The Bostonians, by Henry James

Chapter 3

When he had told her that if she would take him as he was he should be very happy to dine with her, she excused herself a moment and went to give an order in the dining-room. The young man, left alone, looked about the parlour — the two parlours which, in their prolonged, adjacent narrowness, formed evidently one apartment — and wandered to the windows at the back, where there was a view of the water; Miss Chancellor having the good fortune to dwell on that side of Charles Street toward which, in the rear, the afternoon sun slants redly, from an horizon indented at empty intervals with wooden spires, the masts of lonely boats, the chimneys of dirty “works,” over a brackish expanse of anomalous character, which is too big for a river and too small for a bay. The view seemed to him very picturesque, though in the gathered dusk little was left of it save a cold yellow streak in the west, a gleam of brown water, and the reflexion of the lights that had begun to show themselves in a row of houses, impressive to Ransom in their extreme modernness, which overlooked the same lagoon from a long embankment on the left, constructed of stones roughly piled. He thought this prospect, from a city-house, almost romantic; and he turned from it back to the interior illuminated now by a lamp which the parlour-maid had placed on a table while he stood at the window as to something still more genial and interesting. The artistic sense in Basil Ransom had not been highly cultivated; neither (though he had passed his early years as the son of a rich man) was his conception of material comfort very definite; it consisted mainly of the vision of plenty of cigars and brandy and water and newspapers, and a cane-bottomed arm-chair of the right inclination, from which he could stretch his legs. Nevertheless it seemed to him he had never seen an interior that was so much an interior as this queer corridor-shaped drawing-room of his new-found kinswoman; he had never felt himself in the presence of so much organised privacy or of so many objects that spoke of habits and tastes. Most of the people he had hitherto known had no tastes; they had a few habits, but these were not of a sort that required much upholstery. He had not as yet been in many houses in New York, and he had never before seen so many accessories. The general character of the place struck him as Bostonian; this was, in fact, very much what he had supposed Boston to be. He had always heard Boston was a city of culture, and now there was culture in Miss Chancellor’s tables and sofas, in the books that were everywhere, on little shelves like brackets (as if a book were a statuette), in the photographs and watercolours that covered the walls, in the curtains that were festooned rather stiffly in the doorways. He looked at some of the books and saw that his cousin read German; and his impression of the importance of this (as a symptom of superiority) was not diminished by the fact that he himself had mastered the tongue (knowing it contained a large literature of jurisprudence) during a long, empty, deadly summer on the plantation. It is a curious proof of a certain crude modesty inherent in Basil Ransom that the main effect of his observing his cousin’s German books was to give him an idea of the natural energy of Northerners. He had noticed it often before; he had already told himself that he must count with it. It was only after much experience he made the discovery that few Northerners were, in their secret soul, so energetic as he. Many other persons had made it before that. He knew very little about Miss Chancellor; he had come to see her only because she wrote to him; he would never have thought of looking her up, and since then there had been no one in New York he might ask about her. Therefore he could only guess that she was a rich young woman; such a house, inhabited in such a way by a quiet spinster, implied a considerable income. How much? he asked himself; five thousand, ten thousand, fifteen thousand a year? There was richness to our panting young man in the smallest of these figures. He was not of a mercenary spirit, but he had an immense desire for success, and he had more than once reflected that a moderate capital was an aid to achievement. He had seen in his younger years one of the biggest failures that history commemorates, an immense national fiasco, and it had implanted in his mind a deep aversion to the ineffectual. It came over him, while he waited for his hostess to reappear, that she was unmarried as well as rich, that she was sociable (her letter answered for that) as well as single; and he had for a moment a whimsical vision of becoming a partner in so flourishing a firm. He ground his teeth a little as he thought of the contrasts of the human lot; this cushioned feminine nest made him feel unhoused and underfed. Such a mood, however, could only be momentary, for he was conscious at bottom of a bigger stomach than all the culture of Charles Street could fill.

Afterwards, when his cousin had come back and they had gone down to dinner together, where he sat facing her at a little table decorated in the middle with flowers, a position from which he had another view, through a window where the curtain remained undrawn by her direction (she called his attention to this — it was for his benefit), of the dusky, empty river, spotted with points of light — at this period, I say, it was very easy for him to remark to himself that nothing would induce him to make love to such a type as that. Several months later, in New York, in conversation with Mrs. Luna, of whom he was destined to see a good deal, he alluded by chance to this repast, to the way her sister had placed him at table, and to the remark with which she had pointed out the advantage of his seat.

