The Bostonians, by Henry James

Chapter 11

“I was certain you would come — I have felt it all day — something told me!” It was with these words that Olive Chancellor greeted her young visitor, coming to her quickly from the window, where she might have been waiting for her arrival. Some weeks later she explained to Verena how definite this prevision had been, how it had filled her all day with a nervous agitation so violent as to be painful. She told her that such forebodings were a peculiarity of her organisation, that she didn’t know what to make of them, that she had to accept them; and she mentioned, as another example, the sudden dread that had come to her the evening before in the carriage, after proposing to Mr. Ransom to go with her to Miss Birdseye’s. This had been as strange as it had been instinctive, and the strangeness, of course, was what must have struck Mr. Ransom; for the idea that he might come had been hers, and yet she suddenly veered round. She couldn’t help it; her heart had begun to throb with the conviction that if he crossed that threshold some harm would come of of it for her. She hadn’t prevented him, and now she didn’t care, for now, as she intimated, she had the interest of Verena, and that made her indifferent to every danger, to every ordinary pleasure. By this time Verena had learned how peculiarly her friend was constituted, how nervous and serious she was, how personal, how exclusive, what a force of will she had, what a concentration of purpose. Olive had taken her up, in the literal sense of the phrase, like a bird of the air, had spread an extraordinary pair of wings, and carried her through the dizzying void of space. Verena liked it, for the most part; liked to shoot upward without an effort of her own and look down upon all creation, upon all history, from such a height. From this first interview she felt that she was seized, and she gave herself up, only shutting her eyes a little, as we do whenever a person in whom we have perfect confidence proposes, with our assent, to subject us to some sensation.

“I want to know you,” Olive said, on this occasion; “I felt that I must last night, as soon as I heard you speak. You seem to me very wonderful. I don’t know what to make of you. I think we ought to be friends; so I just asked you to come to me straight off, without preliminaries, and I believed you would come. It is so right that you have come, and it proves how right I was.” These remarks fell from Miss Chancellor’s lips one by one, as she caught her breath, with the tremor that was always in her voice, even when she was the least excited, while she made Verena sit down near her on the sofa, and looked at her all over in a manner that caused the girl to rejoice at having put on the jacket with the gilt buttons. It was this glance that was the beginning; it was with this quick survey, omitting nothing, that Olive took possession of her. “You are very remarkable; I wonder if you know how remarkable!” she went on, murmuring the words as if she were losing herself, becoming inadvertent in admiration.

Verena sat there smiling, without a blush, but with a pure, bright look which, for her, would always make protests unnecessary. “Oh, it isn’t me, you know; it’s something outside!” She tossed this off lightly, as if she were in the habit of saying it, and Olive wondered whether it were a sincere disclaimer or only a phrase of the lips. The question was not a criticism, for she might have been satisfied that the girl was a mass of fluent catch-words and yet scarcely have liked her the less. It was just as she was that she liked her; she was so strange, so different from the girls one usually met, seemed to belong to some queer gipsy-land or transcendental Bohemia. With her bright, vulgar clothes, her salient appearance, she might have been a rope-dancer or a fortune-teller; and this had the immense merit, for Olive, that it appeared to make her belong to the “people,” threw her into the social dusk of that mysterious democracy which Miss Chancellor held that the fortunate classes know so little about, and with which (in a future possibly very near) they will have to count. Moreover, the girl had moved her as she had never been moved, and the power to do that, from whatever source it came, was a force that one must admire. Her emotion was still acute, however much she might speak to her visitor as if everything that had happened seemed to her natural; and what kept it, above all, from subsiding was her sense that she found here what she had been looking for so long — a friend of her own sex with whom she might have a union of soul. It took a double consent to make a friendship, but it was not possible that this intensely sympathetic girl would refuse. Olive had the penetration to discover in a moment that she was a creature of unlimited generosity. I know not what may have been the reality of Miss Chancellor’s other premonitions, but there is no doubt that in this respect she took Verena’s measure on the spot. This was what she wanted; after that the rest didn’t matter; Miss Tarrant might wear gilt buttons from head to foot, her soul could not be vulgar.

“Mother told me I had better come right in,” said Verena, looking now about the room, very glad to find herself in so pleasant a place, and noticing a great many things that she should like to see in detail.

“Your mother saw that I meant what I said; it isn’t everybody that does me the honour to perceive that. She saw that I was shaken from head to foot. I could only say three words — I couldn’t have spoken more! What a power — what a power, Miss Tarrant!”

“Yes, I suppose it is a power. If it wasn’t a power, it couldn’t do much with me!”

“You are so simple — so much like a child,” Olive Chancellor said. That was the truth, and she wanted to say it because, quickly, without forms or circumlocutions, it made them familiar. She wished to arrive at this; her impatience was such that before the girl had been five minutes in the room she jumped to her point — inquired of her, interrupting herself, interrupting everything: “Will you be my friend, my friend of friends, beyond every one, everything, for ever and for ever?” Her face was full of eagerness and tenderness.

