The Open Question: A Tale of Two Temperaments by Elizabeth Robins (1898)
One peculiarity of life at the Fort was that although visitors in general were in high disfavor, everybody, from Mrs. Gano down to Jerusha--especially Jerusha--was always hoping for a visit from cousin Ethan. And he never came. The last vacation before Val's arrival Emmie said he had had to go with the Tallmadges to Bar Harbor. This June he couldn't come, because his aunt Hannah had died, and his grandfather was alone; but he thought he might come "later on." Now that the maples were scarlet and gold, he wrote regretfully, saying that, after all, he had to go back to Harvard without any holiday. He sent his love to his cousins, and the annual photograph--which she had commanded to be taken each year--to his grandmother. She had a row of them on the mantel-piece in her room. When the new one came like a falling leaf each autumn, she spent anxious days deciding which of the old ones should go in a drawer to make room for the latest. There were three that never yielded to any new-comer, however beguiling. Ethan's cousins, it must be admitted, who were ardent admirers of the more recent pictures, thought little enough of Mrs. Gano's favorite three.
The first was a child about three years old in his night-gown--a dreamy little face framed in a halo of curling hair. Yes; it was more like an angel than a flesh-and-blood boy, but it was yellowed and faded, and not taken at an interesting age, so his two cousins thought.
The next was a very solemn little chap with a tiny pail in his hand, dressed in a kilt, and wearing a wide white collar, seeming to labor hopelessly with a wooden spade in a world of unmitigated woe.
The third had been taken in Paris with his school friend Henri de Poincy, and he had on "funny French clothes," but he held his slender figure very easily erect, and without seeming to remember he was having his photograph taken. He had written from Neuilly to his grandmother:
"I always think of my summer at the Fort when I go to have your picture done."
If that were the case, this time the remembrance must have been a gracious one, for his dark little face was lit, expectant, beautiful.
"Why did he go to France?" Val had asked.
"Oh, some nonsense about accent, as if the only accent to be considered was the French." Mrs. Gano threw back her head. "And then a cousin of the Tallmadges married a Frenchman, a man called De Poincy. The mother died, and left a boy--"
"That awful little ape in the pho-- I mean Henri?"
"Yes; Henri, a very nice boy."
Mrs. Gano would not have prolonged the conversation, but Emmie said:
"I'm sure he's nice. Cousin Ethan's letters always say beautiful things about Henri. Do go on."
"I've told you scores of times."
As if that were not the flimsiest reason for not repeating a stock tale, half of whose charm is its familiarity.
"Didn't cousin Ethan find Henri at the Tallmadges' when he got back?"
"Yes, after that summer he spent here." The old eyes were mild. "And although Henri was a couple of years older, the two boys set up a sort of David and Jonathan league. And when Henri's father sent for him to come back to France--they said--humph!"
The mildness vanished in a sudden blaze.
"What did they say?"
Again Mrs. Gano threw back her head.
"Ethan had been coming here. We had his room all ready for him, and Valeria had bought pink wax-candles for his dressing-table--a most unnecessary extravagance
for a boy, as I told her. And as for Jerusha, she wasted half her mornings brightening up Ethan's knocker on the front door, and the rest of the time she was making cinnamon rolls. And, after all--humph!" she said, with something rather near to a snort.
"Then those Tallmadges wrote, didn't they?" said Emmie, gently applying the spur.
"Ho, yes, the Tallmadges wrote. The children were heart-broken at the idea of separating, and so they had to let Ethan go to Neuilly with the De Poincy boy."
"To improve his accent!" added Emmie, with borrowed scorn.
"Oh yes; I admitted in my reply that Ethan's accent was no doubt again in need of improvement, but it had not been necessary to send him so far afield as France."
"How long did he stay?" asked Val.
"Three years. He came back the summer you were born. He was nearly ten."
"Well, it's a good thing he came back. He does look a gump in those French clo's--I mean"--Val caught herself up hurriedly, seeing how unpopular the observation was-- "I mean, I like him best in proper American things. This last picture's scrumptious!"
After this, it was not only gran'ma and An'Jerusha who held the Fort in readiness for Ethan's coming, eager to capitulate at the first blow on the door; but two little girls as well, in their different ways, set their faces towards the day when E. Gano's big brass knocker should be lifted by E. Gano's own hand.
