The Bostonians, by Henry James

Chapter 25

They passed through two or three small, short streets, which, with their little wooden houses, with still more wooden door-yards, looked as if they had been constructed by the nearest carpenter and his boy — a sightless, soundless, interspaced, embryonic region — and entered a long avenue which, fringed on either side with fresh villas, offering themselves trustfully to the public, had the distinction of a wide pavement of neat red brick. The new paint on the square detached houses shone afar off in the transparent air: they had, on top, little cupolas and belvederes, in front a pillared piazza, made bare by the indoor life of winter, on either side a bow-window or two, and everywhere an embellishment of scallops, brackets, cornices, wooden flourishes. They stood, for the most part, on small eminences, lifted above the impertinence of hedge or paling, well up before the world, with all the good conscience which in many cases came, as Ransom saw (and he had noticed the same ornament when he traversed with Olive the quarter of Boston inhabited by Miss Birdseye), from a silvered number, affixed to the glass above the door, in figures huge enough to be read by the people who, in the periodic horse-cars, travelled along the middle of the avenue. It was to these glittering badges that many of the houses on either side owed their principal identity. One of the horse-cars now advanced in the straight, spacious distance; it was almost the only object that animated the prospect, which, in its large cleanness, its implication of strict business-habits on the part of all the people who were not there, Ransom thought very impressive. As he went on with Verena he asked her about the Women’s Convention, the year before; whether it had accomplished much work and she had enjoyed it.

“What do you care about the work it accomplished?” said the girl. “You don’t take any interest in that.”

“You mistake my attitude. I don’t like it, but I greatly fear it.”

In answer to this Verena gave a free laugh. “I don’t believe you fear much!”

“The bravest men have been afraid of women. Won’t you even tell me whether you enjoyed it? I am told you made an immense sensation there — that you leaped into fame.”

Verena never waved off an allusion to her ability, her eloquence; she took it seriously, without any flutter or protest, and had no more manner about it than if it concerned the goddess Minerva. “I believe I attracted considerable attention; of course, that’s what Olive wants — it paves the way for future work. I have no doubt I reached many that wouldn’t have been reached otherwise. They think that’s my great use — to take hold of the outsiders, as it were; of those who are prejudiced or thoughtless, or who don’t care about anything unless it’s amusing. I wake up the attention.”

“That’s the class to which I belong,” Ransom said. “Am I not an outsider? I wonder whether you would have reached me — or waked up my attention!”

Verena was silent awhile, as they walked; he heard the light click of her boots on the smooth bricks. Then —“I think I have waked it up a little,” she replied, looking straight before her.

“Most assuredly! You have made me wish tremendously to contradict you.”

“Well, that’s a good sign.”

“I suppose it was very exciting — your convention,” Ransom went on, in a moment; “the sort of thing you would miss very much if you were to return to the ancient fold.”

“The ancient fold, you say very well, where women were slaughtered like sheep! Oh, last June, for a week, we just quivered! There were delegates from every State and every city; we lived in a crowd of people and of ideas; the heat was intense, the weather magnificent, and great thoughts and brilliant sayings flew round like darting fireflies. Olive had six celebrated, high-minded women staying in her house — two in a room; and in the summer evenings we sat in the open windows, in her parlour, looking out on the bay, with the lights gleaming in the water, and talked over the doings of the morning, the speeches, the incidents, the fresh contributions to the cause. We had some tremendously earnest discussions, which it would have been a benefit to you to hear, or any man who doesn’t think that we can rise to the highest point. Then we had some refreshment — we consumed quantities of ice-cream!” said Verena, in whom the note of gaiety alternated with that of earnestness, almost of exaltation, in a manner which seemed to Basil Ransom absolutely and fascinatingly original. “Those were great nights!” she added, between a laugh and a sigh.

Her description of the convention put the scene before him vividly; he seemed to see the crowded, overheated hall, which he was sure was filled with carpet-baggers, to hear flushed women, with loosened bonnet-strings, forcing thin voices into ineffectual shrillness. It made him angry, and all the more angry, that he hadn’t a reason, to think of the charming creature at his side being mixed up with such elements, pushed and elbowed by them, conjoined with them in emulation, in unsightly strainings and clappings and shoutings, in wordy, windy iteration of inanities. Worst of all was the idea that she should have expressed such a congregation to itself so acceptably, have been acclaimed and applauded by hoarse throats, have been lifted up, to all the vulgar multitude, as the queen of the occasion. He made the reflexion, afterwards, that he was singularly ill-grounded in his wrath, inasmuch as it was none of his business what use Miss Tarrant chose to make of her energies, and, in addition to this, nothing else was to have been expected of her. But that reflexion was absent now, and in its absence he saw only the fact that his companion had been odiously perverted. “Well, Miss Tarrant,” he said, with a deeper seriousness than showed in his voice, “I am forced to the painful conclusion that you are simply ruined.”

