The Bostonians, by Henry James

Chapter 22

As he sat with Mrs. Luna, in her little back drawing-room, under the lamp, he felt rather more tolerant than before of the pressure she could not help putting upon him. Several months had elapsed, and he was no nearer to the sort of success he had hoped for. It stole over him gently that there was another sort, pretty visibly open to him, not so elevated nor so manly, it is true, but on which he should after all, perhaps, be able to reconcile it with his honour to fall back. Mrs. Luna had had an inspiration; for once in her life she had held her tongue. She had not made him a scene, there had been no question of an explanation; she had received him as if he had been there the day before, with the addition of a spice of mysterious melancholy. She might have made up her mind that she had lost him as what she had hoped, but that it was better than desolation to try and keep him as a friend. It was as if she wished him to see now how she tried. She was subdued and consolatory, she waited upon him, moved away a screen that intercepted the fire, remarked that he looked very tired, and rang for some tea. She made no inquiry about his affairs, never asked if he had been busy and prosperous; and this reticence struck him as unexpectedly delicate and discreet; it was as if she had guessed, by a subtle feminine faculty, that his professional career was nothing to boast of. There was a simplicity in him which permitted him to wonder whether she had not improved. The lamp-light was soft, the fire crackled pleasantly, everything that surrounded him betrayed a woman’s taste and touch; the place was decorated and cushioned in perfection, delightfully private and personal, the picture of a well-appointed home. Mrs. Luna had complained of the difficulties of installing one’s self in America, but Ransom remembered that he had received an impression similar to this in her sister’s house in Boston, and reflected that these ladies had, as a family-trait, the art of making themselves comfortable. It was better for a winter’s evening than the German beer-cellar (Mrs. Luna’s tea was excellent), and his hostess herself appeared to-night almost as amiable as the variety-actress. At the end of an hour he felt, I will not say almost marriageable, but almost married. Images of leisure played before him, leisure in which he saw himself covering foolscap paper with his views on several subjects, and with favourable illustrations of Southern eloquence. It became tolerably vivid to him that if editors wouldn’t print one’s lucubrations, it would be a comfort to feel that one was able to publish them at one’s own expense.

He had a moment of almost complete illusion. Mrs. Luna had taken up her bit of crochet; she was sitting opposite to him, on the other side of the fire. Her white hands moved with little jerks as she took her stitches, and her rings flashed and twinkled in the light of the hearth. Her head fell a little to one side, exhibiting the plumpness of her chin and neck, and her dropped eyes (it gave her a little modest air) rested quietly on her work. A silence of a few moments had fallen upon their talk, and Adeline — who decidedly had improved — appeared also to feel the charm of it, not to wish to break it. Basil Ransom was conscious of all this, and at the same time he was vaguely engaged in a speculation. If it gave one time, if it gave one leisure, was not that in itself a high motive? Thorough study of the question he cared for most — was not the chance for that an infinitely desirable good? He seemed to see himself, to feel himself, in that very chair, in the evenings of the future, reading some indispensable book in the still lamp-light — Mrs. Luna knew where to get such pretty mellowing shades. Should he not be able to act in that way upon the public opinion of his time, to check certain tendencies, to point out certain dangers, to indulge in much salutary criticism? Was it not one’s duty to put one’s self in the best conditions for such action? And as the silence continued he almost fell to musing on his duty, almost persuaded himself that the moral law commanded him to marry Mrs. Luna. She looked up presently from her work, their eyes met, and she smiled. He might have believed she had guessed what he was thinking of. This idea startled him, alarmed him a little, so that when Mrs. Luna said, with her sociable manner, “There is nothing I like so much, of a winter’s night, as a cosy tête-à-tête by the fire. It’s quite like Darby and Joan; what a pity the kettle has ceased singing!”— when she uttered these insinuating words he gave himself a little imperceptible shake, which was, however, enough to break the spell, and made no response more direct than to ask her, in a moment, in a tone of cold, mild curiosity, whether she had lately heard from her sister, and how long Miss Chancellor intended to remain in Europe.

“Well, you have been living in your hole!” Mrs. Luna exclaimed. “Olive came home six weeks ago. How long did you expect her to endure it?”

“I am sure I don’t know; I have never been there,” Ransom replied.

“Yes, that’s what I like you for,” Mrs. Luna remarked sweetly. “If a man is nice without it, it’s such a pleasant change.”

The young man started, then gave a natural laugh. “Lord, how few reasons there must be!”

“Oh, I mention that one because I can tell it. I shouldn’t care to tell the others.”

