The Bostonians, by Henry James

Chapter 6

“Oh, thank you,” said Miss Birdseye, “I shouldn’t like to lose it; it was given me by Mirandola!” He had been one of her refugees in the old time, when two or three of her friends, acquainted with the limits of his resources, wondered how he had come into possession of the trinket. She had been diverted again, after her greeting with Doctor and Mrs. Tarrant, by stopping to introduce the tall, dark young man whom Miss Chancellor had brought with her to Doctor Prance. She had become conscious of his somewhat sombre figure, uplifted against the wall, near the door; he was leaning there in solitude, unacquainted with opportunities which Miss Birdseye felt to be, collectively, of value, and which were really, of course, what strangers came to Boston for. It did not occur to her to ask herself why Miss Chancellor didn’t talk to him, since she had brought him; Miss Birdseye was incapable of a speculation of this kind. Olive, in fact, had remained vividly conscious of her kinsman’s isolation until the moment when Mrs. Farrinder lifted her, with a word, to a higher plane. She watched him across the room; she saw that he might be bored. But she proposed to herself not to mind that; she had asked him, after all, not to come. Then he was no worse off than others; he was only waiting, like the rest; and before they left she would introduce him to Mrs. Farrinder. She might tell that lady who he was first; it was not every one that would care to know a person who had borne such a part in the Southern disloyalty. It came over our young lady that when she sought the acquaintance of her distant kinsman she had indeed done a more complicated thing than she suspected. The sudden uneasiness that he flung over her in the carriage had not left her, though she felt it less now she was with others, and especially that she was close to Mrs. Farrinder, who was such a fountain of strength. At any rate, if he was bored, he could speak to some one; there were excellent people near him, even if they were ardent reformers. He could speak to that pretty girl who had just come in-the one with red hair — if he liked; Southerners were supposed to be so chivalrous!

Miss Birdseye reasoned much less, and did not offer to introduce him to Verena Tarrant, who was apparently being presented by her parents to a group of friends at the other end of the room. It came back to Miss Birdseye, in this connexion, that, sure enough, Verena had been away for a long time — for nearly a year; had been on a visit to friends in the West, and would therefore naturally be a stranger to most of the Boston circle. Doctor Prance was looking at her — at Miss Birdseye — with little, sharp, fixed pupils; and the good lady wondered whether she were angry at having been induced to come up. She had a general impression that when genius was original its temper was high, and all this would be the case with Doctor Prance. She wanted to say to her that she could go down again if she liked; but even to Miss Birdseye’s unsophisticated mind this scarcely appeared, as regards a guest, an adequate formula of dismissal. She tried to bring the young Southerner out; she said to him that she presumed they would have some entertainment soon — Mrs. Farrinder could be interesting when she tried! And then she bethought herself to introduce him to Doctor Prance; it might serve as a reason for having brought her up. Moreover, it would do her good to break up her work now and then; she pursued her medical studies far into the night, and Miss Birdseye, who was nothing of a sleeper (Mary Prance, precisely, had wanted to treat her for it), had heard her, in the stillness of the small hours, with her open windows (she had fresh air on the brain), sharpening instruments (it was Miss Birdseye’s mild belief that she dissected), in a little physiological laboratory which she had set up in her back room, the room which, if she hadn’t been a doctor, might have been her “chamber,” and perhaps was, even with the dissecting, Miss Birdseye didn’t know! She explained her young friends to each other, a trifle incoherently, perhaps, and then went to stir up Mrs. Farrinder.

Basil Ransom had already noticed Doctor Prance; he had not been at all bored, and had observed every one in the room, arriving at all sorts of ingenious inductions. The little medical lady struck him as a perfect example of the “Yankee female”— the figure which, in the unregenerate imagination of the children of the cotton-States, was produced by the New England school-system, the Puritan code, the ungenial climate, the absence of chivalry. Spare, dry, hard, without a curve, an inflexion or a grace, she seemed to ask no odds in the battle of life and to be prepared to give none. But Ransom could see that she was not an enthusiast, and after his contact with his cousin’s enthusiasm this was rather a relief to him. She looked like a boy, and not even like a good boy. It was evident that if she had been a boy, she would have “cut” school, to try private experiments in mechanics or to make researches in natural history. It was true that if she had been a boy she would have borne some relation to a girl, whereas Doctor Prance appeared to bear none whatever. Except her intelligent eye, she had no features to speak of. Ransom asked her if she were acquainted with the lioness, and on her staring at him, without response, explained that he meant the renowned Mrs. Farrinder.

