The Bostonians, by Henry James

Chapter 30

Mrs. Luna would have been still less satisfied with the manner in which Olive received her proffered assistance had she known how many confidences that reticent young woman might have made her in return. Olive’s whole life now was a matter for whispered communications; she felt this herself, as she sought the privacy of her own apartment after her interview with her sister. She had for the moment time to think; Verena having gone out with Mr. Burrage, who had made an appointment the night before to call for her to drive at that early hour. They had other engagements in the afternoon — the principal of which was to meet a group of earnest people at the house of one of the great local promoters. Olive would whisk Verena off to these appointments directly after lunch; she flattered herself that she could arrange matters so that there would not be half an hour in the day during which Basil Ransom, complacently calling, would find the Bostonians in the house. She had had this well in mind when, at Mrs. Burrage’s, she was driven to give him their address; and she had had it also in mind that she would ask Verena, as a special favour, to accompany her back to Boston on the next day but one, which was the morning of the morrow. There had been considerable talk of her staying a few days with Mrs. Burrage — staying on after her own departure; but Verena backed out of it spontaneously, seeing how the idea worried her friend. Olive had accepted the sacrifice, and their visit to New York was now cut down, in intention, to four days, one of which, the moment she perceived whither Basil Ransom was tending, Miss Chancellor promised herself also to suppress. She had not mentioned that to Verena yet; she hesitated a little, having a slightly bad conscience about the concessions she had already obtained from her friend. Verena made such concessions with a generosity which caused one’s heart to ache for admiration, even while one asked for them; and never once had Olive known her to demand the smallest credit for any virtue she showed in this way, or to bargain for an instant about any effort she made to oblige. She had been delighted with the idea of spending a week under Mrs. Burrage’s roof; she had said, too, that she believed her mother would die happy (not that there was the least prospect of Mrs. Tarrant’s dying) if she could hear of her having such an experience as that; and yet, perceiving how solemn Olive looked about it, how she blanched and brooded at the prospect, she had offered to give it up, with a smile sweeter, if possible, than any that had ever sat in her eyes. Olive knew what that meant for her, knew what a power of enjoyment she still had, in spite of the tension of their common purpose, their vital work, which had now, as they equally felt, passed into the stage of realisation, of fruition; and that is why her conscience rather pricked her for consenting to this further act of renunciation, especially as their position seemed really so secure, on the part of one who had already given herself away so sublimely.

Secure as their position might be, Olive called herself a blind idiot for having, in spite of all her first shrinkings, agreed to bring Verena to New York. Verena had jumped at the invitation, the very unexpectedness of which on Mrs. Burrage’s part — it was such an odd idea to have come to a mere worldling — carried a kind of persuasion with it. Olive’s immediate sentiment had been an instinctive general fear; but, later, she had dismissed that as unworthy; she had decided (and such a decision was nothing new) that where their mission was concerned they ought to face everything. Such an opportunity would contribute too much to Verena’s reputation and authority to justify a refusal at the bidding of apprehensions which were after all only vague. Olive’s specific terrors and dangers had by this time very much blown over; Basil Ransom had given no sign of life for ages, and Henry Burrage had certainly got his quietus before they went to Europe. If it had occurred to his mother that she might convert Verena into the animating principle of a big soiree, she was at least acting in good faith, for it could be no more her wish today that he should marry Selah Tarrant’s daughter than it was her wish a year before. And then they should do some good to the benighted, the most benighted, the fashionable benighted; they should perhaps make them furious — there was always some good in that. Lastly, Olive was conscious of a personal temptation in the matter; she was not insensible to the pleasure of appearing in a distinguished New York circle as a representative woman, an important Bostonian, the prompter, colleague, associate of one of the most original girls of the time. Basil Ransom was the person she had least expected to meet at Mrs. Burrage’s; it had been her belief that they might easily spend four days in a city of more than a million of inhabitants without that disagreeable accident. But it had occurred; nothing was wanting to make it seem serious; and, setting her teeth, she shook herself, morally, hard, for having fallen into the trap of fate. Well, she would scramble out, with only a scare, probably. Henry Burrage was very attentive, but somehow she didn’t fear him now; and it was only natural he should feel that he couldn’t be polite enough, after they had consented to be exploited in that worldly way by his mother. The other danger was the worst; the palpitation of her strange dread, the night of Miss Birdseye’s party, came back to her. Mr. Burrage seemed, indeed, a protection; she reflected, with relief, that it had been arranged that after taking Verena to drive in the Park and see the Museum of Art in the morning, they should in the evening dine with him at Delmonico’s (he was to invite another gentleman), and go afterwards to the German opera. Olive had kept all this to herself, as I have said; revealing to her sister neither the vividness of her prevision that Basil Ransom would look blank when he came down to Tenth Street and learned they had flitted, nor the eagerness of her desire just to find herself once more in the Boston train. It had been only this prevision that sustained her when she gave Mr. Ransom their number.

