I am only afraid of being late."
"I can't understand you!" Mrs. Penniman cried. "You should stay in bed for three days."
"Oh, I could never do that!" said Catherine, to whom this idea presented no attractions.
Mrs. Penniman was in despair, and she noted, with extreme annoyance, that the trace of the night's tears had completely vanished from Catherine's eyes. She had a most impracticable physique. "What effect do you expect to have upon your father," her aunt demanded, "if you come plumping down, without a vestige of any sort of feeling, as if nothing in the world had happened?"
"He would not like me to lie in bed," said Catherine simply.
"All the more reason for your doing it. How else do you expect to move him?"
Catherine thought a little. "I don't know how; but not in that way. I wish to be just as usual." And she finished dressing, and, according to her aunt's expression, went plumping down into the paternal presence. She was really too modest for consistent pathos.
And yet it was perfectly true that she had had a dreadful night. Even after Mrs. Penniman left her she had had no sleep. She lay staring at the uncomforting gloom, with her eyes and ears filled with the movement with which her father had turned her out of his room, and of the words in which he had told her that she was a heartless daughter. Her heart was breaking. She had heart enough for that. At moments it seemed to her that she believed him, and that to do what she was doing, a girl must indeed be bad. She WAS bad; but she couldn't help it. She would try to appear good, even if her heart were perverted; and from time to time she had a fancy that she might accomplish something by ingenious concessions to form, though she should persist in caring for Morris. Catherine's ingenuities were indefinite, and we are not called upon to expose their hollowness. The best of them perhaps showed itself in that freshness of aspect which was so discouraging to Mrs. Penniman, who was amazed at the absence of haggardness in a young woman who for a whole night had lain quivering beneath a father's curse. Poor Catherine was conscious of her freshness; it gave her a feeling about the future which rather added to the weight upon her mind. It seemed a proof that she was strong and solid and dense, and would live to a great age--longer than might be generally convenient; and this idea was depressing, for it appeared to saddle her with a pretension the more, just when the cultivation of any pretension was inconsistent with her doing right. She wrote that day to Morris Townsend, requesting him to come and see her on the morrow; using very few words, and explaining nothing. She would explain everything face to face.
On the morrow, in the afternoon, she heard his voice at the door, and his step in the hall. She received him in the big, bright front parlour, and she instructed the servant that if any one should call she was particularly engaged. She was not afraid of her father's coming in, for at that hour he was always driving about town. When Morris stood there before her, the first thing that she was conscious of was that he was even more beautiful to look at than fond recollection had painted him; the next was that he had pressed her in his arms. When she was free again it appeared to her that she had now indeed thrown herself into the gulf of defiance, and even, for an instant, that she had been married to him.
He told her that she had been very cruel, and had made him very unhappy; and Catherine felt acutely the difficulty of her destiny, which forced her to give pain in such opposite quarters. But she wished that, instead of reproaches, however tender, he would give her help; he was certainly wise enough, and clever enough, to invent some issue from their troubles. She expressed this belief, and Morris received the assurance as if he thought it natural; but he interrogated, at first--as was natural too--rather than committed himself to marking out a course.
"You should not have made me wait so long," he said. "I don't know how I have been living; every hour seemed like years. You should have decided sooner."
"Decided?" Catherine asked.
"Decided whether you would keep me or give me up."
"Oh, Morris," she cried, with a long tender murmur, "I never thought of giving you up!"
"What, then, were you waiting for?" The young man was ardently logical.
"I thought my father might--might--" and she hesitated.
"Might see how unhappy you were?"
"Oh no! But that he might look at it differently."
"And now you have sent for me to tell me that at last he does so. Is that it?"
This hypothetical optimism gave the poor girl a pang. "No, Morris," she said solemnly, "he looks at it still in the same way."
"Then why have you sent for me?"
"Because I wanted to see you!" cried Catherine piteously.
"That's an excellent reason, surely. But did you want to look at me only? Have you nothing to tell me?"
His beautiful persuasive eyes were fixed upon her face, and she wondered what answer would be noble enough to make to such a gaze as that. For a moment her own eyes took it in, and then--"I DID want to look at you!" she said gently. But after this speech, most inconsistently, she hid her face.
Morris watched her for a moment, attentively. "Will you marry me to- morrow?" he asked suddenly.
"Next week, then. Any time within a month."
"Isn't it better to wait?" said Catherine.
"To wait for what?"
She hardly knew for what; but this tremendous leap alarmed her. "Till we have thought about it a little more."
He shook his head, sadly and reproachfully. "I thought you had been thinking about it these three weeks. Do you want to turn it over in your mind for five years? You have given me more than time enough. My poor girl," he added in a moment, "you are not sincere!"
Catherine coloured from brow to chin, and her eyes filled with tears. "Oh, how can you say that?" she murmured.
"Why, you must take me or leave me," said Morris, very reasonably. "You can't please your father and me both; you must choose between us."
"I have chosen you!" she said passionately.
"Then marry me next week."
She stood gazing at him. "Isn't there any other way?"
"None that I know of for arriving at the same result. If there is, I should be happy to hear of it."
