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Chapter 3

  • When he had told her that if she would take him as he was he should be ver_appy to dine with her, she excused herself a moment and went to give an orde_n the dining-room. The young man, left alone, looked about the parlour—th_wo parlours which, in their prolonged, adjacent narrowness, formed evidentl_ne apartment—and wandered to the windows at the back, where there was a vie_f the water; Miss Chancellor having the good fortune to dwell on that side o_harles Street toward which, in the rear, the afternoon sun slants redly, fro_n horizon indented at empty intervals with wooden spires, the masts of lonel_oats, the chimneys of dirty "works," over a brackish expanse of anomalou_haracter, which is too big for a river and too small for a bay. The vie_eemed to him very picturesque, though in the gathered dusk little was left o_t save a cold yellow streak in the west, a gleam of brown water, and th_eflexion of the lights that had begun to show themselves in a row of houses, impressive to Ransom in their extreme modernness, which overlooked the sam_agoon from a long embankment on the left, constructed of stones roughl_iled. He thought this prospect, from a city-house, almost romantic; and h_urned from it back to the interior illuminated now by a lamp which th_arlour-maid had placed on a table while he stood at the window as t_omething still more genial and interesting. The artistic sense in Basi_ansom had not been highly cultivated; neither (though he had passed his earl_ears as the son of a rich man) was his conception of material comfort ver_efinite; it consisted mainly of the vision of plenty of cigars and brandy an_ater and newspapers, and a cane-bottomed arm-chair of the right inclination, from which he could stretch his legs. Nevertheless it seemed to him he ha_ever seen an interior that was so much an interior as this queer corridor- shaped drawing-room of his new-found kinswoman; he had never felt himself i_he presence of so much organised privacy or of so many objects that spoke o_abits and tastes. Most of the people he had hitherto known had no tastes; they had a few habits, but these were not of a sort that required muc_pholstery. He had not as yet been in many houses in New York, and he ha_ever before seen so many accessories. The general character of the plac_truck him as Bostonian; this was, in fact, very much what he had suppose_oston to be. He had always heard Boston was a city of culture, and now ther_as culture in Miss Chancellor's tables and sofas, in the books that wer_verywhere, on little shelves like brackets (as if a book were a statuette), in the photographs and watercolours that covered the walls, in the curtain_hat were festooned rather stiffly in the doorways. He looked at some of th_ooks and saw that his cousin read German; and his impression of th_mportance of this (as a symptom of superiority) was not diminished by th_act that he himself had mastered the tongue (knowing it contained a larg_iterature of jurisprudence) during a long, empty, deadly summer on th_lantation. It is a curious proof of a certain crude modesty inherent in Basi_ansom that the main effect of his observing his cousin's German books was t_ive him an idea of the natural energy of Northerners. He had noticed it ofte_efore; he had already told himself that he must count with it. It was onl_fter much experience he made the discovery that few Northerners were, i_heir secret soul, so energetic as he. Many other persons had made it befor_hat. He knew very little about Miss Chancellor; he had come to see her onl_ecause she wrote to him; he would never have thought of looking her up, an_ince then there had been no one in New York he might ask about her. Therefor_e could only guess that she was a rich young woman; such a house, inhabite_n such a way by a quiet spinster, implied a considerable income. How much? h_sked himself; five thousand, ten thousand, fifteen thousand a year? There wa_ichness to our panting young man in the smallest of these figures. He was no_f a mercenary spirit, but he had an immense desire for success, and he ha_ore than once reflected that a moderate capital was an aid to achievement. H_ad seen in his younger years one of the biggest failures that histor_ommemorates, an immense national fiasco, and it had implanted in his mind _eep aversion to the ineffectual. It came over him, while he waited for hi_ostess to reappear, that she was unmarried as well as rich, that she wa_ociable (her letter answered for that) as well as single; and he had for _oment a whimsical vision of becoming a partner in so flourishing a firm. H_round his teeth a little as he thought of the contrasts of the human lot; this cushioned feminine nest made him feel unhoused and underfed. Such a mood, however, could only be momentary, for he was conscious at bottom of a bigge_tomach than all the culture of Charles Street could fill.
  • Afterwards, when his cousin had come back and they had gone down to dinne_ogether, where he sat facing her at a little table decorated in the middl_ith flowers, a position from which he had another view, through a windo_here the curtain remained undrawn by her direction (she called his attentio_o this—it was for his benefit), of the dusky, empty river, spotted wit_oints of light—at this period, I say, it was very easy for him to remark t_imself that nothing would induce him to make love to such a type as that.
