The Bostonians, by Henry James

Chapter 17

The next time Verena saw Olive she said to her that she was ready to make the promise she had asked the other night; but, to her great surprise, this young woman answered her by a question intended to check such rashness. Miss Chancellor raised a warning finger; she had an air of dissuasion almost as solemn as her former pressure; her passionate impatience appeared to have given way to other considerations, to be replaced by the resignation that comes with deeper reflexion. It was tinged in this case, indeed, by such bitterness as might be permitted to a young lady who cultivated the brightness of a great faith.

“Don’t you want any promise at present?” Verena asked. “Why, Olive, how you change!”

“My dear child, you are so young — so strangely young. I am a thousand years old; I have lived through generations — through centuries. I know what I know by experience; you know it by imagination. That is consistent with your being the fresh, bright creature that you are. I am constantly forgetting the difference between us — that you are a mere child as yet, though a child destined for great things. I forgot it the other night, but I have remembered it since. You must pass through a certain phase, and it would be very wrong in me to pretend to suppress it. That is all clear to me now; I see it was my jealousy that spoke — my restless, hungry jealousy. I have far too much of that; I oughtn’t to give any one the right to say that it’s a woman’s quality. I don’t want your signature; I only want your confidence — only what springs from that. I hope with all my soul that you won’t marry; but if you don’t it must not be because you have promised me. You know what I think — that there is something noble done when one makes a sacrifice for a great good. Priests — when they were real priests — never married, and what you and I dream of doing demands of us a kind of priesthood. It seems to me very poor, when friendship and faith and charity and the most interesting occupation in the world — when such a combination as this doesn’t seem, by itself, enough to live for. No man that I have ever seen cares a straw in his heart for what we are trying to accomplish. They hate it; they scorn it; they will try to stamp it out whenever they can. Oh yes, I know there are men who pretend to care for it; but they are not really men, and I wouldn’t be sure even of them! Any man that one would look at — with him, as a matter of course, it is war upon us to the knife. I don’t mean to say there are not some male beings who are willing to patronise us a little; to pat us on the back and recommend a few moderate concessions; to say that there are two or three little points in which society has not been quite just to us. But any man who pretends to accept our programme in toto, as you and I understand it, of his own free will, before he is forced to — such a person simply schemes to betray us. There are gentlemen in plenty who would be glad to stop your mouth by kissing you! If you become dangerous some day to their selfishness, to their vested interests, to their immorality — as I pray heaven every day, my dear friend, that you may! — it will be a grand thing for one of them if he can persuade you that he loves you. Then you will see what he will do with you, and how far his love will take him! It would be a sad day for you and for me and for all of us if you were to believe something of that kind. You see I am very calm now; I have thought it all out.”

Verena had listened with earnest eyes. “Why, Olive, you are quite a speaker yourself!” she exclaimed. “You would far surpass me if you would let yourself go.”

Miss Chancellor shook her head with a melancholy that was not devoid of sweetness. “I can speak to you; but that is no proof. The very stones of the street — all the dumb things of nature — might find a voice to talk to you. I have no facility; I am awkward and embarrassed and dry.” When this young lady, after a struggle with the winds and waves of emotion, emerged into the quiet stream of a certain high reasonableness, she presented her most graceful aspect; she had a tone of softness and sympathy, a gentle dignity, a serenity of wisdom, which sealed the appreciation of those who knew her well enough to like her, and which always impressed Verena as something almost august. Such moods, however, were not often revealed to the public at large; they belonged to Miss Chancellor’s very private life. One of them had possession of her at present, and she went on to explain the inconsequence which had puzzled her friend with the same quiet clearness, the detachment from error, of a woman whose self-scrutiny has been as sharp as her deflexion.

