The Bostonians, by Henry James

Chapter 12

Verena recognised him; she had seen him the night before at Miss Birdseye’s, and she said to her hostess, “Now I must go — you have got another caller!” It was Verena’s belief that in the fashionable world (like Mrs. Farrinder, she thought Miss Chancellor belonged to it — thought that, in standing there, she herself was in it)— in the highest social walks it was the custom of a prior guest to depart when another friend arrived. She had been told at people’s doors that she could not be received because the lady of the house had a visitor, and she had retired on these occasions with a feeling of awe much more than a sense of injury. They had not been the portals of fashion, but in this respect, she deemed, they had emulated such bulwarks. Olive Chancellor offered Basil Ransom a greeting which she believed to be consummately lady-like, and which the young man, narrating the scene several months later to Mrs. Luna, whose susceptibilities he did not feel himself obliged to consider (she considered his so little), described by saying that she glared at him. Olive had thought it very possible he would come that day if he was to leave Boston; though she was perfectly mindful that she had given him no encouragement at the moment they separated. If he should not come she should be annoyed, and if he should come she should be furious; she was also sufficiently mindful of that. But she had a foreboding that, of the two grievances, fortune would confer upon her only the less; the only one she had as yet was that he had responded to her letter — a complaint rather wanting in richness. If he came, at any rate, he would be likely to come shortly before dinner, at the same hour as yesterday. He had now anticipated this period considerably, and it seemed to Miss Chancellor that he had taken a base advantage of her, stolen a march upon her privacy. She was startled, disconcerted, but as I have said, she was rigorously lady-like. She was determined not again to be fantastic, as she had been about his coming to Miss Birdseye’s. The strange dread associating itself with that was something which, she devoutly trusted, she had felt once for all. She didn’t know what he could do to her; he hadn’t prevented, on the spot though he was, one of the happiest things that had befallen her for so long — this quick, confident visit of Verena Tarrant. It was only just at the last that he had come in, and Verena must go now; Olive’s detaining hand immediately relaxed itself.

It is to be feared there was no disguise of Ransom’s satisfaction at finding himself once more face to face with the charming creature with whom he had exchanged that final speechless smile the evening before. He was more glad to see her than if she had been an old friend, for it seemed to him that she had suddenly become a new one. “The delightful girl,” he said to himself; “she smiles at me as if she liked me!” He could not know that this was fatuous, that she smiled so at every one; the first time she saw people she treated them as if she recognised them. Moreover, she did not seat herself again in his honour; she let it be seen that she was still going. The three stood there together in the middle of the long, characteristic room, and, for the first time in her life, Olive Chancellor chose not to introduce two persons who met under her roof. She hated Europe, but she could be European if it were necessary. Neither of her companions had an idea that in leaving them simply planted face to face (the terror of the American heart) she had so high a warrant; and presently Basil Ransom felt that he didn’t care whether he were introduced or not, for the greatness of an evil didn’t matter if the remedy were equally great.

“Miss Tarrant won’t be surprised if I recognise her — if I take the liberty to speak to her. She is a public character; she must pay the penalty of her distinction.” These words he boldly addressed to the girl, with his most gallant Southern manner, saying to himself meanwhile that she was prettier still by daylight.

“Oh, a great many gentlemen have spoken to me,” Verena said. “There were quite a number at Topeka ——” And her phrase lost itself in her look at Olive, as if she were wondering what was the matter with her.

“Now, I am afraid you are going the very moment I appear,” Ransom went on. “Do you know that’s very cruel to me? I know what your ideas are — you expressed them last night in such beautiful language; of course you convinced me. I am ashamed of being a man; but I am, and I can’t help it, and I’ll do penance any way you may prescribe. Must she go, Miss Olive?” he asked of his cousin. “Do you flee before the individual male?” And he turned to Verena.

This young lady gave a laugh that resembled speech in liquid fusion. “Oh no; I like the individual!”

