The Bostonians, by Henry James

Chapter 31

When she returned with her companion to the establishment in Tenth Street she saw two notes lying on the table in the hall; one of which she perceived to be addressed to Miss Chancellor, the other to herself. The hand was different, but she recognised both. Olive was behind her on the steps, talking to the coachman about sending another carriage for them in half an hour (they had left themselves but just time to dress); so that she simply possessed herself of her own note and ascended to her room. As she did so she felt that all the while she had known it would be there, and was conscious of a kind of treachery, an unfriendly wilfulness, in not being more prepared for it. If she could roll about New York the whole afternoon and forget that there might be difficulties ahead, that didn’t alter the fact that there were difficulties, and that they might even become considerable — might not be settled by her simply going back to Boston. Half an hour later, as she drove up the Fifth Avenue with Olive (there seemed to be so much crowded into that one day), smoothing her light gloves, wishing her fan were a little nicer, and proving by the answering, familiar brightness with which she looked out on the lamp-lighted streets that, whatever theory might be entertained as to the genesis of her talent and her personal nature, the blood of the lecture-going, night-walking Tarrants did distinctly flow in her veins; as the pair proceeded, I say, to the celebrated restaurant, at the door of which Mr. Burrage had promised to be in vigilant expectancy of their carriage, Verena found a sufficiently gay and natural tone of voice for remarking to her friend that Mr. Ransom had called upon her while they were out, and had left a note in which there were many compliments for Miss Chancellor.

“That’s wholly your own affair, my dear,” Olive replied, with a melancholy sigh, gazing down the vista of Fourteenth Street (which they happened just then to be traversing, with much agitation), toward the queer barrier of the elevated railway.

It was nothing new to Verena that if the great striving of Olive’s life was for justice she yet sometimes failed to arrive at it in particular cases; and she reflected that it was rather late for her to say, like that, that Basil Ransom’s letters were only his correspondent’s business. Had not his kinswoman quite made the subject her own during their drive that afternoon? Verena determined now that her companion should hear all there was to be heard about the letter; asking herself whether, if she told her at present more than she cared to know, it wouldn’t make up for her hitherto having told her less. “He brought it with him, written, in case I should be out. He wants to see me tomorrow — he says he has ever so much to say to me. He proposes an hour — says he hopes it won’t be inconvenient for me to see him about eleven in the morning; thinks I may have no other engagement so early as that. Of course our return to Boston settles it,” Verena added, with serenity.

Miss Chancellor said nothing for a moment; then she replied, “Yes, unless you invite him to come on with you in the train.”

“Why, Olive, how bitter you are!” Verena exclaimed, in genuine surprise.

Olive could not justify her bitterness by saying that her companion had spoken as if she were disappointed, because Verena had not. So she simply remarked, “I don’t see what he can have to say to you — that would be worth your hearing.”

“Well, of course, it’s the other side. He has got it on the brain!” said Verena, with a laugh which seemed to relegate the whole matter to the category of the unimportant.

“If we should stay, would you see him — at eleven o’clock?” Olive inquired.

“Why do you ask that — when I have given it up?”

“Do you consider it such a tremendous sacrifice?”

“No,” said Verena good-naturedly; “but I confess I am curious.”

“Curious — how do you mean?”

“Well, to hear the other side.”

“Oh heaven!” Olive Chancellor murmured, turning her face upon her.

“You must remember I have never heard it.” And Verena smiled into her friend’s wan gaze.

“Do you want to hear all the infamy that is in the world?”

“No, it isn’t that; but the more he should talk the better chance he would give me. I guess I can meet him.”

“Life is too short. Leave him as he is.”

“Well,” Verena went on, “there are many I haven’t cared to move at all, whom I might have been more interested in than in him. But to make him give in just at two or three points — that I should like better than anything I have done.”

“You have no business to enter upon a contest that isn’t equal; and it wouldn’t be, with Mr. Ransom.”

“The inequality would be that I have right on my side.”

“What is that — for a man? For what was their brutality given them, but to make that up?”

“I don’t think he’s brutal; I should like to see,” said Verena gaily.

