The Bostonians, by Henry James

Chapter 28

He could command the music-room very well from where he stood, behind a thick outer fringe of intently listening men. Verena Tarrant was erect on her little platform, dressed in white, with flowers in her bosom. The red cloth beneath her feet looked rich in the light of lamps placed on high pedestals on either side of the stage; it gave her figure a setting of colour which made it more pure and salient. She moved freely in her exposed isolation, yet with great sobriety of gesture; there was no table in front of her, and she had no notes in her hand, but stood there like an actress before the footlights, or a singer spinning vocal sounds to a silver thread. There was such a risk that a slim provincial girl, pretending to fascinate a couple of hundred blasé New Yorkers by simply giving them her ideas, would fail of her effect, that at the end of a few moments Basil Ransom became aware that he was watching her in very much the same excited way as if she had been performing, high above his head, on the trapeze. Yet, as one listened, it was impossible not to perceive that she was in perfect possession of her faculties, her subject, her audience; and he remembered the other time at Miss Birdseye’s well enough to be able to measure the ground she had travelled since then. This exhibition was much more complete, her manner much more assured; she seemed to speak and survey the whole place from a much greater height. Her voice, too, had developed; he had forgotten how beautiful it could be when she raised it to its full capacity. Such a tone as that, so pure and rich, and yet so young, so natural, constituted in itself a talent; he didn’t wonder that they had made a fuss about her at the Female Convention, if she filled their hideous hall with such a music. He had read, of old, of the improvisatrice of Italy, and this was a chastened, modern, American version of the type, a New England Corinna, with a mission instead of a lyre. The most graceful part of her was her earnestness, the way her delightful eyes, wandering over the “fashionable audience” (before which she was so perfectly unabashed), as if she wished to resolve it into a single sentient personality, seemed to say that the only thing in life she cared for was to put the truth into a form that would render conviction irresistible. She was as simple as she was charming, and there was not a glance or motion that did not seem part of the pure, still-burning passion that animated her. She had indeed — it was manifest — reduced the company to unanimity; their attention was anything but languid; they smiled back at her when she smiled; they were noiseless, motionless when she was solemn; and it was evident that the entertainment which Mrs. Burrage had had the happy thought of offering to her friends would be memorable in the annals of the Wednesday Club. It was agreeable to Basil Ransom to think that Verena noticed him in his corner; her eyes played over her listeners so freely that you couldn’t say they rested in one place more than another; nevertheless, a single rapid ray, which, however, didn’t in the least strike him as a deviation from her ridiculous, fantastic, delightful argument, let him now that he had been missed and now was particularly spoken to. This glance was a sufficient assurance that his invitation had come to him by the girl’s request. He took for granted the matter of her speech was ridiculous; how could it help being, and what did it signify if it was? She was none the less charming for that, and the moonshine she had been plied with was none the less moonshine for her being charming. After he had stood there a quarter of an hour he became conscious that he should not be able to repeat a word she had said; he had not definitely heeded it, and yet he had not lost a vibration of her voice. He had discovered Olive Chancellor by this time; she was in the front row of chairs, at the end, on the left; her back was turned to him, but he could see half her sharp profile, bent down a little and absolutely motionless. Even across the wide interval her attitude expressed to him a kind of rapturous stillness, the concentration of triumph. There were several irrepressible effusions of applause, instantly self-checked, but Olive never looked up, at the loudest, and such a calmness as that could only be the result of passionate volition. Success was in the air, and she was tasting it; she tasted it, as she did everything, in a way of her own. Success for Verena was success for her, and Ransom was sure that the only thing wanting to her triumph was that he should have been placed in the line of her vision, so that she might enjoy his embarrassment and confusion, might say to him, in one of her dumb, cold flashes —“Now do you think our movement is not a force — now do you think that women are meant to be slaves?” Honestly, he was not conscious of any confusion; it subverted none of his heresies to perceive that Verena Tarrant had even more power to fix his attention than he had hitherto supposed. It was fixed in a way it had not been yet, however, by his at last understanding her speech, feeling it reach his inner sense through the impediment of mere dazzled vision. Certain phrases took on a meaning for him — an appeal she was making to those who still resisted the beneficent influence of the truth. They appeared to be mocking, cynical men, mainly; many of whom were such triflers and idlers, so heartless and brainless that it didn’t matter much what they thought on any subject; if the old tyranny needed to be propped up by them it showed it was in a pretty bad way. But there were others whose prejudice was stronger and more cultivated, pretended to rest upon study and argument. To those she wished particularly to address herself; she wanted to waylay them, to say, “Look here, you’re all wrong; you’ll be so much happier when I have convinced you. Just give me five minutes,” she should like to say; “just sit down here and let me ask a simple question. Do you think any state of society can come to good that is based upon an organised wrong?” That was the simple question that Verena desired to propound, and Basil smiled across the room at her with an amused tenderness as he gathered that she conceived it to be a poser. He didn’t think it would frighten him much if she were to ask him that, and he would sit down with her for as many minutes as she liked.

