Mrs. Penniman even took for granted at times that other people had as much imagination as herself; so that when, half an hour later, her brother came in, she addressed him quite on this principle.
"He has just been here, Austin; it's such a pity you missed him."
"Whom in the world have I missed?" asked the Doctor.
"Mr. Morris Townsend; he has made us such a delightful visit."
"And who in the world is Mr. Morris Townsend?"
"Aunt Penniman means the gentleman--the gentleman whose name I couldn't remember," said Catherine.
"The gentleman at Elizabeth's party who was so struck with Catherine," Mrs. Penniman added.
"Oh, his name is Morris Townsend, is it? And did he come here to propose to you?"
"Oh, father," murmured the girl for all answer, turning away to the window, where the dusk had deepened to darkness.
"I hope he won't do that without your permission," said Mrs. Penniman, very graciously.
"After all, my dear, he seems to have yours," her brother answered.
Lavinia simpered, as if this might not be quite enough, and Catherine, with her forehead touching the window-panes, listened to this exchange of epigrams as reservedly as if they had not each been a pin-prick in her own destiny.
"The next time he comes," the Doctor added, "you had better call me. He might like to see me."
Morris Townsend came again, some five days afterwards; but Dr. Sloper was not called, as he was absent from home at the time. Catherine was with her aunt when the young man's name was brought in, and Mrs. Penniman, effacing herself and protesting, made a great point of her niece's going into the drawing-room alone.
"This time it's for you--for you only," she said. "Before, when he talked to me, it was only preliminary--it was to gain my confidence. Literally, my dear, I should not have the COURAGE to show myself to- day."
And this was perfectly true. Mrs. Penniman was not a brave woman, and Morris Townsend had struck her as a young man of great force of character, and of remarkable powers of satire; a keen, resolute, brilliant nature, with which one must exercise a great deal of tact. She said to herself that he was "imperious," and she liked the word and the idea. She was not the least jealous of her niece, and she had been perfectly happy with Mr. Penniman, but in the bottom of her heart she permitted herself the observation: "That's the sort of husband I should have had!" He was certainly much more imperious-- she ended by calling it imperial--than Mr. Penniman.
So Catherine saw Mr. Townsend alone, and her aunt did not come in even at the end of the visit. The visit was a long one; he sat there--in the front parlour, in the biggest armchair--for more than an hour. He seemed more at home this time--more familiar; lounging a little in the chair, slapping a cushion that was near him with his stick, and looking round the room a good deal, and at the objects it contained, as well as at Catherine; whom, however, he also contemplated freely. There was a smile of respectful devotion in his handsome eyes which seemed to Catherine almost solemnly beautiful; it made her think of a young knight in a poem. His talk, however, was not particularly knightly; it was light and easy and friendly; it took a practical turn, and he asked a number of questions about herself--what were her tastes--if she liked this and that--what were her habits. He said to her, with his charming smile, "Tell me about yourself; give me a little sketch." Catherine had very little to tell, and she had no talent for sketching; but before he went she had confided to him that she had a secret passion for the theatre, which had been but scantily gratified, and a taste for operatic music--that of Bellini and Donizetti, in especial (it must be remembered in extenuation of this primitive young woman that she held these opinions in an age of general darkness)--which she rarely had an occasion to hear, except on the hand-organ. She confessed that she was not particularly fond of literature. Morris Townsend agreed with her that books were tiresome things; only, as he said, you had to
read a good many before you found it out. He had been to places that people had written books about, and they were not a bit like the descriptions. To see for yourself--that was the great thing; he always tried to see for himself. He had seen all the principal actors--he had been to all the best theatres in London and Paris. But the actors were always like the authors--they always exaggerated. He liked everything to be natural. Suddenly he stopped, looking at Catherine with his smile.
"That's what I like you for; you are so natural! Excuse me," he added; "you see I am natural myself!"
And before she had time to think whether she excused him or not-- which afterwards, at leisure, she became conscious that she did--he began to talk about music, and to say that it was his greatest pleasure in life. He had heard all the great singers in Paris and London--Pasta and Rubini and Lablache--and when you had done that, you could say that you knew what singing was.
"I sing a little myself," he said; "some day I will show you. Not to-day, but some other time."
And then he got up to go; he had omitted, by accident, to say that he would sing to her if she would play to him. He thought of this after he got into the street; but he might have spared his compunction, for Catherine had not noticed the lapse. She was thinking only that "some other time" had a delightful sound; it seemed to spread itself over the future.