As an incarnation of a “movement,” Ransom thought her more and more singular, and he wondered how she came to be closeted so soon with his kinswoman, to whom, only a few hours before, she had been a complete stranger. These, however, were doubtless the normal proceedings of women. He begged her to sit down again; he was sure Miss Chancellor would be sorry to part with her. Verena, looking at her friend, not for permission, but for sympathy, dropped again into a chair, and Ransom waited to see Miss Chancellor do the same. She gratified him after a moment, because she could not refuse without appearing to put a hurt upon Verena; but it went hard with her, and she was altogether discomposed. She had never seen any one so free in her own drawing-room as this loud Southerner, to whom she had so rashly offered a footing; he extended invitations to her guests under her nose. That Verena should do as he asked her was a signal sign of the absence of that “home-culture” (it was so that Miss Chancellor expressed the missing quality) which she never supposed the girl possessed: fortunately, as it would be supplied to her in abundance in Charles Street. (Olive of course held that home-culture was perfectly compatible with the widest emancipation.) It was with a perfectly good conscience that Verena complied with Basil Ransom’s request; but it took her quick sensibility only a moment to discover that her friend was not pleased. She scarcely knew what had ruffled her, but at the same instant there passed before her the vision of the anxieties (of this sudden, unexplained sort, for instance, and much worse) which intimate relations with Miss Chancellor might entail.

“Now, I want you to tell me this,” Basil Ransom said, leaning forward towards Verena, with his hands on his knees, and completely oblivious to his hostess. “Do you really believe all that pretty moonshine you talked last night? I could have listened to you for another hour; but I never heard such monstrous sentiments, I must protest — I must, as a calumniated, misrepresented man. Confess you meant it as a kind of reductio ad absurdum — a satire on Mrs. Farrinder?” He spoke in a tone of the freest pleasantry, with his familiar, friendly Southern cadence.

Verena looked at him with eyes that grew large. “Why, you don’t mean to say you don’t believe in our cause?”

“Oh, it won’t do — it won’t do!” Ransom went on, laughing. “You are on the wrong tack altogether. Do you really take the ground that your sex has been without influence? Influence? Why, you have led us all by the nose to where we are now! Wherever we are, it’s all you. You are at the bottom of everything.”

“Oh yes, and we want to be at the top,” said Verena.

“Ah, the bottom is a better place, depend on it, when from there you move the whole mass! Besides, you are on the top as well; you are everywhere, you are everything. I am of the opinion of that historical character — wasn’t he some king? — who thought there was a lady behind everything. Whatever it was, he held, you have only to look for her; she is the explanation. Well, I always look for her, and I always find her; of course, I am always delighted to do so; but it proves she is the universal cause. Now, you don’t mean to deny that power, the power of setting men in motion. You are at the bottom of all the wars.”

“Well, I am like Mrs. Farrinder; I like opposition,” Verena exclaimed, with a happy smile.

“That proves, as I say, how in spite of your expressions of horror you delight in the shock of battle. What do you say to Helen of Troy and the fearful carnage she excited? It is well known that the Empress of France was at the bottom of the last war in that country. And as for our four fearful years of slaughter, of course, you won’t deny that there the ladies were the great motive power. The Abolitionists brought it on, and were not the Abolitionists principally females? Who was that celebrity that was mentioned last night? — Eliza P. Moseley. I regard Eliza as the cause of the biggest war of which history preserves the record.”

Basil Ransom enjoyed his humour the more because Verena appeared to enjoy it; and the look with which she replied to him, at the end of this little tirade, “Why, sir, you ought to take the platform too; we might go round together as poison and antidote!”— this made him feel that he had convinced her, for the moment, quite as much as it was important he should. In Verena’s face, however, it lasted but an instant — an instant after she had glanced at Olive Chancellor, who, with her eyes fixed intently on the ground (a look she was to learn to know so well), had a strange expression. The girl slowly got up; she felt that she must go. She guessed Miss Chancellor didn’t like this handsome joker (it was so that Basil Ransom struck her); and it was impressed upon her (“in time,” as she thought) that her new friend would be more serious even than she about the woman-question, serious as she had hitherto believed herself to be.

“I should like so much to have the pleasure of seeing you again,” Ransom continued. “I think I should be able to interpret history for you by a new light.”

“Well, I should be very happy to see you in my home.” These words had barely fallen from Verena’s lips (her mother told her they were, in general, the proper thing to say when people expressed such a desire as that; she must not let it be assumed that she would come first to them)— she had hardly uttered this hospitable speech when she felt the hand of her hostess upon her arm and became aware that a passionate appeal sat in Olive’s eyes.

“You will just catch the Charles Street car,” that young woman murmured, with muffled sweetness.