Catherine could think of nothing of the kind, and Morris's luminosity seemed almost pitiless. The only thing she could think of was that her father might, after all, come round, and she articulated, with an awkward sense of her helplessness in doing so, a wish that this miracle might happen.
"Do you think it is in the least degree likely?" Morris asked.
"It would be, if he could only know you!"
"He can know me if he will. What is to prevent it?"
"His ideas, his reasons," said Catherine. "They are so--so terribly strong." She trembled with the recollection of them yet.
"Strong?" cried Morris. "I would rather you should think them weak."
"Oh, nothing about my father is weak!" said the girl.
Morris turned away, walking to the window, where he stood looking out. "You are terribly afraid of him!" he remarked at last.
She felt no impulse to deny it, because she had no shame in it; for if it was no honour to herself, at least it was an honour to him. "I suppose I must be," she said simply.
"Then you don't love me--not as I love you. If you fear your father more than you love me, then your love is not what I hoped it was."
"Ah, my friend!" she said, going to him.
"Do _I_ fear anything?" he demanded, turning round on her. "For your sake what am I not ready to face?"
"You are noble--you are brave!" she answered, stopping short at a distance that was almost respectful.
"Small good it does me, if you are so timid."
"I don't think that I am--REALLY," said Catherine.
"I don't know what you mean by 'really.' It is really enough to make us miserable."
"I should be strong enough to wait--to wait a long time."
"And suppose after a long time your father should hate me worse than ever?"
"He wouldn't--he couldn't!"
"He would be touched by my fidelity? Is that what you mean? If he is so easily touched, then why should you be afraid of him?"
This was much to the point, and Catherine was struck by it. "I will try not to be," she said. And she stood there submissively, the image, in advance, of a dutiful and responsible wife. This image could not fail to recommend itself to Morris Townsend, and he continued to give proof of the high estimation in which he held her. It could only have been at the prompting of such a sentiment that he presently mentioned to her that the course recommended by Mrs. Penniman was an immediate union, regardless of consequences.
"Yes, Aunt Penniman would like that," Catherine said simply--and yet with a certain shrewdness. It must, however, have been in pure simplicity, and from motives quite untouched by sarcasm, that, a few moments after, she went on to say to Morris that her father had given her a message for him. It was quite on her conscience to deliver this message, and had the mission been ten times more painful she would have as scrupulously performed it. "He told me to tell you--to tell you very distinctly, and directly from himself, that if I marry without his consent, I shall not inherit a penny of his fortune. He made a great point of this. He seemed to think--he seemed to think-- "
Morris flushed, as any young man of spirit might have flushed at an imputation of baseness.
"What did he seem to think?"
"That it would make a difference."
"It WILL make a difference--in many things. We shall be by many thousands of dollars the poorer; and that is a great difference. But it will make none in my affection."
"We shall not want the money," said Catherine; "for you know I have a good deal myself."
"Yes, my dear girl, I know you have something. And he can't touch that!"
"He would never," said Catherine. "My mother left it to me."
Morris was silent a while. "He was very positive about this, was he?" he asked at last. "He thought such a message would annoy me terribly, and make me throw off the mask, eh?"
"I don't know what he thought," said Catherine wearily.
"Please tell him that I care for his message as much as for that!" And Morris snapped his fingers sonorously.
"I don't think I could tell him that."
"Do you know you sometimes disappoint me?" said Morris.
"I should think I might. I disappoint every one--father and Aunt Penniman."
"Well, it doesn't matter with me, because I am fonder of you than they are."
"Yes, Morris," said the girl, with her imagination--what there was of it--swimming in this happy truth, which seemed, after all, invidious to no one.
"Is it your belief that he will stick to it--stick to it for ever, to this idea of disinheriting you?--that your goodness and patience will never wear out his cruelty?"
"The trouble is that if I marry you, he will think I am not good. He will think that a proof."
"Ah, then, he will never forgive you!"
This idea, sharply expressed by Morris's handsome lips, renewed for a moment, to the poor girl's temporarily pacified conscience, all its dreadful vividness. "Oh, you must love me very much!" she cried.
"There is no doubt of that, my dear!" her lover rejoined. "You don't like that word 'disinherited,'" he added in a moment.
"It isn't the money; it is that he should--that he should feel so."
"I suppose it seems to you a kind of curse," said Morris. "It must be very dismal. But don't you think," he went on presently, "that if you were to try to be very clever, and to set rightly about it, you might in the end conjure it away? Don't you think," he continued further, in a tone of sympathetic speculation, "that a really clever woman, in your place, might bring him round at last? Don't you think?"
Here, suddenly, Morris was interrupted; these ingenious inquiries had not reached Catherine's ears. The terrible word "disinheritance," with all its impressive moral reprobation, was still ringing there; seemed indeed to gather force as it lingered. The mortal chill of her situation struck more deeply into her child-like heart, and she was overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness and danger. But her refuge was there, close to her, and she put out her hands to grasp it. "Ah, Morris," she said, with a shudder, "I will marry you as soon as you please." And she surrendered herself, leaning her head on his shoulder.
"My dear good girl!" he exclaimed, looking down at his prize. And then he looked up again, rather vaguely, with parted lips and lifted eyebrows.