The Open Question: A Tale of Two Temperaments by Elizabeth Robins (1898)
It struck Mrs. Gano the next day, as they were out driving, that Val was unusually subdued. She seemed to see nothing that they passed, hear nothing that was said. But it could not be said she looked unhappy. And Ethan was in excellent spirits. Emmie was bowing right and left, bowing with that air she had rapidly acquired, and was sedulously cultivating, a royal-condescension-to-the-crowd kind of bow.
"Who is that?" Asked Mrs. Gano, seeing Emmie's pantomime, and seeing, too, that Val had made no sign.
"Mr. Peter Hall."
"What! Not the young Pete Hall that I recommended to Blakistons?"
"Yes'm," said Emmie, meekly.
"Why do you bow to him?"
"Oh, I know him."
"We all know him, but that's no reason you should recognize him out of the store."
"I don't see why--" began Emmie.
"I've told you before, you do not know such persons except in their capacity of salesman."
"He bowed to me, grandma."
"Impertinence! Teach him a lesson next time. Don't notice him."
Mrs. Gano's point of view not only seemed to Val quite natural, but this very same conversation, with some immaterial variation, had taken place too often to merit notice. Cousin Ethan, however, was looking from one to the other in frank amazement.
"'Tisn't as if Peter Hall was a servant," said Emmie,
appealingly. "I've given up bowing to the Otways' coachman."
"Isn't all this very undemocratic?" Ethan asked.
"It's a most essential consideration in a democracy."
"But do you realize that it shows a degree of class prejudice that doesn't exist in the older, the monarchical countries?"
"Quite possible. Where the differences are broadly and indelibly stamped, there's no need to remind anybody that they exist."
"Three months ago," said Ethan, meditatively, "I should have called such considerations absolutely un-American. However, a season at Newport, not to speak of glimpses of life in the Boston clubs and on Beacon Hill, have helped to readjust my views. Still, I didn't think I should find out here in the West"--some quick look in Mrs. Gano's face made him modify-- "out here in the Great Middle States--"
"You forget you father's family are Southerners, root and branch. But as to that, you will leave distinctions behind when you reach heaven, not before. And even there we are told one star differeth from another star in glory."
"Well," said Ethan, smiling, "I only wish I'd brought Drouet."
"A friend of yours?"
"Well, yes, if I may be so bold. A more necessary friend than most. I rather missed him at first. Drouet is my valet."
"There would have been accommodation for him."
"You see, I didn't know. I thought you would have been scandalized."
"I don't see why you should think that. My father never travelled without his body-servant. You must have had the Tallmadges in mind. They, you know, thought themselves wiser than the prophets. There was no need of hewers of wood and drawers of water. Every one would be free and equal once black slavery was abolished. Child-
ishness! Three-fourths of the human race is in bondage to the other fourth. Where your servant is a Frenchman and white, or an African and black, the root of the matter is the same. We exact menial services of our inferiors, being of the dominant race."
The carriage drew up before the ruinous Fort, and "the dominant race" got out, while two black faces and a colored turban went scuttling back to the rear. John Gano, in a shabby old coat with a tear in the sleeve, was standing on a step-ladder, lopping off twigs with a huge pair of garden shears.
"John--John! What a mad proceeding! You will take your death!" cried his mother from the carriage window.
The gentleman so addressed climbed carefully down the step-ladder, while Emmie tumbled out of the carriage and ran to meet him.
"What do you think, father?" she said, confidingly. "Cousin Ethan's got a valet."
"A valet," whispered Emmie.
"Valet! What does her want a valet for?"
In vain Emmie squeezed hie arm. He spoke in a loud, astonished tone.
"Ah ha! I felt in wouldn't do to produce Drouet in New Plymouth," said Ethan, who was conducting Mrs. Gano to the porch.
"Well," answered his uncle, dryly, "if you were too old or too ill to wait on yourself, I should understand it."
"Do come in out of the draughts, John, and don't stand talking nonsense. Your father had his body-servant before he was either old or ill, and so did my father."