Verena came to her room shortly before luncheon, to let her know she had returned; and while they sat there, waiting to stop their ears when the gong announcing the repast was beaten, at the foot of the stairs, by a negro in a white jacket, she narrated to her friend her adventures with Mr. Burrage — expatiated on the beauty of the park, the splendour and interest of the Museum, the wonder of the young man’s acquaintance with everything it contained, the swiftness of his horses, the softness of his English cart, the pleasure of rolling at that pace over roads as firm as marble, the entertainment he promised them for the evening. Olive listened in serious silence; she saw Verena was quite carried away; of course she hadn’t gone so far with her without knowing that phase.

“Did Mr. Burrage try to make love to you?” Miss Chancellor inquired at last, without a smile.

Verena had taken off her hat to arrange her feather, and as she placed it on her head again, her uplifted arms making a frame for her face, she said: “Yes, I suppose it was meant for love.”

Olive waited for her to tell more, to tell how she had treated him, kept him in his place, made him feel that that question was over long ago; but as Verena gave her no further information she did not insist, conscious as she always was that in such a relation as theirs there should be a great respect on either side for the liberty of each. She had never yet infringed on Verena’s, and of course she wouldn’t begin now. Moreover, with the request that she meant presently to make of her she felt that she must be discreet. She wondered whether Henry Burrage were really going to begin again; whether his mother had only been acting in his interest in getting them to come on. Certainly, the bright spot in such a prospect was that if she listened to him she couldn’t listen to Basil Ransom; and he had told Olive herself last night, when he put them into their carriage, that he hoped to prove to her yet that he had come round to her gospel. But the old sickness stole upon her again, the faintness of discouragement, as she asked herself why in the name of pity Verena should listen to any one at all but Olive Chancellor. Again it came over her, when she saw the brightness, the happy look, the girl brought back, as it had done in the earlier months, that the great trouble was that weak spot of Verena’s, that sole infirmity and subtle flaw, which she had expressed to her very soon after they began to live together, in saying (she remembered it through the ineffaceable impression made by her friend’s avowal), “I’ll tell you what is the matter with you — you don’t dislike men as a class!” Verena had replied on this occasion, “Well, no, I don’t dislike them when they are pleasant!” As if organised atrociousness could ever be pleasant! Olive disliked them most when they were least unpleasant. After a little, at present, she remarked, referring to Henry Burrage: “It is not right of him, not decent, after your making him feel how, while he was at Cambridge, he wearied you, tormented you.”

“Oh, I didn’t show anything,” said Verena gaily. “I am learning to dissimulate,” she added in a moment. “I suppose you have to as you go along. I pretend not to notice.”

At this moment the gong sounded for luncheon, and the two young women covered up their ears, face to face, Verena with her quick smile, Olive with her pale patience. When they could hear themselves speak, the latter said abruptly:

“How did Mrs. Burrage come to invite Mr. Ransom to her party? He told Adeline he had never seen her before.”

“Oh, I asked her to send him an invitation — after she had written to me, to thank me, when it was definitely settled we should come on. She asked me in her letter if there were any friends of mine in the city to whom I should like her to send cards, and I mentioned Mr. Ransom.”

Verena spoke without a single instant’s hesitation, and the only sign of embarrassment she gave was that she got up from her chair, passing in this manner a little out of Olive’s scrutiny. It was easy for her not to falter, because she was glad of the chance. She wanted to be very simple in all her relations with her friend, and of course it was not simple so soon as she began to keep things back. She could at any rate keep back as little as possible, and she felt as if she were making up for a dereliction when she answered Olive’s inquiry so promptly.

“You never told me of that,” Miss Chancellor remarked, in a low tone.

“I didn’t want to. I know you don’t like him, and I thought it would give you pain. Yet I wanted him to be there — I wanted him to hear.”

“What does it matter — why should you care about him?”