“That’s what they call in Boston being very ‘thoughtful,’” Mrs. Luna said, “giving you the Back Bay (don’t you hate the name?) to look at, and then taking credit for it.”

This, however, was in the future; what Basil Ransom actually perceived was that Miss Chancellor was a signal old maid. That was her quality, her destiny; nothing could be more distinctly written. There are women who are unmarried by accident, and others who are unmarried by option; but Olive Chancellor was unmarried by every implication of her being. She was a spinster as Shelley was a lyric poet, or as the month of August is sultry. She was so essentially a celibate that Ransom found himself thinking of her as old, though when he came to look at her (as he said to himself) it was apparent that her years were fewer than his own. He did not dislike her, she had been so friendly; but, little by little, she gave him an uneasy feeling — the sense that you could never be safe with a person who took things so hard. It came over him that it was because she took things hard she had sought his acquaintance; it had been because she was strenuous, not because she was genial; she had had in her eye — and what an extraordinary eye it was! — not a pleasure, but a duty. She would expect him to be strenuous in return; but he couldn’t — in private life, he couldn’t; privacy for Basil Ransom consisted entirely in what he called “laying off.” She was not so plain on further acquaintance as she had seemed to him at first; even the young Mississippian had culture enough to see that she was refined. Her white skin had a singular look of being drawn tightly across her face; but her features, though sharp and irregular, were delicate in a fashion that suggested good breeding. Their line was perverse, but it was not poor. The curious tint of her eyes was a living colour; when she turned it upon you, you thought vaguely of the glitter of green ice. She had absolutely no figure, and presented a certain appearance of feeling cold. With all this, there was something very modern and highly developed in her aspect; she had the advantages as well as the drawbacks of a nervous organisation. She smiled constantly at her guest, but from the beginning to the end of dinner, though he made several remarks that he thought might prove amusing, she never once laughed. Later, he saw that she was a woman without laughter; exhilaration, if it ever visited her, was dumb. Once only, in the course of his subsequent acquaintance with her, did it find a voice; and then the sound remained in Ransom’s ear as one of the strangest he had heard.

She asked him a great many questions, and made no comment on his answers, which only served to suggest to her fresh inquiries. Her shyness had quite left her, it did not come back; she had confidence enough to wish him to see that she took a great interest in him. Why should she? he wondered, He couldn’t believe he was one of her kind; he was conscious of much Bohemianism — he drank beer, in New York, in cellars, knew no ladies, and was familiar with a “variety” actress. Certainly, as she knew him better, she would disapprove of him, though, of course, he would never mention the actress, nor even, if necessary, the beer. Ransom’s conception of vice was purely as a series of special cases, of explicable accidents. Not that he cared; if it were a part of the Boston character to be inquiring, he would be to the last a courteous Mississippian. He would tell her about Mississippi as much as she liked; he didn’t care how much he told her that the old ideas in the South were played out. She would not understand him any the better for that; she would not know how little his own views could be gathered from such a limited admission. What her sister imparted to him about her mania for “reform” had left in his mouth a kind of unpleasant aftertaste; he felt, at any rate, that if she had the religion of humanity — Basil Ransom had read Comte, he had read everything — she would never understand him. He, too, had a private vision of reform, but the first principle of it was to reform the reformers. As they drew to the close of a meal which, in spite of all latent incompatibilities, had gone off brilliantly, she said to him that she should have to leave him after dinner, unless perhaps he should be inclined to accompany her. She was going to a small gathering at the house of a friend who had asked a few people, “interested in new ideas,” to meet Mrs. Farrinder.

“Oh, thank you,” said Basil Ransom. “Is it a party? I haven’t been to a party since Mississippi seceded.”

“No; Miss Birdseye doesn’t give parties. She’s an ascetic.”

“Oh, well, we have had our dinner,” Ransom rejoined, laughing.

His hostess sat silent a moment, with her eyes on the ground; she looked at such times as if she were hesitating greatly between several things she might say, all so important that it was difficult to choose.