This was all the more reason, however, though she was ashamed and uncomfortable, why she should tell her father that Mr. Morris Townsend had called again. She announced the fact abruptly, almost violently, as soon as the Doctor came into the house; and having done so--it was her duty--she took measures to leave the room. But she could not leave it fast enough; her father stopped her just as she reached the door.
"Well, my dear, did he propose to you to-day?" the Doctor asked.
This was just what she had been afraid he would say; and yet she had no answer ready. Of course she would have liked to take it as a joke--as her father must have meant it; and yet she would have liked, also, in denying it, to be a little positive, a little sharp; so that he would perhaps not ask the question again. She didn't like it--it made her unhappy. But Catherine could never be sharp; and for a moment she only stood, with her hand on the door-knob, looking at her satiric parent, and giving a little laugh.
"Decidedly," said the Doctor to himself, "my daughter is not brilliant."
But he had no sooner made this reflexion than Catherine found something; she had decided, on the whole, to take the thing as a joke.
"Perhaps he will do it the next time!" she exclaimed, with a repetition of her laugh. And she quickly got out of the room.
The Doctor stood staring; he wondered whether his daughter were serious. Catherine went straight to her own room, and by the time she reached it she bethought herself that there was something else-- something better--she might have said. She almost wished, now, that her father would ask his question again, so that she might reply: "Oh yes, Mr. Morris Townsend proposed to me, and I refused him!"
The Doctor, however, began to put his questions elsewhere; it naturally having occurred to him that he ought to inform himself properly about this handsome young man who had formed the habit of running in and out of his house. He addressed himself to the younger of his sisters, Mrs. Almond--not going to her for the purpose; there was no such hurry as that--but having made a note of the matter for the first opportunity. The Doctor was never eager, never impatient nor nervous; but he made notes of everything, and he regularly consulted his notes. Among them the information he obtained from Mrs. Almond about Morris Townsend took its place.
"Lavinia has already been to ask me," she said. "Lavinia is most excited; I don't understand it. It's not, after all, Lavinia that the young man is supposed to have designs upon. She is very peculiar."
"Ah, my dear," the Doctor replied, "she has not lived with me these twelve years without my finding it out!"
"She has got such an artificial mind," said Mrs. Almond, who always enjoyed an opportunity to discuss Lavinia's peculiarities with her brother. "She didn't want me to tell you that she had asked me about Mr. Townsend; but I told her I would. She always wants to conceal everything."
"And yet at moments no one blurts things out with such crudity. She is like a revolving lighthouse; pitch darkness alternating with a dazzling brilliancy! But what did you tell her?" the Doctor asked.
"What I tell you; that I know very little of him."
"Lavinia must have been disappointed at that," said the Doctor; "she would prefer him to have been guilty of some romantic crime. However, we must make the best of people. They tell me our gentleman is the cousin of the little boy to whom you are about to entrust the future of your little girl."
"Arthur is not a little boy; he is a very old man; you and I will never be so old. He is a distant relation of Lavinia's protege. The name is the same, but I am given to understand that there are Townsends and Townsends. So Arthur's mother tells me; she talked about 'branches'--younger branches, elder branches, inferior branches--as if it were a royal house. Arthur, it appears, is of the reigning line, but poor Lavinia's young man is not. Beyond this, Arthur's mother knows very little about him; she has only a vague story that he has been 'wild.' But I know his sister a little, and she is a very nice woman. Her name is Mrs. Montgomery; she is a widow, with a little property and five children. She lives in the Second Avenue."
"What does Mrs. Montgomery say about him?"
"That he has talents by which he might distinguish himself."
"Only he is lazy, eh?"
"She doesn't say so."
"That's family pride," said the Doctor. "What is his profession?"
"He hasn't got any; he is looking for something. I believe he was once in the Navy."
"Once? What is his age?"
"I suppose he is upwards of thirty. He must have gone into the Navy very young. I think Arthur told me that he inherited a small property--which was perhaps the cause of his leaving the Navy--and that he spent it all in a few years. He travelled all over the world, lived abroad, amused himself. I believe it was a kind of system, a theory he had. He has lately come back to America, with the intention, as he tells Arthur, of beginning life in earnest."
"Is he in earnest about Catherine, then?"
"I don't see why you should be incredulous," said Mrs. Almond. "It seems to me that you have never done Catherine justice. You must remember that she has the prospect of thirty thousand a year."
