The Bostonians, by Henry James

Chapter 27

“You won’t speak to me in my own house — that I have almost grown used to; but if you are going to pass me over in public I think you might give me warning first.” This was only her archness, and he knew what to make of that now; she was dressed in yellow and looked very plump and gay. He wondered at the unerring instinct by which she had discovered his exposed quarter. The outer room was completely empty; she had come in at the further door and found the field free for her operations. He offered to find her a place where she could see and hear Miss Tarrant, to get her a chair to stand on, even, if she wished to look over the heads of the gentlemen in the doorway; a proposal which she greeted with the inquiry —“Do you suppose I came here for the sake of that chatterbox? haven’t I told you what I think of her?”

“Well, you certainly did not come here for my sake,” said Ransom, anticipating this insinuation; “for you couldn’t possibly have known I was coming.”

“I guessed it — a presentiment told me!” Mrs. Luna declared; and she looked up at him with searching, accusing eyes. “I know what you have come for,” she cried in a moment. “You never mentioned to me that you knew Mrs. Burrage!”

“I don’t — I never had heard of her till she asked me.”

“Then why in the world did she ask you?”

Ransom had spoken a trifle rashly; it came over him, quickly, that there were reasons why he had better not have said that. But almost as quickly he covered up his mistake. “I suppose your sister was so good as to ask for a card for me.”

“My sister? My grandmother! I know how Olive loves you. Mr. Ransom, you are very deep.” She had drawn him well into the room, out of earshot of the group in the doorway, and he felt that if she should be able to compass her wish she would organise a little entertainment for herself, in the outer drawing-room, in opposition to Miss Tarrant’s address. “Please come and sit down here a moment; we shall be quite undisturbed. I have something very particular to say to you.” She led the way to the little sofa in the corner, where he had been talking with Olive a few minutes before, and he accompanied her, with extreme reluctance, grudging the moments that he should be obliged to give to her. He had quite forgotten that he once had a vision of spending his life in her society, and he looked at his watch as he made the observation:

“I haven’t the least idea of losing any of the sport in there, you know.”

He felt, the next instant, that he oughtn’t to have said that either; but he was irritated, disconcerted, and he couldn’t help it. It was in the nature of a gallant Mississippian to do everything a lady asked him, and he had never, remarkable as it may appear, been in the position of finding such a request so incompatible with his own desires as now. It was a new predicament, for Mrs. Luna evidently meant to keep him if she could. She looked round the room, more and more pleased at their having it to themselves, and for the moment said nothing more about the singularity of his being there. On the contrary, she became freshly jocular, remarked that now they had got hold of him they wouldn’t easily let him go, they would make him entertain them, induce him to give a lecture — on the “Lights and Shadows of Southern Life,” or the “Social Peculiarities of Mississippi”— before the Wednesday Club.

“And what in the world is the Wednesday Club? I suppose it’s what those ladies were talking about,” Ransom said.