“Well, I don’t know as I ought to say that I’m acquainted with her; but I’ve heard her on the platform. I have paid my half-dollar,” the doctor added, with a certain grimness.

“Well, did she convince you?” Ransom inquired.

“Convince me of what, sir?”

“That women are so superior to men.”

“Oh, deary me!” said Doctor Prance, with a little impatient sigh; “I guess I know more about women than she does.”

“And that isn’t your opinion, I hope,” said Ransom, laughing.

“Men and women are all the same to me,” Doctor Prance remarked. “I don’t see any difference. There is room for improvement in both sexes. Neither of them is up to the standard.” And on Ransom’s asking her what the standard appeared to her to be, she said, “Well, they ought to live better; that’s what they ought to do.” And she went on to declare, further, that she thought they all talked too much. This had so long been Ransom’s conviction that his heart quite warmed to Doctor Prance, and he paid homage to her wisdom in the manner of Mississippi — with a richness of compliment that made her turn her acute, suspicious eye upon him. This checked him; she was capable of thinking that he talked too much — she herself having, apparently, no general conversation. It was german to the matter, at any rate, for him to observe that he believed they were to have a lecture from Mrs. Farrinder — he didn’t know why she didn’t begin. “Yes,” said Doctor Prance, rather dryly, “I suppose that’s what Miss Birdseye called me up for. She seemed to think I wouldn’t want to miss that.”

“Whereas, I infer, you could console yourself for the loss of the oration,” Ransom suggested.

“Well, I’ve got some work. I don’t want any one to teach me what a woman can do!” Doctor Prance declared. “She can find out some things, if she tries. Besides, I am familiar with Mrs. Farrinder’s system; I know all she has got to say.”

“Well, what is it, then, since she continues to remain silent?”

“Well, what it amounts to is just that women want to have a better time. That’s what it comes to in the end. I am aware of that, without her telling me.”

“And don’t you sympathise with such an aspiration?”

“Well, I don’t know as I cultivate the sentimental side,” said Doctor Prance. “There’s plenty of sympathy without mine. If they want to have a better time, I suppose it’s natural; so do men too, I suppose. But I don’t know as it appeals to me — to make sacrifices for it; it ain’t such a wonderful time — the best you can have!”

This little lady was tough and technical; she evidently didn’t care for great movements; she became more and more interesting to Basil Ransom, who, it is to be feared, had a fund of cynicism. He asked her if she knew his cousin, Miss Chancellor, whom he indicated, beside Mrs. Farrinder; she believed, on the contrary, in wonderful times (she thought they were coming); she had plenty of sympathy, and he was sure she was willing to make sacrifices.