Olive’s eyes lingered a little on her own; then they turned away, vaguely, blindly, out of the carriage-window, and Verena made the reflexion that she looked strangely little like a person who was going to dine at Delmonico’s. How terribly she worried about everything, and how tragical was her nature; how anxious, suspicious, exposed to subtle influences! In their long intimacy Verena had come to revere most of her friend’s peculiarities; they were a proof of her depth and devotion, and were so bound up with what was noble in her that she was rarely provoked to criticise them separately. But at present, suddenly, Olive’s earnestness began to appear as inharmonious with the scheme of the universe as if it had been a broken saw; and she was positively glad she had not told her about Basil Ransom’s appearance in Monadnoc Place. If she worried so about what she knew, how much would she not have worried about the rest! Verena had by this time made up her mind that her acquaintance with Mr. Ransom was the most episodical, most superficial, most unimportant of all possible relations.

Olive Chancellor watched Henry Burrage very closely that evening; she had a special reason for doing so, and her entertainment, during the successive hours, was derived much less from the delicate little feast over which this insinuating proselyte presided, in the brilliant public room of the establishment, where French waiters flitted about on deep carpets and parties at neighbouring tables excited curiosity and conjecture, or even from the magnificent music of Lohengrin, than from a secret process of comparison and verification, which shall presently be explained to the reader. As some discredit has possibly been thrown upon her impartiality it is a pleasure to be able to say that on her return from the opera she took a step dictated by an earnest consideration of justice — of the promptness with which Verena had told her of the note left by Basil Ransom in the afternoon. She drew Verena into her room with her. The girl, on the way back to Tenth Street, had spoken only of Wagner’s music, of the singers, the orchestra, the immensity of the house, her tremendous pleasure. Olive could see how fond she might become of New York, where that kind of pleasure was so much more in the air.

“Well, Mr. Burrage was certainly very kind to us — no one could have been more thoughtful,” Olive said; and she coloured a little at the look with which Verena greeted this tribute of appreciation from Miss Chancellor to a single gentleman.

“I am so glad you were struck with that, because I do think we have been a little rough to him.” Verena’s we was angelic. “He was particularly attentive to you, my dear; he has got over me. He looked at you so sweetly. Dearest Olive, if you marry him ——!” And Miss Tarrant, who was in high spirits, embraced her companion, to check her own silliness.

“He wants you to stay there, all the same. They haven’t given that up,” Olive remarked, turning to a drawer, out of which she took a letter.

“Did he tell you that, pray? He said nothing more about it to me.”

“When we came in this afternoon I found this note from Mrs. Burrage. You had better read it.” And she presented the document, open, to Verena.

The purpose of it was to say that Mrs. Burrage could really not reconcile herself to the loss of Verena’s visit, on which both she and her son had counted so much. She was sure they would be able to make it as interesting to Miss Tarrant as it would be to themselves. She, Mrs. Burrage, moreover, felt as if she hadn’t heard half she wanted about Miss Tarrant’s views, and there were so many more who were present at the address, who had come to her that afternoon (losing not a minute, as Miss Chancellor could see) to ask how in the world they too could learn more — how they could get at the fair speaker and question her about certain details. She hoped so much, therefore, that even if the young ladies should be unable to alter their decision about the visit they might at least see their way to staying over long enough to allow her to arrange an informal meeting for some of these poor thirsty souls. Might she not at least talk over the question with Miss Chancellor? She gave her notice that she would attack her on the subject of the visit too. Might she not see her on the morrow, and might she ask of her the very great favour that the interview should be at Mrs. Burrage’s own house? She had something very particular to say to her, as regards which perfect privacy was a great consideration, and Miss Chancellor would doubtless recognise that this would be best secured under Mrs. Burrage’s roof. She would therefore send her carriage for Miss Chancellor at any hour that would be convenient to the latter. She really thought much good might come from their having a satisfactory talk.

Verena read this epistle with much deliberation; it seemed to her mysterious, and confirmed the idea she had received the night before — the idea that she had not got quite a correct impression of this clever, worldly, curious woman on the occasion of her visit to Cambridge, when they met her at her son’s rooms. As she gave the letter back to Olive she said, “That’s why he didn’t seem to believe we are really leaving tomorrow. He knows she had written that, and he thinks it will keep us.”

“Well, if I were to say it may — should you think me too miserably changeful?”

Verena stared, with all her candour, and it was so very queer that Olive should now wish to linger that the sense of it, for the moment, almost covered the sense of its being pleasant. But that came out after an instant, and she said, with great honesty, “You needn’t drag me away for consistency’s sake. It would be absurd for me to pretend that I don’t like being here.”