“Ruined? Ruined yourself!”

“Oh, I know the kind of women that Miss Chancellor had at her house, and what a group you must have made when you looked out at the Back Bay! It depresses me very much to think of it.”

“We made a lovely, interesting group, and if we had had a spare minute we would have been photographed,” Verena said.

This led him to ask her if she had ever subjected herself to the process; and she answered that a photographer had been after her as soon as she got back from Europe, and that she had sat for him, and that there were certain shops in Boston where her portrait could be obtained. She gave him this information very simply, without pretence of vagueness of knowledge, spoke of the matter rather respectfully, indeed, as if it might be of some importance; and when he said that he should go and buy one of the little pictures as soon as he returned to town, contented herself with replying, “Well, be sure you pick out a good one!” He had not been altogether without a hope that she would offer to give him one, with her name written beneath, which was a mode of acquisition he would greatly have preferred; but this, evidently, had not occurred to her, and now, as they went further, her thought was following a different train. That was proved by her remarking, at the end of a silence, inconsequently, “Well, it showed I have a great use!” As he stared, wondering what she meant, she explained that she referred to the brilliancy of her success at the convention. “It proved I have a great use,” she repeated, “and that is all I care for!”

“The use of a truly amiable woman is to make some honest man happy,” Ransom said, with a sententiousness of which he was perfectly aware.

It was so marked that it caused her to stop short in the middle of the broad walk, while she looked at him with shining eyes. “See here, Mr. Ransom, do you know what strikes me?” she exclaimed. “The interest you take in me isn’t really controversial — a bit. It’s quite personal!” She was the most extraordinary girl; she could speak such words as those without the smallest look of added consciousness coming into her face, without the least supposable intention of coquetry, or any visible purpose of challenging the young man to say more.

“My interest in you — my interest in you,” he began. Then hesitating, he broke off suddenly. “It is certain your discovery doesn’t make it any less!”

“Well, that’s better,” she went on; “for we needn’t dispute.”

He laughed at the way she arranged it, and they presently reached the irregular group of heterogeneous buildings — chapels, dormitories, libraries, halls — which, scattered among slender trees, over a space reserved by means of a low rustic fence, rather than enclosed (for Harvard knows nothing either of the jealousy or the dignity of high walls and guarded gateways), constitutes the great university of Massachusetts. The yard, or college-precinct, is traversed by a number of straight little paths, over which, at certain hours of the day, a thousand undergraduates, with books under their arm and youth in their step, flit from one school to another. Verena Tarrant knew her way round, as she said to her companion; it was not the first time she had taken an admiring visitor to see the local monuments. Basil Ransom, walking with her from point to point, admired them all, and thought several of them exceedingly quaint and venerable. The rectangular structures of old red brick especially gratified his eye; the afternoon sun was yellow on their homely faces; their windows showed a peep of flower-pots and bright-coloured curtains; they wore an expression of scholastic quietude, and exhaled for the young Mississippian a tradition, an antiquity. “This is the place where I ought to have been,” he said to his charming guide. “I should have had a good time if I had been able to study here.”

“Yes; I presume you feel yourself drawn to any place where ancient prejudices are garnered up,” she answered, not without archness. “I know by the stand you take about our cause that you share the superstitions of the old bookmen. You ought to have been at one of those really mediæval universities that we saw on the other side, at Oxford, or Göttingen, or Padua. You would have been in perfect sympathy with their spirit.”

“Well, I don’t know much about those old haunts,” Ransom rejoined. “I reckon this is good enough for me. And then it would have had the advantage that your residence isn’t far, you know.”

