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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bostonians - Chapter 17
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The Bostonians - Chapter 17 Post by :Chillin Category :Long Stories Author :Henry James Date :May 2012 Read :3447

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The Bostonians - Chapter 17

VOLUME I. BOOK FIRST. CHAPTER XVII.

The next time Verena saw Olive she said to her that she was ready to
make the promise she had asked the other night; but, to her great
surprise, this young woman answered her by a question intended to check
such rashness. Miss Chancellor raised a warning finger; she had an air
of dissuasion almost as solemn as her former pressure; her passionate
impatience appeared to have given way to other considerations, to be
replaced by the resignation that comes with deeper reflexion. It was
tinged in this case, indeed, by such bitterness as might be permitted to
a young lady who cultivated the brightness of a great faith.

"Don't you want any promise at present?" Verena asked. "Why, Olive, how
you change!"

"My dear child, you are so young--so strangely young. I am a thousand
years old; I have lived through generations--through centuries. I know
what I know by experience; you know it by imagination. That is
consistent with your being the fresh, bright creature that you are. I am
constantly forgetting the difference between us--that you are a mere
child as yet, though a child destined for great things. I forgot it the
other night, but I have remembered it since. You must pass through a
certain phase, and it would be very wrong in me to pretend to suppress
it. That is all clear to me now; I see it was my jealousy that spoke--my
restless, hungry jealousy. I have far too much of that; I oughtn't to
give any one the right to say that it's a woman's quality. I don't want
your signature; I only want your confidence--only what springs from
that. I hope with all my soul that you won't marry; but if you don't it
must not be because you have promised me. You know what I think--that
there is something noble done when one makes a sacrifice for a great
good. Priests--when they were real priests--never married, and what you
and I dream of doing demands of us a kind of priesthood. It seems to me
very poor, when friendship and faith and charity and the most
interesting occupation in the world--when such a combination as this
doesn't seem, by itself, enough to live for. No man that I have ever
seen cares a straw in his heart for what we are trying to accomplish.
They hate it; they scorn it; they will try to stamp it out whenever they
can. Oh yes, I know there are men who pretend to care for it; but they
are not really men, and I wouldn't be sure even of them! Any man that
one would look at--with him, as a matter of course, it is war upon us to
the knife. I don't mean to say there are not some male beings who are
willing to patronise us a little; to pat us on the back and recommend a
few moderate concessions; to say that there _are two or three little
points in which society has not been quite just to us. But any man who
pretends to accept our programme _in toto_, as you and I understand it,
of his own free will, before he is forced to--such a person simply
schemes to betray us. There are gentlemen in plenty who would be glad to
stop your mouth by kissing you! If you become dangerous some day to
their selfishness, to their vested interests, to their immorality--as I
pray heaven every day, my dear friend, that you may!--it will be a grand
thing for one of them if he can persuade you that he loves you. Then you
will see what he will do with you, and how far his love will take him!
It would be a sad day for you and for me and for all of us if you were
to believe something of that kind. You see I am very calm now; I have
thought it all out."

Verena had listened with earnest eyes. "Why, Olive, you are quite a
speaker yourself!" she exclaimed. "You would far surpass me if you would
let yourself go."

Miss Chancellor shook her head with a melancholy that was not devoid of
sweetness. "I can speak to _you_; but that is no proof. The very stones
of the street--all the dumb things of nature--might find a voice to talk
to you. I have no facility; I am awkward and embarrassed and dry." When
this young lady, after a struggle with the winds and waves of emotion,
emerged into the quiet stream of a certain high reasonableness, she
presented her most graceful aspect; she had a tone of softness and
sympathy, a gentle dignity, a serenity of wisdom, which sealed the
appreciation of those who knew her well enough to like her, and which
always impressed Verena as something almost august. Such moods, however,
were not often revealed to the public at large; they belonged to Miss
Chancellor's very private life. One of them had possession of her at
present, and she went on to explain the inconsequence which had puzzled
her friend with the same quiet clearness, the detachment from error, of
a woman whose self-scrutiny has been as sharp as her deflexion.

