The Open Question: A Tale of Two Temperaments by Elizabeth Robins (1898)
IT was when Ethan was seven years old that he was permitted to go to New Plymouth to spend his summer holidays. He was brought by his uncle Elijah Tallmadge, who on his way to Cincinnati, satisfied his sense of duty, it not his civility, by dropping the little boy on the platform of the New Plymouth station, and watching from the window of the receding train how a tall, grave girl in an old fashioned bonnet, and with a turbaned negress in her wake, went up to the little traveller and greeted him.
"Are you Ethan Gano?" said the lady, gently.
"Yes," answered the child.
She kissed him. "I am your aunt Valeria," she said, and took his trunk check out of his hand and gave it to the negro hackman, who departed to claim the child's belongings.
When the boy had said he was Ethan Gano, he was startled by an exclamation of uncouth joy from the negress who stood behind his aunt. Jerusha showed her strong teeth in a smile of wide beneficence, and rolled her great bulging eyes till Ethan quaked.
"Tooby sho'," she broke out; "didn't I tell yo' he'd got de Gano look in his lubly face? He's jes' de spi't en image ob his paw;" and she held out her motherly arms to embrace him.
Ethan fled, shuddering, not from fear alone, but from that sense, so much stronger in the Northern bred than in the Southern, of physical shrinking from the black. Ethan held himself to have escaped a dire indignity, as he overtook his aunt at the edge of the platform, close to a dilapidated carriage. He looked back, fearing the black woman
was following, and might be coming with them. But no, there she was, shuffling down a side street with her heavy see-saw hip-motion. Ethan's little trunk was put on the box, and he and his aunt got into the dilapidated vehicle and drove off with a rattling and jingling of loose windows and ancient brass-mounted harness. Presently they passed Jerusha, who smiled in at them broadly, seeming to bear no trace of a grudge. But Ethan colored and looked away.
His aunt did not seem to be a talkative person. She sat looking out of the window almost as if she were alone. She did, however, point out the Court-house, and when they rumbled and clattered over the great wooden bridge, "Now we are crossing the Mioto," she said; "we live on the other side. It's much nicer to live on the other side."
"Oh yes," said Ethan, as though he appreciated the advantage keenly.
His aunt had delicate aquiline features, and a singularly beautiful pale skin. He did not know it, but the two occupants of the carriage were curiously alike, even to the look of melancholy lurking in the eyes of each. Ethan noticed that the ungloved hand that lay listless in her lap was very long, and whiter than any hand he had ever seen.
They suddenly turned off the main street leading from the bridge.
"This is Washington Street," said his aunt. "If you lean out you'll see our house." But the trees were too thick for one who didn't know where to look to distinguish the glimpses of the gray-stone building. In a moment the vehicle stopped. "Here we are," said Aunt Valeria.
Ethan looked up at the massive gray front above him on a terrace only a little back from the street. Ampelopsis trailed over, but did not yet hide the great blocks of hand-hewn stone that in those old days had been set up for defence between the pale-face and the Indian.
Aunt Valeria opened the gate, and Ethan followed her up the half-dozen stone steps and along the brick-paved path to the porch. There in the doorway, between the big Doric columns, stood a tall, slim woman, dressed in
black, with masses of silvered hair nearly covered by a white veil. Her face was furrowed, but she wore a look of welcome and a light of unquenched youth in her smiling eyes that made the child smile too, feeling himself no stranger, but as one who had come home. She set her hands on either side his face and kissed him.
"But where is Mr. Tallmadge?" Mrs. Gano asked her daughter when they were in the hall.
"Gone on to Cincinnati. He didn't get out of the train."
"What? He never left this child to the chance of--"
Ethan had never seen any one look so angry. The eyes that had been smiling flashed a steely blue fire. He shrank away to the neighborhood of the more friendly umbrellas in the hat-rack.
"Oh, he knew we would be sure to meet him," said Aunt Valeria, apologetically.
"One can never be sure of anything of the kind! Suppose either you or I had been very ill! To drop a little child like that on a strange platform, as you would a sack of corn--"
Ethan felt covered with shame at the conduct of his uncle. He had heard Mrs. Gano herself criticised in Boston, but he felt now that her standards, after all, seemed higher, and her eyes were certainly more terrifying than any in the house of Tallmadge.