“Oh, I guess we shouldn’t have seen you much at my residence! As you live in New York, you come, but here you wouldn’t; that is always the way.” With this light philosophy Verena beguiled the transit to the library, into which she introduced her companion with the air of a person familiar with the sanctified spot. This edifice, a diminished copy of the chapel of King’s College, at the greater Cambridge, is a rich and impressive institution; and as he stood there, in the bright, heated stillness, which seemed suffused with the odour of old print and old bindings, and looked up into the high, light vaults that hung over quiet book-laden galleries, alcoves and tables, and glazed cases where rarer treasures gleamed more vaguely, over busts of benefactors and portraits of worthies, bowed heads of working students and the gentle creak of passing messengers — as he took possession, in a comprehensive glance, of the wealth and wisdom of the place, he felt more than ever the soreness of an opportunity missed; but he abstained from expressing it (it was too deep for that), and in a moment Verena had introduced him to a young lady, a friend of hers, who, as she explained, was working on the catalogue, and whom she had asked for on entering the library, at a desk where another young lady was occupied. Miss Catching, the first-mentioned young lady, presented herself with promptness, offered Verena a low-toned but appreciative greeting, and, after a little, undertook to explain to Ransom the mysteries of the catalogue, which consisted of a myriad little cards, disposed alphabetically in immense chests of drawers. Ransom was deeply interested, and as, with Verena, he followed Miss Catching about (she was so good as to show them the establishment in all its ramifications), he considered with attention the young lady’s fair ringlets and refined, anxious expression, saying to himself that this was in the highest degree a New England type. Verena found an opportunity to mention to him that she was wrapped up in the cause, and there was a moment during which he was afraid that his companion would expose him to her as one of its traducers; but there was that in Miss Catching’s manner (and in the influence of the lofty halls) which deprecated loud pleasantry, and seemed to say, moreover, that if she were treated to such a revelation she should not know under what letter to range it.

“Now there is one place where perhaps it would be indelicate to take a Mississippian,” Verena said, after this episode. “I mean the great place that towers above the others — that big building with the beautiful pinnacles, which you see from every point.” But Basil Ransom had heard of the great Memorial Hall; he knew what memories it enshrined, and the worst that he should have to suffer there; and the ornate, overtopping structure, which was the finest piece of architecture he had ever seen, had moreover solicited his enlarged curiosity for the last half-hour. He thought there was rather too much brick about it, but it was buttressed, cloistered, turreted, dedicated, superscribed, as he had never seen anything; though it didn’t look old, it looked significant; it covered a large area, and it sprang majestic into the winter air. It was detached from the rest of the collegiate group, and stood in a grassy triangle of its own. As he approached it with Verena she suddenly stopped, to decline responsibility. “Now mind, if you don’t like what’s inside, it isn’t my fault.”

He looked at her an instant, smiling. “Is there anything against Mississippi?”

“Well, no, I don’t think she is mentioned. But there is great praise of our young men in the war.”

“It says they were brave, I suppose.”

“Yes, it says so in Latin.”

“Well, so they were — I know something about that,” Basil Ransom said. “I must be brave enough to face them — it isn’t the first time.” And they went up the low steps and passed into the tall doors. The Memorial Hall of Harvard consists of three main divisions: one of them a theatre, for academic ceremonies; another a vast refectory, covered with a timbered roof, hung about with portraits and lighted by stained windows, like the halls of the colleges of Oxford; and the third, the most interesting, a chamber high, dim, and severe, consecrated to the sons of the university who fell in the long Civil War. Ransom and his companion wandered from one part of the building to another, and stayed their steps at several impressive points; but they lingered longest in the presence of the white, ranged tablets, each of which, in its proud, sad clearness, is inscribed with the name of a student-soldier. The effect of the place is singularly noble and solemn, and it is impossible to feel it without a lifting of the heart. It stands there for duty and honour, it speaks of sacrifice and example, seems a kind of temple to youth, manhood, generosity. Most of them were young, all were in their prime, and all of them had fallen; this simple idea hovers before the visitor and makes him read with tenderness each name and place — names often without other history, and forgotten Southern battles. For Ransom these things were not a challenge nor a taunt; they touched him with respect, with the sentiment of beauty. He was capable of being a generous foeman, and he forgot, now, the whole question of sides and parties; the simple emotion of the old fighting-time came back to him, and the monument around him seemed an embodiment of that memory; it arched over friends as well as enemies, the victims of defeat as well as the sons of triumph.

“It is very beautiful — but I think it is very dreadful!” This remark, from Verena, called him back to the present. “It’s a real sin to put up such a building, just to glorify a lot of bloodshed. If it wasn’t so majestic, I would have it pulled down.”

“That is delightful feminine logic!” Ransom answered. “If, when women have the conduct of affairs, they fight as well as they reason, surely for them too we shall have to set up memorials.”

Verena retorted that they would reason so well they would have no need to fight — they would usher in the reign of peace. “But this is very peaceful too,” she added, looking about her; and she sat down on a low stone ledge, as if to enjoy the influence of the scene. Ransom left her alone for ten minutes; he wished to take another look at the inscribed tablets, and read again the names of the various engagements, at several of which he had been present. When he came back to her she greeted him abruptly, with a question which had no reference to the solemnity of the spot. “If Miss Birdseye knew you were coming out to see me, can’t she easily tell Olive? Then won’t Olive make her reflexions about your neglect of herself?”