"That was in the antebellum days, before men realized they couldn't oppress their fellows with impunity."
"What do you mean?" asked Mrs. Gano, turning sharply on her son.
"I mean that if our forefathers had realized what an awful inheritance they were laying up for their children in
the negro problem, they would have gone without their valets and left the negro in his native wilds."
"Oh, if you only mean that the initial mistake was in having the shiftless creatures here at all, I agree. The negro enslaved was a care and a drag on the South; the negro free is a menace to all America."
She opened the door of the long room and rang for Venus to take off her shoes.
"Yes, the Color Question," said John Gano, sitting down heavily on one of the fleur-de-lis chairs-- "the Color Question is just one of the forms of ferociously usurious interest one generation has to pay on the debts incurred by another. The world learns its lessons with infinite pains. The same thing happens over and over again, and no one raises a finger."
He sat gazing at some impending peril with prophetic gloom.
"What is happening over again?" asked Ethan, divesting himself of his outer coat.
"The importation of ignorant debased foreigners to do the work that the American born not only won't do himself, but won't, in haste to get rich, allow to remain undone. Why do the offscourings of the earth flock to America? Not because it's any longer the New World. They don't go to Australia of South Africa in the same numbers. They come here because the American born is more of an arrant fool and snob than any creature God permits to breathe. Hardly any one so poor but he will pay the highest wages for the worst alien service."
"Father!" Val, half-way up-stairs, came running back to her country's rescue. "Cousin Ethan won't understand you are just arguing. Father doesn't really think Americans are snobs."
"Yes, snobs of the worst kind! What respect have we for the laboring man? What do we know or practice of healthy German industry, of the thrift of the French?"
"I thought our industries were our strong point."
"Industries, yes--not our industry. We can establish
mills and manufactories, and then get ship-loads of Teutons and of Irish to come over and work them."
"If they'd only be content with that," said Ethan, "but they end by working our municipalities too and running our country."
"They always do," said John Gano, shaking his forefinger in the air. "They always have! With that he brought his clinched his fist down on his knee. "If you can't hoe your row yourself, don't call in a man to help you. he'll end by helping himself. You'll have saved the hoeing and lost the row. But the average American won't do anything himself that he can get another man to do for him."
No wonder, thought Ethan, that the foreign visitor to these shores as such difficulty in classifying American opinion. Here, under the same roof, within the bonds of the closet kinship, were to the heard the old views of "the dominant race" from Mrs. Gano, and here was her own son railing.
"Nobody is content any more to work his own land or learn a trade; everybody must scramble for the big money prizes, the privilege of being an employer of labor."
It was a deed of some daring to interrupt the flow of masculine talk, but Val sat down on the bottom step of the stairs, saying firmly:
"Americans can't help being ambitious. They know there's a great deal to do."
"There is a great deal to be done; but the American has mistaken notions as to what. The American artisan thinks his son must aim to be his boss, if not being President. The farmer thinks he's doing his share when he hires hands and sends his own boys to swell the stream of clerks and town-strugglers. The infection seized on the women about thirty years ago."
"Stick up for us," whispered Val's voice behind Ethan.
"The result is," her father went on, "it's harder to find in American to-day a good cook or chambermaid than to find a woman musician, novelist, linguist, or painter."
"Say something," admonished the low voice from the bottom step.
"I imagine," the perfidious Ethan remarked, "that there are accomplished persons on both sides the sea who are ready to excel in any art except the art of being of use."
"Exactly. These people no doubt exist everywhere, but they should be swept off the face of America." Val looked out anxiously past the sheltering form of her cousin. "Farmers', tradesmen's daughters all over the land are giving up house-work"--Val withdrew her head and sat in obscurity--"giving up field and dairy work. Their foolish fathers buy them pianos, buy them novels; and able-bodied young women idle away their days in rocking-chairs, breeding discontent and disease."
Val appeared to be making preparations to retire.
"You think," asked Ethan, "there is any application in the fact--to--a people of another class?"
