Washington Square

       Henry James / Romance & Love
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Washington Square
Transcribed from the 1921 Macmillan and Co. edition by David Price, emailccx074@pglaf.org. Proofed by Dimitri Papadopoulos, Lynn A. Weinberg,Stuart Bennett and Mary Willard.

[Picture: Book cover]

WASHINGTON SQUARE

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BY HENRY JAMES

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MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED ST. MARTIN’S STREET, LONDON 1921

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COPYRIGHT

_First published in_ 1881

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I

DURING a portion of the first half of the present century, and moreparticularly during the latter part of it, there flourished and practisedin the city of New York a physician who enjoyed perhaps an exceptionalshare of the consideration which, in the United States, has always beenbestowed upon distinguished members of the medical profession. Thisprofession in America has constantly been held in honour, and moresuccessfully than elsewhere has put forward a claim to the epithet of“liberal.” In a country in which, to play a social part, you must eitherearn your income or make believe that you earn it, the healing art hasappeared in a high degree to combine two recognised sources of credit.It belongs to the realm of the practical, which in the United States is agreat recommendation and it is touched by the light of science—a meritappreciated in a community in which the love of knowledge has not alwaysbeen accompanied by leisure and opportunity. It was an element in Dr.Sloper’s reputation that his learning and his skill were very evenlybalanced; he was what you might call a scholarly doctor, and yet therewas nothing abstract in his remedies—he always ordered you to takesomething. Though he was felt to be extremely thorough, he was notuncomfortably theoretic, and if he sometimes explained matters rathermore minutely than might seem of use to the patient, he never went so far(like some practitioners one has heard of) as to trust to the explanationalone, but always left behind him an inscrutable prescription. Therewere some doctors that left the prescription without offering anyexplanation at all; and he did not belong to that class either, whichwas, after all, the most vulgar. It will be seen that I am describing aclever man; and this is really the reason why Dr. Sloper had become alocal celebrity. At the time at which we are chiefly concerned with him,he was some fifty years of age, and his popularity was at its height. Hewas very witty, and he passed in the best society of New York for a manof the world—which, indeed, he was, in a very sufficient degree. Ihasten to add, to anticipate possible misconception, that he was not theleast of a charlatan. He was a thoroughly honest man—honest in a degreeof which he had perhaps lacked the opportunity to give the completemeasure; and, putting aside the great good-nature of the circle in whichhe practised, which was rather fond of boasting that it possessed the“brightest” doctor in the country, he daily justified his claim to thetalents attributed to him by the popular voice. He was an observer, evena philosopher, and to be bright was so natural to him, and (as thepopular voice said) came so easily, that he never aimed at mere effect,and had none of the little tricks and pretensions of second-ratereputations. It must be confessed that fortune had favoured him, andthat he had found the path to prosperity very soft to his tread. He hadmarried at the age of twenty-seven, for love, a very charming girl, MissCatherine Harrington, of New York, who, in addition to her charms, hadbrought him a solid dowry. Mrs. Sloper was amiable, graceful,accomplished, elegant, and in 1820 she had been one of the pretty girlsof the small but promising capital which clustered about the Battery andoverlooked the Bay, and of which the uppermost boundary was indicated bythe grassy waysides of Canal Street. Even at the age of twenty-sevenAustin Sloper had made his mark sufficiently to mitigate the anomaly ofhis having been chosen among a dozen suitors by a young woman of highfashion, who had ten thousand dollars of income and the most charmingeyes in the island of Manhattan. These eyes, and some of theiraccompaniments, were for about five years a source of extremesatisfaction to the young physician, who was both a devoted and a veryhappy husband. The fact of his having married a rich woman made nodifference in the line he had traced for himself, and he cultivated hisprofession with as definite a purpose as if he still had no otherresources than his fraction of the modest patrimony which on his father’sdeath he had shared with his brothers and sisters. This purpose had notbeen preponderantly to make money—it had been rather to learn somethingand to do something. To learn something interesting, and to do somethinguseful—this was, roughly speaking, the programme he had sketched, and ofwhich the accident of his wife having an income appeared to him in nodegree to modify the validity. He was fond of his practice, and ofexercising a skill of which he was agreeably conscious, and it was sopatent a truth that if he were not a doctor there was nothing else hecould be, that a doctor he persisted in being, in the best possibleconditions. Of course his easy domestic situation saved him a good dealof drudgery, and his wife’s affiliation to the “best people” brought hima good many of those patients whose symptoms are, if not more interestingin themselves than those of the lower orders, at least more consistentlydisplayed. He desired experience, and in the course of twenty years hegot a great deal. It must be added that it came to him in some formswhich, whatever might have been their intrinsic value, made it thereverse of welcome. His first child, a little boy of extraordinarypromise, as the Doctor, who was not addicted to easy enthusiasms, firmlybelieved, died at three years of age, in spite of everything that themother’s tenderness and the father’s science could invent to save him.Two years later Mrs. Sloper gave birth to a second infant—an infant of asex which rendered the poor child, to the Doctor’s sense, an inadequatesubstitute for his lamented first-born, of whom he had promised himselfto make an admirable man. The little girl was a disappointment; but thiswas not the worst. A week after her birth the young mother, who, as thephrase is, had been doing well, suddenly betrayed alarming symptoms, andbefore another week had elapsed Austin Sloper was a widower.

For a man whose trade was to keep people alive, he had certainly donepoorly in his own family; and a bright doctor who within three yearsloses his wife and his little boy should perhaps be prepared to seeeither his skill or his affection impugned. Our friend, however, escapedcriticism: that is, he escaped all criticism but his own, which was muchthe most competent and most formidable. He walked under the weight ofthis very private censure for the rest of his days, and bore for ever thescars of a castigation to which the strongest hand he knew had treatedhim on the night that followed his wife’s death. The world, which, as Ihave said, appreciated him, pitied him too much to be ironical; hismisfortune made him more interesting, and even helped him to be thefashion. It was observed that even medical families cannot escape themore insidious forms of disease, and that, after all, Dr. Sloper had lostother patients beside the two I have mentioned; which constituted anhonourable precedent. His little girl remained to him, and though shewas not what he had desired, he proposed to himself to make the best ofher. He had on hand a stock of unexpended authority, by which the child,in its early years, profited largely. She had been named, as a matter ofcourse, after her poor mother, and even in her most diminutive babyhoodthe Doctor never called her anything but Catherine. She grew up a veryrobust and healthy child, and her father, as he looked at her, often saidto himself that, such as she was, he at least need have no fear of losingher. I say “such as she was,” because, to tell the truth—But this is atruth of which I will defer the telling.


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