School had been postponed, partly because Mrs. Gano was too anxious about her son's health, and too absorbed in the task of convincing him indirectly that life was worth living, to take the necessary steps for entering her granddaughter in the Primary Department of the Plymouth Seminary for Young Ladies. But, besides this preoccupation, it was recognized that the fall term was already far advanced, and it might be as well--it was certainly more economical--to wait till after Christmas. However, the
growing discomfort and complication of having so objectionable a child about hastened the beginning of Val's school days.
With great misgiving, and full of suspicion, Val took her place at a little hacked and initialed desk in the downstairs school one fine day towards the middle of November.
But we are forever being disappointed of our direst fears, as well as of our dearest hopes. She found that she soon got the "hang" of the lessons; that her next-door neighbor, Julia Otway, was the nicest girl in school, and very soon her "best friend"; that Val herself could run faster than anybody in the games at recess; and that she had fallen blissfully under the spell of pretty Miss Matson, the primary teacher, who, strange to say, seemed to like Val.
The bustling life at the Plymouth Seminary for Young Ladies, full, varied, delightful, would perhaps be considered by the professional biographer of vital importance in molding a young person's character; for was this not the time and the place of her education? One is inclined, in Val's case, at any rate, to say no. She learned by rote, at that excellent institution, certain more or less useful things, and, more important still, she made two or three dear friends, who taught her much of value about the human heart; but for the most part she was educated at home. There, and not at school, she, in common with many young people, found the influences that made her what she ultimately became.
Her father, if he understood the matter so, naturally did not so express himself. Perhaps he thought this child of his had too little of the Gano love of books, and was overfond of running breathless races, and playing ball with the neighbor's boy.
"You came here to go to school, you know. You've played all your life up to this. Now you must begin to work. This is a very important time in your life."
Val sat up very straight, with shining eyes and an air of pleased responsibility.
"Oh, very important, indeed. For now you have still time to decide what kind of a woman you're going to make of Val Gano."
"Oh, have I?"
"You can make up your mind you won't be a dull, ignorant person, all your life bound in shallows and in miseries."
"No, indeed," she said, with vigor.
"It's in your power now to take the necessary steps towards some better fate. By-and-by it will be too late: you'll be like the crooked catalpa in the terrace, grown awry and too old to straighten out."
"No, I shall be like the tuplipifera rhododendron."
"You are ambitious, my dear"; and then he sighed. "Few come up to tulipifera. Now, I am far enough from being a rich man, and I can't give my daughters a fortune; but I can give then something far more valuable."
"Yes, I've begun giving it. I mean an education."
This was a blow.
"See that you make the most of it. It will put a key in your hands that can unlock a hundred doors to happiness. I am doing with you--only a little more helpfully perhaps--what the Swedish peasant did with his eldest son."
"What did he do?"
"He took the boy up to the top of the highest hill in the country, and said, 'You are young, my son, but I am about to give you your inheritance. Look abroad'--and he stretched out his arms--'behold, I give you the world! Go forth and take what portion you will.'"
Val drew a quick breath.
"Ha! I know what I want."
"What do you think you want, little girl?"
"I want to be loved--oh, but tremendously! And I want to do some one thing awfully, awfully well."
It was the most old-fashioned, unchildlike speech of which Val had ever delivered herself.
"Well, my dear," her father spoke, dreamily, "to be greatly loved, and to do well some one piece of work, isn't a bad destiny. Older heads than yours would be at a loss to better it."
Even to her father, even in that moment of great outgoing, she had not liked to particularize what it was she wanted to do so "awfully, awfully well." But there was no doubt in her own mind that she was going to be a dancer. She practiced every rainy day, and sometimes when it didn't rain, down in the dark parlor, where it smelt so solemn and musty. There was a huge oil-painting on the north wall, of Daniel Boone and his dogs and other friends "Discovering Kentucky." Although their eyes were turned ever towards "the dark and bloody ground," they were Val's audience. To the burly hunter and his raccoon-capped and shaggy companions she bowed and pirouetted, waved her arms and tossed her heels. She did not dare touch the old rosewood piano after one or two rapturous attacks upon the yellow keys had brought swift retribution out of her grandmother's chamber; but dancing was not only a glorious and heady excitement, but, unlike most of this young person's pastimes, it was noiseless; it could be carried on by the hour without rousing anyone's suspicious, unless perchance a vague uneasiness as to one's suspicions, as to "what keeps that child so quiet." When discovered, she was usually found to be breathlessly examining the gilt-edged annuals and gift-books on the center table, or else staring into the "stereopticon," though what view was visible in that dim light remained a marvel.