"Most assuredly. What the ignorant ignorantly despise, we must elevate. We must show them the bottomless vulgarity of their view." The restive movement on the bottom step augmented his ire. "I assure you the market cries aloud for house-keepers, nurses, laundresses. sempstresses. We are not in need of any more poetesses, department clerks, singers."
He had got up and was glowering unmistakably at the girl who had risen from the bottom step.
"It's too bad, father, your going back on my singing, just because I forgot to mend your coat. I thought you were an invalid in bed. I didn't expect you to climb trees to-day."
"To-day has got nothing to do with it, although I am surprised and disappointed that you want your grandmother to engage some raw Irish girl--"
"Only while we have company."
"Company!" he said, bristling more than ever. "What can 'company' get but profit out of seeing that we think nobly of work; that we're ready to do our parts towards
turning domestic and industrial service form an ugly slavery into a beautiful and noble privilege."
"Come, Emmie," said Val, "let's get our things off."
The two girls simultaneously took to their heels. John Gano leaned back in the chair, coughing feebly, all his animation spent.
"She has set her heart on my taking her East to learn singing," he said, in a low, dispirited voice. "I've been feeling to-day I may never go East again."
"You are not strong enough just yet," began Ethan.
"I wish Val would get over this craze about opera, especially if I'm not here. I've been thinking a great deal about it to-day. If she could take up some of the duties here--" He looked round helplessly, as if to find something she might with advantage begin upon.
"Oh, we must get the opera idea out of her head. I am quite of your opinion there."
"Ha, really?" said John Gano, with a relieved, almost incredulous air. "You think there's something in what I say?"
"Indeed I do."
"Most assuredly." He got up with renewed energy. "I'll tell her that the women who take up the despised craft of home-making will be not only the true artists of the future, they'll be the only order of working-women, never in want of a place."
As Ethan went to his room he indulged the cynical suspicion that his uncle had some definite vision of the particular home that Val was to labor for and ornament, and it was not the Fort. Well? He smiled. Pshaw! "Am I growing old, that a little school-girl should get hold of me after all my escapes?" For so much had his social experience warped him that he seldom thought of marriage now, save as of something others plotted and which he must frustrate and elude.
Val! He laughed to himself. Absurd! But his face had little amusement in it, and less irony than he would have credited. "The older men grow," he said to him-
self, "the more the fainter-hearted among them shrink from age, the more they worship youth. Now, if I were fifty I might be in danger."
Going down, after writing some letters, an hour or so later, he heard "the little school-girl" coming behind him, and then stopping suddenly.
"That you, Val?" He stood waiting. No answer. She had gone back inot her room. He stood stamping his letters under the hall lamp.
Val's head presently peered down form the top of the stair.
"Yes, I'm here," said Ethan, provokingly.
"I'm looking for one of the servants," Val said, descending with dignity.''
Ethan looked up, laughing at her over the banisters.
"What makes yo look so solemn?" he asked.
"My sister's got a sore throat, and I can't find the stuff for a compress."
"No use telling me you're such a sympathetic sister as you make out. What's the real matter?"
Ethan had come down-stairs, intending to be more discreet than ever in the future. De Poincy was no doubt right--even here it was necessary to be en garde. With this idea dragged well into the foreground again, what demon of perversity made him lift a hand above the banisters and hold the girl's fingers fast to the polished rail? It was the first time he had touched her. He was rather startled at the commotion set up in his own nerves by the trifling action, but it was mainly, he assured himself, the reflex of the evident agitation of the girl. She had dropped her eyes, and he saw her upper lip tremble.
"What's the real matter?" he repeated, letting go of her hand, not all of a sudden, but drawing his own across it lingeringly; "I thought you were always happy."
"Happy!" she said, making a gallant effort to recover her usual manner. "Well, it's nobody's fault if I am."
"Now that I come to look at you, I believe you are happy, all the same."
"Course I am; but it's only because I was born that way and can't get out o' the habit." She came on down-stairs.