He, of course, was one of the systematic scoffers, one of those to whom she said —“Do you know how you strike me? You strike me as men who are starving to death while they have a cupboard at home, all full of bread and meat and wine; or as blind, demented beings who let themselves be cast into a debtor’s prison, while in their pocket they have the key of vaults and treasure-chests heaped up with gold and silver. The meat and wine, the gold and silver,” Verena went on, “are simply the suppressed and wasted force, the precious sovereign remedy, of which society insanely deprives itself — the genius, the intelligence, the inspiration of women. It is dying, inch by inch, in the midst of old superstitions which it invokes in vain, and yet it has the elixir of life in its hands. Let it drink but a draught, and it will bloom once more; it will be refreshed, radiant; it will find its youth again. The heart, the heart is cold, and nothing but the touch of woman can warm it, make it act. We are the Heart of humanity, and let us have the courage to insist on it! The public life of the world will move in the same barren, mechanical, vicious circle — the circle of egotism, cruelty, ferocity, jealousy, greed, of blind striving to do things only for some, at the cost of others, instead of trying to do everything for all. All, all? Who dares to say ‘all’ when we are not there? We are an equal, a splendid, an inestimable part. Try us and you’ll see — you will wonder how, without us, society has ever dragged itself even this distance — so wretchedly small compared with what it might have been — on its painful earthly pilgrimage. That is what I should like above all to pour into the ears of those who still hold out, who stiffen their necks and repeat hard, empty formulas, which are as dry as a broken gourd that has been flung away in the desert. I would take them by their selfishness, their indolence, their interest. I am not here to recriminate, nor to deepen the gulf that already yawns between the sexes, and I don’t accept the doctrine that they are natural enemies, since my plea is for a union far more intimate — provided it be equal — than any that the sages and philosophers of former times have ever dreamed of. Therefore I shall not touch upon the subject of men’s being most easily influenced by considerations of what is most agreeable and profitable for them; I shall simply assume that they are so influenced, and I shall say to them that our cause would long ago have been gained if their vision were not so dim, so veiled, even in matters in which their own interests are concerned. If they had the same quick sight as women, if they had the intelligence of the heart, the world would be very different now; and I assure you that half the bitterness of our lot is to see so clearly and not to be able to do! Good gentlemen all, if I could make you believe how much brighter and fairer and sweeter the garden of life would be for you, if you would only let us help you to keep it in order! You would like so much better to walk there, and you would find grass and trees and flowers that would make you think you were in Eden. That is what I should like to press home to each of you, personally, individually — to give him the vision of the world as it hangs perpetually before me, redeemed, transfigured, by a new moral tone. There would be generosity, tenderness, sympathy, where there is now only brute force and sordid rivalry. But you really do strike me as stupid even about your own welfare! Some of you say that we have already all the influence we can possibly require, and talk as if we ought to be grateful that we are allowed even to breathe. Pray, who shall judge what we require if not we ourselves? We require simply freedom; we require the lid to be taken off the box in which we have been kept for centuries. You say it’s a very comfortable, cozy, convenient box, with nice glass sides, so that we can see out, and that all that’s wanted is to give another quiet turn to the key. That is very easily answered. Good gentlemen, you have never been in the box, and you haven’t the least idea how it feels!”

