Washington Square, by Henry James

Chapter 33

Little by little Dr. Sloper had retired from his profession; he visited only those patients in whose symptoms he recognised a certain originality. He went again to Europe, and remained two years; Catherine went with him, and on this occasion Mrs. Penniman was of the party. Europe apparently had few surprises for Mrs. Penniman, who frequently remarked, in the most romantic sites —“You know I am very familiar with all this.” It should be added that such remarks were usually not addressed to her brother, or yet to her niece, but to fellow-tourists who happened to be at hand, or even to the cicerone or the goat-herd in the foreground.

One day, after his return from Europe, the Doctor said something to his daughter that made her start — it seemed to come from so far out of the past.

“I should like you to promise me something before I die.”

“Why do you talk about your dying?” she asked.

“Because I am sixty-eight years old.”

“I hope you will live a long time,” said Catherine.

“I hope I shall! But some day I shall take a bad cold, and then it will not matter much what any one hopes. That will be the manner of my exit, and when it takes place, remember I told you so. Promise me not to marry Morris Townsend after I am gone.”

This was what made Catherine start, as I have said; but her start was a silent one, and for some moments she said nothing. “Why do you speak of him?” she asked at last.

“You challenge everything I say. I speak of him because he’s a topic, like any other. He’s to be seen, like any one else, and he is still looking for a wife — having had one and got rid of her, I don’t know by what means. He has lately been in New York, and at your cousin Marian’s house; your Aunt Elizabeth saw him there.”

“They neither of them told me,” said Catherine.

“That’s their merit; it’s not yours. He has grown fat and bald, and he has not made his fortune. But I can’t trust those facts alone to steel your heart against him, and that’s why I ask you to promise.”

“Fat and bald”: these words presented a strange image to Catherine’s mind, out of which the memory of the most beautiful young man in the world had never faded. “I don’t think you understand,” she said. “I very seldom think of Mr. Townsend.”

“It will be very easy for you to go on, then. Promise me, after my death, to do the same.”

Again, for some moments, Catherine was silent; her father’s request deeply amazed her; it opened an old wound and made it ache afresh. “I don’t think I can promise that,” she answered.

“It would be a great satisfaction,” said her father.

“You don’t understand. I can’t promise that.”

The Doctor was silent a minute. “I ask you for a particular reason. I am altering my will.”

This reason failed to strike Catherine; and indeed she scarcely understood it. All her feelings were merged in the sense that he was trying to treat her as he had treated her years before. She had suffered from it then; and now all her experience, all her acquired tranquillity and rigidity, protested. She had been so humble in her youth that she could now afford to have a little pride, and there was something in this request, and in her father’s thinking himself so free to make it, that seemed an injury to her dignity. Poor Catherine’s dignity was not aggressive; it never sat in state; but if you pushed far enough you could find it. Her father had pushed very far.

“I can’t promise,” she simply repeated.

“You are very obstinate,” said the Doctor.

“I don’t think you understand.”

“Please explain, then.”

“I can’t explain,” said Catherine. “And I can’t promise.”

“Upon my word,” her father explained, “I had no idea how obstinate you are!”

She knew herself that she was obstinate, and it gave her a certain joy. She was now a middle-aged woman.

About a year after this, the accident that the Doctor had spoken of occurred; he took a violent cold. Driving out to Bloomingdale one April day to see a patient of unsound mind, who was confined in a private asylum for the insane, and whose family greatly desired a medical opinion from an eminent source, he was caught in a spring shower, and being in a buggy, without a hood, he found himself soaked to the skin. He came home with an ominous chill, and on the morrow he was seriously ill. “It is congestion of the lungs,” he said to Catherine; “I shall need very good nursing. It will make no difference, for I shall not recover; but I wish everything to be done, to the smallest detail, as if I should. I hate an ill-conducted sick-room; and you will be so good as to nurse me on the hypothesis that I shall get well.” He told her which of his fellow-physicians to send for, and gave her a multitude of minute directions; it was quite on the optimistic hypothesis that she nursed him. But he had never been wrong in his life, and he was not wrong now. He was touching his seventieth year, and though he had a very well-tempered constitution, his hold upon life had lost its firmness. He died after three weeks’ illness, during which Mrs. Penniman, as well as his daughter, had been assiduous at his bedside.

On his will being opened after a decent interval, it was found to consist of two portions. The first of these dated from ten years back, and consisted of a series of dispositions by which he left the great mass of property to his daughter, with becoming legacies to his two sisters. The second was a codicil, of recent origin, maintaining the annuities to Mrs. Penniman and Mrs. Almond, but reducing Catherine’s share to a fifth of what he had first bequeathed her. “She is amply provided for from her mother’s side,” the document ran, “never having spent more than a fraction of her income from this source; so that her fortune is already more than sufficient to attract those unscrupulous adventurers whom she has given me reason to believe that she persists in regarding as an interesting class.” The large remainder of his property, therefore, Dr. Sloper had divided into seven unequal parts, which he left, as endowments, to as many different hospitals and schools of medicine, in various cities of the Union.

To Mrs. Penniman it seemed monstrous that a man should play such tricks with other people’s money; for after his death, of course, as she said, it was other people’s. “Of course, you will dispute the will,” she remarked, fatuously, to Catherine.

“Oh no,” Catherine answered, “I like it very much. Only I wish it had been expressed a little differently!”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38