“I think perhaps I ought to see her.” Olive was very thoughtful.

“How lovely it must be to have a secret with Mrs. Burrage!” Verena exclaimed.

“It won’t be a secret from you.”

“Dearest, you needn’t tell me unless you want,” Verena went on, thinking of her own unimparted knowledge.

“I thought it was our plan to divide everything. It was certainly mine.”

“Ah, don’t talk about plans!” Verena exclaimed, rather ruefully. “You see, if we are going to stay tomorrow, how foolish it was to have any. There is more in her letter than is expressed,” she added, as Olive appeared to be studying in her face the reasons for and against making this concession to Mrs. Burrage, and that was rather embarrassing.

“I thought it over all the evening — so that if now you will consent we will stay.”

“Darling — what a spirit you have got! All through all those dear little dishes — all through Lohengrin! As I haven’t thought it over at all, you must settle it. You know I am not difficult.”

“And would you go and stay with Mrs. Burrage, after all, if she should say anything to me that seems to make it desirable?”

Verena broke into a laugh. “You know it’s not our real life!”

Olive said nothing for a moment; then she replied: “Don’t think I can forget that. If I suggest a deviation, it’s only because it sometimes seems to me that perhaps, after all, almost anything is better than the form reality may take with us.” This was slightly obscure, as well as very melancholy, and Verena was relieved when her companion remarked, in a moment, “You must think me strangely inconsequent”; for this gave her a chance to reply, soothingly:

“Why, you don’t suppose I expect you to keep always screwed up! I will stay a week with Mrs. Burrage, or a fortnight, or a month, or anything you like,” she pursued; “anything it may seem to you best to tell her after you have seen her.”

“Do you leave it all to me? You don’t give me much help,” Olive said.

“Help to what?”

“Help to help you.”

“I don’t want any help; I am quite strong enough!” Verena cried gaily. The next moment she inquired, in an appeal half comical, half touching, “My dear colleague, why do you make me say such conceited things?”

“And if you do stay — just even tomorrow — shall you be — very much of the time — with Mr. Ransom?”

As Verena for the moment appeared ironically-minded, she might have found a fresh subject for hilarity in the tremulous, tentative tone in which Olive made this inquiry. But it had not that effect; it produced the first manifestation of impatience — the first, literally, and the first note of reproach — that had occurred in the course of their remarkable intimacy. The colour rose to Verena’s cheek, and her eye for an instant looked moist.

“I don’t know what you always think, Olive, nor why you don’t seem able to trust me. You didn’t, from the first, with gentlemen. Perhaps you were right then — I don’t say; but surely it is very different now. I don’t think I ought to be suspected so much. Why have you a manner as if I had to be watched, as if I wanted to run away with every man that speaks to me? I should think I had proved how little I care. I thought you had discovered by this time that I am serious; that I have dedicated my life; that there is something unspeakably dear to me. But you begin again, every time — you don’t do me justice. I must take everything that comes. I mustn’t be afraid. I thought we had agreed that we were to do our work in the midst of the world, facing everything, keeping straight on, always taking hold. And now that it all opens out so magnificently, and victory is really sitting on our banners, it is strange of you to doubt of me, to suppose I am not more wedded to all our old dreams than ever. I told you the first time I saw you that I could renounce, and knowing better today, perhaps, what that means, I am ready to say it again. That I can, that I will! Why, Olive Chancellor,” Verena cried, panting, a moment, with her eloquence, and with the rush of a culminating idea, “haven’t you discovered by this time that I have renounced?”

The habit of public speaking, the training, the practice, in which she had been immersed, enabled Verena to unroll a coil of propositions dedicated even to a private interest with the most touching, most cumulative effect. Olive was completely aware of this, and she stilled herself, while the girl uttered one soft, pleading sentence after another, into the same rapt attention she was in the habit of sending up from the benches of an auditorium. She looked at Verena fixedly, felt that she was stirred to her depths, that she was exquisitely passionate and sincere, that she was a quivering, spotless, consecrated maiden, that she really had renounced, that they were both safe, and that her own injustice and indelicacy had been great. She came to her slowly, took her in her arms and held her long — giving her a silent kiss. From which Verena knew that she believed her.

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