The historian who has gathered these documents together does not deem it necessary to give a larger specimen of Verena’s eloquence, especially as Basil Ransom, through whose ears we are listening to it, arrived, at this point, at a definite conclusion. He had taken her measure as a public speaker, judged her importance in the field of discussion, the cause of reform. Her speech, in itself, had about the value of a pretty essay, committed to memory and delivered by a bright girl at an “academy”; it was vague, thin, rambling, a tissue of generalities that glittered agreeably enough in Mrs. Burrage’s veiled lamplight. From any serious point of view it was neither worth answering nor worth considering, and Basil Ransom made his reflexions on the crazy character of the age in which such a performance as that was treated as an intellectual effort, a contribution to a question. He asked himself what either he or any one else would think of it if Miss Chancellor — or even Mrs. Luna — had been on the platform instead of the actual declaimer. Nevertheless, its importance was high, and consisted precisely, in part, of the fact that the voice was not the voice of Olive or of Adeline. Its importance was that Verena was unspeakably attractive, and this was all the greater for him in the light of the fact, which quietly dawned upon him as he stood there, that he was falling in love with her. It had tapped at his heart for recognition, and before he could hesitate or challenge, the door had sprung open and the mansion was illuminated. He gave no outward sign; he stood gazing as at a picture; but the room wavered before his eyes, even Verena’s figure danced a little. This did not make the sequel of her discourse more clear to him; her meaning faded again into the agreeable vague, and he simply felt her presence, tasted her voice. Yet the act of reflexion was not suspended; he found himself rejoicing that she was so weak in argument, so inevitably verbose. The idea that she was brilliant, that she counted as a factor only because the public mind was in a muddle, was not an humiliation but a delight to him; it was a proof that her apostleship was all nonsense, the most passing of fashions, the veriest of delusions, and that she was meant for something divinely different — for privacy, for him, for love. He took no measure of the duration of her talk; he only knew, when it was over and succeeded by a clapping of hands, an immense buzz of voices and shuffling of chairs, that it had been capitally bad, and that her personal success, wrapping it about with a glamour like the silver mist that surrounds a fountain, was such as to prevent its badness from being a cause of mortification to her lover. The company — such of it as did not immediately close together around Verena — filed away into the other rooms, bore him in its current into the neighbourhood of a table spread for supper, where he looked for signs of the sumptuary law mentioned to him by Mrs. Luna. It appeared to be embodied mainly in the glitter of crystal and silver, and the fresh tints of mysterious viands and jellies, which looked desirable in the soft circle projected by lace-fringed lamps. He heard the popping of corks, he felt a pressure of elbows, a thickening of the crowd, perceived that he was glowered at, squeezed against the table, by contending gentlemen who observed that he usurped space, was neither feeding himself nor helping others to feed. He had lost sight of Verena; she had been borne away in clouds of compliment; but he found himself thinking — almost paternally — that she must be hungry after so much chatter, and he hoped some one was getting her something to eat. After a moment, just as he was edging away, for his own opportunity to sup much better than usual was not what was uppermost in his mind, this little vision was suddenly embodied — embodied by the appearance of Miss Tarrant, who faced him, in the press, attached to the arm of a young man now recognisable to him as the son of the house — the smiling, fragrant youth who an hour before had interrupted his colloquy with Olive. He was leading her to the table, while people made way for them, covering Verena with gratulations of word and look. Ransom could see that, according to a phrase which came back to him just then, oddly, out of some novel or poem he had read of old, she was the cynosure of every eye. She looked beautiful, and they were a beautiful couple. As soon as she saw him, she put out her left hand to him — the other was in Mr. Burrage’s arm — and said: “Well, don’t you think it’s all true?”

