Born in New York in 1933, I spent my years enjoying the beauty of Washington Square. While it was a place of consistency and solace, and in most cases purity, one could rarely acquire the opportunity of such stories of intrigue as that of Catherine Sloper. Perhaps you may have read Washington Square, Henry James's 1880 account of Catherine's life and love affair with a young gentleman, Morris Townsend. Or you may have even seen the 1949 movie, The Heiress, with a star cast of Olivia de Havilland as Catherine, Mongtomery Clift as Morris, Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper, Mariam Hopkins as Mrs. Penniman, Vanessa Brown as Maria, and Betty Linley as Mrs. Montgomery. I will not deny that these accounts were well put and quite factual, at least until the end of this so-often spoke-of affair. However, I suppose our dear authors grew weary of mentioning Catherine and Morris, and that is why they brought their stories to such an abrupt ending. But if you will grant me some duration, perhaps I can help you realize the truth as it has been told to me, and you may be able to appreciate the clever nature of cruelty that Miss Sloper had been "taught by masters."
Maria rushed to the door as the sound of the carriage grew nearer; Catherine and Morris were home from their honeymoon, for in fact they had married. As the carriage came to a stop, Morris stepped out and began unloading their things, moving slowly however, making sure not to scuff his new Italian shoes, or his fresh, ruffled shirt. Catherine exited the carriage in a more rapid fashion, wearing an exceedingly familiar dress, much to Maria's surprise.
Maria spoke with such a flurry of excitement, "Oh, Catherine you're back! How was Europe? How was the honeymoon? Did you get-."
"How is Aunt Penniman?" Catherine interrupted.
It had not been long in Catherine's absence since Mrs. Penniman had grown sick. Upon recommendation of Dr. Isaacs, Maria had written to Catherine in Europe to alert her of Mrs. Penniman's ill condition. However, being his first time to visit Europe, Morris wanted to make sure he witnessed the whole of it, and he begged that Catherine be made to understand that her Aunt Penniman would be fine, and that they must stay and finish out their honeymoon in peace.
As they walked into the house, Catherine continued to ask questions of her aunt's well being. "Has Dr. Isaacs seen her today?"
Now much more serious than she had been at their first greeting, Maria delivered the bad news, "He was here this morning. It is much the same sickness from which your father suffered; she is weak and probably will not recover."
Maria's eyes began to gleam. Filled with tears she was trying so desperately to hold back, just as she had at the time of Dr. Sloper's death, she went on. "Mrs. Penniman grows worse each day, her cough weighs heavier on her lungs and her face grows whiter."
"She will be well soon enough. Mrs. Penniman has only missed her dear friend Morris!" He jumped in before Catherine even took notice that Morris was now in the parlor. Catherine's eyes glanced over to this proud, not to mention rich new husband. Making her way past him, she politely smirked and began up the stairs towards Aunt Penniman's room.
Less than a month later, Mrs. Penniman had died; and just as she wished in both Washington Square and The Heiress, she died a romantic, speaking wonderfully of Catherine's marriage, how wonderful the honeymoon must have been, and most of all her anticipation of once again seeing the Reverend Penniman. Catherine had become what one may call a recluse; her days were spent with the embroidery she had once so enjoyed. However, now, this was only an alternative not to loneliness, for she was now a married woman, but to the only thing she could find worse, her own husband.
Morris was often frustrated with Catherine, not because of her sadness over Aunt Penniman's death; but, because, according to him, she had the means to do so much, yet insisted on staying home. Catherine had realized when she took him back, that he still wanted her money. After Morris left Catherine, as James states in Washington Square, she had had almost seventeen years to come to this realization before he returned. (However in The Heiress it was only two years.). Why then did she take him back? Patience, we will come to that.
It was a beautifully sunny day at Washington Square; Maria was pouring a glass of bourbon for Mr. Townsend when Catherine came through the door, smiling as if she had never seen a day of sadness in her life. "Oh, Morris, I've just had the most wonderful talk with your sister. I'm sure you will just love my idea."
Morris removes his Massachusetts Home Grown cigar, just as Dr. Sloper used to smoke, from his mouth and rises, "Maria, will you please leave us."
As Maria shuts the doors of the parlor, Morris begins, "Well, that is the excitement I like to see from my dear wife. It is just a shame it is Elizabeth who is the cause. So what is this wonderful idea you and my sister have conjured up?"