“I am glad you have some to fall back upon, the day I should go,” Ransom went on. “I thought you thought so much of Europe.”

“So I do; but it isn’t everything,” said Mrs. Luna philosophically. “You had better go there with me,” she added, with a certain inconsequence.

“One would go to the end of the world with so irresistible a lady!” Ransom exclaimed, falling into the tone which Mrs. Luna always found so unsatisfactory. It was a part of his Southern gallantry — his accent always came out strongly when he said anything of that sort — and it committed him to nothing in particular. She had had occasion to wish, more than once, that he wouldn’t be so beastly polite, as she used to hear people say in England. She answered that she didn’t care about ends, she cared about beginnings; but he didn’t take up the declaration; he returned to the subject of Olive, wanted to know what she had done over there, whether she had worked them up much.

“Oh, of course, she fascinated every one,” said Mrs. Luna. “With her grace and beauty, her general style, how could she help that?”

“But did she bring them round, did she swell the host that is prepared to march under her banner?”

“I suppose she saw plenty of the strong-minded, plenty of vicious old maids, and fanatics, and frumps. But I haven’t the least idea what she accomplished — what they call ‘wonders,’ I suppose.”

“Didn’t you see her when she returned?” Basil Ransom asked.

“How could I see her? I can see pretty far, but I can’t see all the way to Boston.” And then, in explaining that it was at this port that her sister had disembarked, Mrs. Luna further inquired whether he could imagine Olive doing anything in a first-rate way, as long as there were inferior ones. “Of course she likes bad ships — Boston steamers — just as she likes common people, and red-haired hoydens, and preposterous doctrines.”

Ransom was silent a moment. “Do you mean the — a — rather striking young lady whom I met in Boston a year ago last October? What was her name? — Miss Tarrant? Does Miss Chancellor like her as much as ever?”

“Mercy! don’t you know she took her to Europe? It was to form her mind she went. Didn’t I tell you that last summer? You used to come to see me then.”

“Oh yes, I remember,” Ransom said, rather musingly. “And did she bring her back?”

“Gracious, you don’t suppose she would leave her! Olive thinks she’s born to regenerate the world.”

“I remember you telling me that, too. It comes back to me. Well, is her mind formed?”

“As I haven’t seen it, I cannot tell you.”

“Aren’t you going on there to see ——”

“To see whether Miss Tarrant’s mind is formed?” Mrs. Luna broke in. “I will go if you would like me to. I remember your being immensely excited about her that time you met her. Don’t you recollect that?”

Ransom hesitated an instant. “I can’t say I do. It is too long ago.”

“Yes, I have no doubt that’s the way you change, about women! Poor Miss Tarrant, if she thinks she made an impression on you!”

“She won’t think about such things as that, if her mind has been formed by your sister,” Ransom said. “It does come back to me now, what you told me about the growth of their intimacy. And do they mean to go on living together for ever?”

“I suppose so — unless some one should take it into his head to marry Verena.”

“Verena — is that her name?” Ransom asked.

Mrs. Luna looked at him with a suspended needle. “Well! have you forgotten that too? You told me yourself you thought it so pretty, that time in Boston, when you walked me up the hill.” Ransom declared that he remembered that walk, but didn’t remember everything he had said to her; and she suggested, very satirically, that perhaps he would like to marry Verena himself — he seemed so interested in her. Ransom shook his head sadly, and said he was afraid he was not in a position to marry; whereupon Mrs. Luna asked him what he meant — did he mean (after a moment’s hesitation) that he was too poor?

“Never in the world — I am very rich; I make an enormous income!” the young man exclaimed; so that, remarking his tone, and the slight flush of annoyance that rose to his face, Mrs. Luna was quick enough to judge that she had overstepped the mark. She remembered (she ought to have remembered before) that he had never taken her in the least into his confidence about his affairs. That was not the Southern way, and he was at least as proud as he was poor. In this surmise she was just; Basil Ransom would have despised himself if he had been capable of confessing to a woman that he couldn’t make a living. Such questions were none of their business (their business was simply to be provided for, practise the domestic virtues, and be charmingly grateful), and there was, to his sense, something almost indecent in talking about them. Mrs. Luna felt doubly sorry for him as she perceived that he denied himself the luxury of sympathy (that is, of hers), and the vague but comprehensive sigh that passed her lips as she took up her crochet again was unusually expressive of helplessness. She said that of course she knew how great his talents were — he could do anything he wanted; and Basil Ransom wondered for a moment whether, if she were to ask him point-blank to marry her, it would be consistent with the high courtesy of a Southern gentleman to refuse. After she should be his wife he might of course confess to her that he was too poor to marry, for in that relation even a Southern gentleman of the highest tone must sometimes unbend. But he didn’t in the least long for this arrangement, and was conscious that the most pertinent sequel to her conjecture would be for him to take up his hat and walk away.

