The Open Question: A Tale of Two Temperaments by Elizabeth Robins (1898)
THE OPEN QUESTION CHAPTER I
It is not always easy to trace the origin of an American family, even when the immediate progenitor did not begin life as a boot-black or a prospector, without so much as a "grub stake." The Ganos had been people of some education and some means--clergymen, merchants going to and from the West Indies, or home-keeping planters in the South--for the little space of a hundred years before the Civil War. Further back than that--darkness.
Whether the name was of Huguenot, Flemish, Italian, or other origin, the Ganos themselves, like thousands of families of consequence in America, never pretended to know. Only one of the race ever evinced the least disposition to care.
In the family mind, to be born a Gano was of itself so shining an achievement as almost to constitute an unfair advantage over the rest of mankind. The name (which was rigidly accented on the final syllable) was held to confer a distinction peculiar and sufficient, difficult as it may be for the inhabitants of a larger world to realize on what the illusion lived. The Ganos had never been enormously rich; they had never done anything of national or even of municipal importance, unless founding a religious paper and endowing a theological seminary to spread a faith which they themselves speedily abandoned--unless these modest achievements might be construed as taking some
sort of interest in public concerns. They held themselves aloof from politics, and religiously minded their own affairs. The oldest thing, perhaps, about their näive veneration for the house of Gano was that so many of their neighbors shared it. Generation after generation, it imposed itself upon the community they lived in. To be able to say of a vexed question, "Gano agrees with me," was to turn the scale at once in the speaker's favor. A stranger would be told, "Smith married a Gano, you see," as though that single phrase established Smith's claims on your consideration.
The usual American fashion of that time of giving double or treble names was not followed in the christening of the daughters of Gano, so that after marriage each girl might retain her patronymic, writing it after her Christian name and before her husband's. The eldest son of every daughter was called Gano, and Gano was given to each succeeding child for a middle name. This had been going on for some time, and yet neither Maryland nor any more favored spot, was populous with Ganos. They had not been a prolific race, and but a single mésalliance was set down to their discredit. A Gano had once married a New England school-mistress with a turn for preaching. This unpopular lady's offspring, John Gano--the only son of an only son--died eleven years before the Civil War, leaving a widow, two sons, and a daughter. These three survivors in the direct line of male descent, Ethan, John, and Valeria, were unmistakably delicate children. The neighbors had doubts if their mother would rear them.
The widow, "one of the Calverts of Baltimore," held to be a very retiring and religious person, soon discovered a force of character and an energy not too common among women of her class in the slave-holding South. She managed her husband's estate and the education of her children with ability and judgment, albeit arbitrarily enough, save in matters of religion.
Was it a breath wafted across the years of that old passion for religious liberty that had carried her ancestors
over perilous seas--an echo of the Eve of St. Bartholomew, or of some Lollard wrong--that made so strangely tolerant this autocratic woman, turned Baptist in her strenuous youth, inclining now, through throes of spirit incommunicable, to the Episcopacy her dead husband had abandoned?
The element of the grotesque in this battering in succession at the different doors of heaven is more apparent to those never storm-tossed souls that venture not from the haven, so content with being spiritually becalmed that striving after truth and faring far in pursuit of it seem childish and ignoble. such people smile at Newman, and think themselves magnanimous if they accept his "apology." Mrs. Gano had gone unflinchingly through those seasons of spiritual stress, common enough among the thoughtful of that time, and so difficult for some of us to-day even to imagine. In spite of her strong self-control and her great practical common-sense, her passionately religious nature had hurried her headlong through one doctrinal crisis after another. Her youth and early maturity had ben one wide spiritual battle-field. Not that a moment of unbelief in revealed religion ever troubled her, but questions of the true interpretation, questions of dogma and of form, that might as well have been questions of live and death. And all the while, up and down the highway of her youth, raged the ancient dragons, renamed Election and Reprobation.