“I don’t know your ladies, but the Wednesday Club is this thing. I don’t mean you and me here together, but all those deluded beings in the other room. It is New York trying to be like Boston. It is the culture, the good form, of the metropolis. You might not think it, but it is. It’s the ‘quiet set’; they are quiet enough; you might hear a pin drop, in there. Is some one going to offer up a prayer? How happy Olive must be, to be taken so seriously! They form an association for meeting at each other’s houses, every week, and having some performance, or some paper read, or some subject explained. The more dreary it is and the more fearful the subject, the more they think it is what it ought to be. They have an idea this is the way to make New York society intellectual. There’s a sumptuary law — isn’t that what you call it? — about suppers, and they restrict themselves to a kind of Spartan broth. When it’s made by their French cooks it isn’t bad. Mrs. Burrage is one of the principal members — one of the founders, I believe; and when her turn has come round, formerly — it comes only once in the winter for each — I am told she has usually had very good music. But that is thought rather a base evasion, a begging of the question; the vulgar set can easily keep up with them on music. So Mrs. Burrage conceived the extraordinary idea”— and it was wonderful to hear how Mrs. Luna pronounced that adjective —“of sending on to Boston for that girl. It was her son, of course, who put it into her head; he has been at Cambridge for some years — that’s where Verena lived, you know — and he was as thick with her as you please out there. Now that he is no longer there it suits him very well to have her here. She is coming on a visit to his mother when Olive goes. I asked them to stay with me, but Olive declined, majestically; she said they wished to be in some place where they would be free to receive ‘sympathising friends.’ So they are staying at some extraordinary kind of New Jerusalem boarding-house, in Tenth Street; Olive thinks it’s her duty to go to such places. I was greatly surprised that she should let Verena be drawn into such a worldly crowd as this; but she told me they had made up their minds not to let any occasion slip, that they could sow the seed of truth in drawing-rooms as well as in workshops, and that if a single person was brought round to their ideas they should have been justified in coming on. That’s what they are doing in there — sowing the seed; but you shall not be the one that’s brought round, I shall take care of that. Have you seen my delightful sister yet? The way she does arrange herself when she wants to protest against frills! She looks as if she thought it pretty barren ground round here, now she has come to see it. I don’t think she thinks you can be saved in a French dress, anyhow. I must say I call it a very base evasion of Mrs. Burrage’s, producing Verena Tarrant; it’s worse than the meretricious music. Why didn’t she honestly send for a ballerina from Niblo’s — if she wanted a young woman capering about on a platform? They don’t care a fig about poor Olive’s ideas; it’s only because Verena has strange hair, and shiny eyes, and gets herself up like a prestidigitator’s assistant. I have never understood how Olive can reconcile herself to Verena’s really low style of dress. I suppose it’s only because her clothes are so fearfully made. You look as if you didn’t believe me — but I assure you that the cut is revolutionary; and that’s a salve to Olive’s conscience.”

Ransom was surprised to hear that he looked as if he didn’t believe her, for he had found himself, after his first uneasiness, listening with considerable interest to her account of the circumstances under which Miss Tarrant was visiting New York. After a moment, as the result of some private reflexion, he propounded this question: “Is the son of the lady of the house a handsome young man, very polite, in a white vest?”

“I don’t know the colour of his vest — but he has a kind of fawning manner. Verena judges from that that he is in love with her.”

“Perhaps he is,” said Ransom. “You say it was his idea to get her to come on.”

“Oh, he likes to flirt; that is highly probable.”

“Perhaps she has brought him round.”

“Not to where she wants, I think. The property is very large; he will have it all one of these days.”

“Do you mean she wishes to impose on him the yoke of matrimony?” Ransom asked, with Southern languor.

“I believe she thinks matrimony an exploded superstition; but there is here and there a case in which it is still the best thing; when the gentleman’s name happens to be Burrage and the young lady’s Tarrant. I don’t admire ‘Burrage’ so much myself. But I think she would have captured this present scion if it hadn’t been for Olive. Olive stands between them — she wants to keep her in the single sisterhood; to keep her, above all, for herself. Of course she won’t listen to her marrying, and she has put a spoke in the wheel. She has brought her to New York; that may seem against what I say; but the girl pulls hard, she has to humour her, to give her her head sometimes, to throw something overboard, in short, to save the rest. You may say, as regards Mr. Burrage, that it’s a queer taste in a gentleman; but there is no arguing about that. It’s queer taste in a lady, too; for she is a lady, poor Olive. You can see that to-night. She is dressed like a book-agent, but she is more distinguished than any one here. Verena, beside her, looks like a walking advertisement.”

When Mrs. Luna paused, Basil Ransom became aware that, in the other room, Verena’s address had begun; the sound of her clear, bright, ringing voice, an admirable voice for public uses, came to them from the distance. His eagerness to stand where he could hear her better, and see her into the bargain, made him start in his place, and this movement produced an outgush of mocking laughter on the part of his companion. But she didn’t say —“Go, go, deluded man, I take pity on you!” she only remarked, with light impertinence, that he surely wouldn’t be so wanting in gallantry as to leave a lady absolutely alone in a public place — it was so Mrs. Luna was pleased to qualify Mrs. Burrage’s drawing-room — in the face of her entreaty that he would remain with her. She had the better of poor Ransom, thanks to the superstitions of Mississippi. It was in his simple code a gross rudeness to withdraw from conversation with a lady at a party before another gentleman should have come to take one’s place; it was to inflict on the lady a kind of outrage. The other gentlemen, at Mrs. Burrage’s, were all too well occupied; there was not the smallest chance of one of them coming to his rescue. He couldn’t leave Mrs. Luna, and yet he couldn’t stay with her and lose the only thing he had come so much out of his way for. “Let me at least find you a place over there, in the doorway. You can stand upon a chair — you can lean on me.”