Verena gave a laugh of clear amusement, without a shade of embarrassment or confusion. “Perhaps you like me too much.”

“Of course I like you too much! When I like, I like too much. But of course it’s another thing, your liking me,” Olive Chancellor added. “We must wait — we must wait. When I care for anything, I can be patient.” She put out her hand to Verena, and the movement was at once so appealing and so confident that the girl instinctively placed her own in it. So, hand in hand, for some moments, these two young women sat looking at each other. “There is so much I want to ask you,” said Olive.

“Well, I can’t say much except when father has worked on me,” Verena answered with an ingenuousness beside which humility would have seemed pretentious.

“I don’t care anything about your father,” Olive Chancellor rejoined very gravely, with a great air of security.

“He is very good,” Verena said simply. “And he’s wonderfully magnetic.”

“It isn’t your father, and it isn’t your mother; I don’t think of them, and it’s not them I want. It’s only you — just as you are.”

Verena dropped her eyes over the front of her dress. “Just as she was” seemed to her indeed very well.

“Do you want me to give up ——?” she demanded, smiling.

Olive Chancellor drew in her breath for an instant, like a creature in pain; then, with her quavering voice, touched with a vibration of anguish, she said; “Oh, how can I ask you to give up? I will give up — I will give up everything!”

Filled with the impression of her hostess’s agreeable interior, and of what her mother had told her about Miss Chancellor’s wealth, her position in Boston society, Verena, in her fresh, diverted scrutiny of the surrounding objects, wondered what could be the need of this scheme of renunciation. Oh no, indeed, she hoped she wouldn’t give up — at least not before she, Verena, had had a chance to see. She felt, however, that for the present there would be no answer for her save in the mere pressure of Miss Chancellor’s eager nature, that intensity of emotion which made her suddenly exclaim, as if in a nervous ecstasy of anticipation, “But we must wait! Why do we talk of this? We must wait! All will be right,” she added more calmly, with great sweetness.

Verena wondered afterward why she had not been more afraid of her — why, indeed, she had not turned and saved herself by darting out of the room. But it was not in this young woman’s nature to be either timid or cautious; she had as yet to make acquaintance with the sentiment of fear. She knew too little of the world to have learned to mistrust sudden enthusiasms, and if she had had a suspicion it would have been (in accordance with common worldly knowledge) the wrong one — the suspicion that such a whimsical liking would burn itself out. She could not have that one, for there was a light in Miss Chancellor’s magnified face which seemed to say that a sentiment, with her, might consume its object, might consume Miss Chancellor, but would never consume itself. Verena, as yet, had no sense of being scorched; she was only agreeably warmed. She also had dreamed of a friendship, though it was not what she had dreamed of most, and it came over her that this was the one which fortune might have been keeping. She never held back.

“Do you live here all alone?” she asked of Olive.

“I shouldn’t if you would come and live with me!”

Even this really passionate rejoinder failed to make Verena shrink; she thought it so possible that in the wealthy class people made each other such easy proposals. It was a part of the romance, the luxury, of wealth; it belonged to the world of invitations, in which she had had so little share. But it seemed almost a mockery when she thought of the little house in Cambridge, where the boards were loose in the steps of the porch.

“I must stay with my father and mother,” she said. “And then I have my work, you know. That’s the way I must live now.”

“Your work?” Olive repeated, not quite understanding.

“My gift,” said Verena, smiling.

“Oh yes, you must use it. That’s what I mean; you must move the world with it; it’s divine.”

It was so much what she meant that she had lain awake all night thinking of it, and the substance of her thought was that if she could only rescue the girl from the danger of vulgar exploitation, could only constitute herself her protectress and devotee, the two, between them, might achieve the great result. Verena’s genius was a mystery, and it might remain a mystery; it was impossible to see how this charming, blooming, simple creature, all youth and grace and innocence, got her extraordinary powers of reflexion. When her gift was not in exercise she appeared anything but reflective, and as she sat there now, for instance, you would never have dreamed that she had had a vivid revelation. Olive had to content herself, provisionally, with saying that her precious faculty had come to her just as her beauty and distinction (to Olive she was full of that quality) had come; it had dropped straight from heaven, without filtering through her parents, whom Miss Chancellor decidedly did not fancy. Even among reformers she discriminated; she thought all wise people wanted great changes, but the votaries of change were not necessarily wise. She remained silent a little, after her last remark, and then she repeated again, as if it were the solution of everything, as if it represented with absolute certainty some immense happiness in the future —“We must wait, we must wait!” Verena was perfectly willing to wait, though she did not exactly know what they were to wait for, and the aspiring frankness of her assent shone out of her face, and seemed to pacify their mutual gaze. Olive asked her innumerable questions; she wanted to enter into her life. It was one of those talks which people remember afterwards, in which every word has been given and taken, and in which they see the signs of a beginning that was to be justified. The more Olive learnt of her visitor’s life the more she wanted to enter into it, the more it took her out of herself. Such strange lives are led in America, she always knew that; but this was queerer than anything she had dreamed of, and the queerest part was that the girl herself didn’t appear to think it queer. She had been nursed in darkened rooms, and suckled in the midst of manifestations; she had begun to “attend lectures,” as she said, when she was quite an infant, because her mother had no one to leave her with at home. She had sat on the knees of somnambulists, and had been passed from hand to hand by trance-speakers; she was familiar with every kind of “cure,” and had grown up among lady-editors of newspapers advocating new religions, and people who disapproved of the marriage-tie. Verena talked of the marriage-tie as she would have talked of the last novel — as if she had heard it as frequently discussed; and at certain times, listening to the answers she made to her questions, Olive Chancellor closed her eyes in the manner of a person waiting till giddiness passed. Her young friend’s revelations actually gave her a vertigo; they made her perceive everything from which she should have rescued her. Verena was perfectly uncontaminated, and she would never be touched by evil; but though Olive had no views about the marriage-tie except that she should hate it for herself — that particular reform she did not propose to consider — she didn’t like the “atmosphere” of circles in which such institutions were called into question. She had no wish now to enter into an examination of that particular one; nevertheless, to make sure, she would just ask Verena whether she disapproved of it.