Doctor Prance looked at her across the room for a moment; then she said she didn’t know her, but she guessed she knew others like her — she went to see them when they were sick. “She’s having a private lecture to herself,” Ransom remarked; whereupon Doctor Prance rejoined, “Well, I guess she’ll have to pay for it!” She appeared to regret her own half-dollar, and to be vaguely impatient of the behaviour of her sex. Ransom became so sensible of this that he felt it was indelicate to allude further to the cause of woman, and, for a change, endeavoured to elicit from his companion some information about the gentlemen present. He had given her a chance, vainly, to start some topic herself; but he could see that she had no interests beyond the researches from which, this evening, she had been torn, and was incapable of asking him a personal question. She knew two or three of the gentlemen; she had seen them before at Miss Birdseye’s. Of course she knew principally ladies; the time hadn’t come when a lady-doctor was sent for by a gentleman, and she hoped it never would, though some people seemed to think that this was what lady-doctors were working for. She knew Mr. Pardon; that was the young man with the “side-whiskers” and the white hair; he was a kind of editor, and he wrote, too, “over his signature”— perhaps Basil had read some of his works; he was under thirty, in spite of his white hair. He was a great deal thought of in magazine circles. She believed he was very bright — but she hadn’t read anything. She didn’t read much — not for amusement; only the Transcript. She believed Mr. Pardon sometimes wrote in the Transcript; well, she supposed he was very bright. The other that she knew — only she didn’t know him (she supposed Basil would think that queer)— was the tall, pale gentleman, with the black moustache and the eye-glass. She knew him because she had met him in society; but she didn’t know him — well, because she didn’t want to. If he should come and speak to her — and he looked as if he were going to work round that way — she should just say to him, “Yes, sir,” or “No, sir,” very coldly. She couldn’t help it if he did think her dry; if he were a little more dry, it might be better for him. What was the matter with him? Oh, she thought she had mentioned that; he was a mesmeric healer, he made miraculous cures. She didn’t believe in his system or disbelieve in it, one way or the other; she only knew that she had been called to see ladies he had worked on, and she found that he had made them lose a lot of valuable time. He talked to them — well, as if he didn’t know what he was saying. She guessed he was quite ignorant of physiology, and she didn’t think he ought to go round taking responsibilities. She didn’t want to be narrow, but she thought a person ought to know something. She supposed Basil would think her very uplifted; but he had put the question to her, as she might say. All she could say was she didn’t want him to be laying his hands on any of her folks; it was all done with the hands — what wasn’t done with the tongue! Basil could see that Doctor Prance was irritated; that this extreme candour of allusion to her neighbour was probably not habitual to her, as a member of a society in which the casual expression of strong opinion generally produced waves of silence. But he blessed her irritation, for him it was so illuminating; and to draw further profit from it he asked her who the young lady was with the red hair — the pretty one, whom he had only noticed during the last ten minutes. She was Miss Tarrant, the daughter of the healer; hadn’t she mentioned his name? Selah Tarrant; if he wanted to send for him. Doctor Prance wasn’t acquainted with her, beyond knowing that she was the mesmerist’s only child, and having heard something about her having some gift — she couldn’t remember which it was. Oh, if she was his child, she would be sure to have some gift — if it was only the gift of the g —— well, she didn’t mean to say that; but a talent for conversation. Perhaps she could die and come to life again; perhaps she would show them her gift, as no one seemed inclined to do anything. Yes, she was pretty-appearing, but there was a certain indication of anæmia, and Doctor Prance would be surprised if she didn’t eat too much candy. Basil thought she had an engaging exterior; it was his private reflexion, coloured doubtless by “sectional” prejudice, that she was the first pretty girl he had seen in Boston. She was talking with some ladies at the other end of the room; and she had a large red fan, which she kept constantly in movement. She was not a quiet girl; she fidgeted, was restless, while she talked, and had the air of a person who, whatever she might be doing, would wish to be doing something else. If people watched her a good deal, she also returned their contemplation, and her charming eyes had several times encountered those of Basil Ransom. But they wandered mainly in the direction of Mrs. Farrinder — they lingered upon the serene solidity of the great oratress. It was easy to see that the girl admired this beneficent woman, and felt it a privilege to be near her. It was apparent, indeed, that she was excited by the company in which she found herself; a fact to be explained by a reference to that recent period of exile in the West, of which we have had a hint, and in consequence of which the present occasion may have seemed to her a return to intellectual life. Ransom secretly wished that his cousin — since fate was to reserve for him a cousin in Boston — had been more like that.

By this time a certain agitation was perceptible; several ladies, impatient of vain delay, had left their places, to appeal personally to Mrs. Farrinder, who was presently surrounded with sympathetic remonstrants. Miss Birdseye had given her up; it had been enough for Miss Birdseye that she should have said, when pressed (so far as her hostess, muffled in laxity, could press) on the subject of the general expectation, that she could only deliver her message to an audience which she felt to be partially hostile. There was no hostility there; they were all only too much in sympathy. “I don’t require sympathy,” she said, with a tranquil smile, to Olive Chancellor; “I am only myself, I only rise to the occasion, when I see prejudice, when I see bigotry, when I see injustice, when I see conservatism, massed before me like an army. Then I feel — I feel as I imagine Napoleon Bonaparte to have felt on the eve of one of his great victories. I must have unfriendly elements — I like to win them over.”