Within five minutes, however, he had come to desire to do this almost as little as to marry Mrs. Luna. He wanted to hear more about the girl who lived with Olive Chancellor. Something had revived in him — an old curiosity, an image half effaced — when he learned that she had come back to America. He had taken a wrong impression from what Mrs. Luna said, nearly a year before, about her sister’s visit to Europe; he had supposed it was to be a long absence, that Miss Chancellor wanted perhaps to get the little prophetess away from her parents, possibly even away from some amorous entanglement. Then, no doubt, they wanted to study up the woman-question with the facilities that Europe would offer; he didn’t know much about Europe, but he had an idea that it was a great place for facilities. His knowledge of Miss Chancellor’s departure, accompanied by her young companion, had checked at the time, on Ransom’s part, a certain habit of idle but none the less entertaining retrospect. His life, on the whole, had not been rich in episode, and that little chapter of his visit to his queer, clever, capricious cousin, with his evening at Miss Birdseye’s, and his glimpse, repeated on the morrow, of the strange, beautiful, ridiculous, red-haired young improvisatrice, unrolled itself in his memory like a page of interesting fiction. The page seemed to fade, however, when he heard that the two girls had gone, for an indefinite time, to unknown lands; this carried them out of his range, spoiled the perspective, diminished their actuality; so that for several months past, with his increase of anxiety about his own affairs, and the low pitch of his spirits, he had not thought at all about Verena Tarrant. The fact that she was once more in Boston, with a certain contiguity that it seemed to imply between Boston and New York, presented itself now as important and agreeable. He was conscious that this was rather an anomaly, and his consciousness made him, had already made him, dissimulate slightly. He did not pick up his hat to go; he sat in his chair taking his chance of the tax which Mrs. Luna might lay upon his urbanity. He remembered that he had not made, as yet, any very eager inquiry about Newton, who at this late hour had succumbed to the only influence that tames the untamable and was sleeping the sleep of childhood, if not of innocence. Ransom repaired his neglect in a manner which elicited the most copious response from his hostess. The boy had had a good many tutors since Ransom gave him up, and it could not be said that his education languished. Mrs. Luna spoke with pride of the manner in which he went through them; if he did not master his lessons, he mastered his teachers, and she had the happy conviction that she gave him every advantage. Ransom’s delay was diplomatic, but at the end of ten minutes he returned to the young ladies in Boston; he asked why, with their aggressive programme, one hadn’t begun to feel their onset, why the echoes of Miss Tarrant’s eloquence hadn’t reached his ears. Hadn’t she come out yet in public? was she not coming to stir them up in New York? He hoped she hadn’t broken down.

“She didn’t seem to break down last summer, at the Female Convention,” Mrs. Luna replied. “Have you forgotten that too? Didn’t I tell you of the sensation she produced there, and of what I heard from Boston about it? Do you mean to say I didn’t give you that “Transcript,” with the report of her great speech? It was just before they sailed for Europe; she went off with flying colours, in a blaze of fireworks.” Ransom protested that he had not heard this affair mentioned till that moment, and then, when they compared dates, they found it had taken place just after his last visit to Mrs. Luna. This, of course, gave her a chance to say that he had treated her even worse than she supposed; it had been her impression, at any rate, that they had talked together about Verena’s sudden bound into fame. Apparently she confounded him with some one else, that was very possible; he was not to suppose that he occupied such a distinct place in her mind, especially when she might die twenty deaths before he came near her. Ransom demurred to the implication that Miss Tarrant was famous; if she were famous, wouldn’t she be in the New York papers? He hadn’t seen her there, and he had no recollection of having encountered any mention at the time (last June, was it?) of her exploits at the Female Convention. A local reputation doubtless she had, but that had been the case a year and a half before, and what was expected of her then was to become a first-class national glory. He was willing to believe that she had created some excitement in Boston, but he shouldn’t attach much importance to that till one began to see her photograph in the stores. Of course, one must give her time, but he had supposed Miss Chancellor was going to put her through faster.