Whether as a result of enlightenment, brought her by her own honest, seeking, or a tradition in the blood, compelling her to give as swell as to demand perfect liberty of conscience in the affairs of faith, this imperious mother let her tyrannously tended young brood wander whither they would along the by-ways of religious experience. to look back a moment upon the infantine struggles of these young crusaders in the Holy War is to realize afresh how far the race had travelled since that day. These mere children, with their fear of hell and damnation, their "changes of heart," conversions and pathetic joy at be-
ing "saved," had for their vividest remembrance of their father the abiding vision of his kneeling down with them in the great dim parlor at Ashlands, praying, with hands uplifted and with tears, that these "little ones" might not be lost forever.
No one ever knew how much hold these religious ecstasies had taken upon Ethan. But John was violently wrought upon; and most impressed of all was the small but preternaturally precocious Valeria. At a time when she should have been romping in the open air or reading fairy-tales in a corner she was living through days of agonized doubt on the subject of her soul's salvation, and crying softly in the night to think of that outer darkness into which unbelievers were certain to be cast--a darkness lit only by lurid flames from "the lake that burneth forever and ever."
Little John had gone through a varied and, on the whole, triumphant spiritual experience by the time he was ten. At that ripe age he was baptized by immersion on public confession of faith. His mother, having now maturer views on the subject, was not among the group at the river-side; but she made no effort to divert the boy's enthusiasm from a form of belief that for her was losing its significance. She would sit on the long white veranda in those first months of her widowhood re-reading D'Aubigné and Bishop Spalding's History of the Protestant Reformation, sandwiching Wesley with patristic writings, balancing Arian against Socinian, and drawing conclusions of her own, while her eldest boy was writing hymns to Apollo instead of construing his Cæsar, and John, the centre of an admiring crowd down by the river, was being dipped instead of being sprinkled, which it presently appeared was the only true and orthodox way.
If some of the Ganos had of late been mightily earnest in their religious experiences, they had long been "musical" in a pottering kind of way. They would have assured you more than half seriously that music was a "pottering" pursuit--a pastime for boating-parties on the Potomac or
rainy evenings at home, not for a moment to be regarded as a profession, except for long-haired foreigners. Mrs. john, or, as she now called herself, "Mrs. Sarah C. Gano," accepted this point of view cheerfully enough, as she had not a note of music in her. Her children's passion for singing and playing came early under the head of "noise," and under the ban of her displeasure.
Therefore, when it was discovered that the eldest boy had done badly in his third year at Dr. Baylis's Academy for Young Gentlemen, and that Dr. Baylis accounted for his pet pupil's falling off by saying the boy played the piano, and even wrote music, when he should have been doing mathematics, great was the mother's disappointment in her son, and renewed object to the Art Divine. Ethan came home for his holidays in disgrace. It was significant of the mastery Mrs. Gano had obtained over he not unspirited children that, without being formally forbidden to play at home, Ethan never dared touch the piano the whole vacation through. It was this privation, he used to say later on, that drove him into the Church. He had got beyond the banjo and singing with the blacks down in the negro quarter. he longed for the coming of that day in the week when he might hear the sound of the organ, and even such a choir as they had at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Catawbaville, where, the Baptist phase having been painfully passed, the entire family now went to church twice every Sunday, rain or shine. Ethan made friends with the rector, and whether out of gratitude for the Rev. Mr. Searle's permission to practise in the church, or from the reflection that Holy Orders presented a means of combining a livelihood with an organ, the upshot was that Ethan presently became a student of Divinity.
At the beginning of his last year at the Theological School at Baltimore, he fell in love with a pretty Boston girl who had come South on a visit to a school friend. For the first time in his life flatly disobeying his mother's wishes, he married the lady forthwith. Under conditions of great privation, they took up life in Baltimore
till Ethan should be ordained. Ten months afterwards a son opened his eyes upon the world, and the girl-wife closed hers forever.
