The Bostonians, by Henry James

Chapter 7

She had no sooner left him than Olive Chancellor came towards him with eyes that seemed to say, “I don’t care whether you are here now or not — I’m all right!” But what her lips said was much more gracious; she asked him if she mightn’t have the pleasure of introducing him to Mrs. Farrinder. Ransom consented, with a little of his Southern flourish, and in a moment the lady got up to receive him from the midst of the circle that now surrounded her. It was an occasion for her to justify her reputation of an elegant manner, and it must be impartially related that she struck Ransom as having a dignity in conversation and a command of the noble style which could not have been surpassed by a daughter — one of the most accomplished, most far-descended daughters — of his own latitude. It was as if she had known that he was not eager for the changes she advocated, and wished to show him that, especially to a Southerner who had bitten the dust, her sex could be magnanimous. This knowledge of his secret heresy seemed to him to be also in the faces of the other ladies, whose circumspect glances, however (for he had not been introduced), treated it as a pity rather than as a shame. He was conscious of all these middle-aged feminine eyes, conscious of curls, rather limp, that depended from dusky bonnets, of heads poked forward, as if with a waiting, listening, familiar habit, of no one being very bright or gay — no one, at least, but that girl he had noticed before, who had a brilliant head, and who now hovered on the edge of the conclave. He met her eye again; she was watching him too. It had been in his thought that Mrs. Farrinder, to whom his cousin might have betrayed or misrepresented him, would perhaps defy him to combat, and he wondered whether he could pull himself together (he was extremely embarrassed) sufficiently to do honour to such a challenge. If she would fling down the glove on the temperance question, it seemed to him that it would be in him to pick it up; for the idea of a meddling legislation on this subject filled him with rage; the taste of liquor being good to him, and his conviction strong that civilisation itself would be in danger if it should fall into the power of a herd of vociferating women (I am but the reporter of his angry formulae) to prevent a gentleman from taking his glass. Mrs. Farrinder proved to him that she had not the eagerness of insecurity; she asked him if he wouldn’t like to give the company some account of the social and political condition of the South. He begged to be excused, expressing at the same time a high sense of the honour done him by such a request, while he smiled to himself at the idea of his extemporising a lecture. He smiled even while he suspected the meaning of the look Miss Chancellor gave him: “Well, you are not of much account after all!” To talk to those people about the South — if they could have guessed how little he cared to do it! He had a passionate tenderness for his own country, and a sense of intimate connexion with it which would have made it as impossible for him to take a roomful of Northern fanatics into his confidence as to read aloud his mother’s or his mistress’s letters. To be quiet about the Southern land, not to touch her with vulgar hands, to leave her alone with her wounds and her memories, not prating in the market-place either of her troubles or her hopes, but waiting as a man should wait, for the slow process, the sensible beneficence, of time — this was the desire of Ransom’s heart, and he was aware of how little it could minister to the entertainment of Miss Birdseye’s guests.

“We know so little about the women of the South; they are very voiceless,” Mrs. Farrinder remarked. “How much can we count upon them? in what numbers would they flock to our standard? I have been recommended not to lecture in the Southern cities.”

“Ah, madam, that was very cruel advice — for us!” Basil Ransom exclaimed, with gallantry.

I had a magnificent audience last spring in St. Louis,” a fresh young voice announced, over the heads of the gathered group — a voice which, on Basil’s turning, like every one else, for an explanation, appeared to have proceeded from the pretty girl with red hair. She had coloured a little with the effort of making this declaration, and she stood there smiling at her listeners.

Mrs. Farrinder bent a benignant brow upon her, in spite of her being, evidently, rather a surprise. “Oh, indeed; and your subject, my dear young lady?”

“The past history, the present condition, and the future prospects of our sex.”

“Oh, well, St. Louis — that’s scarcely the South,” said one of the ladies.

“I’m sure the young lady would have had equal success at Charleston or New Orleans,” Basil Ransom interposed.

“Well, I wanted to go farther,” the girl continued, “but I had no friends. I have friends in St. Louis.”

“You oughtn’t to want for them anywhere,” said Mrs. Farrinder, in a manner which, by this time, had quite explained her reputation. “I am acquainted with the loyalty of St. Louis.”

“Well, after that, you must let me introduce Miss Tarrant; she’s perfectly dying to know you, Mrs. Farrinder.” These words emanated from one of the gentlemen, the young man with white hair, who had been mentioned to Ransom by Doctor Prance as a celebrated magazinist. He, too, up to this moment, had hovered in the background, but he now gently clove the assembly (several of the ladies made way for him), leading in the daughter of the mesmerist.