“No, not a word of it!” Ransom answered, with a kind of joyous sincerity. “But it doesn’t make any difference.”

“Oh, it makes a great deal of difference to me!” Verena cried.

“I mean to me. I don’t care in the least whether I agree with you,” Ransom said, looking askance at young Mr. Burrage, who had detached himself and was getting something for Verena to eat.

“Ah, well, if you are so indifferent!”

“It’s not because I’m indifferent!” His eyes came back to her own, the expression of which had changed before they quitted them. She began to complain to her companion, who brought her something very dainty on a plate, that Mr. Ransom was “standing out,” that he was about the hardest subject she had encountered yet. Henry Burrage smiled upon Ransom in a way that was meant to show he remembered having already spoken to him, while the Mississippian said to himself that there was nothing on the face of it to make it strange there should be between these fair, successful young persons some such question of love or marriage as Mrs. Luna had tattled about. Mr. Burrage was successful, he could see that in the turn of an eye; not perhaps as having a commanding intellect or a very strong character, but as being rich, polite, handsome, happy, amiable, and as wearing a splendid camellia in his buttonhole. And that he, at any rate, thought Verena had succeeded was proved by the casual, civil tone, and the contented distraction of eye, with which he exclaimed, “You don’t mean to say you were not moved by that! It’s my opinion that Miss Tarrant will carry everything before her.” He was so pleased himself, and so safe in his conviction, that it didn’t matter to him what any one else thought; which was, after all, just Basil Ransom’s own state of mind.

“Oh! I didn’t say I wasn’t moved,” the Mississippian remarked.

“Moved the wrong way!” said Verena. “Never mind; you’ll be left behind.”

“If I am, you will come back to console me.”

Back? I shall never come back!” the girl replied gaily.

“You’ll be the very first!” Ransom went on, feeling himself now, and as if by a sudden clearing up of his spiritual atmosphere, no longer in the vein for making the concessions of chivalry, and yet conscious that his words were an expression of homage.

“Oh, I call that presumptuous!” Mr. Burrage exclaimed, turning away to get a glass of water for Verena, who had refused to accept champagne, mentioning that she had never drunk any in her life and that she associated a kind of iniquity with it. Olive had no wine in her house (not that Verena gave this explanation) but her father’s old madeira and a little claret; of the former of which liquors Basil Ransom had highly approved the day he dined with her.

“Does he believe in all those lunacies?” he inquired, knowing perfectly what to think about the charge of presumption brought by Mr. Burrage.

“Why, he’s crazy about our movement,” Verena responded. “He’s one of my most gratifying converts.”

“And don’t you despise him for it?”

“Despise him? Why, you seem to think I swing round pretty often!”

“Well, I have an idea that I shall see you swing round yet,” Ransom remarked, in a tone in which it would have appeared to Henry Burrage, had he heard these words, that presumption was pushed to fatuity.

On Verena, however, they produced no impression that prevented her from saying simply, without the least rancour, “Well, if you expect to draw me back five hundred years, I hope you won’t tell Miss Birdseye.” And as Ransom did not seize immediately the reason of her allusion, she went on, “You know she is convinced it will be just the other way. I went to see her after you had been at Cambridge — almost immediately.”

“Darling old lady — I hope she’s well,” the young man said.

“Well, she’s tremendously interested.”

“She’s always interested in something, isn’t she?”

“Well, this time it’s in our relations, yours and mine,” Verena replied, in a tone in which only Verena could say a thing like that. “You ought to see how she throws herself into them. She is sure it will all work round for your good.”

“All what, Miss Tarrant?” Ransom asked.

“Well, what I told her. She is sure you are going to become one of our leaders, that you are very gifted for treating great questions and acting on masses of people, that you will become quite enthusiastic about our uprising, and that when you go up to the top as one of our champions it will all have been through me.”