“Thank you very much; I would much rather lean on this sofa. And I am much too tired to stand on chairs. Besides, I wouldn’t for the world that either Verena or Olive should see me craning over the heads of the crowd — as if I attached the smallest importance to their perorations!”

“It isn’t time for the peroration yet,” Ransom said, with savage dryness; and he sat forward, with his elbow on his knees, his eyes on the ground, a flush in his sallow cheek.

“It’s never time to say such things as those,” Mrs. Luna remarked, arranging her laces.

“How do you know what she is saying?”

“I can tell by the way her voice goes up and down. It sounds so silly.”

Ransom sat there five minutes longer — minutes which, he felt, the recording angel ought to write down to his credit — and asked himself how Mrs. Luna could be such a goose as not to see that she was making him hate her. But she was goose enough for anything. He tried to appear indifferent, and it occurred to him to doubt whether the Mississippi system could be right, after all. It certainly hadn’t foreseen such a case as this. “It’s as plain as day that Mr. Burrage intends to marry her — if he can,” he said in a minute; that remark being better calculated than any other he could think of to dissimulate his real state of mind.

It drew no rejoinder from his companion, and after an instant he turned his head a little and glanced at her. The result of something that silently passed between them was to make her say, abruptly: “Mr. Ransom, my sister never sent you an invitation to this place. Didn’t it come from Verena Tarrant?”

“I haven’t the least idea.”

“As you hadn’t the least acquaintance with Mrs. Burrage, who else could it have come from?”

“If it came from Miss Tarrant, I ought at least to recognise her courtesy by listening to her.”

“If you rise from this sofa I will tell Olive what I suspect. She will be perfectly capable of carrying Verena off to China — or anywhere out of your reach.”

“And pray what is it you suspect?”

“That you two have been in correspondence.”

“Tell her whatever you like, Mrs. Luna,” said the young man, with the grimness of resignation.

“You are quite unable to deny it, I see.”

“I never contradict a lady.”

“We shall see if I can’t make you tell a fib. Haven’t you been seeing Miss Tarrant, too?”

“Where should I have seen her? I can’t see all the way to Boston, as you said the other day.”

“Haven’t you been there — on secret visits?”

Ransom started just perceptibly; but to conceal it, the next instant, he stood up.

“They wouldn’t be secret if I were to tell you.”

Looking down at her he saw that her words were a happy hit, not the result of definite knowledge. But she appeared to him vain, egotistical, grasping, odious.

“Well, I shall give the alarm,” she went on; “that is, I will if you leave me. Is that the way a Southern gentleman treats a lady? Do as I wish, and I will let you off!”

“You won’t let me off from staying with you.”

“Is it such a corvée? I never heard of such rudeness!” Mrs. Luna cried. “All the same, I am determined to keep you if I can!”

Ransom felt that she must be in the wrong, and yet superficially she seemed (and it was quite intolerable) to have right on her side. All this while Verena’s golden voice, with her words indistinct, solicited, tantalised his ear. The question had evidently got on Mrs. Luna’s nerves; she had reached that point of feminine embroilment when a woman is perverse for the sake of perversity, and even with a clear vision of bad consequences.

“You have lost your head,” he relieved himself by saying, as he looked down at her.

“I wish you would go and get me some tea.”

“You say that only to embarrass me.” He had hardly spoken when a great sound of applause, the clapping of many hands, and the cry from fifty throats of “Brava, brava!” floated in and died away. All Ransom’s pulses throbbed, he flung his scruples to the winds, and after remarking to Mrs. Luna — still with all due ceremony — that he feared he must resign himself to forfeiting her good opinion, turned his back upon her and strode away to the open door of the music-room. “Well, I have never been so insulted!” he heard her exclaim, with exceeding sharpness, as he left her; and, glancing back at her, as he took up his position, he saw her still seated on her sofa — alone in the lamp-lit desert — with her eyes making, across the empty space, little vindictive points. Well, she could come where he was, if she wanted him so much; he would support her on an ottoman, and make it easy for her to see. But Mrs. Luna was uncompromising; he became aware, after a minute, that she had withdrawn, majestically, from the place, and he did not see her again that evening.

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