She laughed and continued to blush — her blush was the faintest pink; she looked very young and slim and fair as Mrs. Farrinder made way for her on the sofa which Olive Chancellor had quitted. “I have wanted to know you; I admire you so much; I hoped so you would speak to-night. It’s too lovely to see you, Mrs. Farrinder.” So she expressed herself, while the company watched the encounter with a look of refreshed inanition. “You don’t know who I am, of course; I’m just a girl who wants to thank you for all you have done for us. For you have spoken for us girls, just as much as — just as much as ——” She hesitated now, looking about with enthusiastic eyes at the rest of the group, and meeting once more the gaze of Basil Ransom.

“Just as much as for the old women,” said Mrs. Farrinder genially. “You seem very well able to speak for yourself.”

“She speaks so beautifully — if she would only make a little address,” the young man who had introduced her remarked. “It’s a new style, quite original,” he added. He stood there with folded arms, looking down at his work, the conjunction of the two ladies, with a smile; and Basil Ransom, remembering what Miss Prance had told him, and enlightened by his observation in New York of some of the sources from which newspapers are fed, was immediately touched by the conviction that he perceived in it the material of a paragraph.

“My dear child, if you’ll take the floor, I’ll call the meeting to order,” said Mrs. Farrinder.

The girl looked at her with extraordinary candour and confidence. “If I could only hear you first — just to give me an atmosphere.”

“I’ve got no atmosphere; there’s very little of the Indian summer about me! I deal with facts — hard facts,” Mrs. Farrinder replied. “Have you ever heard me? If so, you know how crisp I am.”

“Heard you? I’ve lived on you! It’s so much to me to see you. Ask mother if it ain’t!” She had expressed herself, from the first word she uttered, with a promptness and assurance which gave almost the impression of a lesson rehearsed in advance. And yet there was a strange spontaneity in her manner, and an air of artless enthusiasm, of personal purity. If she was theatrical, she was naturally theatrical. She looked up at Mrs. Farrinder with all her emotion in her smiling eyes. This lady had been the object of many ovations; it was familiar to her that the collective heart of her sex had gone forth to her; but, visibly, she was puzzled by this unforeseen embodiment of gratitude and fluency, and her eyes wandered over the girl with a certain reserve, while, within the depth of her eminently public manner, she asked herself whether Miss Tarrant were a remarkable young woman or only a forward minx. She found a response which committed her to neither view; she only said, “We want the young — of course we want the young!”

“Who is that charming creature?” Basil Ransom heard his cousin ask, in a grave, lowered tone, of Matthias Pardon, the young man who had brought Miss Tarrant forward. He didn’t know whether Miss Chancellor knew him, or whether her curiosity had pushed her to boldness. Ransom was near the pair, and had the benefit of Mr. Pardon’s answer.

“The daughter of Doctor Tarrant, the mesmeric healer — Miss Verena. She’s a high-class speaker.”

“What do you mean?” Olive asked. “Does she give public addresses?”

“Oh yes, she has had quite a career in the West. I heard her last spring at Topeka. They call it inspirational. I don’t know what it is — only it’s exquisite; so fresh and poetical. She has to have her father to start her up. It seems to pass into her.” And Mr. Pardon indulged in a gesture intended to signify the passage.

Olive Chancellor made no rejoinder save a low, impatient sigh; she transferred her attention to the girl, who now held Mrs. Farrinder’s hand in both her own, and was pleading with her just to prelude a little. “I want a starting-point — I want to know where I am,” she said. “Just two or three of your grand old thoughts.”

Basil stepped nearer to his cousin; he remarked to her that Miss Verena was very pretty. She turned an instant, glanced at him, and then said, “Do you think so?” An instant later she added, “How you must hate this place!”

“Oh, not now, we are going to have some fun,” Ransom replied good-humouredly, if a trifle coarsely; and the declaration had a point, for Miss Birdseye at this moment reappeared, followed by the mesmeric healer and his wife.

“Ah, well, I see you are drawing her out,” said Miss Birdseye to Mrs. Farrinder; and at the idea that this process had been necessary Basil Ransom broke into a smothered hilarity, a spasm which indicated that, for him, the fun had already begun, and procured him another grave glance from Miss Chancellor. Miss Verena seemed to him as far “out” as a young woman could be. “Here’s her father, Doctor Tarrant — he has a wonderful gift — and her mother — she was a daughter of Abraham Greenstreet.” Miss Birdseye presented her companion; she was sure Mrs. Farrinder would be interested; she wouldn’t want to lose an opportunity, even if for herself the conditions were not favourable. And then Miss Birdseye addressed herself to the company more at large, widening the circle so as to take in the most scattered guests, and evidently feeling that after all it was a relief that one happened to have an obscurely inspired maiden on the premises when greater celebrities had betrayed the whimsicality of genius. It was a part of this whimsicality that Mrs. Farrinder — the reader may find it difficult to keep pace with her variations — appeared now to have decided to utter a few of her thoughts, so that her hostess could elicit a general response to the remark that it would be delightful to have both the old school and the new.