The Doctor looked at his sister a moment, and then, with the slightest touch of bitterness: "You at least appreciate her," he said.
Mrs. Almond blushed.
"I don't mean that is her only merit; I simply mean that it is a great one. A great many young men think so; and you appear to me never to have been properly aware of that. You have always had a little way of alluding to her as an unmarriageable girl."
"My allusions are as kind as yours, Elizabeth," said the Doctor frankly. "How many suitors has Catherine had, with all her expectations--how much attention has she ever received? Catherine is not unmarriageable, but she is absolutely unattractive. What other reason is there for Lavinia being so charmed with the idea that there is a lover in the house? There has never been one before, and Lavinia, with her sensitive, sympathetic nature, is not used to the idea. It affects her imagination. I must do the young men of New York the justice to say that they strike me as very disinterested. They prefer pretty girls--lively girls--girls like your own. Catherine is neither pretty nor lively."
"Catherine does very well; she has a style of her own--which is more than my poor Marian has, who has no style at all," said Mrs. Almond. "The reason Catherine has received so little attention is that she seems to all the young men to be older than themselves. She is so large, and she dresses--so richly. They are rather afraid of her, I think; she looks as if she had been married already, and you know they don't like married women. And if our young men appear disinterested," the Doctor's wiser sister went on, "it is because they marry, as a general thing, so young; before twenty-five, at the age of innocence and sincerity, before the age of calculation. If they only waited a little, Catherine would fare better."
"As a calculation? Thank you very much," said the Doctor.
"Wait till some intelligent man of forty comes along, and he will be delighted with Catherine," Mrs. Almond continued.
"Mr. Townsend is not old enough, then; his motives may be pure."
"It is very possible that his motives are pure; I should be very sorry to take the contrary for granted. Lavinia is sure of it, and, as he is a very prepossessing youth, you might give him the benefit of the doubt."
Dr. Sloper reflected a moment.
"What are his present means of subsistence?"
"I have no idea. He lives, as I say, with his sister."
"A widow, with five children? Do you mean he lives UPON her?"
Mrs. Almond got up, and with a certain impatience: "Had you not better ask Mrs. Montgomery herself?" she inquired.
"Perhaps I may come to that," said the Doctor. "Did you say the Second Avenue?" He made a note of the Second Avenue.
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.
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.
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."
"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.
Catherine received the young man the next day on the ground she had chosen--amid the chaste upholstery of a New York drawing-room furnished in the fashion of fifty years ago. Morris had swallowed his pride and made the effort necessary to cross the threshold of her too derisive parent--an act of magnanimity which could not fail to render him doubly interesting.
"We must settle something--we must take a line," he declared, passing his hand through his hair and giving a glance at the long narrow mirror which adorned the space between the two windows, and which had at its base a little gilded bracket covered by a thin slab of white marble, supporting in its turn a backgammon board folded together in the shape of two volumes, two shining folios inscribed in letters of greenish gilt, History of England. If Morris had been pleased to describe the master of the house as a heartless scoffer, it is because he thought him too much on his guard, and this was the easiest way to express his own dissatisfaction--a dissatisfaction which he had made a point of concealing from the Doctor. It will probably seem to the reader, however, that the Doctor's vigilance was by no means excessive, and that these two young people had an open field. Their intimacy was now considerable, and it may appear that for a shrinking and retiring person our heroine had been liberal of her favours. The young man, within a few days, had made her listen to things for which she had not supposed that she was prepared; having a lively foreboding of difficulties, he proceeded to gain as much ground as possible in the present. He remembered that fortune favours the brave, and even if he had forgotten it, Mrs. Penniman would have remembered it for him. Mrs. Penniman delighted of all things in a drama, and she flattered herself that a drama would now be enacted. Combining as she did the zeal of the prompter with the impatience of the spectator, she had long since done her utmost to pull up the curtain. She too expected to figure in the performance-- to be the confidante, the Chorus, to speak the epilogue. It may even be said that there were times when she lost sight altogether of the modest heroine of the play, in the contemplation of certain great passages which would naturally occur between the hero and herself.