Olive thought of Basil Ransom, and wondered whether he would do for an unfriendly element. She mentioned him to Mrs. Farrinder, who expressed an earnest hope that if he were opposed to the principles which were so dear to the rest of them, he might be induced to take the floor and testify on his own account. “I should be so happy to answer him,” said Mrs. Farrinder, with supreme softness. “I should be so glad, at any rate, to exchange ideas with him.” Olive felt a deep alarm at the idea of a public dispute between these two vigorous people (she had a perception that Ransom would be vigorous), not because she doubted of the happy issue, but because she herself would be in a false position, as having brought the offensive young man, and she had a horror of false positions. Miss Birdseye was incapable of resentment; she had invited forty people to hear Mrs. Farrinder speak, and now Mrs. Farrinder wouldn’t speak. But she had such a beautiful reason for it! There was something martial and heroic in her pretext, and, besides, it was so characteristic, so free, that Miss Birdseye was quite consoled, and wandered away, looking at her other guests vaguely, as if she didn’t know them from each other, while she mentioned to them, at a venture, the excuse for their disappointment, confident, evidently, that they would agree with her it was very fine. “But we can’t pretend to be on the other side, just to start her up, can we?” she asked of Mr. Tarrant, who sat there beside his wife with a rather conscious but by no means complacent air of isolation from the rest of the company.

“Well, I don’t know — I guess we are all solid here,” this gentleman replied, looking round him with a slow, deliberate smile, which made his mouth enormous, developed two wrinkles, as long as the wings of a bat, on either side of it, and showed a set of big, even, carnivorous teeth.

“Selah,” said his wife, laying her hand on the sleeve of his waterproof, “I wonder whether Miss Birdseye would be interested to hear Verena.”

“Well, if you mean she sings, it’s a shame I haven’t got a piano,” Miss Birdseye took upon herself to respond. It came back to her that the girl had a gift.

“She doesn’t want a piano — she doesn’t want anything,” Selah remarked, giving no apparent attention to his wife. It was a part of his attitude in life never to appear to be indebted to another person for a suggestion, never to be surprised or unprepared.

“Well, I don’t know that the interest in singing is so general,” said Miss Birdseye, quite unconscious of any slackness in preparing a substitute for the entertainment that had failed her.

“It isn’t singing, you’ll see,” Mrs. Tarrant declared.

“What is it, then?”

Mr. Tarrant unfurled his wrinkles, showed his back teeth. “It’s inspirational.”

Miss Birdseye gave a small, vague, unsceptical laugh. “Well, if you can guarantee that ——”

“I think it would be acceptable,” said Mrs. Tarrant; and putting up a half-gloved, familiar hand, she drew Miss Birdseye down to her, and the pair explained in alternation what it was their child could do.

Meanwhile, Basil Ransom confessed to Doctor Prance that he was, after all, rather disappointed. He had expected more of a programme; he wanted to hear some of the new truths. Mrs. Farrinder, as he said, remained within her tent, and he had hoped not only to see these distinguished people but also to listen to them.

“Well, I ain’t disappointed,” the sturdy little doctress replied. “If any question had been opened, I suppose I should have had to stay.”

“But I presume you don’t propose to retire.”

“Well, I’ve got to pursue my studies some time. I don’t want the gentlemen-doctors to get ahead of me.”

“Oh, no one will ever get ahead of you, I’m very sure. And there is that pretty young lady going over to speak to Mrs. Farrinder. She’s going to beg her for a speech — Mrs. Farrinder can’t resist that.”

“Well, then, I’ll just trickle out before she begins. Good-night, sir,” said Doctor Prance, who by this time had begun to appear to Ransom more susceptible of domestication, as if she had been a small forest-creature, a catamount or a ruffled doe, that had learned to stand still while you stroked it, or even to extend a paw. She ministered to health, and she was healthy herself; if his cousin could have been even of this type Basil would have felt himself more fortunate.

“Good-night, Doctor,” he replied. “You haven’t told me, after all, your opinion of the capacity of the ladies.”

“Capacity for what?” said Doctor Prance. “They’ve got a capacity for making people waste time. All I know is that I don’t want any one to tell me what a lady can do!” And she edged away from him softly, as if she had been traversing a hospital-ward, and presently he saw her reach the door, which, with the arrival of the later comers, had remained open. She stood there an instant, turning over the whole assembly a glance like the flash of a watchman’s bull’s-eye, and then quickly passed out. Ransom could see that she was impatient of the general question and bored with being reminded, even for the sake of her rights, that she was a woman — a detail that she was in the habit of forgetting, having as many rights as she had time for. It was certain that whatever might become of the movement at large, Doctor Prance’s own little revolution was a success.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/boston/chapter6.html

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