"Don't think me capricious if I say I would rather trust you without a
pledge. I owe you, I owe every one, an apology for my rudeness and
fierceness at your mother's. It came over me--just seeing those young
men--how exposed you are; and the idea made me (for the moment) frantic.
I see your danger still, but I see other things too, and I have
recovered my balance. You must be safe, Verena--you must be saved; but
your safety must not come from your having tied your hands. It must come
from the growth of your perception; from your seeing things, of
yourself, sincerely and with conviction, in the light in which I see
them; from your feeling that for your work your freedom is essential,
and that there is no freedom for you and me save in religiously _not_
doing what you will often be asked to do--and I never!" Miss Chancellor
brought out these last words with a proud jerk which was not without its
pathos. "Don't promise, don't promise!" she went on. "I would far rather
you didn't. But don't fail me--don't fail me, or I shall die!"

Her manner of repairing her inconsistency was altogether feminine: she
wished to extract a certainty at the same time that she wished to
deprecate a pledge, and she would have been delighted to put Verena into
the enjoyment of that freedom which was so important for her by
preventing her exercising it in a particular direction. The girl was now
completely under her influence; she had latent curiosities and
distractions--left to herself, she was not always thinking of the
unhappiness of women; but the touch of Olive's tone worked a spell, and
she found something to which at least a portion of her nature turned
with eagerness in her companion's wider knowledge, her elevation of
view. Miss Chancellor was historic and philosophic; or, at any rate, she
appeared so to Verena, who felt that through such an association one
might at last intellectually command all life. And there was a simpler
impulse; Verena wished to please her if only because she had such a
dread of displeasing her. Olive's displeasures, disappointments,
disapprovals were tragic, truly memorable; she grew white under them,
not shedding many tears, as a general thing, like inferior women (she
cried when she was angry, not when she was hurt), but limping and
panting, morally, as if she had received a wound that she would carry
for life. On the other hand, her commendations, her satisfactions were
as soft as a west wind; and she had this sign, the rarest of all, of
generosity, that she liked obligations of gratitude when they were not
laid upon her by men. Then, indeed, she scarcely recognised them. She
considered men in general as so much in the debt of the opposite sex
that any individual woman had an unlimited credit with them; she could
not possibly overdraw the general feminine account. The unexpected
temperance of her speech on this subject of Verena's accessibility to
matrimonial error seemed to the girl to have an antique beauty, a wisdom
purged of worldly elements; it reminded her of qualities that she
believed to have been proper to Electra or Antigone. This made her wish
the more to do something that would gratify Olive; and in spite of her
friend's dissuasion she declared that she should like to promise. "I
will promise, at any rate, not to marry any of those gentlemen that were
at the house," she said. "Those seemed to be the ones you were
principally afraid of."

"You will promise not to marry any one you don't like," said Olive.
"That would be a great comfort!"

"But I do like Mr. Burrage and Mr. Gracie."

"And Mr. Matthias Pardon? What a name!"

"Well, he knows how to make himself agreeable. He can tell you
everything you want to know."

"You mean everything you don't! Well, if you like every one, I haven't
the least objection. It would only be preferences that I should find
alarming. I am not the least afraid of your marrying a repulsive man;
your danger would come from an attractive one."

"I'm glad to hear you admit that some _are attractive!" Verena
exclaimed, with the light laugh which her reverence for Miss Chancellor
had not yet quenched. "It sometimes seems as if there weren't any you
could like!"

"I can imagine a man I should like very much," Olive replied, after a
moment. "But I don't like those I see. They seem to me poor creatures."
And, indeed, her uppermost feeling in regard to them was a kind of cold
scorn; she thought most of them palterers and bullies. The end of the
colloquy was that Verena, having assented, with her usual docility, to
her companion's optimistic contention that it was a "phase," this taste
for evening-calls from collegians and newspaper-men, and would
consequently pass away with the growth of her mind, remarked that the
injustice of men might be an accident or might be a part of their
nature, but at any rate she should have to change a good deal before she
should want to marry.