“I don’t care for her reflexions. At any rate, I asked Miss Birdseye, as a favour, not to mention to her that she had met me,” Ransom added.

Verena was silent a moment. “Your logic is most as good as a woman’s. Do change your mind and go to see her now,” she went on. “She will probably be at home by the time you get to Charles Street. If she was a little strange, a little stiff with you before (I know just how she must have been), all that will be different today.”

“Why will it be different?”

“Oh, she will be easier, more genial, much softer.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Ransom; and his scepticism seemed none the less complete because it was light and smiling.

“She is much happier now — she can afford not to mind you.”

“Not to mind me? That’s a nice inducement for a gentleman to go and see a lady!”

“Well, she will be more gracious, because she feels now that she is more successful.”

“You mean because she has brought you out? Oh, I have no doubt that has cleared the air for her immensely, and you have improved her very much. But I have got a charming impression out here, and I have no wish to put another — which won’t be charming, anyhow you arrange it — on top of it.”

“Well, she will be sure to know you have been round here, at any rate,” Verena rejoined.

“How will she know, unless you tell her?”

“I tell her everything,” said the girl; and now as soon as she had spoken, she blushed. He stood before her, tracing a figure on the mosaic pavement with his cane, conscious that in a moment they had become more intimate. They were discussing their affairs, which had nothing to do with the heroic symbols that surrounded them; but their affairs had suddenly grown so serious that there was no want of decency in their lingering there for the purpose. The implication that his visit might remain as a secret between them made them both feel it differently. To ask her to keep it so would have been, as it seemed to Ransom, a liberty, and, moreover, he didn’t care so much as that; but if she were to prefer to do so such a preference would only make him consider the more that his expedition had been a success.

“Oh, then, you can tell her this!” he said in a moment.

“If I shouldn’t, it would be the first ——” And Verena checked herself.

“You must arrange that with your conscience,” Ransom went on, laughing.

They came out of the hall, passed down the steps, and emerged from the Delta, as that portion of the college precinct is called. The afternoon had begun to wane, but the air was filled with a pink brightness, and there was a cool, pure smell, a vague breath of spring.

“Well, if I don’t tell Olive, then you must leave me here,” said Verena, stopping in the path and putting out a hand of farewell.

“I don’t understand. What has that to do with it? Besides I thought you said you must tell,” Ransom added. In playing with the subject this way, in enjoying her visible hesitation, he was slightly conscious of a man’s brutality — of being pushed by an impulse to test her good-nature, which seemed to have no limit. It showed no sign of perturbation as she answered:

“Well, I want to be free — to do as I think best. And, if there is a chance of my keeping it back, there mustn’t be anything more — there must not, Mr. Ransom, really.”

“Anything more? Why, what are you afraid there will be — if I should simply walk home with you?”

“I must go alone, I must hurry back to mother,” she said, for all reply. And she again put out her hand, which he had not taken before.

Of course he took it now, and even held it a moment; he didn’t like being dismissed, and was thinking of pretexts to linger. “Miss Birdseye said you would convert me, but you haven’t yet,” it came into his head to say.

“You can’t tell yet; wait a little. My influence is peculiar; it sometimes comes out a long time afterwards!” This speech, on Verena’s part, was evidently perfunctory, and the grandeur of her self-reference jocular; she was much more serious when she went on quickly, “Do you mean to say Miss Birdseye promised you that?”

“Oh yes. Talk about influence! you should have seen the influence I obtained over her.”

“Well, what good will it do, if I’m going to tell Olive about your visit?”

“Well, you see, I think she hopes you won’t. She believes you are going to convert me privately — so that I shall blaze forth, suddenly, out of the darkness of Mississippi, as a first-class proselyte: very effective and dramatic.”

Verena struck Basil Ransom as constantly simple, but there were moments when her candour seemed to him preternatural. “If I thought that would be the effect, I might make an exception,” she remarked, speaking as if such a result were, after all, possible.

“Oh, Miss Tarrant, you will convert me enough, any way,” said the young man.

“Enough? What do you mean by enough?”

“Enough to make me terribly unhappy.”

She looked at him a moment, evidently not understanding; but she tossed him a retort at a venture, turned away, and took her course homeward. The retort was that if he should be unhappy it would serve him right — a form of words that committed her to nothing. As he returned to Boston he saw how curious he should be to learn whether she had betrayed him, as it were, to Miss Chancellor. He might learn through Mrs. Luna; that would almost reconcile him to going to see her again. Olive would mention it in writing to her sister, and Adeline would repeat the complaint. Perhaps she herself would even make him a scene about it; that would be, for him, part of the unhappiness he had foretold to Verena Tarrant.

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