“Don’t think me capricious if I say I would rather trust you without a pledge. I owe you, I owe every one, an apology for my rudeness and fierceness at your mother’s. It came over me — just seeing those young men — how exposed you are; and the idea made me (for the moment) frantic. I see your danger still, but I see other things too, and I have recovered my balance. You must be safe, Verena — you must be saved; but your safety must not come from your having tied your hands. It must come from the growth of your perception; from your seeing things, of yourself, sincerely and with conviction, in the light in which I see them; from your feeling that for your work your freedom is essential, and that there is no freedom for you and me save in religiously not doing what you will often be asked to do — and I never!” Miss Chancellor brought out these last words with a proud jerk which was not without its pathos. “Don’t promise, don’t promise!” she went on. “I would far rather you didn’t. But don’t fail me — don’t fail me, or I shall die!”

Her manner of repairing her inconsistency was altogether feminine: she wished to extract a certainty at the same time that she wished to deprecate a pledge, and she would have been delighted to put Verena into the enjoyment of that freedom which was so important for her by preventing her exercising it in a particular direction. The girl was now completely under her influence; she had latent curiosities and distractions — left to herself, she was not always thinking of the unhappiness of women; but the touch of Olive’s tone worked a spell, and she found something to which at least a portion of her nature turned with eagerness in her companion’s wider knowledge, her elevation of view. Miss Chancellor was historic and philosophic; or, at any rate, she appeared so to Verena, who felt that through such an association one might at last intellectually command all life. And there was a simpler impulse; Verena wished to please her if only because she had such a dread of displeasing her. Olive’s displeasures, disappointments, disapprovals were tragic, truly memorable; she grew white under them, not shedding many tears, as a general thing, like inferior women (she cried when she was angry, not when she was hurt), but limping and panting, morally, as if she had received a wound that she would carry for life. On the other hand, her commendations, her satisfactions were as soft as a west wind; and she had this sign, the rarest of all, of generosity, that she liked obligations of gratitude when they were not laid upon her by men. Then, indeed, she scarcely recognised them. She considered men in general as so much in the debt of the opposite sex that any individual woman had an unlimited credit with them; she could not possibly overdraw the general feminine account. The unexpected temperance of her speech on this subject of Verena’s accessibility to matrimonial error seemed to the girl to have an antique beauty, a wisdom purged of worldly elements; it reminded her of qualities that she believed to have been proper to Electra or Antigone. This made her wish the more to do something that would gratify Olive; and in spite of her friend’s dissuasion she declared that she should like to promise. “I will promise, at any rate, not to marry any of those gentlemen that were at the house,” she said. “Those seemed to be the ones you were principally afraid of.”

“You will promise not to marry any one you don’t like,” said Olive. “That would be a great comfort!”

“But I do like Mr. Burrage and Mr. Gracie.”

“And Mr. Matthias Pardon? What a name!”

“Well, he knows how to make himself agreeable. He can tell you everything you want to know.”

“You mean everything you don’t! Well, if you like every one, I haven’t the least objection. It would only be preferences that I should find alarming. I am not the least afraid of your marrying a repulsive man; your danger would come from an attractive one.”

“I’m glad to hear you admit that some are attractive!” Verena exclaimed, with the light laugh which her reverence for Miss Chancellor had not yet quenched. “It sometimes seems as if there weren’t any you could like!”

“I can imagine a man I should like very much,” Olive replied, after a moment. “But I don’t like those I see. They seem to me poor creatures.” And, indeed, her uppermost feeling in regard to them was a kind of cold scorn; she thought most of them palterers and bullies. The end of the colloquy was that Verena, having assented, with her usual docility, to her companion’s optimistic contention that it was a “phase,” this taste for evening-calls from collegians and newspaper-men, and would consequently pass away with the growth of her mind, remarked that the injustice of men might be an accident or might be a part of their nature, but at any rate she should have to change a good deal before she should want to marry.