Verena did not understand further than to see that she ought already to have departed; and the simplest response was to kiss Miss Chancellor, an act which she briefly performed. Basil Ransom understood still less, and it was a melancholy commentary on his contention that men are not inferior, that this meeting could not come, however rapidly, to a close without his plunging into a blunder which necessarily aggravated those he had already made. He had been invited by the little prophetess, and yet he had not been invited; but he did not take that up, because he must absolutely leave Boston on the morrow, and, besides, Miss Chancellor appeared to have something to say to it. But he put out his hand to Verena and said, “Good-bye, Miss Tarrant; are we not to have the pleasure of hearing you in New York? I am afraid we are sadly sunk.”

“Certainly, I should like to raise my voice in the biggest city,” the girl replied.

“Well, try to come on. I won’t refute you. It would be a very stupid world, after all, if we always knew what women were going to say.”

Verena was conscious of the approach of the Charles Street car, as well as of the fact that Miss Chancellor was in pain; but she lingered long enough to remark that she could see he had the old-fashioned ideas — he regarded woman as the toy of man.

“Don’t say the toy — say the joy!” Ransom exclaimed. “There is one statement I will venture to advance; I am quite as fond of you as you are of each other!”

“Much he knows about that!” said Verena, with a side-long smile at Olive Chancellor.

For Olive, it made her more beautiful than ever; still, there was no trace of this mere personal elation in the splendid sententiousness with which, turning to Mr. Ransom, she remarked: “What women may be, or may not be, to each other, I won’t attempt just now to say; but what the truth may be to a human soul, I think perhaps even a woman may faintly suspect!”

“The truth? My dear cousin, your truth is a most vain thing!”

“Gracious me!” cried Verena Tarrant; and the gay vibration of her voice as she uttered this simple ejaculation was the last that Ransom heard of her. Miss Chancellor swept her out of the room, leaving the young man to extract a relish from the ineffable irony with which she uttered the words “even a woman.” It was to be supposed, on general grounds, that she would reappear, but there was nothing in the glance she gave him, as she turned her back, that was an earnest of this. He stood there a moment, wondering; then his wonder spent itself on the page of a book which, according to his habit at such times, he had mechanically taken up, and in which he speedily became interested. He read it for five minutes in an uncomfortable-looking attitude, and quite forgot that he had been forsaken. He was recalled to this fact by the entrance of Mrs. Luna, arrayed as if for the street, and putting on her gloves again — she seemed always to be putting on her gloves. She wanted to know what in the world he was doing there alone — whether her sister had not been notified.

“Oh yes,” said Ransom, “she has just been with me, but she has gone downstairs with Miss Tarrant.”

“And who in the world is Miss Tarrant?”

Ransom was surprised that Mrs. Luna should not know of the intimacy of the two young ladies, in spite of the brevity of their acquaintance, being already so great. But, apparently, Miss Olive had not mentioned her new friend. “Well, she is an inspirational speaker — the most charming creature in the world!”

Mrs. Luna paused in her manipulations, gave an amazed, amused stare, then caused the room to ring with her laughter. “You don’t mean to say you are converted — already?”

“Converted to Miss Tarrant, decidedly.”

“You are not to belong to any Miss Tarrant; you are to belong to me,” Mrs. Luna said, having thought over her Southern kinsman during the twenty-four hours, and made up her mind that he would be a good man for a lone woman to know. Then she added: “Did you come here to meet her — the inspirational speaker?”

“No; I came to bid your sister good-bye.”

“Are you really going? I haven’t made you promise half the things I want yet. But we will settle that in New York. How do you get on with Olive Chancellor?” Mrs. Luna continued, making her points, as she always did, with eagerness, though her roundness and her dimples had hitherto prevented her from being accused of that vice. It was her practice to speak of her sister by her whole name, and you would have supposed, from her usual manner of alluding to her, that Olive was much the older, instead of having been born ten years later than Adeline. She had as many ways as possible of marking the gulf that divided them; but she bridged it over lightly now by saying to Basil Ransom; “Isn’t she a dear old thing?”

This bridge, he saw, would not bear his weight, and her question seemed to him to have more audacity than sense. Why should she be so insincere? She might know that a man couldn’t recognise Miss Chancellor in such a description as that. She was not old — she was sharply young; and it was inconceivable to him, though he had just seen the little prophetess kiss her, that she should ever become any one’s “dear.” Least of all was she a “thing”; she was intensely, fearfully, a person. He hesitated a moment, and then he replied: “She’s a very remarkable woman.”