If he had taken a contradictious tone on purpose to draw Mrs. Luna out, he could not have elicited more of the information he desired. It was perfectly true that he had seen no reference to Verena’s performances in the preceding June; there were periods when the newspapers seemed to him so idiotic that for weeks he never looked at one. He learned from Mrs. Luna that it was not Olive who had sent her the “Transcript” and in letters had added some private account of the doings at the convention to the testimony of that amiable sheet; she had been indebted for this service to a “gentleman-friend,” who wrote her everything that happened in Boston, and what every one had every day for dinner. Not that it was necessary for her happiness to know; but the gentleman she spoke of didn’t know what to invent to please her. A Bostonian couldn’t imagine that one didn’t want to know, and that was their idea of ingratiating themselves, or, at any rate, it was his, poor man. Olive would never have gone into particulars about Verena; she regarded her sister as quite too much one of the profane, and knew Adeline couldn’t understand why, when she took to herself a bosom-friend, she should have been at such pains to select her in just the most dreadful class in the community. Verena was a perfect little adventuress, and quite third-rate into the bargain; but, of course, she was a pretty girl enough, if one cared for hair of the colour of cochineal. As for her people, they were too absolutely awful; it was exactly as if she, Mrs. Luna, had struck up an intimacy with the daughter of her chiropodist. It took Olive to invent such monstrosities, and to think she was doing something great for humanity when she did so; though, in spite of her wanting to turn everything over, and put the lowest highest, she could be just as contemptuous and invidious, when it came to really mixing, as if she were some grand old duchess. She must do her the justice to say that she hated the Tarrants, the father and mother; but, all the same, she let Verena run to and fro between Charles Street and the horrible hole they lived in, and Adeline knew from that gentleman who wrote so copiously that the girl now and then spent a week at a time at Cambridge. Her mother, who had been ill for some weeks, wanted her to sleep there. Mrs. Luna knew further, by her correspondent, that Verena had — or had had the winter before — a great deal of attention from gentlemen. She didn’t know how she worked that into the idea that the female sex was sufficient to itself; but she had grounds for saying that this was one reason why Olive had taken her abroad. She was afraid Verena would give in to some man, and she wanted to make a break. Of course, any such giving in would be very awkward for a young woman who shrieked out on platforms that old maids were the highest type. Adeline guessed Olive had perfect control of her now, unless indeed she used the expeditions to Cambridge as a cover for meeting gentlemen. She was an artful little minx, and cared as much for the rights of women as she did for the Panama Canal; the only right of a woman she wanted was to climb up on top of something, where the men could look at her. She would stay with Olive as long as it served her purpose, because Olive, with her great respectability, could push her, and counteract the effect of her low relations, to say nothing of paying all her expenses and taking her the tour of Europe. “But, mark my words,” said Mrs. Luna, “she will give Olive the greatest cut she has ever had in her life. She will run off with some lion-tamer; she will marry a circus-man!” And Mrs. Luna added that it would serve Olive Chancellor right. But she would take it hard; look out for tantrums then!

Basil Ransom’s emotions were peculiar while his hostess delivered herself, in a manner at once casual and emphatic, of these rather insidious remarks. He took them all in, for they represented to him certain very interesting facts; but he perceived at the same time that Mrs. Luna didn’t know what she was talking about. He had seen Verena Tarrant only twice in his life, but it was no use telling him that she was an adventuress — though, certainly, it was very likely she would end by giving Miss Chancellor a cut. He chuckled, with a certain grimness, as this image passed before him; it was not unpleasing, the idea that he should be avenged (for it would avenge him to know it) upon the wanton young woman who had invited him to come and see her in order simply to slap his face. But he had an odd sense of having lost something in not knowing of the other girl’s appearance at the Women’s Convention — a vague feeling that he had been cheated and trifled with. The complaint was idle, inasmuch as it was not probable he could have gone to Boston to listen to her; but it represented to him that he had not shared, even dimly and remotely, in an event which concerned her very closely. Why should he share, and what was more natural than that the things which concerned her closely should not concern him at all? This question came to him only as he walked home that evening; for the moment it remained quite in abeyance: therefore he was free to feel also that his imagination had been rather starved by his ignorance of the fact that she was near him again (comparatively), that she was in the dimness of the horizon (no longer beyond the curve of the globe), and yet he had not perceived it. This sense of personal loss, as I have called it, made him feel, further, that he had something to make up, to recover. He could scarcely have told you how he would go about it; but the idea, formless though it was, led him in a direction very different from the one he had been following a quarter of an hour before. As he watched it dance before him he fell into another silence, in the midst of which Mrs. Luna gave him another mystic smile. The effect of it was to make him rise to his feet; the whole landscape of his mind had suddenly been illuminated. Decidedly, it was not his duty to marry Mrs. Luna, in order to have means to pursue his studies; he jerked himself back, as if he had been on the point of it.