  • Several months later, in New York, in conversation with Mrs. Luna, of whom h_as destined to see a good deal, he alluded by chance to this repast, to th_ay her sister had placed him at table, and to the remark with which she ha_ointed out the advantage of his seat.
  • "That's what they call in Boston being very 'thoughtful,'" Mrs. Luna said,
  • "giving you the Back Bay (don't you hate the name?) to look at, and the_aking credit for it."
  • This, however, was in the future; what Basil Ransom actually perceived wa_hat Miss Chancellor was a signal old maid. That was her quality, her destiny; nothing could be more distinctly written. There are women who are unmarried b_ccident, and others who are unmarried by option; but Olive Chancellor wa_nmarried by every implication of her being. She was a spinster as Shelley wa_ lyric poet, or as the month of August is sultry. She was so essentially _elibate that Ransom found himself thinking of her as old, though when he cam_o look at her (as he said to himself) it was apparent that her years wer_ewer than his own. He did not dislike her, she had been so friendly; but, little by little, she gave him an uneasy feeling—the sense that you coul_ever be safe with a person who took things so hard. It came over him that i_as because she took things hard she had sought his acquaintance; it had bee_ecause she was strenuous, not because she was genial; she had had in he_ye—and what an extraordinary eye it was!—not a pleasure, but a duty. Sh_ould expect him to be strenuous in return; but he couldn't—in private life, he couldn't; privacy for Basil Ransom consisted entirely in what he called
  • "laying off." She was not so plain on further acquaintance as she had seeme_o him at first; even the young Mississippian had culture enough to see tha_he was refined. Her white skin had a singular look of being drawn tightl_cross her face; but her features, though sharp and irregular, were delicat_n a fashion that suggested good breeding. Their line was perverse, but it wa_ot poor. The curious tint of her eyes was a living colour; when she turned i_pon you, you thought vaguely of the glitter of green ice. She had absolutel_o figure, and presented a certain appearance of feeling cold. With all this, there was something very modern and highly developed in her aspect; she ha_he advantages as well as the drawbacks of a nervous organisation. She smile_onstantly at her guest, but from the beginning to the end of dinner, thoug_e made several remarks that he thought might prove amusing, she never onc_aughed. Later, he saw that she was a woman without laughter; exhilaration, i_t ever visited her, was dumb. Once only, in the course of his subsequen_cquaintance with her, did it find a voice; and then the sound remained i_ansom's ear as one of the strangest he had heard.
  • She asked him a great many questions, and made no comment on his answers, which only served to suggest to her fresh inquiries. Her shyness had quit_eft her, it did not come back; she had confidence enough to wish him to se_hat she took a great interest in him. Why should she? he wondered, H_ouldn't believe he was one of her kind; he was conscious of muc_ohemianism—he drank beer, in New York, in cellars, knew no ladies, and wa_amiliar with a "variety" actress. Certainly, as she knew him better, sh_ould disapprove of him, though, of course, he would never mention th_ctress, nor even, if necessary, the beer. Ransom's conception of vice wa_urely as a series of special cases, of explicable accidents. Not that h_ared; if it were a part of the Boston character to be inquiring, he would b_o the last a courteous Mississippian. He would tell her about Mississippi a_uch as she liked; he didn't care how much he told her that the old ideas i_he South were played out. She would not understand him any the better fo_hat; she would not know how little his own views could be gathered from suc_ limited admission. What her sister imparted to him about her mania for
  • "reform" had left in his mouth a kind of unpleasant aftertaste; he felt, a_ny rate, that if she had the religion of humanity—Basil Ransom had rea_omte, he had read everything—she would never understand him. He, too, had _rivate vision of reform, but the first principle of it was to reform th_eformers. As they drew to the close of a meal which, in spite of all laten_ncompatibilities, had gone off brilliantly, she said to him that she shoul_ave to leave him after dinner, unless perhaps he should be inclined t_ccompany her. She was going to a small gathering at the house of a friend wh_ad asked a few people, "interested in new ideas," to meet Mrs. Farrinder.
  • "Oh, thank you," said Basil Ransom. "Is it a party? I haven't been to a part_ince Mississippi seceded."
  • "No; Miss Birdseye doesn't give parties. She's an ascetic."
  • "Oh, well, we have had our dinner," Ransom rejoined, laughing.
  • His hostess sat silent a moment, with her eyes on the ground; she looked a_uch times as if she were hesitating greatly between several things she migh_ay, all so important that it was difficult to choose.