“I think it might interest you,” she remarked presently. “You will hear some discussion, if you are fond of that. Perhaps you wouldn’t agree,” she added, resting her strange eyes on him.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t — I don’t agree with everything,” he said, smiling and stroking his leg.

“Don’t you care for human progress?” Miss Chancellor went on.

“I don’t know — I never saw any. Are you going to show me some?”

“I can show you an earnest effort towards it. That’s the most one can be sure of. But I am not sure you are worthy.”

“Is it something very Bostonian? I should like to see that,” said Basil Ransom.

“There are movements in other cities. Mrs. Farrinder goes everywhere; she may speak to-night.”

“Mrs. Farrinder, the celebrated ——?”

“Yes, the celebrated; the great apostle of the emancipation of women. She is a great friend of Miss Birdseye.”

“And who is Miss Birdseye?”

“She is one of our celebrities. She is the woman in the world, I suppose, who has laboured most for every wise reform. I think I ought to tell you,” Miss Chancellor went on in a moment, “she was one of the earliest, one of the most passionate, of the old Abolitionists.”

She had thought, indeed, she ought to tell him that, and it threw her into a little tremor of excitement to do so. Yet, if she had been afraid he would show some irritation at this news, she was disappointed at the geniality with which he exclaimed:

“Why, poor old lady — she must be quite mature!”

It was therefore with some severity that she rejoined:

“She will never be old. She is the youngest spirit I know. But if you are not in sympathy, perhaps you had better not come,” she went on.

“In sympathy with what, dear madam?” Basil Ransom asked, failing still, to her perception, to catch the tone of real seriousness. “If, as you say, there is to be a discussion, there will be different sides, and of course one can’t sympathise with both.”

“Yes, but every one will, in his way — or in her way — plead the cause of the new truths. If you don’t care for them, you won’t go with us.”

“I tell you I haven’t the least idea what they are! I have never yet encountered in the world any but old truths — as old as the sun and moon. How can I know? But do take me; it’s such a chance to see Boston.”

“It isn’t Boston — it’s humanity!” Miss Chancellor, as she made this remark, rose from her chair, and her movement seemed to say that she consented. But before she quitted her kinsman to get ready, she observed to him that she was sure he knew what she meant; he was only pretending he didn’t.

“Well, perhaps, after all, I have a general idea,” he confessed; “but don’t you see how this little reunion will give me a chance to fix it?”

She lingered an instant, with her anxious face. “Mrs. Farrinder will fix it!” she said; and she went to prepare herself.

It was in this poor young lady’s nature to be anxious, to have scruple within scruple and to forecast the consequences of things. She returned in ten minutes, in her bonnet, which she had apparently assumed in recognition of Miss Birdseye’s asceticism. As she stood there drawing on her gloves — her visitor had fortified himself against Mrs. Farrinder by another glass of wine — she declared to him that she quite repented of having proposed to him to go; something told her that he would be an unfavourable element.

“Why, is it going to be a spiritual séance?” Basil Ransom asked.

“Well, I have heard at Miss Birdseye’s some inspirational speaking.” Olive Chancellor was determined to look him straight in the face as she said this; her sense of the way it might strike him operated as a cogent, not as a deterrent, reason.

“Why, Miss Olive, it’s just got up on purpose for me!” cried the young Mississippian, radiant, and clasping his hands. She thought him very handsome as he said this, but reflected that unfortunately men didn’t care for the truth, especially the new kinds, in proportion as they were good-looking. She had, however, a moral resource that she could always fall back upon; it had already been a comfort to her, on occasions of acute feeling, that she hated men, as a class, anyway. “And I want so much to see an old Abolitionist; I have never laid eyes on one,” Basil Ransom added.

“Of course you couldn’t see one in the South; you were too afraid of them to let them come there!” She was now trying to think of something she might say that would be sufficiently disagreeable to make him cease to insist on accompanying her; for, strange to record — if anything, in a person of that intense sensibility, be stranger than any other — her second thought with regard to having asked him had deepened with the elapsing moments into an unreasoned terror of the effect of his presence. “Perhaps Miss Birdseye won’t like you,” she went on, as they waited for the carriage.

“I don’t know; I reckon she will,” said Basil Ransom good-humouredly. He evidently had no intention of giving up his opportunity.

