Washington square, p.3
AS a child she had promised to be tall, but when she was sixteen sheceased to grow, and her stature, like most other points in hercomposition, was not unusual. She was strong, however, and properlymade, and, fortunately, her health was excellent. It has been noted thatthe Doctor was a philosopher, but I would not have answered for hisphilosophy if the poor girl had proved a sickly and suffering person.Her appearance of health constituted her principal claim to beauty, andher clear, fresh complexion, in which white and red were very equallydistributed, was, indeed, an excellent thing to see. Her eye was smalland quiet, her features were rather thick, her tresses brown and smooth.A dull, plain girl she was called by rigorous critics—a quiet, ladylikegirl by those of the more imaginative sort; but by neither class was shevery elaborately discussed. When it had been duly impressed upon herthat she was a young lady—it was a good while before she could believeit—she suddenly developed a lively taste for dress: a lively taste isquite the expression to use. I feel as if I ought to write it verysmall, her judgement in this matter was by no means infallible; it wasliable to confusions and embarrassments. Her great indulgence of it wasreally the desire of a rather inarticulate nature to manifest itself; shesought to be eloquent in her garments, and to make up for her diffidenceof speech by a fine frankness of costume. But if she expressed herselfin her clothes it is certain that people were not to blame for notthinking her a witty person. It must be added that though she had theexpectation of a fortune—Dr. Sloper for a long time had been makingtwenty thousand dollars a year by his profession, and laying aside thehalf of it—the amount of money at her disposal was not greater than theallowance made to many poorer girls. In those days in New York therewere still a few altar-fires flickering in the temple of Republicansimplicity, and Dr. Sloper would have been glad to see his daughterpresent herself, with a classic grace, as a priestess of this mild faith.It made him fairly grimace, in private, to think that a child of hisshould be both ugly and overdressed. For himself, he was fond of thegood things of life, and he made a considerable use of them; but he had adread of vulgarity, and even a theory that it was increasing in thesociety that surrounded him. Moreover, the standard of luxury in theUnited States thirty years ago was carried by no means so high as atpresent, and Catherine’s clever father took the old-fashioned view of theeducation of young persons. He had no particular theory on the subject;it had scarcely as yet become a necessity of self-defence to have acollection of theories. It simply appeared to him proper and reasonablethat a well-bred young woman should not carry half her fortune on herback. Catherine’s back was a broad one, and would have carried a gooddeal; but to the weight of the paternal displeasure she never ventured toexpose it, and our heroine was twenty years old before she treatedherself, for evening wear, to a red satin gown trimmed with gold fringe;though this was an article which, for many years, she had coveted insecret. It made her look, when she sported it, like a woman of thirty;but oddly enough, in spite of her taste for fine clothes, she had not agrain of coquetry, and her anxiety when she put them on was as to whetherthey, and not she, would look well. It is a point on which history hasnot been explicit, but the assumption is warrantable; it was in the royalraiment just mentioned that she presented herself at a littleentertainment given by her aunt, Mrs. Almond. The girl was at this timein her twenty-first year, and Mrs. Almond’s party was the beginning ofsomething very important.
Some three or four years before this Dr. Sloper had moved his householdgods up town, as they say in New York. He had been living ever since hismarriage in an edifice of red brick, with granite copings and an enormousfanlight over the door, standing in a street within five minutes’ walk ofthe City Hall, which saw its best days (from the social point of view)about 1820. After this, the tide of fashion began to set steadilynorthward, as, indeed, in New York, thanks to the narrow channel in whichit flows, it is obliged to do, and the great hum of traffic rolledfarther to the right and left of Broadway. By the time the Doctorchanged his residence the murmur of trade had become a mighty uproar,which was music in the ears of all good citizens interested in thecommercial development, as they delighted to call it, of their fortunateisle. Dr. Sloper’s interest in this phenomenon was only indirect—though,seeing that, as the years went on, half his patients came to beoverworked men of business, it might have been more immediate—and whenmost of his neighbours’ dwellings (also ornamented with granite copingsand large fanlights) had been converted into offices, warehouses, andshipping agencies, and otherwise applied to the base uses of commerce, hedetermined to look out for a quieter home. The ideal of quiet and ofgenteel retirement, in 1835, was found in Washington Square, where theDoctor built himself a handsome, modern, wide-fronted house, with a bigbalcony before the drawing-room windows, and a flight of marble stepsascending to a portal which was also faced with white marble. Thisstructure, and many of its neighbours, which it exactly resembled, weresupposed, forty years ago, to embody the last results of architecturalscience, and they remain to this day very solid and honourable dwellings.In front of them was the Square, containing a considerable quantity ofinexpensive vegetation, enclosed by a wooden paling, which increased itsrural and accessible appearance; and round the corner was the more augustprecinct of the Fifth Avenue, taking its origin at this point with aspacious and confident air which already marked it for high destinies. Iknow not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early associations, butthis portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable. Ithas a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence inother quarters of the long, shrill city; it has a riper, richer, morehonourable look than any of the upper ramifications of the greatlongitudinal thoroughfare—the look of having had something of a socialhistory. It was here, as you might have been informed on good authority,that you had come into a world which appeared to offer a variety ofsources of interest; it was here that your grandmother lived, invenerable solitude, and dispensed a hospitality which commended itselfalike to the infant imagination and the infant palate; it was here thatyou took your first walks abroad, following the nursery-maid with unequalstep and sniffing up the strange odour of the ailantus-trees which atthat time formed the principal umbrage of the Square, and diffused anaroma that you were not yet critical enough to dislike as it deserved; itwas here, finally, that your first school, kept by a broad-bosomed,broad-based old lady with a ferule, who was always having tea in a bluecup, with a saucer that didn’t match, enlarged the circle both of yourobservations and your sensations. It was here, at any rate, that myheroine spent many years of her life; which is my excuse for thistopographical parenthesis.
Mrs. Almond lived much farther up town, in an embryonic street with ahigh number—a region where the extension of the city began to assume atheoretic air, where poplars grew beside the pavement (when there wasone), and mingled their shade with the steep roofs of desultory Dutchhouses, and where pigs and chickens disported themselves in the gutter.These elements of rural picturesqueness have now wholly departed from NewYork street scenery; but they were to be found within the memory ofmiddle-aged persons, in quarters which now would blush to be reminded ofthem. Catherine had a great many cousins, and with her Aunt Almond’schildren, who ended by being nine in number, she lived on terms ofconsiderable intimacy. When she was younger they had been rather afraidof her; she was believed, as the phrase is, to be highly educated, and aperson who lived in the intimacy of their Aunt Penniman had something ofreflected grandeur. Mrs. Penniman, among the little Almonds, was anobject of more admiration than sympathy. Her manners were strange andformidable, and her mourning robes—she dressed in black for twenty yearsafter her husband’s death, and then suddenly appeared one morning withpink roses in her cap—were complicated in odd, unexpected places withbuckles, bugles, and pins, which discouraged familiarity. She tookchildren too hard, both for good and for evil, and had an oppressive airof expecting subtle things of them, so that going to see her was a gooddeal like being taken to chur
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