Ransom stood there, smiling at her; the dusky glow in his eyes expressed a softness representing no prevision of such laurels, but which testified none the less to Verena’s influence. “And what you want is that I shouldn’t undeceive her?”

“Well, I don’t want you to be hypocritical — if you shouldn’t take our side; but I do think that it would be sweet if the dear old thing could just cling to her illusion. She won’t live so very long, probably; she told me the other day she was ready for her final rest; so it wouldn’t interfere much with your freedom. She feels quite romantic about it — your being a Southerner and all, and not naturally in sympathy with Boston ideas, and your meeting her that way in the street and making yourself known to her. She won’t believe but what I shall move you.”

“Don’t fear, Miss Tarrant, she shall be satisfied,” Ransom said, with a laugh which he could see she but partially understood. He was prevented from making his meaning more clear by the return of Mr. Burrage, bringing not only Verena’s glass of water but a smooth-faced, rosy, smiling old gentleman, who had a velvet waistcoat, and thin white hair, brushed effectively, and whom he introduced to Verena under a name which Ransom recognised as that of a rich and venerable citizen, conspicuous for his public spirit and his large almsgiving. Ransom had lived long enough in New York to know that a request from this ancient worthy to be made known to Miss Tarrant would mark her for the approval of the respectable, stamp her as a success of no vulgar sort; and as he turned away, a faint, inaudible sigh passed his lips, dictated by the sense that he himself belonged to a terribly small and obscure minority. He turned away because, as we know, he had been taught that a gentleman talking to a lady must always do that when a new gentleman is presented; though he observed, looking back, after a minute, that young Mr. Burrage evidently had no intention of abdicating in favour of the eminent philanthropist. He thought he had better go home; he didn’t know what might happen at such a party as that, nor when the proceedings might be supposed to terminate; but after considering it a minute he dismissed the idea that there was a chance of Verena’s speaking again. If he was a little vague about this, however, there was no doubt in his mind as to the obligation he was under to take leave first of Mrs. Burrage. He wished he knew where Verena was staying; he wanted to see her alone, not in a supper-room crowded with millionaires. As he looked about for the hostess it occurred to him that she would know, and that if he were able to quench a certain shyness sufficiently to ask her, she would tell him. Having satisfied himself presently that she was not in the supper-room, he made his way back to the parlours, where the company now was much diminished. He looked again into the music-room, tenanted only by half-a-dozen couples, who were cultivating privacy among the empty chairs, and here he perceived Mrs. Burrage sitting in conversation with Olive Chancellor (the latter, apparently, had not moved from her place), before the deserted scene of Verena’s triumph. His search had been so little for Olive that at the sight of her he faltered a moment; then he pulled himself together, advancing with a consciousness of the Mississippi manner. He felt Olive’s eyes receiving him; she looked at him as if it was just the hope that she shouldn’t meet him again that had made her remain where she was. Mrs. Burrage got up, as he bade her good-night, and Olive followed her example.

“So glad you were able to come. Wonderful creature, isn’t she? She can do anything she wants.”

These words from the elder lady Ransom received at first with a reserve which, as he trusted, suggested extreme respect; and it was a fact that his silence had a kind of Southern solemnity in it. Then he said, in a tone equally expressive of great deliberation:

“Yes, madam, I think I never was present at an exhibition, an entertainment of any kind, which held me more completely under the charm.”

“Delighted you liked it. I didn’t know what in the world to have, and this has proved an inspiration — for me as well as for Miss Tarrant. Miss Chancellor has been telling me how they have worked together; it’s really quite beautiful. Miss Chancellor is Miss Tarrant’s great friend and colleague. Miss Tarrant assures me that she couldn’t do anything without her.” After which explanation, turning to Olive, Mrs. Burrage murmured: “Let me introduce Mr. —— introduce Mr. ——”

But she had forgotten poor Ransom’s name, forgotten who had asked her for a card for him; and, perceiving it, he came to her rescue with the observation that he was a kind of cousin of Miss Olive’s, if she didn’t repudiate him, and that he knew what a tremendous partnership existed between the two young ladies. “When I applauded I was applauding the firm — that is, you too,” he said, smiling, to his kinswoman.