“Well, because he is so awfully opposed!”

“How do you know that, Verena?”

At this point Verena began to hesitate. It was not, after all, so easy to keep back only a little; it appeared rather as if one must either tell everything or hide everything. The former course had already presented itself to her as unduly harsh; it was because it seemed so that she had ended by keeping the incident of Basil Ransom’s visit to Monadnoc Place buried in unspoken, in unspeakable, considerations, the only secret she had in the world — the only thing that was all her own. She was so glad to say what she could without betraying herself that it was only after she had spoken that she perceived there was a danger of Olive’s pushing the inquiry to the point where, to defend herself as it were, she should be obliged to practise a positive deception; and she was conscious at the same time that the moment her secret was threatened it became dearer to her. She began to pray silently that Olive might not push; for it would be odious, it would be impossible, to defend herself by a lie. Meanwhile, however, she had to answer, and the way she answered was by exclaiming, much more quickly than the reflexions I note might have appeared to permit, “Well, if you can’t tell from his appearance! He’s the type of the reactionary.”

Verena went to the toilet-glass to see that she had put on her hat properly, and Olive slowly got up, in the manner of a person not in the least eager for food. “Let him react as he likes — for heaven’s sake don’t mind him!” That was Miss Chancellor’s rejoinder, and Verena felt that it didn’t say all that was in her mind. She wished she would come down to luncheon, for she, at least, was honestly hungry. She even suspected Olive had an idea she was afraid to express, such distress it would bring with it. “Well, you know, Verena, this isn’t our real life — it isn’t our work,” Olive went on.

“Well, no, it isn’t, certainly,” said Verena, not pretending at first that she did not know what Olive meant. In a moment, however, she added, “Do you refer to this social intercourse with Mr. Burrage?”

“Not to that only.” Then Olive asked abruptly, looking at her, “How did you know his address?”

“His address?”

“Mr. Ransom’s — to enable Mrs. Burrage to invite him?”

They stood for a moment interchanging a gaze. “It was in a letter I got from him.”

At these words there came into Olive’s face an expression which made her companion cross over to her directly and take her by the hand. But the tone was different from what Verena expected, when she said, with cold surprise: “Oh, you are in correspondence!” It showed an immense effort of self-control.

“He wrote to me once — I never told you,” Verena rejoined, smiling. She felt that her friend’s strange, uneasy eyes searched very far; a little more and they would go to the very bottom. Well, they might go if they would; she didn’t, after all, care so much about her secret as that. For the moment, however, Verena did not learn what Olive had discovered, inasmuch as she only remarked presently that it was really time to go down. As they descended the staircase she put her arm into Miss Chancellor’s and perceived that she was trembling.

Of course there were plenty of people in New York interested in the uprising, and Olive had made appointments, in advance, which filled the whole afternoon. Everybody wanted to meet them, and wanted everybody else to do so, and Verena saw they could easily have quite a vogue, if they only chose to stay and work that vein. Very likely, as Olive said, it wasn’t their real life, and people didn’t seem to have such a grip of the movement as they had in Boston; but there was something in the air that carried one along, and a sense of vastness and variety, of the infinite possibilities of a great city, which — Verena hardly knew whether she ought to confess it to herself — might in the end make up for the want of the Boston earnestness. Certainly, the people seemed very much alive, and there was no other place where so many cheering reports could flow in, owing to the number of electric feelers that stretched away everywhere. The principal centre appeared to be Mrs. Croucher’s, on Fifty-sixth Street, where there was an informal gathering of sympathisers who didn’t seem as if they could forgive her when they learned that she had been speaking the night before in a circle in which none of them were acquainted. Certainly, they were very different from the group she had addressed at Mrs. Burrage’s, and Verena heaved a thin, private sigh, expressive of some helplessness, as she thought what a big, complicated world it was, and how it evidently contained a little of everything. There was a general demand that she should repeat her address in a more congenial atmosphere; to which she replied that Olive made her engagements for her, and that as the address had been intended just to lead people on, perhaps she would think Mrs. Croucher’s friends had reached a higher point. She was as cautious as this because she saw that Olive was now just straining to get out of the city; she didn’t want to say anything that would tie them. When she felt her trembling that way before luncheon it made her quite sick to realise how much her friend was wrapped up in her — how terribly she would suffer from the least deviation. After they had started for their round of engagements the very first thing Verena spoke of in the carriage (Olive had taken one, in her liberal way, for the whole time) was the fact that her correspondence with Mr. Ransom, as her friend had called it, had consisted on his part of only one letter. It was a very short one, too; it had come to her a little more than a month before. Olive knew she got letters from gentlemen; she didn’t see why she should attach such importance to this one. Miss Chancellor was leaning back in the carriage, very still, very grave, with her head against the cushioned surface, only turning her eyes towards the girl.