Perhaps the most memorable crisis of her childhood had found her in the twilight of that musty parlor. It was a pale-gray, teeming spring morning, after a night of rain--Saturday, and yet she had been forbidden to go and see her friends next door.
"When I was a little girl I didn't live at the neighbors'."
Val had been learning lessons, perched in the high window-seat of her own room, looking out now and then with a glad sense of coming summer to the early red of maple blossoms, and off to the blue Mioto Hills, that rose on the other side the river, shutting in her world. Presently, down below the rain-soaked terraces, in Mioto Avenue, a street-organ began to play.
She dropped her book and leaned farther out. A watery gleam of sunshine fell on the warm, dripping world. The smell of earth came up fresh, and full of a mysterious promise. The "grind-organ," as the children called it, sang and clanged. Val beat the swift time with her fist on the stone sill, and her dangling feet moved staccato to the tune. She half closed her eyes. Ah! now she could see better. She was gliding through a brilliant scene at a ball. She was just sixteen, and dressed in blue and silver, and there was a throng about her--all lovers! There were no women, save those that looked enviously on from a far background of flower-festooned wall. The faces near the blue-and-silver maiden were chiefly strange, but all noble and beautiful. All these the generous future would provide, but one or two she recognized as having followed her out of the present. There was cousin Ethan as he looked in the last picture, Jerry--and, well in the foreground, Jerry's handsome elder brother, and certain other less-known young townsmen not to be spared from the gay group of gallants; but they were destined, every man Jack of them, to break their faithful hearts. She smiled and waved her geography--her fan, of course--and each young gentleman took courage. But wait! In a minute she would be carried off by the tall, dark, fierce-eyed hero, who lived somewhere--somewhere--not in ballrooms, except as the eagle may swoop into the valley--not in cities, but in some mountain fastness in the kingdom at the end of the world.
Many a time she had wondered how they were to meet, how he was ever to know that she lived with a cruel grandmother in New Plymouth. Ha! now it was plain. The
organ had ground out the truth. She would run away by-and-by. He would see her somewhere dancing, and he would say "Eureka!" "Ah!" she would say, "But I'm half engaged to my next-door neighbor, or to the Duke of Daffy-down-dilly." "What does that matter to me?" Whiff! he would carry her off, and say she should love him, whether she liked it or not. Oh, it was wonderful! --it was palpitating to lie in the dark, or in the pale spring sunshine, with shut eyes, and think about this king of men, who would not be denied. Val couldn't remember a time when she had not told herself stories with this fruitful theme for inspiration. The proud, dark figure had come dimly out of the fairy world, and had grown more human and distinct day by day. He began by being a prince, and for some years he wore a gold-embroidered velvet robe. By degrees he adopted a less and less striking attire, which, however, had never yet degenerated into mere modern evening dress. The noble gentleman could not be expected to put off his romantic melancholy along with his royal robes, for a large part of the excitement of this game of the imagination lay in the lady's proud rejection of his suit, and flight from the fortress where he thought to hide her--his hot pursuit--his being baffled, disappointed, and reduced to wild despair before his ultimate victory. And this final triumph (oh, strong survival of the savage in the female breast!) was invariably a triumph of arms. Not even a hero who was handsome, and tall, and strong as a giant; not even to a hero half bandit, half blameless knight, that every other girl in the world pined for, that every man envied and must needs honor--not even to such a one will the untutored dreamer yield herself a willing bride. A willing bride! The very phrase offends some ancient canon fixed against self-abandonment in the very blood and bone of womankind.