The hackman was struggling up-stairs with the trunk, Mrs. Gano bidding him have a care of the paper and the balustrade.
Ethan noticed there was a big open door at the end of the hall and a vision through of a veranda and green trees. In the hall was an oaken hat-rack, with umbrella-stand and two carved oaken chairs on either side, with high fleur-de-lis backs. While his grandmother was paying the hackman, the child discovered that the seats of these chairs lifted up in a miraculous manner. Unnoticed, he raised one a little and inserted his hand--something prickly, porcupiney! He withdrew precipitately. Was it a beast
in there, or only a brush? He resolved upon cautious exploration at a more convenient season.
The hackman was going now, and Aunt Valeria was taking the boy up-stairs to be washed.
"Don't be long," said his grandmother, smiling over the banister as he went up; "supper is ready."
What a comfort that she seemed to have forgotten Uncle Tallmadge's disgraceful conduct!
The one jarring note during that first meal under his grandmother's roof was the apparition of the negress who had dared to offer to kiss him. To be sure, when she appeared this time, it was with a plate of smoking squares of Johnny-cake; but Ethan couldn't meet her eye, and shrank under his blue serge jacket when she came behind his chair to offer him that delectable staple of a Southern supper-table. He did not notice that the meal was very plain, it was all so good, and the silver on the table was much prettier than that Miss Tallmadge presided over in Boston.
While his Aunt Valeria and his grandmother talked, he ate steadily and regarded with awe the immensely tall coffee-pot and other things that were covered all over with trees and little pagoda-like buildings in repoussé. Seeing Mrs. Gano behind this service gave him an impression of her wealth and magnificence that no after series of meagre meals and authentic knowledge of her poverty was ever able quite to efface. Observing the child craning his neck to see the inscription on the sugar-bowl, she turned it towards him.
"It is your own name," she said: "Ethan Gano. It will belong to you some day."
"Oh!" said Ethan, feeling his prospects to be princely.
"Now you may come and walk about a little," she said, rising. "But fold your napkin and put it in your ring.
He noticed the ring was marked "E.G.," and laid it down with a sense of ownership. It wasn't like visiting in a strange place when you found your own name on the things at supper.
Valeria brought her mother a shawl, and disappeared. Ethan put his hand in Mrs. Gano's and with great care moderating his child's pace to one sedate and slow, he passed out on to the veranda at the back with his grandmother on that first tour of inspection. There were heavy wooden settees on the veranda against the wall.
"Oh, I shall sit here when I do my lessons," said Ethan, coming out of his shyness.
"No; you must bring out a chair," said his grandmother; "these benches are so black."
"What makes them black?"
"The soot. We burn bituminous coal here. You'll have to wash your hands oftener than you do in Boston."
"Doesn't anybody ever sit on these benches?"
"Never. Why do you do lessons in holiday time?"
"Grandfather expects me to."
"Humph!" said Mrs. Gano.
They had come down off the veranda towards the terraces that sloped on this side down below the level of the street at the bottom of the property, which occupied an angle between Washington Street and Mioto Avenue. They went down the first flight of stone steps, but stopped at the top of the second.
"We won't go down there," said Mrs. Gano. "It is a perfect wilderness."
"Really?" said Ethan, making great eyes of wonder. "What's down there?"
"What you see. Huge sunflowers, and reeds, and grasses--it's very damp in the middle--and briers and wild roses, blackberries, great weeds and bushes, dock and tall mullein, and up on that side where the ground rises a little towards the lower terrace, there used to be a garden --where you see the asparagus gone to seed."
"But it's a real wilderness?" asked the boy, radiant.
"I should say so."
"I shouldn't wonder."
His heart beat hard. This was a wonderful place to
come to for a visit. It was almost a pity one didn't live here.
"Are those apple-trees along the bottom of the terrace?"
"No, quince. And that one big tree in the middle of the lower plateau is a choke-pear."
"Isn't there a vine climbing up?"
"Yes. There are grapes down there in the autumn."
"How long do you think I can stay?"