About the middle of December Miss Chancellor received a visit from Matthias Pardon, who had come to ask her what she meant to do about Verena. She had never invited him to call upon her, and the appearance of a gentleman whose desire to see her was so irrepressible as to dispense with such a preliminary was not in her career an accident frequent enough to have taught her equanimity. She thought Mr. Pardon’s visit a liberty; but, if she expected to convey this idea to him by withholding any suggestion that he should sit down, she was greatly mistaken, inasmuch as he cut the ground from under her feet by himself offering her a chair. His manner represented hospitality enough for both of them, and she was obliged to listen, on the edge of her sofa (she could at least seat herself where she liked), to his extraordinary inquiry. Of course she was not obliged to answer it, and indeed she scarcely understood it. He explained that it was prompted by the intense interest he felt in Miss Verena; but that scarcely made it more comprehensible, such a sentiment (on his part) being such a curious mixture. He had a sort of enamel of good humour which showed that his indelicacy was his profession; and he asked for revelations of the vie intime of his victims with the bland confidence of a fashionable physician inquiring about symptoms. He wanted to know what Miss Chancellor meant to do, because if she didn’t mean to do anything, he had an idea — which he wouldn’t conceal from her — of going into the enterprise himself. “You see, what I should like to know is this: do you consider that she belongs to you, or that she belongs to the people? If she belongs to you, why don’t you bring her out?”

He had no purpose and no consciousness of being impertinent; he only wished to talk over the matter sociably with Miss Chancellor. He knew, of course, that there was a presumption she would not be sociable, but no presumption had yet deterred him from presenting a surface which he believed to be polished till it shone; there was always a larger one in favour of his power to penetrate and of the majesty of the “great dailies.” Indeed, he took so many things for granted that Olive remained dumb while she regarded them; and he availed himself of what he considered as a fortunate opening to be really very frank. He reminded her that he had known Miss Verena a good deal longer than she; he had travelled out to Cambridge the other winter (when he could get an off-night), with the thermometer at ten below zero. He had always thought her attractive, but it wasn’t till this season that his eyes had been fully opened. Her talent had matured, and now he had no hesitation in calling her brilliant. Miss Chancellor could imagine whether, as an old friend, he could watch such a beautiful unfolding with indifference. She would fascinate the people, just as she had fascinated her (Miss Chancellor), and, he might be permitted to add, himself. The fact was, she was a great card, and some one ought to play it. There never had been a more attractive female speaker before the American public; she would walk right past Mrs. Farrinder, and Mrs. Farrinder knew it. There was room for both, no doubt, they had such a different style; anyhow, what he wanted to show was that there was room for Miss Verena. She didn’t want any more tuning-up, she wanted to break right out. Moreover, he felt that any gentleman who should lead her to success would win her esteem; he might even attract her more powerfully — who could tell? If Miss Chancellor wanted to attach her permanently, she ought to push her right forward. He gathered from what Miss Verena had told him that she wanted to make her study up the subject a while longer — follow some kind of course. Well, now, he could assure her that there was no preparation so good as just seeing a couple of thousand people down there before you who have paid their money to have you tell them something. Miss Verena was a natural genius, and he hoped very much she wasn’t going to take the nature out of her. She could study up as she went along; she had got the great thing that you couldn’t learn, a kind of divine afflatus, as the ancients used to say, and she had better just begin on that. He wouldn’t deny what was the matter with him; he was quite under the spell, and his admiration made him want to see her where she belonged. He shouldn’t care so much how she got there, but it would certainly add to his pleasure if he could show her up to her place. Therefore, would Miss Chancellor just tell him this: How long did she expect to hold her back; how long did she expect a humble admirer to wait? Of course he hadn’t come there to cross-question her; there was one thing he trusted he always kept clear of; when he was indiscreet he wanted to know it. He had come with a proposal of his own, and he hoped it would seem a sufficient warrant for his visit. Would Miss Chancellor be willing to divide a — the — well, he might call it the responsibilities? Couldn’t they run Miss Verena together? In this case every one would be satisfied. She could travel round with her as her companion, and he would see that the American people walked up. If Miss Chancellor would just let her go a little, he would look after the rest. He wanted no odds; he only wanted her for about an hour and a half three or four evenings a week.