“Well, I must say,” said Miss Tarrant, “I prefer free unions.”

Olive held her breath an instant; such an idea was so disagreeable to her. Then, for all answer, she murmured, irresolutely, “I wish you would let me help you!” Yet it seemed, at the same time, that Verena needed little help, for it was more and more clear that her eloquence, when she stood up that way before a roomful of people, was literally inspiration. She answered all her friend’s questions with a good-nature which evidently took no pains to make things plausible, an effort to oblige, not to please; but, after all, she could give very little account of herself. This was very visible when Olive asked her where she had got her “intense realisation” of the suffering of women; for her address at Miss Birdseye’s showed that she, too (like Olive herself), had had that vision in the watches of the night. Verena thought a moment, as if to understand what her companion referred to, and then she inquired, always smiling, where Joan of Arc had got her idea of the suffering of France. This was so prettily said that Olive could scarcely keep from kissing her; she looked at the moment as if, like Joan, she might have had visits from the saints. Olive, of course, remembered afterwards that it had not literally answered the question; and she also reflected on something that made an answer seem more difficult — the fact that the girl had grown up among lady-doctors, lady-mediums, lady-editors, lady-preachers, lady-healers, women who, having rescued themselves from a passive existence, could illustrate only partially the misery of the sex at large. It was true that they might have illustrated it by their talk, by all they had “been through” and all they could tell a younger sister; but Olive was sure that Verena’s prophetic impulse had not been stirred by the chatter of women (Miss Chancellor knew that sound as well as any one); it had proceeded rather out of their silence. She said to her visitor that whether or no the angels came down to her in glittering armour, she struck her as the only person she had yet encountered who had exactly the same tenderness, the same pity, for women that she herself had. Miss Birdseye had something of it, but Miss Birdseye wanted passion, wanted keenness, was capable of the weakest concessions. Mrs. Farrinder was not weak, of course, and she brought a great intellect to the matter; but she was not personal enough — she was too abstract. Verena was not abstract; she seemed to have lived in imagination through all the ages. Verena said she did think she had a certain amount of imagination; she supposed she couldn’t be so effective on the platform if she hadn’t a rich fancy. Then Olive said to her, taking her hand again, that she wanted her to assure her of this — that it was the only thing in all the world she cared for, the redemption of women, the thing she hoped under Providence to give her life to. Verena flushed a little at this appeal, and the deeper glow of her eyes was the first sign of exaltation she had offered. “Oh yes — I want to give my life!” she exclaimed, with a vibrating voice; and then she added gravely, “I want to do something great!”

“You will, you will, we both will!” Olive Chancellor cried, in rapture. But after a little she went on: “I wonder if you know what it means, young and lovely as you are — giving your life!”

Verena looked down for a moment in meditation.

“Well,” she replied, “I guess I have thought more than I appear.”

“Do you understand German? Do you know ‘Faust’?” said Olive. “‘Entsagen sollst du, sollst entsagen!’”

“I don’t know German; I should like so to study it; I want to know everything.”

“We will work at it together — we will study everything.” Olive almost panted; and while she spoke the peaceful picture hung before her of still winter evenings under the lamp, with falling snow outside, and tea on a little table, and successful renderings, with a chosen companion, of Goethe, almost the only foreign author she cared about; for she hated the writing of the French, in spite of the importance they have given to women. Such a vision as this was the highest indulgence she could offer herself; she had it only at considerable intervals. It seemed as if Verena caught a glimpse of it too, for her face kindled still more, and she said she should like that ever so much. At the same time she asked the meaning of the German words.

“‘Thou shalt renounce, refrain, abstain!’ That’s the way Bayard Taylor has translated them,” Olive answered.

“Oh, well, I guess I can abstain!” Verena exclaimed, with a laugh. And she got up rather quickly, as if by taking leave she might give a proof of what she meant. Olive put out her hands to hold her, and at this moment one of the portières of the room was pushed aside, while a gentleman was ushered in by Miss Chancellor’s little parlour-maid.

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