"We'll see," she said, in a somewhat defiant tone, as they turned to go up the terrace.
There were still some "snowballs" on the great guelder rose-bushes, and the waxberries on the little ones gleamed like pearls.
"I like this place," said the child, suddenly.
"That's right, my dear."
They were up on the level of the house now, past the long veranda with the banned black benches. It was growing dusk, a time that under all conditions of this child's life made rude test of cheer. He drew nearer to the tall, bent figure. She dropped his hand, and stooped over the edge of clovered grass.
"What is it?" he asked, as she stood upright with something in her hand.
"A four-leaved clover--the third I've found to-day."
"Oh, do you think there are any more?"
He knelt down and examined the clump.
"You may have this," she said, presently, "and we'll come and look to-morrow, when we have a better light."
"Oh, thank you."
He held the clover carefully, thinking of the fairy-tale.
Now they were passing the great, perfectly straight tulip-tree, that went up and up like a ship's mast before the faraway boughs soared out into the dim depths of evening air. A light breeze had risen. A bird high up in the proudly waving branches twittered faintly. Except for that, a hush was over the world; but in the child's heart there was a mysterious sense of tumult, one of those periodic waves of excitement that rush over sensitive young creat-
ures, along with the vague consciousness of the wonder of this strange thing, life, that is opening out before their thrilling senses.
Ethan stood looking up till a kind of delicious dizziness seized him, and he leaned his head lightly against his grandmother's arm. She smiled down into his eyes, saying never a word, but when they went in-doors there was understanding between them.
A large octagon-shaped lamp of debased Moorish design hung in the hall, and the light came through the eight panes of parti-colored glass with a cheerful, even festive, effect. The parlor on the left of the front-door was dark. The great room opposite, which ran the whole length of that end of the house, and had two windows at either extremity, was Mrs. Gano's sitting-room in summer, and, by an arrangement of screens, her bedroom as well in winter. There was a single lamp burning on one of the pair of heavy old car-tables on either side the fireplace. Opposite, along the wall separating the room from the hall, stretched a great old-fashioned buffet, consisting of two mahogany cupboards, with drawers above, and pillared porches below, and an arched and carved back bridging them, and forming below a well-polished surface, whereon stood empty cut-glass decanters and tall celery vases. The long drawer of this middle part of the buffet, as well as those on the top of the cupboards on either side, was opened by a big brass ring held in a lion's mouth. The fireplace opposite was screened by an extensive landscape in oils, framed in ornate and tarnished gilt. All the space on each side of the mantel-piece right and left as far as the windows was filled with bookcases and mineralogical cabinets built into the wall. Between the front windows was an old-fashioned escritoire, reaching high up, nearly to the ceiling, always locked, and equally always wearing the air of a keeper of things secret and important. An engraving, grown brown with age, hung in a faded gilt frame above the fireplace. It was the great scene from "Measure for Measure," and above the buffet hung another from "The
Tempest," with "What is't? A spirit?" written underneath. On the mantel-piece were two tall blue china vases, that had been old, Mrs. Gano said, when she was young. She sat down by the lamp in a chair that no one ever saw the like of before. Very big and very crimson, it was rounded out in semicircular fashion on each side at the top, forming well-padded cushions against which to rest the head; but no one ever saw Mrs. Gano making such a use of them. The chair had arms and a foot-rest, and was mounted upon short, strong rockers--altogether a structure of unique device, that no one up to that time, except its proper owner, ever dared dream of inhabiting for a moment.
Mrs. Gano handed Ethan a book.
"I suppose you know that by heart?"
"Moral Tales? No; I've only heard about 'em."
"Is it possible? What do you read, then?"
"You see, I have to study a good deal."
"But when you aren't studying?"
"Well, then, you see, I read only the things I like."
"To be sure. But what kind of things?"
"Well"--he colored faintly--"I read Hans Christian Andersen mostly. But I like 'Horatius at the Bridge,'" he added, as though anxious to redeem his character, "and Henry of Navarre, and Paul Revere."
"Well, now you may read Moral Tales. It was your father's book, and you may have it if you'll take care of it. I'll cover it for you to-morrow."