"Oh, it was not Mrs. Montgomery's idea but my own. I have decided that it is not right for just the two of us to share this grand home. So, I have invited your sister and her wonderful children to stay. That way you can tutor the children, I know how you've missed them."
Morris appears astounded at the idea, perhaps even a little displeased, however, "Well, that sounds life a fantastic idea. But what does Elizabeth plan to do with her home?"
"I'm not sure. She said something of selling; we were both too excited; we didn't feel like discussing insignificant details."
"I would not say that is such an insignificant detail, Catherine. What if these plans do not work out," Morris asked, attempting to understand this scheme fully.
"What could go wrong? I think I will suggest that she sell. We will all be so happy."
Within a matter of two weeks after this conversation, Mrs. Montgomery and her children were living with Catherine and Morris. Of course, you'll remember from The Heiress, Mrs. Montgomery had seen the Sloper home once before when she visited, so she knew what a pleasant and beautiful place Washington Square was.
Elizabeth took to living at the Sloper residence very quickly, as did her children. It was as if Elizabeth had never experienced living any way other than a glamorous life. She constantly had Maria doing some sort of errand for her; she loved eating the fine meals; and she enjoyed not having to worry so much with the children because, as she saw it, Maria seemed to keep up with them just fine. However, on some occasions Elizabeth would take the children out, and on one life-changing evening, Morris accompanied them.
"Are you sure you do not wish to come?" Morris begged.
"Yes, I will be fine; it is just a simple headache. I will go to bed soon."
"But, dear Catherine, you are the one who acquired the tickets. I hear it is the most breathtaking play; are you sure you cannot accompany us to see it?" Morris stood at the parlor door watching Catherine as she sat at her embroidery, with a blanket over her legs.
Catherine looked up, "Go ahead or you will be late." And with this Morris nodded his head and shut the door. She walked to the window, watching Morris enter the carriage; and, as it pulled away out of sight Catherine said, "Goodbye, Morris."
With Maria having been given leave for the night, Catherine sat quietly in the house, alone, finishing her embroidery.
A few hours later, Morris, along with Mrs. Montgomery and the children, returned home to find the house collapsed, while the only thing left of the Sloper home were dying remains of the flames in which the house had been engulfed.
"Catherine! Catherine!" Morris yelled with more fear and desperation than anyone of Washington Square had ever heard, as he jumped out of the carriage. Elizabeth stood at the door of the carriage, beginning to sob. Morris continued to yell for Catherine. With each yell, his desperation grew until he himself was almost in tears. He was filled with the same sort of desperation as in The Heiress, when he vainly stood, beating at the door for Catherine: begging not just for her love, but for her money.
Moments later, Dr. Isaacs came to Morris.
"Morris. Morris, there you are. I've been looking for you."
Morris ran to the doctor, grabbing him on the shoulders, "Where is she? Where is Catherine? She was here alone. I left her here alone. There is nothing left, nothing left of our home, or our things!"
Doctor Isaacs looked down and sighed. As he looked up, a drop ran down his face, no one knew if it was a tear, or a bead of sweat.
"She is gone, Morris. The fire was too much. We think an oil lamp was knocked over."
"An oil lamp? How was she? I don't understand how. Where is she?"
"You should not see her. But she is okay now; she can no longer be harmed."
At hearing these words, Morris shed no tears. The doctor said his eyes did not even water as if he were holding back. Morris only turned and walked back to the carriage.
Later, it turned out Miss Sloper had written a will, which she had given to Maria to keep should anything happen to her. In it, she dispersed much of her own inheritance among many medical practices, just as her father had done in Washington Square and had threatened to do in The Heiress. However, there were a couple of practices that received higher sums than some of the others. One of which was Dr. Isaac's practice, and the other one--a practice in Europe, that as Morris noticed, Catherine had not pointed out to him during their honeymoon, for he had never heard of it.
So, what was left to Morris and his sister? There was no mention in Catherine's will of anyone of the Townsend name. The last time anyone ever saw Mr. Townsend, he was wandering around Washington Square in the rain (some say he was begging), and he was wearing the only scrap he had left of a rich life--a wedding gift from his dear Catherine; those ruby buttons made him the finest beggar in all of New York.
Years later, Maria received an anonymous trunk, all the way from Europe, filled with a number of items. A few of the most important were some embroidery material, a couple of oddly familiar dresses, and some cherry red hair ribbons, the same color that Catherine's mother used to dominate (according to both The Heiress and Washington Square).