From the window of the dining-room, at that moment, they heard the carriage drive up. Miss Birdseye lived at the South End; the distance was considerable, and Miss Chancellor had ordered a hackney-coach, it being one of the advantages of living in Charles Street that stables were near. The logic of her conduct was none of the clearest; for if she had been alone she would have proceeded to her destination by the aid of the street-car; not from economy (for she had the good fortune not to be obliged to consult it to that degree), and not from any love of wandering about Boston at night (a kind of exposure she greatly disliked), but by reason of a theory she devotedly nursed, a theory which bade her put off invidious differences and mingle in the common life. She would have gone on foot to Boylston Street, and there she would have taken the public conveyance (in her heart she loathed it) to the South End. Boston was full of poor girls who had to walk about at night and to squeeze into horse-cars in which every sense was displeased; and why should she hold herself superior to these? Olive Chancellor regulated her conduct on lofty principles, and this is why, having to-night the advantage of a gentleman’s protection, she sent for a carriage to obliterate that patronage. If they had gone together in the common way she would have seemed to owe it to him that she should be so daring, and he belonged to a sex to which she wished to be under no obligations. Months before, when she wrote to him, it had been with the sense, rather, of putting him in debt. As they rolled toward the South End, side by side, in a good deal of silence, bouncing and bumping over the railway-tracks very little less, after all, than if their wheels had been fitted to them, and looking out on either side at rows of red houses, dusky in the lamp-light, with protuberant fronts, approached by ladders of stone; as they proceeded, with these contemplative undulations, Miss Chancellor said to her companion, with a concentrated desire to defy him, as a punishment for having thrown her (she couldn’t tell why) into such a tremor:

“Don’t you believe, then, in the coming of a better day — in its being possible to do something for the human race?”

Poor Ransom perceived the defiance, and he felt rather bewildered; he wondered what type, after all, he had got hold of, and what game was being played with him. Why had she made advances, if she wanted to pinch him this way? However, he was good for any game — that one as well as another — and he saw that he was “in” for something of which he had long desired to have a nearer view. “Well, Miss Olive,” he answered, putting on again his big hat, which he had been holding in his lap, “what strikes me most is that the human race has got to bear its troubles.”

“That’s what men say to women, to make them patient in the position they have made for them.”

“Oh, the position of women!” Basil Ransom exclaimed. “The position of women is to make fools of men. I would change my position for yours any day,” he went on. “That’s what I said to myself as I sat there in your elegant home.”

He could not see, in the dimness of the carriage, that she had flushed quickly, and he did not know that she disliked to be reminded of certain things which, for her, were mitigations of the hard feminine lot. But the passionate quaver with which, a moment later, she answered him sufficiently assured him that he had touched her at a tender point.

“Do you make it a reproach to me that I happen to have a little money? The dearest wish of my heart is to do something with it for others — for the miserable.”

Basil Ransom might have greeted this last declaration with the sympathy it deserved, might have commended the noble aspirations of his kinswoman. But what struck him, rather, was the oddity of so sudden a sharpness of pitch in an intercourse which, an hour or two before, had begun in perfect amity, and he burst once more into an irrepressible laugh. This made his companion feel, with intensity, how little she was joking. “I don’t know why I should care what you think,” she said.

“Don’t care — don’t care. What does it matter? It is not of the slightest importance.”

He might say that, but it was not true; she felt that there were reasons why she should care. She had brought him into her life, and she should have to pay for it. But she wished to know the worst at once. “Are you against our emancipation?” she asked, turning a white face on him in the momentary radiance of a street-lamp.

“Do you mean your voting and preaching and all that sort of thing?” He made this inquiry, but seeing how seriously she would take his answer, he was almost frightened, and hung fire. “I will tell you when I have heard Mrs. Farrinder.”

They had arrived at the address given by Miss Chancellor to the coachman, and their vehicle stopped with a lurch. Basil Ransom got out; he stood at the door with an extended hand, to assist the young lady. But she seemed to hesitate; she sat there with her spectral face. “You hate it!” she exclaimed, in a low tone.

“Miss Birdseye will convert me,” said Ransom, with intention; for he had grown very curious, and he was afraid that now, at the last, Miss Chancellor would prevent his entering the house. She alighted without his help, and behind her he ascended the high steps of Miss Birdseye’s residence. He had grown very curious, and among the things he wanted to know was why in the world this ticklish spinster had written to him.

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