About the middle of December Miss Chancellor received a visit from
Matthias Pardon, who had come to ask her what she meant to do about
Verena. She had never invited him to call upon her, and the appearance
of a gentleman whose desire to see her was so irrepressible as to
dispense with such a preliminary was not in her career an accident
frequent enough to have taught her equanimity. She thought Mr. Pardon's
visit a liberty; but, if she expected to convey this idea to him by
withholding any suggestion that he should sit down, she was greatly
mistaken, inasmuch as he cut the ground from under her feet by himself
offering her a chair. His manner represented hospitality enough for both
of them, and she was obliged to listen, on the edge of her sofa (she
could at least seat herself where she liked), to his extraordinary
inquiry. Of course she was not obliged to answer it, and indeed she
scarcely understood it. He explained that it was prompted by the intense
interest he felt in Miss Verena; but that scarcely made it more
comprehensible, such a sentiment (on his part) being such a curious
mixture. He had a sort of enamel of good humour which showed that his
indelicacy was his profession; and he asked for revelations of the _vie
intime of his victims with the bland confidence of a fashionable
physician inquiring about symptoms. He wanted to know what Miss
Chancellor meant to do, because if she didn't mean to do anything, he
had an idea--which he wouldn't conceal from her--of going into the
enterprise himself. "You see, what I should like to know is this: do you
consider that she belongs to you, or that she belongs to the people? If
she belongs to you, why don't you bring her out?"

He had no purpose and no consciousness of being impertinent; he only
wished to talk over the matter sociably with Miss Chancellor. He knew,
of course, that there was a presumption she would not be sociable, but
no presumption had yet deterred him from presenting a surface which he
believed to be polished till it shone; there was always a larger one in
favour of his power to penetrate and of the majesty of the "great
dailies." Indeed, he took so many things for granted that Olive remained
dumb while she regarded them; and he availed himself of what he
considered as a fortunate opening to be really very frank. He reminded
her that he had known Miss Verena a good deal longer than she; he had
travelled out to Cambridge the other winter (when he could get an
off-night), with the thermometer at ten below zero. He had always
thought her attractive, but it wasn't till this season that his eyes had
been fully opened. Her talent had matured, and now he had no hesitation
in calling her brilliant. Miss Chancellor could imagine whether, as an
old friend, he could watch such a beautiful unfolding with indifference.
She would fascinate the people, just as she had fascinated her (Miss
Chancellor), and, he might be permitted to add, himself. The fact was,
she was a great card, and some one ought to play it. There never had
been a more attractive female speaker before the American public; she
would walk right past Mrs. Farrinder, and Mrs. Farrinder knew it. There
was room for both, no doubt, they had such a different style; anyhow,
what he wanted to show was that there was room for Miss Verena. She
didn't want any more tuning-up, she wanted to break right out. Moreover,
he felt that any gentleman who should lead her to success would win her
esteem; he might even attract her more powerfully--who could tell? If
Miss Chancellor wanted to attach her permanently, she ought to push her
right forward. He gathered from what Miss Verena had told him that she
wanted to make her study up the subject a while longer--follow some kind
of course. Well, now, he could assure her that there was no preparation
so good as just seeing a couple of thousand people down there before you
who have paid their money to have you tell them something. Miss Verena
was a natural genius, and he hoped very much she wasn't going to take
the nature out of her. She could study up as she went along; she had got
the great thing that you couldn't learn, a kind of divine afflatus, as
the ancients used to say, and she had better just begin on that. He
wouldn't deny what was the matter with _him_; he was quite under the
spell, and his admiration made him want to see her where she belonged.
He shouldn't care so much how she got there, but it would certainly add
to his pleasure if he could show her up to her place. Therefore, would
Miss Chancellor just tell him this: How long did she expect to hold her
back; how long did she expect a humble admirer to wait? Of course he
hadn't come there to cross-question her; there was one thing he trusted
he always kept clear of; when he was indiscreet he wanted to know it. He
had come with a proposal of his own, and he hoped it would seem a
sufficient warrant for his visit. Would Miss Chancellor be willing to
divide a--the--well, he might call it the responsibilities? Couldn't
they run Miss Verena together? In this case every one would be
satisfied. She could travel round with her as her companion, and he
would see that the American people walked up. If Miss Chancellor would
just let her go a little, he would look after the rest. He wanted no
odds; he only wanted her for about an hour and a half three or four
evenings a week.

