The Bostonians, by Henry James

Chapter 29

Mrs. Luna was early in the field the next day, and her sister wondered to what she owed the honour of a visit from her at eleven o’clock in the morning. She very soon saw, when Adeline asked her whether it had been she who procured for Basil Ransom an invitation to Mrs. Burrage’s.

“Me — why in the world should it have been me?” Olive asked, feeling something of a pang at the implication that it had not been Adeline, as she supposed.

“I didn’t know — but you took him up so.”

“Why, Adeline Luna, when did I ever ——?” Miss Chancellor exclaimed, staring and intensely grave.

“You don’t mean to say you have forgotten how you brought him on to see you, a year and a half ago!”

“I didn’t bring him on — I said if he happened to be there.”

“Yes, I remember how it was: he did happen, and then you happened to hate him, and tried to get out of it.”

Miss Chancellor saw, I say, why Adeline had come to her at the hour she knew she was always writing letters, after having given her all the attention that was necessary the day before; she had come simply to make herself disagreeable, as Olive knew, of old, the spirit sometimes moved her irresistibly to do. It seemed to her that Adeline had been disagreeable enough in not having beguiled Basil Ransom into a marriage, according to that memorable calculation of probabilities in which she indulged (with a licence that she scarcely liked definitely to recall) when the pair made acquaintance under her eyes in Charles Street, and Mrs. Luna seemed to take to him as much as she herself did little. She would gladly have accepted him as a brother-inlaw, for the harm such a relation could do one was limited and definite; whereas in his general capacity of being at large in her life the ability of the young Mississippian to injure her seemed somehow immense. “I wrote to him — that time — for a perfectly definite reason,” she said. “I thought mother would have liked us to know him. But it was a mistake.”

“How do you know it was a mistake? Mother would have liked him, I daresay.”

“I mean my acting as I did; it was a theory of duty which I allowed to press me too much. I always do. Duty should be obvious; one shouldn’t hunt round for it.”

“Was it very obvious when it brought you on here?” asked Mrs. Luna, who was distinctly out of humour.

Olive looked for a moment at the toe of her shoe. “I had an idea that you would have married him by this time,” she presently remarked.

“Marry him yourself, my dear! What put such an idea into your head?”

“You wrote to me at first so much about him. You told me he was tremendously attentive, and that you liked him.”

“His state of mind is one thing and mine is another. How can I marry every man that hangs about me — that dogs my footsteps? I might as well become a Mormon at once!” Mrs. Luna delivered herself of this argument with a certain charitable air, as if her sister could not be expected to understand such a situation by her own light.

Olive waived the discussion, and simply said: “I took for granted you had got him the invitation.”

“I, my dear? That would be quite at variance with my attitude of discouragement.”

“Then she simply sent it herself.”

“Whom do you mean by ‘she’?”

“Mrs. Burrage, of course.”

“I thought that you might mean Verena,” said Mrs. Luna casually.

“Verena — to him? Why in the world ——?” And Olive gave the cold glare with which her sister was familiar.

“Why in the world not — since she knows him?”

“She had seen him twice in her life before last night, when she met him for the third time and spoke to him.”

“Did she tell you that?”

“She tells me everything.”

“Are you very sure?”

“Adeline Luna, what do you mean?” Miss Chancellor murmured.

“Are you very sure that last night was only the third time?” Mrs. Luna went on.

Olive threw back her head and swept her sister from her bonnet to her lowest flounce. “You have no right to hint at such a thing as that unless you know!”