“You don’t mean to say you are going already? I haven’t said half I wanted to!” she exclaimed.

He glanced at the clock, saw it was not yet late, took a turn about the room, then sat down again in a different place, while she followed him with her eyes, wondering what was the matter with him. Ransom took good care not to ask her what it was she had still to say, and perhaps it was to prevent her telling him that he now began to talk, freely, quickly, in quite a new tone. He stayed half an hour longer, and made himself very agreeable. It seemed to Mrs. Luna now that he had every distinction (she had known he had most), that he was really a charming man. He abounded in conversation, till at last he took up his hat in earnest; he talked about the state of the South, its social peculiarities, the ruin wrought by the war, the dilapidated gentry, the queer types of superannuated fire-eaters, ragged and unreconciled, all the pathos and all the comedy of it, making her laugh at one moment, almost cry at another, and say to herself throughout that when he took it into his head there was no one who could make a lady’s evening pass so pleasantly. It was only afterwards that she asked herself why he had not taken it into his head till the last, so quickly. She delighted in the dilapidated gentry; her taste was completely different from her sister’s, who took an interest only in the lower class, as it struggled to rise; what Adeline cared for was the fallen aristocracy (it seemed to be falling everywhere very much; was not Basil Ransom an example of it? was he not like a French gentilhomme de province after the Revolution? or an old monarchical émigré from the Languedoc?), the despoiled patriciate, I say, whose attitude was noble and touching, and toward whom one might exercise a charity as discreet as their pride was sensitive. In all Mrs. Luna’s visions of herself, her discretion was the leading feature. “Are you going to let ten years elapse again before you come?” she asked, as Basil Ransom bade her good-night. “You must let me know, because between this and your next visit I shall have time to go to Europe and come back. I shall take care to arrive the day before.”

Instead of answering this sally, Ransom said, “Are you not going one of these days to Boston? Are you not going to pay your sister another visit?”

Mrs. Luna stared. “What good will that do you? Excuse my stupidity,” she added; “of course, it gets me away. Thank you very much!”

“I don’t want you to go away; but I want to hear more about Miss Olive.”

“Why in the world? You know you loathe her!” Here, before Ransom could reply, Mrs. Luna again overtook herself. “I verily believe that by Miss Olive you mean Miss Verena!” Her eyes charged him a moment with this perverse intention; then she exclaimed, “Basil Ransom, are you in love with that creature?”

He gave a perfectly natural laugh, not pleading guilty, in order to practise on Mrs. Luna, but expressing the simple state of the case. “How should I be? I have seen her but twice in my life.”

“If you had seen her more, I shouldn’t be afraid! Fancy your wanting to pack me off to Boston!” his hostess went on. “I am in no hurry to stay with Olive again; besides, that girl takes up the whole house. You had better go there yourself.”

“I should like nothing better,” said Ransom.

“Perhaps you would like me to ask Verena to spend a month with me — it might be a way of attracting you to the house,” Adeline went on, in the tone of exuberant provocation.

Ransom was on the point of replying that it would be a better way than any other, but he checked himself in time; he had never yet, even in joke, made so crude, so rude a speech to a lady. You only knew when he was joking with women by his super-added civility. “I beg you to believe there is nothing I would do for any woman in the world that I wouldn’t do for you,” he said, bending, for the last time, over Mrs. Luna’s plump hand.

“I shall remember that and keep you up to it!” she cried after him, as he went. But even with this rather lively exchange of vows he felt that he had got off rather easily. He walked slowly up Fifth Avenue, into which, out of Adeline’s cross-street, he had turned, by the light of a fine winter moon; and at every corner he stopped a minute, lingered in meditation, while he exhaled a soft, vague sigh. This was an unconscious, involuntary expression of relief, such as a man might utter who had seen himself on the point of being run over and yet felt that he was whole. He didn’t trouble himself much to ask what had saved him; whatever it was it had produced a reaction, so that he felt rather ashamed of having found his look-out of late so blank. By the time he reached his lodgings, his ambition, his resolution, had rekindled; he had remembered that he formerly supposed he was a man of ability, that nothing particular had occurred to make him doubt it (the evidence was only negative, not positive), and that at any rate he was young enough to have another try. He whistled that night as he went to bed.

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