Olive had time, in the course of this appeal, to make her faculties
converge, to ask herself what she could say to this prodigious young man
that would make him feel as how base a thing she held his proposal that
they should constitute themselves into a company for drawing profit from
Verena. Unfortunately, the most sarcastic inquiry that could occur to
her as a response was also the most obvious one, so that he hesitated
but a moment with his rejoinder after she had asked him how many
thousands of dollars he expected to make.

"For Miss Verena? It depends upon the time. She'd run for ten years, at
least. I can't figure it up till all the States have been heard from,"
he said, smiling.

"I don't mean for Miss Tarrant, I mean for you," Olive returned, with
the impression that she was looking him straight in the eye.

"Oh, as many as you'll leave me!" Matthias Pardon answered, with a laugh
that contained all, and more than all, the jocularity of the American
press. "To speak seriously," he added, "I don't want to make money out
of it."

"What do you want to make then?"

"Well, I want to make history! I want to help the ladies."

"The ladies?" Olive murmured. "What do you know about ladies?" she was
on the point of adding, when his promptness checked her.

"All over the world. I want to work for their emancipation. I regard it
as the great modern question."

Miss Chancellor got up now; this was rather too strong. Whether,
eventually, she was successful in what she attempted, the reader of her
history will judge; but at this moment she had not that promise of
success which resides in a willingness to make use of every aid that
offers. Such is the penalty of being of a fastidious, exclusive,
uncompromising nature; of seeing things not simply and sharply, but in
perverse relations, in intertwisted strands. It seemed to our young lady
that nothing could be less attractive than to owe her emancipation to
such a one as Matthias Pardon; and it is curious that those qualities
which he had in common with Verena, and which in her seemed to Olive
romantic and touching--her having sprung from the "people," had an
acquaintance with poverty, a hand-to-mouth development, and an
experience of the seamy side of life--availed in no degree to conciliate
Miss Chancellor. I suppose it was because he was a man. She told him
that she was much obliged to him for his offer, but that he evidently
didn't understand Verena and herself. No, not even Miss Tarrant, in
spite of his long acquaintance with her. They had no desire to be
notorious; they only wanted to be useful. They had no wish to make
money; there would always be plenty of money for Miss Tarrant.
Certainly, she should come before the public, and the world would
acclaim her and hang upon her words; but crude, precipitate action was
what both of them least desired. The change in the dreadful position of
women was not a question for to-day simply, or for to-morrow, but for
many years to come; and there would be a great deal to think of, to map
out. One thing they were determined upon--that men shouldn't taunt them
with being superficial. When Verena should appear it would be armed at
all points, like Joan of Arc (this analogy had lodged itself in Olive's
imagination); she should have facts and figures; she should meet men on
their own ground. "What we mean to do, we mean to do well," Miss
Chancellor said to her visitor, with considerable sternness; leaving him
to make such an application to himself as his fancy might suggest.

This announcement had little comfort for him; he felt baffled and
disheartened--indeed, quite sick. Was it not sickening to hear her talk
of this dreary process of preparation?--as if any one cared about that,
and would know whether Verena were prepared or not! Had Miss Chancellor
no faith in her girlhood? didn't she know what a card that would be?
This was the last inquiry Olive allowed him the opportunity of making.
She remarked to him that they might talk for ever without coming to an
agreement--their points of view were so far apart. Besides, it was a
woman's question; what they wanted was for women, and it should be by
women. It had happened to the young Matthias more than once to be shown
the way to the door, but the path of retreat had never yet seemed to him
so unpleasant. He was naturally amiable, but it had not hitherto
befallen him to be made to feel that he was not--and could not be--a
factor in contemporary history: here was a rapacious woman who proposed
to keep that favourable setting for herself. He let her know that she
was right-down selfish, and that if she chose to sacrifice a beautiful
nature to her antediluvian theories and love of power, a vigilant daily
press--whose business it was to expose wrong-doing--would demand an
account from her. She replied that, if the newspapers chose to insult
her, that was their own affair; one outrage the more to the sex in her
person was of little account. And after he had left her she seemed to
see the glow of dawning success; the battle had begun, and something of
the ecstasy of the martyr.

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