Can it be that in the ages unrecorded, before men going hence left behind them laws on stone, or testament on papyrus, the women of that far-off time had inscribed a legend on the hearts of all their sex, graved it so deep and
plain that a little girl of the nineteenth century (casting about for stories to send herself to sleep) may read it in the dark after all those æons have gone by? Can it be that, reading and understanding this language, which being dead yet speaketh, knowing the ancient mother-tongue better even than her father's own, she takes the legend for a text, obeys it as a natural law, and thrills to it as did her old ancestress of the cave and tent, smiling covertly, and deliciously afraid?
The fresh wind blew the child's wild hair across her face; the sun shone down more golden; the organ jangled through its tunes. Now, with a jerk of restlessness, it abandons "II Trovatore" and struck into a waltz. Ha! the window-seat was too cramped. She slid down and began to dance. Gran'ma's voice. The little girl stopped suddenly, opened the door, and went sedately down-stairs, with her lesson books conspicuously in evidence. At the bottom she stopped and listened. Cautiously she opened the parlor door and closed it behind her. She flung her books down and coursed wildly round the center table, as one sees a dog just let out of the kennel celebrate his liberty. Suddenly she stopped and bowed solemnly to Daniel Boone, saying under her breath:
"Now I'm the greatest dancer on the earth. Now they're all applauding. Now I make three courtesies. They clap and clap till I begin again. This is the most wonderful dance of all."
She started afresh, curving her arms above her head, fantasticating steps, some graceful, some grotesque, whirling faster and faster to the rhythm that was beating in her brain. Suddenly a dark face looked out of the throng in that theatre of her imagination, and she knew it was the face of her fate. There was the Duke of Daffy-down-dilly, too, leaning out of a box and applauding as hard as he could. The dark man sat quite still, but his eyes gleamed.
After the last great dance, which was called "The Filigree Finale" (all the dances had beautiful names), the Duke threw her a bouquet of roses, and held out his arms.
"I spurn the flowers." She kicked out a scornful foot. "I turn my back. Oh, it's deafening the way they're applauding!"
Suddenly, in the heartless process of dancing away from plaudits and a duke, she stopped short as if she had been shot. The color fled out of her face, and her thin hands dropped limp at her side. There was a kind of terror in her eyes as presently she moved forward, dragging her wings, so to speak, to the opposite end of the room, where, over a marble-top table, an old-fashioned mirror reflected Daniel Boone. The child peered into the glass, but it was dark, and the marble-top table held her at arm's-length. She could only see dimly the top of her head. She dropped down in a miserable little heap between the claw feet of the table. Perhaps she alone of all the heroines of earth was not, never could be, beautiful! It had never occurred to her before. A thousand recollections seemed to rush at her at once to fasten the fear in her heart, to make it hideous certainty. If she had been going to be beautiful, would not have some one have mentioned it? Emmie had heard a thousand times how pretty she was. Cousin Ethan was known to be the most beautiful of boys. As to Val's looks, why, she was so little a credit to a handsome race that nobody could be got to own her. Hadn't her mother said, "Emmie is like me; but Val--I suppose she's more like you"? and her father had hurriedly disclaimed the faintest resemblance between his eldest daughter and himself. Her grandmother had said: "You are not like my side of the house, and I don't see a trace of the Gano in you. I'm sure I don't know where you came from." Ah, it was clear she had not referred to mere wickedness. She was repudiating her decendant's plainness. The child put her hands over her face. But it was incredible that this blow at the root of joy was meant for her. She dropped her hands, taking heart of grace. Katie O'Flynn, the cook in New York, had said, in some interval of truce, that Val had "rale Oirish oyes," and she had said it with no accent of condolence. If only she hadn't added,
"They're put in wid smutty fingers, me darlint!" Even at the time Val had felt the last remark tactless, and had changed the subject, but now--
"Oirish oyes!" It was meant well, but it had a horribly common sound. It was another way of saying, "You look like the cook." And yet--and yet no one had ever cared so much about being beautiful before. She would have submitted gladly to letting those "rale Oirish oyes" be torn out and the poor quivering little body be hacked in pieces if only it might be put together in a truer harmony. But there were ugly people in the world, who began ugly, and went on being ugly to the bitter end. How had she come to take it so for granted that beauty belonged to her as a right? There was Miss Tibbs, who lived near by in Mioto Avenue. Think of being like that! No! no! no! She struggled to her feet, storming up into the high window-seat, and straining till she opened the near window, and could force back the heavy shutter, letting in a flood of light. But it was not the sudden glory of the day that made the child blink and draw back so suddenly. Miss Tibbs was passing the gate.