“Well, perhaps you’ll be disappointed in Verena,” said Mrs. Tarrant, with an air of dolorous resignation to any event, and seating herself, with her gathered mantle, on the edge of a chair, as if she, at least, were ready, whoever else might keep on talking.

“It isn’t me, mother,” Verena rejoined, with soft gravity, rather detached now from Mrs. Farrinder, and sitting with her eyes fixed thoughtfully on the ground. With deference to Mrs. Tarrant, a little more talk was necessary, for the young lady had as yet been insufficiently explained. Miss Birdseye felt this, but she was rather helpless about it, and delivered herself, with her universal familiarity, which embraced every one and everything, of a wandering, amiable tale, in which Abraham Greenstreet kept reappearing, in which Doctor Tarrant’s miraculous cures were specified, with all the facts wanting, and in which Verena’s successes in the West were related, not with emphasis or hyperbole, in which Miss Birdseye never indulged, but as accepted and recognised wonders, natural in an age of new revelations. She had heard of these things in detail only ten minutes before, from the girl’s parents, but her hospitable soul had needed but a moment to swallow and assimilate them. If her account of them was not very lucid, it should be said in excuse for her that it was impossible to have any idea of Verena Tarrant unless one had heard her, and therefore still more impossible to give an idea to others. Mrs. Farrinder was perceptibly irritated; she appeared to have made up her mind, after her first hesitation, that the Tarrant family were fantastical and compromising. She had bent an eye of coldness on Selah and his wife — she might have regarded them all as a company of mountebanks.

“Stand up and tell us what you have to say,” she remarked, with some sternness, to Verena, who only raised her eyes to her, silently now, with the same sweetness, and then rested them on her father. This gentleman seemed to respond to an irresistible appeal; he looked round at the company with all his teeth, and said that these flattering allusions were not so embarrassing as they might otherwise be, inasmuch as any success that he and his daughter might have had was so thoroughly impersonal: he insisted on that word. They had just heard her say, “It is not me, mother,” and he and Mrs. Tarrant and the girl herself were all equally aware it was not she. It was some power outside — it seemed to flow through her; he couldn’t pretend to say why his daughter should be called, more than any one else. But it seemed as if she was called. When he just calmed her down by laying his hand on her a few moments, it seemed to come. It so happened that in the West it had taken the form of a considerable eloquence. She had certainly spoken with great facility to cultivated and high-minded audiences. She had long followed with sympathy the movement for the liberation of her sex from every sort of bondage; it had been her principal interest even as a child (he might mention that at the age of nine she had christened her favourite doll Eliza P. Moseley, in memory of a great precursor whom they all reverenced), and now the inspiration, if he might call it so, seemed just to flow in that channel. The voice that spoke from her lips seemed to want to take that form. It didn’t seem as if it could take any other. She let it come out just as it would — she didn’t pretend to have any control. They could judge for themselves whether the whole thing was not quite unique. That was why he was willing to talk about his own child that way, before a gathering of ladies and gentlemen; it was because they took no credit — they felt it was a power outside. If Verena felt she was going to be stimulated that evening, he was pretty sure they would be interested. Only he should have to request a few moments’ silence, while she listened for the voice.

Several of the ladies declared that they should be delighted — they hoped that Miss Tarrant was in good trim; whereupon they were corrected by others, who reminded them that it wasn’t her — she had nothing to do with it — so her trim didn’t matter; and a gentleman added that he guessed there were many present who had conversed with Eliza P. Moseley. Meanwhile Verena, more and more withdrawn into herself, but perfectly undisturbed by the public discussion of her mystic faculty, turned yet again, very prettily, to Mrs. Farrinder, and asked her if she wouldn’t strike out — just to give her courage. By this time Mrs. Farrinder was in a condition of overhanging gloom; she greeted the charming suppliant with the frown of Juno. She disapproved completely of Doctor Tarrant’s little speech, and she had less and less disposition to be associated with a miracle-monger. Abraham Greenstreet was very well, but Abraham Greenstreet was in his grave; and Eliza P. Moseley, after all, had been very tepid. Basil Ransom wondered whether it were effrontery or innocence that enabled Miss Tarrant to meet with such complacency the aloofness of the elder lady. At this moment he heard Olive Chancellor, at his elbow, with the tremor of excitement in her tone, suddenly exclaim: “Please begin, please begin! A voice, a human voice, is what we want.”

“I’ll speak after you, and if you’re a humbug, I’ll expose you!” Mrs. Farrinder said. She was more majestic than facetious.

“I’m sure we are all solid, as Doctor Tarrant says. I suppose we want to be quiet,” Miss Birdseye remarked.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/boston/chapter7.html

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