"Oh, thank you," said the boy.
She opened her own volume where a worked marker kept the place, and began to read. But Ethan was too excited to follow suit. He sat looking at her, and about the room. The pressed four-leaved clover presently fell out of her book on to the footstool. He picked it up carefully and handed it to her.
"Ah!" she ejaculated, smiling, and turning back to the beginning of the volume, where she replaced the leaf. But Ethan had watched the discreet turning of yellowed pages.
"Why, your Bible is full of clovers," he said.
"This is not the Bible, it is Lockhart's Scott," she answered. "And as for the four-leaved clovers, I find them as I walk about in the evenings."
"I suppose you look for them because they're so lucky?"
"Nonsense! Of course not. They just look up at me from the grass."
Ethan felt dashed a little, but he noticed how the long, slim fingers held the book so that no more clovers should fall out. She must think a good deal of them, he concluded.
Many an older person under the circumstances would have felt it incumbent upon her to entertain the child; but while no doubt some young people might have been made happier by being noticed more, there are those, especially the shy and sensitive ones, who are all the better for a little wholesome letting alone. It is evident that the officious attempts of many well-meaning adults to amuse, even if it involve making mountebanks of themselves, are ofttimes destined to humiliation. We have all seen children solemnly regarding grown-up capers with the air of philosophers looking down with scorn upon an antic world.
There was something in his grandmother's calm pursuit of her usual routine that set the child at ease. If she had gone obviously out of her way to make herself agreeable to him, he, with the perversity of his type, would have been more on his guard against her blandishments.
His Boston relatives were evidently quite wrong in every respect about his grandmother. His grandfather Tallmadge had sympathized with him deeply at having to pay this duty visit. Even Aunt Hannah had evident misgivings, and had put a seed-cake in his trunk. He felt a sudden resentment against those estimable persons for their distrust and thinly veiled dislike of his grandmother Gano. Already he saw himself her champion and faithful knight, ready to do battle, if need be, for his sovereign lady. It was not altogether strange that the conquest of the child was so speedy, for the heart of the woman was full of a
passionate tenderness for this little Ethan come back again, so like the one she had lost that he seemed to bring with him her youth and all the sunny circumstance of those far-off Maryland days. She softened wondrously to the child, yet it was so little her way to be demonstrative that she neither alarmed nor bored the boy, but simply took hold on his imagination. He, quick of spirit and keen of sense, responded as the natural child will, to the reassuring spectacle of beautiful and August age. What children suffer from sheer ugliness in their elders is not to be written down. Partly in that many mercifully forget, and partly in that others remember certain martyrdoms too vividly to set them down without a blush. One is inclined to think, looking back, that life has taught us nothing more successfully than tolerance of these departures from a possible comeliness; for it is not irregularity of feature or deepening furrows or whitening hair that appall the child, but the unnecessary ugliness of dress and eccentricity of demeanor, and above all, the avoidable and indecent display of the ravages of time.
With every desire to think nobly of women, it must be admitted that it is chiefly they who offend against the canon childhood unconsciously sets up, that old age shall not with impunity offend or affright the young.
Mrs. Gano would have repelled indignantly the idea that her grandson's affection had anything to do with her spotless neatness; the sober distinction of her plain silk gowns, made before the war; her white lawn kerchiefs, rolling up from her V-shaped bodice, fold on fold, voluminous and soft about her neck; her full lawn undersleeves, that came so daintily out from the silk, and fastened with a silver shell button at the wrist, flowing out again in a fine ruffle, and falling over her hands. As to that most distinctive touch of all, the veil of plain white net that covered, and yet did not conceal, the think silver hair massed about the high shell comb, one cannot help thinking that if she had quite realized its effectiveness, she would have considered it her duty to discard it. She always said she disliked
caps as "would-be ornamental," and besides, she had "too much hair;" she "would be top-heavy in a cap." So she had adopted the white net veil, fastened just behind the heavy rings of hair on the temples with a pair of pearl and silver pins of curious old design, and the veil fell down to the shoulders behind, concealing the neck, masking a little the droop of the bowed back, and falling softly down each side of the strong old face, and dropping into her lap.