Olive had time, in the course of this appeal, to make her faculties converge, to ask herself what she could say to this prodigious young man that would make him feel as how base a thing she held his proposal that they should constitute themselves into a company for drawing profit from Verena. Unfortunately, the most sarcastic inquiry that could occur to her as a response was also the most obvious one, so that he hesitated but a moment with his rejoinder after she had asked him how many thousands of dollars he expected to make.

“For Miss Verena? It depends upon the time. She’d run for ten years, at least. I can’t figure it up till all the States have been heard from,” he said, smiling.

“I don’t mean for Miss Tarrant, I mean for you,” Olive returned, with the impression that she was looking him straight in the eye.

“Oh, as many as you’ll leave me!” Matthias Pardon answered, with a laugh that contained all, and more than all, the jocularity of the American press. “To speak seriously,” he added, “I don’t want to make money out of it.”

“What do you want to make then?”

“Well, I want to make history! I want to help the ladies.”

“The ladies?” Olive murmured. “What do you know about ladies?” she was on the point of adding, when his promptness checked her.

“All over the world. I want to work for their emancipation. I regard it as the great modern question.”

Miss Chancellor got up now; this was rather too strong. Whether, eventually, she was successful in what she attempted, the reader of her history will judge; but at this moment she had not that promise of success which resides in a willingness to make use of every aid that offers. Such is the penalty of being of a fastidious, exclusive, uncompromising nature; of seeing things not simply and sharply, but in perverse relations, in intertwisted strands. It seemed to our young lady that nothing could be less attractive than to owe her emancipation to such a one as Matthias Pardon; and it is curious that those qualities which he had in common with Verena, and which in her seemed to Olive romantic and touching — her having sprung from the “people,” had an acquaintance with poverty, a hand-to-mouth development, and an experience of the seamy side of life — availed in no degree to conciliate Miss Chancellor. I suppose it was because he was a man. She told him that she was much obliged to him for his offer, but that he evidently didn’t understand Verena and herself. No, not even Miss Tarrant, in spite of his long acquaintance with her. They had no desire to be notorious; they only wanted to be useful. They had no wish to make money; there would always be plenty of money for Miss Tarrant. Certainly, she should come before the public, and the world would acclaim her and hang upon her words; but crude, precipitate action was what both of them least desired. The change in the dreadful position of women was not a question for today simply, or for tomorrow, but for many years to come; and there would be a great deal to think of, to map out. One thing they were determined upon — that men shouldn’t taunt them with being superficial. When Verena should appear it would be armed at all points, like Joan of Arc (this analogy had lodged itself in Olive’s imagination); she should have facts and figures; she should meet men on their own ground. “What we mean to do, we mean to do well,” Miss Chancellor said to her visitor, with considerable sternness; leaving him to make such an application to himself as his fancy might suggest.

This announcement had little comfort for him; he felt baffled and disheartened — indeed, quite sick. Was it not sickening to hear her talk of this dreary process of preparation? — as if any one cared about that, and would know whether Verena were prepared or not! Had Miss Chancellor no faith in her girlhood? didn’t she know what a card that would be? This was the last inquiry Olive allowed him the opportunity of making. She remarked to him that they might talk for ever without coming to an agreement — their points of view were so far apart. Besides, it was a woman’s question; what they wanted was for women, and it should be by women. It had happened to the young Matthias more than once to be shown the way to the door, but the path of retreat had never yet seemed to him so unpleasant. He was naturally amiable, but it had not hitherto befallen him to be made to feel that he was not — and could not be — a factor in contemporary history: here was a rapacious woman who proposed to keep that favourable setting for herself. He let her know that she was right-down selfish, and that if she chose to sacrifice a beautiful nature to her antediluvian theories and love of power, a vigilant daily press — whose business it was to expose wrong-doing — would demand an account from her. She replied that, if the newspapers chose to insult her, that was their own affair; one outrage the more to the sex in her person was of little account. And after he had left her she seemed to see the glow of dawning success; the battle had begun, and something of the ecstasy of the martyr.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/boston/chapter17.html

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