"Your father was quite right, you know, in what he said this afternoon."
"Oh, he didn't really mean it. It was partly just arguing--father does so love arguing--and partly because Emmie told on you. I've been saying she deserved to have a sore throat."
"Told on me?"
The supper-bell rang.
"Yes," said Val, when she could make herself heard; "let out that you had a valet. Emmie's so indiscreet. It was all right to tell grandma, she likes splendor, but Emmie might have known father would shy awfully at a valet. Sh! here he is!"
Ethan went and sat by Emmie a little while after supper that evening. They were great friends, these two; but somehow Ethan's conversation flagged. For no discoverable reason he had fallen into the clutch of one of those fits of gloomy silence that before he came to the Fort had been growing in frequency and in power to cripple and to numb his spirit. He had just given Emmie an old silver pounce-box that had belonged to some dead and gone Tallmadge, and that Ethan for years had carried in his pocket. Emmie was to keep menthol in it, Ethan said, and to sniff the aromatic remedy through the open-work inner lid of gold. Emmie was delighted at this attention on the part of her cousin, but she glanced up now and then from her occupation of crumbling the menthol into the tiny receptacle, keenly conscious of Ethan's black-browed preoccupation.
"Why do you think so much?" she said.
"Heaven forfend! I never think."
"Oh yes, you do--unless Val's here. Grandma has often said," she continued, with her little air of superiority, "no one can think whe Val's in the room."
"Ah," said Ethan to himself, "that's at the bottom of my affection for Val."
If he was unconscious of any change in her enlivening influence in the days following, it did not escape Mrs. Gano that Val's humor was more capricious than her family had been accustomed to find it. The old on-looker at the game could not, of course, know that alone with Ethan the girl was embarrassed, breathless, almost terrified, and yet deliciously happy. She was no sooner alone with him than she wanted to run away--no sooner had she run away than she wanted to go back. When he was present, she was often in the wildest spirits; when he went out of the room, he seemed to take her soul away with him. She sat silent, helpless, till he came again. She seemed to have lost her hitherto unfailing gusto for games and outings. She saw as little was possible of Julia and of Harry Wilbur. She did her lessons absent-mindedly, and was not much heard from in the general family talks. Val! Who had never found it possilble before to realize that young people should be seen and not heard! Mrs. Gano had not lived seventy years in the world for nothing. She saw enough of the state of affairs to feel sore at heart for the poor foolish little girl, who was groping her way through her first great initiation into the mystery of mysteries.
For all Mrs. Gano's pride in, and affection for, Ethan, she felt scant patience at his lingering on at the Fort, amusing himself with Val's oddites and adorations, carelessly absorbing her generous capacity for hero-worship, building himself a shrine in her imagination before turning his back upon the Fort, perhaps for another twenty years. It was plain to Mrs. Gano that Etahn was a person exercising no little fascination upon womankind; equally plain was it that the school-girl worship of his little country cousin was in the nature of a smiling incident that could not arrest him long.
"What an absurd infant you are!" she had heard him exclaim.
"I'm not in the very least like an infant," Val had retorted.
"Well, you are quite the youngest person I've ever known," he assured her.
As Val sat at her lessons in the long room of a morning, Mrs. Gano had no need to look out herself to see, or to ask, who was passing under her windows. If, at the morning's end, the door behind thme opened, she saw in Val's face if it were Ethan coming in. Old Jerusha was right--the face was like a lamp, and like an open book the young heart underneath its light.
"John," said Mrs. Gano, at the beginning of the next week, "has Ethan told you how long he means to stay?"
"H'm! Well, I think you should talk to him about taking life more seriously. He ought not to idle away his youth as he's doing."
"We can't complain that he's idled much of it away here hitherto."
Why doesn't he prepare himself for some profession?"
"He's done a good deal of preparing. He tells me he's going into politics."
"Humph! politics. When?"
"Well, I dare say when he goes East again."
"I don't approve of idle men."
"No," said John Gano, with some asperity, "I know you don't."