“You attach importance yourself; otherwise you would have told me.”

“I knew you wouldn’t like it — because you don’t like him.”

“I don’t think of him,” said Olive; “he’s nothing to me.” Then she added, suddenly, “Have you noticed that I am afraid to face what I don’t like?”

Verena could not say that she had, and yet it was not just on Olive’s part to speak as if she were an easy person to tell such a thing to: the way she lay there, white and weak, like a wounded creature, sufficiently proved the contrary. “You have such a fearful power of suffering,” she replied in a moment.

To this at first Miss Chancellor made no rejoinder; but after a little she said, in the same attitude, “Yes, you could make me.”

Verena took her hand and held it awhile. “I never will, till I have been through everything myself.”

You were not made to suffer — you were made to enjoy,” Olive said, in very much the same tone in which she had told her that what was the matter with her was that she didn’t dislike men as a class — a tone which implied that the contrary would have been much more natural and perhaps rather higher. Perhaps it would; but Verena was unable to rebut the charge; she felt this, as she looked out of the window of the carriage at the bright, amusing city, where the elements seemed so numerous, the animation so immense, the shops so brilliant, the women so strikingly dressed, and knew that these things quickened her curiosity, all her pulses.

“Well, I suppose I mustn’t presume on it,” she remarked, glancing back at Olive with her natural sweetness, her uncontradicting grace.

That young lady lifted her hand to her lips — held it there a moment; the movement seemed to say, “When you are so divinely docile, how can I help the dread of losing you?” This idea, however, was unspoken, and Olive Chancellor’s uttered words, as the carriage rolled on, were different.

“Verena, I don’t understand why he wrote to you.”

“He wrote to me because he likes me. Perhaps you’ll say you don’t understand why he likes me,” the girl continued, laughing. “He liked me the first time he saw me.”

“Oh, that time!” Olive murmured.

“And still more the second.”

“Did he tell you that in his letter?” Miss Chancellor inquired.

“Yes, my dear, he told me that. Only he expressed it more gracefully.” Verena was very happy to say that; a written phrase of Basil Ransom’s sufficiently justified her.

“It was my intuition — it was my foreboding!” Olive exclaimed, closing her eyes.

“I thought you said you didn’t dislike him.”

“It isn’t dislike — it’s simple dread. Is that all there is between you?”

“Why, Olive Chancellor, what do you think?” Verena asked, feeling now distinctly like a coward. Five minutes afterwards she said to Olive that if it would give her pleasure they would leave New York on the morrow, without taking a fourth day; and as soon as she had done so she felt better, especially when she saw how gratefully Olive looked at her for the concession, how eagerly she rose to the offer in saying, “Well, if you do feel that it isn’t our own life — our very own!” It was with these words, and others besides, and with an unusually weak, indefinite kiss, as if she wished to protest that, after all, a single day didn’t matter, and yet accepted the sacrifice and was a little ashamed of it — it was in this manner that the agreement as to an immediate retreat was sealed. Verena could not shut her eyes to the fact that for a month she had been less frank, and if she wished to do penance this abbreviation of their pleasure in New York, even if it made her almost completely miss Basil Ransom, was easier than to tell Olive just now that the letter was not all, that there had been a long visit, a talk, and a walk besides, which she had been covering up for ever so many weeks. And of what consequence, anyway, was the missing? Was it such a pleasure to converse with a gentleman who only wanted to let you know — and why he should want it so much Verena couldn’t guess — that he thought you quite preposterous? Olive took her from place to place, and she ended by forgetting everything but the present hour, and the bigness and variety of New York, and the entertainment of rolling about in a carriage with silk cushions, and meeting new faces, new expressions of curiosity and sympathy, assurances that one was watched and followed. Mingled with this was a bright consciousness, sufficient for the moment, that one was moreover to dine at Delmonico’s and go to the German opera. There was enough of the epicurean in Verena’s composition to make it easy for her in certain conditions to live only for the hour.

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