The passive horror that falls on passionate young life laid desolate by death, the hush that seems to lie shroud-like on the world, was rent and blown to the four winds of heaven by the clarion note of war. In his bewilderment and helplessness after his wife's death, Ethan had allowed his mother-in-law, Mrs. Aaron Tallmadge, to take the baby home with her for a visit to Boston. A few weeks before his appointed ordination, young Gano joined the Southern army. About the time he was to have taken the vows that should make him a man of peace and a priest, Ethan Gano was rushing blindly with Kirby Smith's brigade across the fields from Manassas Station, among the first to break and rout the Union ranks and give his life for a Southern victory in the battle of Bull Run.
It was said in Catawbaville that none of the disasters other Southerners were fearing could add much to Mrs. Gano's grief after the loss of her eldest son. She had been a striking, although fragile-looking, woman, tall, arrow-straight, and auburn-haired, just entering on middle life, when she went to her own room and closed the door behind her that day the despatch came after Bull Run. A few weeks later, when she came forth again, it seemed to her awe-struck houselhold that it was an old woman who appeared among them, with stern, blanched face, bowed shoulders, and abundant hair whitening at the temples. But what her altered looks called forth of sympathy, her reticent manner either held at bay or ruthlessly rebuffed. She went nowhere, received no one. Months afterwards a neighbor, seeing her by chance, offered some conventional but kindly mean condolence. The look of cold surprise that any one should venture to come near her grief sealed up the fountain of neighborly sympathy. The rumor going forth that Mrs. Gano was more unapproachable than ever since Ethan's death, her friends left her to the solitude she was rightly understood to demand. But vain for
her to shut and double-lock the great white gates of Ashlands--the tide of war swept on and in, and overwhelmed the house.
It is no part of the purpose of this account to tell in detail the old story of Southern losses, scenes of impotent indignation at the quartering of Northern soldiers in Confederate houses, wanton violence to property, and greater violence still to the old-fashioned southern sense of personal dignity. These were the commonplaces of war. Almost equally common were the lamentations in the negro quarters when the word went forth that the slaves were free, that they were to turn their backs on the patriarchal life and get them out into the world to taste the bitter and the sweet of independence.
When Mrs. Gano found that her belated private proclamation through her overseer, months after that of the president, had the inadequate effect of relieving her of but one negro, she assembled her household servants and plantation folk round the long veranda, and told them they were free. Uncle Charlie, as the accepted mouth-piece of the Gano niggers, stepped forward and pulled off his dilapidated hat.
"We done yeah somethin' 'bout dis 'mancyperation befo', but we don' gib no 'count to it, Mis' G'no."
"But I tell you it's true, and you must go. I'll have a fair division made of what's left in the quarter--of clothes and tools and food, and--"
"Law, ma'am, don' go fur t' do dat," said Cæsar, the gardener, grinning cheerfully, "we ain't gwine t' leab yo'."
"Yes, it is best you should," said the mistress.
"Bress yo' soul, ma'am"--old Charlie pulled his woolly white forelock and bowed low--"de G'nos hab stood by us a po'ful long time, an' now we gwine to stan' by de G'nos in dis yer trouble. We ain't gwine t' leab yo' t' de mussy o' dem Yankees."
"No, no, nebber w'ile de blessed Lawd sabes po' sinners," Mississippi Maria lifted up her voice and eyes and hands.
"The Yankees have given you your freedom," said Mrs. Gano, with wasted scorn.
"I don' gib' no 'count t' what de po' white trash says dey'll do fur me," said Uncle Charlie, loftily; "I b'longs t' de G'nos."
"Yah, yah, we b'longs t' de g'nos," the murmur went through the crowd.
"Of course you do, by rights," said the mistress, with a flash of fire. "But we can't keep our rights, it seems. So just make the best of this liberty, now you've got it' make the best of it, as young Jerry did."
She waved her hand, dismissing them. Sensation in the crowd, and some whispering. Jerry senior created a diversion by pulling himself together and venturing up one of the long, low steps of the veranda. He held out two coal-black hand with pallid palms.
