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Washington Square

Washington Square

Henry James

Update: 2020-04-22

Chapter 1

  • During a portion of the first half of the present century, and mor_articularly during the latter part of it, there flourished and practised i_he city of New York a physician who enjoyed perhaps an exceptional share o_he consideration which, in the United States, has always been bestowed upo_istinguished members of the medical profession. This profession in Americ_as constantly been held in honour, and more successfully than elsewhere ha_ut forward a claim to the epithet of "liberal." In a country in which, t_lay a social part, you must either earn your income or make believe that yo_arn it, the healing art has appeared in a high degree to combine tw_ecognised sources of credit. It belongs to the realm of the practical, whic_n the United States is a great recommendation; and it is touched by the ligh_f science—a merit appreciated in a community in which the love of knowledg_as not always been accompanied by leisure and opportunity. It was an elemen_n Dr. Sloper's reputation that his learning and his skill were very evenl_alanced; he was what you might call a scholarly doctor, and yet there wa_othing abstract in his remedies—he always ordered you to take something.
  • Though he was felt to be extremely thorough, he was not uncomfortabl_heoretic, and if he sometimes explained matters rather more minutely tha_ight seem of use to the patient, he never went so far (like som_ractitioners one has heard of) as to trust to the explanation alone, bu_lways left behind him an inscrutable prescription. There were some doctor_hat left the prescription without offering any explanation at all; and he di_ot belong to that class either, which was, after all, the most vulgar. I_ill be seen that I am describing a clever man; and this is really the reaso_hy Dr. Sloper had become a local celebrity. At the time at which we ar_hiefly concerned with him, he was some fifty years of age, and his popularit_as at its height. He was very witty, and he passed in the best society of Ne_ork for a man of the world—which, indeed, he was, in a very sufficien_egree. I hasten to add, to anticipate possible misconception, that he was no_he least of a charlatan. He was a thoroughly honest man—honest in a degree o_hich he had perhaps lacked the opportunity to give the complete measure; and,
  • putting aside the great good-nature of the circle in which he practised, whic_as rather fond of boasting that it possessed the "brightest" doctor in th_ountry, he daily justified his claim to the talents attributed to him by th_opular voice. He was an observer, even a philosopher, and to be bright was s_atural to him, and (as the popular voice said) came so easily, that he neve_imed at mere effect, and had none of the little tricks and pretensions o_econd-rate reputations. It must be confessed that fortune had favoured him,
  • and that he had found the path to prosperity very soft to his tread. He ha_arried at the age of twenty-seven, for love, a very charming girl, Mis_atherine Harrington, of New York, who, in addition to her charms, had brough_im a solid dowry. Mrs. Sloper was amiable, graceful, accomplished, elegant,
  • and in 1820 she had been one of the pretty girls of the small but promisin_apital which clustered about the Battery and overlooked the Bay, and of whic_he uppermost boundary was indicated by the grassy waysides of Canal Street.
  • Even at the age of twenty- seven Austin Sloper had made his mark sufficientl_o mitigate the anomaly of his having been chosen among a dozen suitors by _oung woman of high fashion, who had ten thousand dollars of income and th_ost charming eyes in the island of Manhattan. These eyes, and some of thei_ccompaniments, were for about five years a source of extreme satisfaction t_he young physician, who was both a devoted and a very happy husband. The fac_f his having married a rich woman made no difference in the line he ha_raced for himself, and he cultivated his profession with as definite _urpose as if he still had no other resources than his fraction of the modes_atrimony which on his father's death he had shared with his brothers an_isters. This purpose had not been preponderantly to make money- -it had bee_ather to learn something and to do something. To learn something interesting,
  • and to do something useful—this was, roughly speaking, the programme he ha_ketched, and of which the accident of his wife having an income appeared t_im in no degree to modify the validity. He was fond of his practice, and o_xercising a skill of which he was agreeably conscious, and it was so patent _ruth that if he were not a doctor there was nothing else he could be, that _octor he persisted in being, in the best possible conditions. Of course hi_asy domestic situation saved him a good deal of drudgery, and his wife'_ffiliation to the "best people" brought him a good many of those patient_hose symptoms are, if not more interesting in themselves than those of th_ower orders, at least more consistently displayed. He desired experience, an_n the course of twenty years he got a great deal. It must be added that i_ame to him in some forms which, whatever might have been their intrinsi_alue, made it the reverse of welcome. His first child, a little boy o_xtraordinary promise, as the Doctor, who was not addicted to eas_nthusiasms, firmly believed, died at three years of age, in spite o_verything that the mother's tenderness and the father's science could inven_o save him. Two years later Mrs. Sloper gave birth to a second infant—a_nfant of a sex which rendered the poor child, to the Doctor's sense, a_nadequate substitute for his lamented first- born, of whom he had promise_imself to make an admirable man. The little girl was a disappointment; bu_his was not the worst. A week after her birth the young mother, who, as th_hrase is, had been doing well, suddenly betrayed alarming symptoms, an_efore another week had elapsed Austin Sloper was a widower.
  • For a man whose trade was to keep people alive, he had certainly done poorl_n his own family; and a bright doctor who within three years loses his wif_nd his little boy should perhaps be prepared to see either his skill or hi_ffection impugned. Our friend, however, escaped criticism: that is, h_scaped all criticism but his own, which was much the most competent and mos_ormidable. He walked under the weight of this very private censure for th_est of his days, and bore for ever the scars of a castigation to which th_trongest hand he knew had treated him on the night that followed his wife'_eath. The world, which, as I have said, appreciated him, pitied him too muc_o be ironical; his misfortune made him more interesting, and even helped hi_o be the fashion. It was observed that even medical families cannot escap_he more insidious forms of disease, and that, after all, Dr. Sloper had los_ther patients beside the two I have mentioned; which constituted a_onourable precedent. His little girl remained to him, and though she was no_hat he had desired, he proposed to himself to make the best of her. He had o_and a stock of unexpended authority, by which the child, in its early years,
  • profited largely. She had been named, as a matter of course, after her poo_other, and even in her most diminutive babyhood the Doctor never called he_nything but Catherine. She grew up a very robust and healthy child, and he_ather, as he looked at her, often said to himself that, such as she was, h_t least need have no fear of losing her. I say "such as she was," because, t_ell the truth—But this is a truth of which I will defer the telling.