  • "I think it might interest you," she remarked presently. "You will hear som_iscussion, if you are fond of that. Perhaps you wouldn't agree," she added, resting her strange eyes on him.
  • "Perhaps I shouldn't—I don't agree with everything," he said, smiling an_troking his leg.
  • "Don't you care for human progress?" Miss Chancellor went on.
  • "I don't know—I never saw any. Are you going to show me some?"
  • "I can show you an earnest effort towards it. That's the most one can be sur_f. But I am not sure you are worthy."
  • "Is it something very Bostonian? I should like to see that," said Basi_ansom.
  • "There are movements in other cities. Mrs. Farrinder goes everywhere; she ma_peak to-night."
  • "Mrs. Farrinder, the celebrated——?"
  • "Yes, the celebrated; the great apostle of the emancipation of women. She is _reat friend of Miss Birdseye."
  • "And who is Miss Birdseye?"
  • "She is one of our celebrities. She is the woman in the world, I suppose, wh_as laboured most for every wise reform. I think I ought to tell you," Mis_hancellor went on in a moment, "she was one of the earliest, one of the mos_assionate, of the old Abolitionists."
  • She had thought, indeed, she ought to tell him that, and it threw her into _ittle tremor of excitement to do so. Yet, if she had been afraid he woul_how some irritation at this news, she was disappointed at the geniality wit_hich he exclaimed:
  • "Why, poor old lady—she must be quite mature!"
  • It was therefore with some severity that she rejoined:
  • "She will never be old. She is the youngest spirit I know. But if you are no_n sympathy, perhaps you had better not come," she went on.
  • "In sympathy with what, dear madam?" Basil Ransom asked, failing still, to he_erception, to catch the tone of real seriousness. "If, as you say, there i_o be a discussion, there will be different sides, and of course one can'_ympathise with both."
  • "Yes, but every one will, in his way—or in her way—plead the cause of the ne_ruths. If you don't care for them, you won't go with us."
  • "I tell you I haven't the least idea what they are! I have never ye_ncountered in the world any but old truths—as old as the sun and moon. Ho_an I know? But do take me; it's such a chance to see Boston."
  • "It isn't Boston—it's humanity!" Miss Chancellor, as she made this remark, rose from her chair, and her movement seemed to say that she consented. Bu_efore she quitted her kinsman to get ready, she observed to him that she wa_ure he knew what she meant; he was only pretending he didn't.
  • "Well, perhaps, after all, I have a general idea," he confessed; "but don'_ou see how this little reunion will give me a chance to fix it?"
  • She lingered an instant, with her anxious face. "Mrs. Farrinder will fix it!"
  • she said; and she went to prepare herself.
  • It was in this poor young lady's nature to be anxious, to have scruple withi_cruple and to forecast the consequences of things. She returned in te_inutes, in her bonnet, which she had apparently assumed in recognition o_iss Birdseye's asceticism. As she stood there drawing on her gloves—he_isitor had fortified himself against Mrs. Farrinder by another glass o_ine—she declared to him that she quite repented of having proposed to him t_o; something told her that he would be an unfavourable element.
  • "Why, is it going to be a spiritual séance?" Basil Ransom asked.
  • "Well, I have heard at Miss Birdseye's some inspirational speaking." Oliv_hancellor was determined to look him straight in the face as she said this; her sense of the way it might strike him operated as a cogent, not as _eterrent, reason.
  • "Why, Miss Olive, it's just got up on purpose for me!" cried the youn_ississippian, radiant, and clasping his hands. She thought him very handsom_s he said this, but reflected that unfortunately men didn't care for th_ruth, especially the new kinds, in proportion as they were good-looking. Sh_ad, however, a moral resource that she could always fall back upon; it ha_lready been a comfort to her, on occasions of acute feeling, that she hate_en, as a class, anyway. "And I want so much to see an old Abolitionist; _ave never laid eyes on one," Basil Ransom added.
  • "Of course you couldn't see one in the South; you were too afraid of them t_et them come there!" She was now trying to think of something she might sa_hat would be sufficiently disagreeable to make him cease to insist o_ccompanying her; for, strange to record—if anything, in a person of tha_ntense sensibility, be stranger than any other—her second thought with regar_o having asked him had deepened with the elapsing moments into an unreasone_error of the effect of his presence. "Perhaps Miss Birdseye won't like you,"
  • she went on, as they waited for the carriage.
  • "I don't know; I reckon she will," said Basil Ransom good-humouredly. H_vidently had no intention of giving up his opportunity.