"Don' git mad, Mis' g'no, 'count o' Jerry. Jerry been a po' sort o' chile eber since de Lawd made him," urged his earthly father, with a comfortable sense of having no responsibility in the matter. "Jerry been jes' dying' fo' 'bout a year fur t' see dat yaller gal, Liza, yo' sen' to yo' sister down Kentucky way. Dat's wha' he's a-gwine. Yo' won't catch no G'no nigger gwine near de Yankees."
"If he's been dying to go so long, why didn't he set off in January?"
"In Janoowerry? Yo' only sen us word yes'day mawning'."
"Hadn't Jerry heard of Lincoln's precious proclamation at the New-Year?"
"Oh ye-es, ma'am, he done yeah."
There was a moment's pause, and then the father pulled his shambling figure up.
"Jerry ain't much 'count, but he ain't clean gone crazy. He know it all bery well fo' de Yankee Pres'dent fo' to say he was free. But Jerry know he jes' better hold his hosses till he yeah what Mis' G'no got t' say 'bout dat. Jerry been waitin' roun' since Janoowerry t' yeah wot yo' got t' say."
"Well, I've told you."
Uncle Charlie stepped forward, pulled old Jerry off the step without ceremony, and said, severely: "Yo' got a heap o' gab, but yo' better tote yo'self down to de gyarden and ' do yo' chores." Then, looking up at the msitress: "An' 'taint't no use, ma'am, fo' yo' t' stan' up dah on de po'ch an' tell us we all 'mancyperated, and yo' don' care nuthin' no mo' 'bout us. Dar's a heap o' cotton got t' be picked, and we got t' pick it." He turned away to his companions" "Come 'long, yo' lazy black niggers, jes' stir yo' stumps!"
"No, Charlie, no; the cotton must rot int he fields." Blank astonishment swept over the dusky crowd.
"Golly!" said one or two under their breath, while the others stood speechless, with mouths open and round eyes fixed and staring.
"Ef yo' thinkin' 'bout us being' 'mancyperated an' 'spectin' to be paid," began Jerry, while a ripple of contempt at the notion passed over the bewildered throng, "well, we ain't 'spectin'."
"You are expecting to be fed," said Mrs. Gano, more gently than they were accustomed to hear their mistress speak, "and that's more than I can do for so many any longer."
The newly emancipated lifted up their voices and wept.
"For Law's sake, don' sen' us away, Mis' G'no!"
"I reckon yo' can't git 'long widout me and Tom nohow."
"We don' wan nuthin' to eat," said Mississippi Maria, sobbing, while she cuffed the only completely happy person present--a youth of four or five, who clung to her skirt with one hand, while with the other he clutched a section of green melon. "put dat down, yo' greedy gump!"--his grandmother clouted him over head till he, too, joined in the general lamentation--"stuffin' yo'self wid watermillion fo' ladies."
"We gwine to wuk hard dis time, Mis' G'no," said anotrher voice from out the general clamor, "and we don't
need no bacon. Corn-pone and 'lases is 'nough fo' any nigger."
"I'm sorry for you, but the Northerners have not only freed you, they have crippled us. We can't afford to have you here any longer. you must all go, except Jerusha and her children."
There was a lull of incredulity and then a steadily rising storm of dismal howling.
" 'Tain't fair!' shrieked old Chloe. "I done come yer fust--long befo' Jerusha. Missis! Missis! I done come to G'nos fo' yo' did yo'self."
"I dassent leab yo'," Jerry persisted. "Massa 'd 'mos' 'a' killed me ef he'd ebber thought I'd leab yo; and little missy to dem debbils o' Yankees. "Tain't safe, ma'am--'taint't safe."
It was not Mrs. Gano's way to show emotion. She turned abruptly, and disappeared in the house. She had the well-earned reputation of being no easy mistress. But she had treated her slaves justly, according to her lights, and this hour of enforced setting them adrift was bitter on other than political and economic grounds.
End Chapter 1
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