“Your applause? I confess I don’t understand it,” Olive replied, with much promptitude.

“Well, to tell the truth, I didn’t myself!”

“Oh yes, of course, I know; that’s why — that’s why ——” And this further speech of Mrs. Burrage’s, in reference to the relationship between the young man and her companion, faded also into vagueness. She had been on the point of saying it was the reason why he was in her house; but she had bethought herself in time that this ought to pass as a matter of course. Basil Ransom could see she was a woman who could carry off an awkwardness like that, and he considered her with a sense of her importance. She had a brisk, familiar, slightly impatient way, and if she had not spoken so fast, and had more of the softness of the Southern matron, she would have reminded him of a certain type of woman he had seen of old, before the changes in his own part of the world — the clever, capable, hospitable proprietress, widowed or unmarried, of a big plantation carried on by herself. “If you are her cousin, do take Miss Chancellor to have some supper — instead of going away,” she went on, with her infelicitous readiness.

At this Olive instantly seated herself again.

“I am much obliged to you; I never touch supper. I shall not leave this room — I like it.”

“Then let me send you something — or let Mr. — — your cousin, remain with you.”

Olive looked at Mrs. Burrage with a strange beseechingness, “I am very tired, I must rest. These occasions leave me exhausted.”

“Ah yes, I can imagine that. Well, then, you shall be quite quiet — I shall come back to you.” And with a smile of farewell for Basil Ransom, Mrs. Burrage moved away.

Basil lingered a moment, though he saw that Olive wished to get rid of him. “I won’t disturb you further than to ask you a single question,” he said. “Where are you staying? I want to come and see Miss Tarrant. I don’t say I want to come and see you, because I have an idea that it would give you no pleasure.” It had occurred to him that he might obtain their address from Mrs. Luna — he only knew vaguely it was Tenth Street; much as he had displeased her she couldn’t refuse him that; but suddenly the greater simplicity and frankness of applying directly to Olive, even at the risk of appearing to brave her, recommended itself. He couldn’t, of course, call upon Verena without her knowing it, and she might as well make her protest (since he proposed to pay no heed to it) sooner as later. He had seen nothing, personally, of their life together, but it had come over him that what Miss Chancellor most disliked in him (had she not, on the very threshold of their acquaintance, had a sort of mystical foreboding of it?) was the possibility that he would interfere. It was quite on the cards that he might; yet it was decent, all the same, to ask her rather than any one else. It was better that his interference should be accompanied with all the forms of chivalry.

Olive took no notice of his remark as to how she herself might be affected by his visit; but she asked in a moment why he should think it necessary to call on Miss Tarrant. “You know you are not in sympathy,” she added, in a tone which contained a really touching element of entreaty that he would not even pretend to prove he was.

I know not whether Basil was touched, but he said, with every appearance of a conciliatory purpose —“I wish to thank her for all the interesting information she has given me this evening.”

“If you think it generous to come and scoff at her, of course she has no defence; you will be glad to know that.”

“Dear Miss Chancellor, if you are not a defence — a battery of many guns!” Ransom exclaimed.

“Well, she at least is not mine!” Olive returned, springing to her feet. She looked round her as if she were really pressed too hard, panting like a hunted creature.

“Your defence is your certain immunity from attack. Perhaps if you won’t tell me where you are staying, you will kindly ask Miss Tarrant herself to do so. Would she send me a word on a card?”

“We are in West Tenth Street,” Olive said; and she gave the number. “Of course you are free to come.”

“Of course I am! Why shouldn’t I be? But I am greatly obliged to you for the information. I will ask her to come out, so that you won’t see us.” And he turned away, with the sense that it was really insufferable, her attempt always to give him the air of being in the wrong. If that was the kind of spirit in which women were going to act when they had more power!

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