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Chapter 1
During a portion of the first half of the present century, and more particularly
during the latter part of it, there flourished and practised in the city of New York a
physician who enjoyed perhaps an exceptional share of the consideration which,
in the United States, has always been bestowed upon distinguished members of
the medical profession. This profession in America has constantly been held in
honour, and more successfully than elsewhere has put forward a claim to the
epithet of "liberal." In a country in which, to play a social part, you must either
earn your income or make believe that you earn it, the healing art has appeared
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 a great recommendation; and
it is touched by the light of science--a merit appreciated in a community in which
the love of knowledge has not always been accompanied by leisure and
opportunity. It was an element in Dr. Sloper's reputation that his learning and his
skill were very evenly balanced; he was what you might call a scholarly doctor,
and yet there was nothing abstract in his remedies--he always ordered you to
take something. Though he was felt to be extremely thorough, he was not
uncomfortably theoretic, and if he sometimes explained matters rather more
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 explanation alone, but always
left behind him an inscrutable prescription.
There were some doctors that left the prescription without offering any
explanation at all; and he did not belong to that class either, which was, after all,
the most vulgar. It will be seen that I am describing a clever man; and this is
really the reason why Dr. Sloper had become a local 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. He was very witty, and he passed in the best society
of New York for a man of the world--which, indeed, he was, in a very sufficient
degree. I hasten to add, to anticipate possible misconception, that he was not the
least of a charlatan. He was a thoroughly honest man--honest in a degree of
which 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, which was
rather fond of boasting that it possessed the "brightest" doctor in the country, he
daily justified his claim to the talents attributed to him by the popular voice. He
was an observer, even a philosopher, and to be bright was so natural to him, and
(as the popular voice said) came so easily, that he never aimed at mere effect,
and had none of the little tricks and pretensions of second-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 had married at the age of twenty-seven, for
love, a very charming girl, Miss Catherine Harrington, of New York, who, in
addition to her charms, had brought him 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 promising capital which clustered about the Battery and
overlooked the Bay, and of which the uppermost boundary was indicated by the
grassy waysides of Canal Street. Even at the age of twenty- seven Austin Sloper