“Take care — don’t be reckless!” cried Mrs. Luna. “Do you think she is very dreadful?”

“Don’t say anything against my cousin,” Basil answered; and at that moment Miss Chancellor re-entered the room. She murmured some request that he would excuse her absence, but her sister interrupted her with an inquiry about Miss Tarrant.

“Mr. Ransom thinks her wonderfully charming. Why didn’t you show her to me? Do you want to keep her all to yourself?”

Olive rested her eyes for some moments upon Mrs. Luna, without speaking. Then she said: “Your veil is not put on straight, Adeline.”

“I look like a monster — that, evidently, is what you mean!” Adeline exclaimed, going to the mirror to rearrange the peccant tissue.

Miss Chancellor did not again ask Ransom to be seated; she appeared to take it for granted that he would leave her now. But instead of this he returned to the subject of Verena; he asked her whether she supposed the girl would come out in public — would go about like Mrs. Farrinder?

“Come out in public!” Olive repeated; “in public? Why, you don’t imagine that pure voice is to be hushed?”

“Oh, hushed, no! it’s too sweet for that. But not raised to a scream; not forced and cracked and ruined. She oughtn’t to become like the others. She ought to remain apart.”

“Apart — apart?” said Miss Chancellor; “when we shall all be looking to her, gathering about her, praying for her!” There was an exceeding scorn in her voice. “If I can help her, she shall be an immense power for good.”

“An immense power for quackery, my dear Miss Olive!” This broke from Basil’s lips in spite of a vow he had just taken not to say anything that should “aggravate” his hostess, who was in a state of tension it was not difficult to detect. But he had lowered his tone to friendly pleading, and the offensive word was mitigated by his smile.

She moved away from him, backwards, as if he had given her a push. “Ah, well, now you are reckless,” Mrs. Luna remarked, drawing out her ribbons before the mirror.

“I don’t think you would interfere if you knew how little you understand us,” Miss Chancellor said to Ransom.

“Whom do you mean by ‘us’— your whole delightful sex? I don’t understand you, Miss Olive.”

“Come away with me, and I’ll explain her as we go,” Mrs. Luna went on, having finished her toilet.

Ransom offered his hand in farewell to his hostess; but Olive found it impossible to do anything but ignore the gesture. She could not have let him touch her. “Well, then, if you must exhibit her to the multitude, bring her on to New York,” he said, with the same attempt at a light treatment.

“You’ll have me in New York — you don’t want any one else!” Mrs. Luna ejaculated, coquettishly. “I have made up my mind to winter there now.”

Olive Chancellor looked from one to the other of her two relatives, one near and the other distant, but each so little in sympathy with her, and it came over her that there might be a kind of protection for her in binding them together, entangling them with each other. She had never had an idea of that kind in her life before, and that this sudden subtlety should have gleamed upon her as a momentary talisman gives the measure of her present nervousness.

“If I could take her to New York, I would take her farther,” she remarked, hoping she was enigmatical.

“You talk about ‘taking’ her, as if you were a lecture-agent. Are you going into that business?” Mrs. Luna asked.

Ransom could not help noticing that Miss Chancellor would not shake hands with him, and he felt, on the whole, rather injured. He paused a moment before leaving the room — standing there with his hand on the knob of the door. “Look here, Miss Olive, what did you write to me to come and see you for?” He made this inquiry with a countenance not destitute of gaiety, but his eyes showed something of that yellow light — just momentarily lurid — of which mention has been made. Mrs. Luna was on her way downstairs, and her companions remained face to face.

“Ask my sister — I think she will tell you,” said Olive, turning away from him and going to the window. She remained there, looking out; she heard the door of the house close, and saw the two cross the street together. As they passed out of sight her fingers played, softly, a little air upon the pane; it seemed to her that she had had an inspiration.

Basil Ransom, meanwhile, put the question to Mrs. Luna. “If she was not going to like me, why in the world did she write to me?”

“Because she wanted you to know me — she thought I would like you!” And apparently she had not been wrong; for Mrs. Luna, when they reached Beacon Street, would not hear of his leaving her to go her way alone, would not in the least admit his plea that he had only an hour or two more in Boston (he was to travel, economically, by the boat) and must devote the time to his business. She appealed to his Southern chivalry, and not in vain; practically, at least, he admitted the rights of women.

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