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
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."