The child sat with the open book in his hand, but with big eyes roving, reading as well as he could the more obscure but not less interesting story incarnate in the great red chair, getting the details by heart in the observant way of children.
"What time do you usually go to bed?" she asked, presently, turning a page.
"When I feel sleepy."
"H'm! I think eight o'clock is a good time."
"It's pretty early," he said, wistfully.
"Your father, when he was your age, always went to bed at eight."
"Aunt Jerusha will come presently and take you upstairs."
He dropped the Moral Tales on the floor. The terrifying black woman was his aunt!
"Oh, oh! That's not the way to treat books. The Ganos are always very careful of their books."
Ethan recovered the volume hurriedly, a prey to conflicting agitations.
"Where's Aunt Valeria?" he said, presently.
"Up in the blue room"--Mrs. Gano glanced overhead and then looked out severely into space over her gold spectacles, adding, meditatively, "making herself ill with writing."
"Oh, if she's writing letters, I s'pose I mustn't 'sturb her."
"H'm! She's not writing letters."
"What is she writing?"
"Verses, most probably."
"Well, verses, at any rate," she said, a little grimly. It was noticed that during Valeria's lifetime Mrs. Gano never spoke of her daughter's work except as "verses;" after her death it was all "poetry." "It's high time she was interrupted. Go up-stairs, child," she said, turning to Ethan, "and knock at the door next your own, and say I sent you."
It was a possible escape from that other most awful "aunt." He laid the Moral Tales down as if they were made of glass, and departed with alacrity.
Twice he had to knock upon the blue room door before a voice said:
"It's me, Aunt Valeria."
"Oh, run away, dear."
"But, please, I'm sent."
A little pause and the door was opened. A spacious bedchamber, where everything--walls, curtains, carpet, and bedfurnishing--was a soft faded blue, almost gray in this light. The floor was strewn with papers, books and papers lay on the chairs, on the sofa, even on the preternaturally high and massive bedstead, that looked quite inaccessible to all save the athletic without the aid of a ladder.
"Did my mother send you?" asked Aunt Valeria.
"Yes, and--oh, are you awful busy?"
His voice faltered a little.
"Why?" she said, taking the child by the hand and leading him in.
The action of kindliness wrought upon the perturbed little spirit. His eyes filled with tears.
"You see," he said, "I thought she was a servant."
"Who was a servant?"
"My other aunt."
"No, the other one here. But I like you best. Won't
you take me up to bed? Of course I do everything for myself; it won't be a great trouble; it's only just so my other aunt needn't come even as far as the door."
"Aunt J--J--Jerusha," he said, with an excited sob.
Valeria began to laugh, a thing she seldom did.
"My poor little boy!" she said, "Jerusha's the cook, and a very good friend to all of us. People in the South call a good old servant like that 'aunt' when they like her as much as we do Jerusha. She used to be a slave; we brought her from Maryland."
"And she's not my really truly aunt at all?"
"Of course not, you foolish little boy! Didn't you see she was a negress?"
"Oh yes, I saw that."
"And didn't you see she waited on us as the table?"
"Yes, but so does Aunt Hannah in Boston on Sundays."
"Does she?" Then seeing the child's anxiety was not quite dissipated: "Didn't you notice when she'd finished waiting at supper Jerusha went back to the kitchen? Now, if she'd been a real aunt--"
"Well, you see, I did think of that, but I thought perhaps aunts didn't come and sit in the parlor here, and I remembered how she--she"--he looked down and grew scarlet--"tried to kiss me at the station."
"Oh yes, she might do that. You see, she very fond of your father."
"But my father didn't use to kiss her."
"Oh, I dare say--"
"No, Aunt Valeria; I should think he never did."
"Perhaps not, then," she said, humoring him.
"Do you think," he began, in a half-whisper--"do you think when she takes me up to bed she'll--she'll--"
"I don't know, but I'll take you myself, if you'd like that better."
"Oh, I would, Aunt Valeria."
"Very well, then. Come, we'll go down-stairs and say good-night."
He slipped his hand in hers.
"Of course, I didn't really think she was my aunt," he said, with the easy mendacity of childhood.
End Chapter 4
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