  • From the window of the dining-room, at that moment, they heard the carriag_rive up. Miss Birdseye lived at the South End; the distance was considerable, and Miss Chancellor had ordered a hackney-coach, it being one of th_dvantages of living in Charles Street that stables were near. The logic o_er conduct was none of the clearest; for if she had been alone she would hav_roceeded to her destination by the aid of the street-car; not from economy (for she had the good fortune not to be obliged to consult it to that degree), and not from any love of wandering about Boston at night (a kind of exposur_he greatly disliked), but by reason of a theory she devotedly nursed, _heory which bade her put off invidious differences and mingle in the commo_ife. She would have gone on foot to Boylston Street, and there she would hav_aken the public conveyance (in her heart she loathed it) to the South End.
  • Boston was full of poor girls who had to walk about at night and to squeez_nto horse-cars in which every sense was displeased; and why should she hol_erself superior to these? Olive Chancellor regulated her conduct on loft_rinciples, and this is why, having to-night the advantage of a gentleman'_rotection, she sent for a carriage to obliterate that patronage. If they ha_one together in the common way she would have seemed to owe it to him tha_he should be so daring, and he belonged to a sex to which she wished to b_nder no obligations. Months before, when she wrote to him, it had been wit_he sense, rather, of putting him in debt. As they rolled toward the Sout_nd, side by side, in a good deal of silence, bouncing and bumping over th_ailway-tracks very little less, after all, than if their wheels had bee_itted to them, and looking out on either side at rows of red houses, dusky i_he lamp-light, with protuberant fronts, approached by ladders of stone; a_hey proceeded, with these contemplative undulations, Miss Chancellor said t_er companion, with a concentrated desire to defy him, as a punishment fo_aving thrown her (she couldn't tell why) into such a tremor:
  • "Don't you believe, then, in the coming of a better day—in its being possibl_o do something for the human race?"
  • Poor Ransom perceived the defiance, and he felt rather bewildered; he wondere_hat type, after all, he had got hold of, and what game was being played wit_im. Why had she made advances, if she wanted to pinch him this way? However, he was good for any game—that one as well as another—and he saw that he was
  • "in" for something of which he had long desired to have a nearer view. "Well, Miss Olive," he answered, putting on again his big hat, which he had bee_olding in his lap, "what strikes me most is that the human race has got t_ear its troubles."
  • "That's what men say to women, to make them patient in the position they hav_ade for them."
  • "Oh, the position of women!" Basil Ransom exclaimed. "The position of women i_o make fools of men. I would change my position for yours any day," he wen_n. "That's what I said to myself as I sat there in your elegant home."
  • He could not see, in the dimness of the carriage, that she had flushe_uickly, and he did not know that she disliked to be reminded of certai_hings which, for her, were mitigations of the hard feminine lot. But th_assionate quaver with which, a moment later, she answered him sufficientl_ssured him that he had touched her at a tender point.
  • "Do you make it a reproach to me that I happen to have a little money? Th_earest wish of my heart is to do something with it for others—for th_iserable."
  • Basil Ransom might have greeted this last declaration with the sympathy i_eserved, might have commended the noble aspirations of his kinswoman. Bu_hat struck him, rather, was the oddity of so sudden a sharpness of pitch i_n intercourse which, an hour or two before, had begun in perfect amity, an_e burst once more into an irrepressible laugh. This made his companion feel, with intensity, how little she was joking. "I don't know why I should car_hat you think," she said.
  • "Don't care—don't care. What does it matter? It is not of the slightes_mportance."
  • He might say that, but it was not true; she felt that there were reasons wh_he should care. She had brought him into her life, and she should have to pa_or it. But she wished to know the worst at once. "Are you against ou_mancipation?" she asked, turning a white face on him in the momentar_adiance of a street-lamp.
  • "Do you mean your voting and preaching and all that sort of thing?" He mad_his inquiry, but seeing how seriously she would take his answer, he wa_lmost frightened, and hung fire. "I will tell you when I have heard Mrs.
  • Farrinder."
  • They had arrived at the address given by Miss Chancellor to the coachman, an_heir vehicle stopped with a lurch. Basil Ransom got out; he stood at the doo_ith an extended hand, to assist the young lady. But she seemed to hesitate; she sat there with her spectral face. "You hate it!" she exclaimed, in a lo_one.
  • "Miss Birdseye will convert me," said Ransom, with intention; for he had grow_ery curious, and he was afraid that now, at the last, Miss Chancellor woul_revent his entering the house. She alighted without his help, and behind he_e ascended the high steps of Miss Birdseye's residence. He had grown ver_urious, and among the things he wanted to know was why in the world thi_icklish spinster had written to him.