Body-servants and "splendor" were all very well, but it was not pleasing to Mrs. Gano that her only grandson should be regared even temporarily in the light of that character, looked at askance even in the old unenterprising South, "the gentleman of leisure." In her heart she thought it undignified that Ethan should spend so many mornings playing tennis; that he should laugh and sing with Juia Otway (another victim, plainly) as though amusement were the end of existence. Harry Wilbur, too, who had begun with a good honest detestation of the visitor at the Fort, was at the end of three weeks one of his most ardent friends.
"The Wilburs want cousin Ethan to go and dine with
them on Sunday," Emmie reported. "They simply love him. I don't wonder. He's going to get Harry Wilbur something to do in Boston."
"Humph!" ejaculated Mrs. Gano; "when is he going to get himself something to do?"
Emmie and her cousin continued the best possible friends. No cloud upon that relation, at all events. He had promised to teach her to ride, but Emmie was not strong enough for violent exercise, her grandmother thought, and Emmie herself thought riding must be "awfully scary." Val, in what her elders took to be some unaccountable mood, had also declined to ride, saying, mendaciously, that she had enough riding on Julia's pony. This resulted in Ethan's going out several times with Julia. She was nearly two years older than Val, and "quite the young lady." People began to smile and speculate, and the Otways took to asking Ethan "over."
"Change your mind, Val, and come out with us this morning," Ethan had said, before going off wiht Julia for that second ride.
"I can't; I have lessons."
"Not to-day," said Mrs. Gano.
"No, it's Saturday. Come, I'll get you a mount."
"No, thank you, father's better now. We're beginning algebra again to-day."
"Algebra! What on earth do you want with--"
"She must keep up with her classes," said Mrs. Gano, answering for her, as Val went out of the room.
But it was a good hour before the algebra leson. Val went up to her father's room and climbed into the window-seat. There, with judicious arrangement of blind and the curtain closed in round her, she watched for Ethan to mount and ride away. Julia must have grown impatient waiting. She called for him to-day. How beautiful she looked--beautiful in her new habit! Away they went laughing in the sunshine. Val opened the window; now they were turning into Mioto Avenue at a hard gallop. She drew her cautious head in out of the sweet keen
air and buried her face in the musty old red moreen curtain.
"Why didn't you go, child, if you wanted to so much?" She uncovered startled eyes. Her grandmother was standing there, looking strangely gentle. "Your father would have postponed the algebra for once."
"I haven't got a riding-habit."
"The cashmere skirt you wear when you ride out with Julia does quite well."
The girl shook her head. "Besides, I've only got the skirt."
"What's wrong with yor nice velveteen jacket?"
They were silent for a space. Then Val:
"Oh, I don't care, I've got lots to do."
She slid off hte window-seat and went down-stairs. Val had her full share of the young heart's passionate instinct to keep its aching to itself. She had no idea that her grandmother had seen her standing outside the parlor door when Ethan was there alone, hesitating, trying to go in, trying to go away, and in the end succeeding only under strong inward compulsion in compassing the latter. It was well she never dreamed how much the old eyes saw. She was sure that the world she was dwellin in was a place no mortal foot had ever trod before. The girl felt herself a solitary way-breaker through a virgin forest; if she should tell the thousandth part of hte magic and the mystery of this new world of her discovery, no mortal would believe such travellers' tales.
She listened fascinated the night Ethan said, in answer to his uncle's platitude about "the common experience":
"There's no such thing! Experience is no more reduplicated than faces are."
"Of course, I don't mean down to the smallest detail," John Gano had explained.
"Oh, as to that, we have birth and death in common, if that's all."
"There's a wonderful family likeness in the other facts of life," his uncle persisted.
"Yes," said Mrs. Gano; "it is when we are young that we think there could never have been anything to match our experience."
"Then do you think now that your life has been a replica of Mrs. Otway's?"
Mrs. Gano smiled.
"Oh no," said Val, with a pleased confidence, "there was never anybody just like us before."