"Good-morning," said that lady, looking more appalling than ever.
"It's like that--like that I'll be," thought the child, tumbling to the ground.
Feverishly she swept the card-basket and the books off the table. Then, drawing up a chair, she climbed up on it, clinching her teeth and setting her jaws to bear the shock that perhaps awaited her. And still there was hope in her heart as she leaned forward on the marble top and looked into the mottled glass with imploring eyes. Slowly the tears gathered. In mute agony she turned away, climbed off the table, and hung limp over the back of the chair.
"Oh, God, I'm ugly!" she said, and clung there with shut, hot eyes. The moments passed. "I can't bear it, God. Let me die!"
The strained voice was muffled in her clinched little jaws, and with her fists she beat helplessly on the back of the old-fashioned chair. Presently she slipped down to the floor, and wandered aimless about the room. When she came near the glass again she glanced with a sharp conviction of intolerable shame at the top of a shaggy head, which was all that she could see. Even that was too much. She flew to the window and drew the shutters to, feeling she should never be able to bear the light again.
"What did You make me for?" she cried, arrested an angry instant, facing sharply about, as though confronting an enemy. "I didn't want to come if I had to be ugly!" She slid down off the window-seat, and walked quickly to and fro with rising anger. "It would have been so easy too, for You. Just think what it means to me!" She stopped and looked heavenward. The "Oirish oyes" were blazing. "I should thing You'd prefer things pretty for yourself. But if You don't, why do You go and spoil it all for me?" And so on, in frantic young fashion, she beat her wings against the old prison-house. For between the origin of evil and the origin of ugliness there is no great gulf fixed in the female mind.
Looking back long afterwards on this hour of anguish, she could not laugh, as philosophic grown-up folk are pleased to do, at the sorrows of childhood. She knew that that morning in the musty parlor was one of the bitterest experiences life had brought her, simply because it had come to her as a child, for whom beauty was as yet a conventional physical perfection, and not the high soul of things.
After the one-o'clock dinner, she had shaken Emmie off, and gone out to walk up and down in the warm wind behind the house. She had come out bareheaded, and her shock of wild hair was blown about almost as if some one were saying the "I b'lieve," and the Windgeist, or some other "der stets verneint," had borrowed Val's form or dissent.
She was a thin slip of a girl, and no one seeing her would
have much wondered that this young worshiper of obvious red-cheeked, dimpled, yellow-haired, picture-book beauty, had been bitterly disappointed with the thin little face, its irregular lines and faint coloring, the good-sized mouth in lieu of the heroine's puckered rosebud, the tawny no color, all colors, hair, that merely waved distractingly instead of curling; the black eyebrows and lashes, too well defined--yes, "smutty"; the long, deep-set gray eyes, that no wishing could make blue before the glass, but that sometimes, out in the sunshine, changed to turquoise, and sometimes in the dusk or lamplight were limpid, gleaming black.
"Hello!" said Jerry, through the osage-trees.
"What's the matter?"
"Been getting it?"
"Don't be an idiot!"
"Come and fish!"
"Does Mrs. Gano make you stay here?"
"She can't make me do anything."
"Then come. I'm going to Bentley's Pond."
Val wavered. She might fish even if she was ugly. In fact, as she came to think of it, it was one of the few things left to do--that and disobeying gran'ma.
"All right; wait a minute."
She went in-doors for her hat. A sense of returning life came warmly over her. She could still fish. Fishing alone was a career. She had a panoramic glimpse of herself through the future years--fishing morning, noon, and night; in all weathers and in every clime; as a young lady, fishing; fishing as a woman; as an old bent crone, still fishing--fishing forever and forever, her head tied up in a veil. She planted a Tam o' Shanter on her wind-blown hair, thinking: "I won't begin with a veil to-day. I don't mind Jerry--he's ugly, too."
End Chapter 10
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