“Oh, I know — I know, at any rate, more than you do!” And then Mrs. Luna, sitting with her sister, much withdrawn, in one of the windows of the big, hot, faded parlour of the boarding-house in Tenth Street, where there was a rug before the chimney representing a Newfoundland dog saving a child from drowning, and a row of chromo-lithographs on the walls, imparted to her the impression she had received the evening before — the impression of Basil Ransom’s keen curiosity about Verena Tarrant. Verena must have asked Mrs. Burrage to send him a card, and asked it without mentioning the fact to Olive — for wouldn’t Olive certainly have remembered it? It was no use her saying that Mrs. Burrage might have sent it of her own movement, because she wasn’t aware of his existence, and why should she be? Basil Ransom himself had told her he didn’t know Mrs. Burrage. Mrs. Luna knew whom he knew and whom he didn’t, or at least the sort of people, and they were not the sort that belonged to the Wednesday Club. That was one reason why she didn’t care about him for any intimate relation — that he didn’t seem to have any taste for making nice friends. Olive would know what her taste was in this respect, though it wasn’t that young woman’s own any more than his. It was positive that the suggestion about the card could only have come from Verena. At any rate Olive could easily ask, or if she was afraid of her telling a fib she could ask Mrs. Burrage. It was true Mrs. Burrage might have been put on her guard by Verena, and would perhaps invent some other account of the matter; therefore Olive had better just believe what she believed, that Verena had secured his presence at the party and had had private reasons for doing so. It is to be feared that Ransom’s remark to Mrs. Luna the night before about her having lost her head was near to the mark; for if she had not been blinded by her rancour she would have guessed the horror with which she inspired her sister when she spoke in that offhand way of Verena’s lying and Mrs. Burrage’s lying. Did people lie like that in Mrs. Luna’s set? It was Olive’s plan of life not to lie, and attributing a similar disposition to people she liked, it was impossible for her to believe that Verena had had the intention of deceiving her. Mrs. Luna, in a calmer hour, might also have divined that Olive would make her private comments on the strange story of Basil Ransom’s having made up to Verena out of pique at Adeline’s rebuff; for this was the account of the matter that she now offered to Miss Chancellor. Olive did two things: she listened intently and eagerly, judging there was distinct danger in the air (which, however, she had not wanted Mrs. Luna to tell her, having perceived it for herself the night before); and she saw that poor Adeline was fabricating fearfully, that the “rebuff” was altogether an invention. Mr. Ransom was evidently preoccupied with Verena, but he had not needed Mrs. Luna’s cruelty to make him so. So Olive maintained an attitude of great reserve; she did not take upon herself to announce that her own version was that Adeline, for reasons absolutely imperceptible to others, had tried to catch Basil Ransom, had failed in her attempt, and, furious at seeing Verena preferred to a person of her importance (Olive remembered the spretae injuria formae), now wished to do both him and the girl an ill turn. This would be accomplished if she could induce Olive to interfere. Miss Chancellor was conscious of an abundant readiness to interfere, but it was not because she cared for Adeline’s mortification. I am not sure, even, that she did not think her fiasco but another illustration of her sister’s general uselessness, and rather despise her for it; being perfectly able at once to hold that nothing is baser than the effort to entrap a man, and to think it very ignoble to have to renounce it because you can’t. Olive kept these reflexions to herself, but she went so far as to say to her sister that she didn’t see where the “pique” came in. How could it hurt Adeline that he should turn his attention to Verena? What was Verena to her?

“Why, Olive Chancellor, how can you ask?” Mrs. Luna boldly responded. “Isn’t Verena everything to you, and aren’t you everything to me, and wouldn’t an attempt — a successful one — to take Verena away from you knock you up fearfully, and shouldn’t I suffer, as you know I suffer, by sympathy?”

I have said that it was Miss Chancellor’s plan of life not to lie, but such a plan was compatible with a kind of consideration for the truth which led her to shrink from producing it on poor occasions. So she didn’t say, “Dear me, Adeline, what humbug! you know you hate Verena and would be very glad if she were drowned!” She only said, “Well, I see; but it’s very roundabout.” What she did see was that Mrs. Luna was eager to help her to stop off Basil Ransom from “making head,” as the phrase was; and the fact that her motive was spite, and not tenderness for the Bostonians, would not make her assistance less welcome if the danger were real. She herself had a nervous dread, but she had that about everything; still, Adeline had perhaps seen something, and what in the world did she mean by her reference to Verena’s having had secret meetings? When pressed on this point, Mrs. Luna could only say that she didn’t pretend to give definite information, and she wasn’t a spy anyway, but that the night before he had positively flaunted in her face his admiration for the girl, his enthusiasm for her way of standing up there. Of course he hated her ideas, but he was quite conceited enough to think she would give them up. Perhaps it was all directed at her — as if she cared! It would depend a good deal on the girl herself; certainly, if there was any likelihood of Verena’s being affected, she should advise Olive to look out. She knew best what to do; it was only Adeline’s duty to give her the benefit of her own impression, whether she was thanked for it or not. She only wished to put her on her guard, and it was just like Olive to receive such information so coldly; she was the most disappointing woman she knew.

Miss Chancellor’s coldness was not diminished by this rebuke; for it had come over her that, after all, she had never opened herself at that rate to Adeline, had never let her see the real intensity of her desire to keep the sort of danger there was now a question of away from Verena, had given her no warrant for regarding her as her friend’s keeper; so that she was taken aback by the flatness of Mrs. Luna’s assumption that she was ready to enter into a conspiracy to circumvent and frustrate the girl. Olive put on all her majesty to dispel this impression, and if she could not help being aware that she made Mrs. Luna still angrier, on the whole, than at first, she felt that she would much rather disappoint her than give herself away to her — especially as she was intensely eager to profit by her warning!

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