What Morris had told Catherine at last was simply that he loved her, or rather adored her. Virtually, he had made known as much already-- his visits had been a series of eloquent intimations of it. But now he had affirmed it in lover's vows, and, as a memorable sign of it, he had passed his arm round the girl's waist and taken a kiss. This happy certitude had come sooner than Catherine expected, and she had regarded it, very naturally, as a priceless treasure. It may even be doubted whether she had ever definitely expected to possess it; she had not been waiting for it, and she had never said to herself that at a given moment it must come. As I have tried to explain, she was not eager and exacting; she took what was given her from day to day; and if the delightful custom of her lover's visits, which yielded her a happiness in which confidence and timidity were strangely blended, had suddenly come to an end, she would not only not have spoken of herself as one of the forsaken, but she would not have thought of herself as one of the disappointed. After Morris had kissed her, the last time he was with her, as a ripe assurance of his devotion, she begged him to go away, to leave her alone, to let her think. Morris went away, taking another kiss first. But Catherine's meditations had lacked a certain coherence. She felt his kisses on her lips and on her cheeks for a long time afterwards; the sensation was rather an obstacle than an aid to reflexion. She would have liked to see her situation all clearly before her, to make up her mind what she should do if, as she feared, her father should tell her that he disapproved of Morris Townsend. But all that she could see with any vividness was that it was terribly strange that anyone should disapprove of him; that there must in that case be some mistake, some mystery, which in a little while would be set at rest. She put off deciding and choosing; before the vision of a conflict with her father she dropped her eyes and sat motionless, holding her breath and waiting. It made her heart beat, it was intensely painful. When Morris kissed her and said these things--that also made her heart beat; but this was worse, and it frightened her. Nevertheless, to-day, when the young man spoke of settling something, taking a line, she felt that it was the truth, and she answered very simply and without hesitating.
"We must do our duty," she said; "we must speak to my father. I will do it to-night; you must do it to-morrow"
"It is very good of you to do it first," Morris answered. "The young man--the happy lover--generally does that. But just as you please!"
It pleased Catherine to think that she should be brave for his sake, and in her satisfaction she even gave a little smile. "Women have more tact," she said "they ought to do it first. They are more conciliating; they can persuade better."
"You will need all your powers of persuasion. But, after all," Morris added, "you are irresistible."
"Please don't speak that way--and promise me this. To-morrow, when you talk with father, you will be very gentle and respectful."
"As much so as possible," Morris promised. "It won't be much use, but I shall try. I certainly would rather have you easily than have to fight for you."
"Don't talk about fighting; we shall not fight."
"Ah, we must be prepared," Morris rejoined; "you especially, because for you it must come hardest. Do you know the first thing your father will say to you?"
"No, Morris; please tell me."
"He will tell you I am mercenary."
"It's a big word; but it means a low thing. It means that I am after your money."
"Oh!" murmured Catherine softly.
The exclamation was so deprecating and touching that Morris indulged in another little demonstration of affection. "But he will be sure to say it," he added.
"It will be easy to be prepared for that," Catherine said. "I shall simply say that he is mistaken--that other men may be that way, but that you are not."
"You must make a great point of that, for it will be his own great point."
Catherine looked at her lover a minute, and then she said, "I shall persuade him. But I am glad we shall be rich," she added.
Morris turned away, looking into the crown of his hat. "No, it's a misfortune," he said at last. "It is from that our difficulty will come."
"Well, if it is the worst misfortune, we are not so unhappy. Many people would not think it so bad. I will persuade him, and after that we shall be very glad we have money."
Morris Townsend listened to this robust logic in silence. "I will leave my defence to you; it's a charge that a man has to stoop to defend himself from."
Catherine on her side was silent for a while; she was looking at him while he looked, with a good deal of fixedness, out of the window. "Morris," she said abruptly, "are you very sure you love me?"
He turned round, and in a moment he was bending over her. "My own dearest, can you doubt it?"
"I have only known it five days," she said; "but now it seems to me as if I could never do without it."
"You will never be called upon to try!" And he gave a little tender, reassuring laugh. Then, in a moment, he added, "There is something you must tell me, too." She had closed her eyes after the last word she uttered, and kept them closed; and at this she nodded her head, without opening them. "You must tell me," he went on, "that if your father is dead against me, if he absolutely forbids our marriage, you will still be faithful."
Catherine opened her eyes, gazing at him, and she could give no better promise than what he read there.
"You will cleave to me?" said Morris. "You know you are your own mistress--you are of age."
"Ah, Morris!" she murmured, for all answer. Or rather not for all; for she put her hand into his own. He kept it a while, and presently he kissed her again. This is all that need be recorded of their conversation; but Mrs. Penniman, if she had been present, would probably have admitted that it was as well it had not taken place beside the fountain in Washington Square.