They all laughed.
"No doubt we are the 'peculiar people,'" said Mrs. Gano, calmly deserting her first postulate, and seeming quite equal to facing "the comic laugh."
"I mean," said Val, "that if there never was any 'me' in the world before, the world's a different place now there's 'me' in it."
They laughed with less misgiving.
"You have Goethe on your side, my dear," said her father. "Goethe says Nature is always interesting because she's always renewing the observer."
"I like my way of putting it best," the girl maintained -- "sounds more interesting."
"I've found out, Val," said Ethan, "that most people who make believe that human nature is everywhere the same, and that we're all as alike as pins in a row, usually except themselves. That shows they're wiser than their theories."
"No one denies," said John Gano, "that a slight difference in the result. We were speaking broadly of the main outlines of life. They are curiously common to us all."
"I don't see those 'common outlines,'" Etahn answered, "any more than I see the same pattern twice in a kaleidoscope. I see the same boundary walls--birth and death--and all between the two, endlessly different for each."
"Yes, yes; I believe it's like that," said Val.
"It would be much pleasanter to agree with you, uncle," Ethan remarked, as he got out the chess-board. "It's more comfortable--more companionable. I think there are few thoughts so overwhelming as what John Morley calls 'the awful loneliness of life'--the loneliness that there's no help for, that no one can reach, no one can ever share. Each one of us"--slowly, absently, he set the chessmen in thier places-- "each man sits apart, with hsi own soul and its unique experience forever incommunicable, forever different."
"No; not even incommunicable, if he have genius," returned his uncle. "The odd thing is that in that case what he has to communicate is something we all recognize. We expect him to be different; we are amazed to find him just like ourselves, wiht the trifling addition of being able to say what the rest of us have only felt."
"You ahve more faith in the capacity and the veracity of genius than I have. In my opinion, not one of those who have tried to reveal themselves has been able to give us more than shreds and patches of reality. And they've discounted the fragments of truth by romancing, conciously or not--making themselves better, or making themselves worse than they were. The real revelations are the unconscious ones."
"St. Augustine," suggested John Gano.
His nephew laughed and shook his head.
"Well, Rousseau," he amended, looking in the table-drawer for a missing bishop.
"Rousseau, too--exactly a case in my favor. You can't see the forest for the trees, nor the man for his confessions."
John Gano shook his lion's mane.
"If you could project your notion of Rousseau, uncle, and I could do the same by mine, do you suppose they would be alike?"
"Possibly not; we are not in agreement about Rousseau."
"Exactly; and do you think if we could summon him from the shades he would own either your Jean Jacques or
mine? Not he. And he'd be right. There's more bound up in men than they've ever been able to liberate. Even genius can do no more than make signals over the prison wall."
"Shakespeare, of course, never tried."
"No; think of it." Instead of beginning the game, Ethan stretched out his long legs under the table, and leaned back reflectively with his hands in his pockets-- "think of it. Shakespeare, with all his knowledge, and his miraculous gift of expression, his vocabulary double that of the Bible and Milton put together--even Shakespeare was too wise to try to do more than give a hint here, a little signal there, just as people in real life." He looked up suddenly and caught Val's eye. She nodded faintly. "Reminds me of a talk I had with a fellow from Bengal who came over on the same Cunarder with me. He was telling me about the murder of the manager of a tea-garden in the Dooab--police a long time utterly at sea, till somebody discovered that, rummaging among his victim's belongings, the murderer had smudged a Bengali atlas with his thumb. This atlas was forwarded to the bureau where the thumb impressions of criminals are kept, and it was discovered that the impression on the atlas corresponded with the thumb recorded of a noted criminal then at large. The man was arrested on this fact alone. Other evidence was brought to light, and when the game was up the murderer confessed."
"Oh yes," said John Gano, quite unimpressed, "it's a good many years now since Galton--"
"Exactly, but when it comes to verifiable differences in our thumb whorls, who shall guess at the hidden differences in our brains and nerve ganglia? No, no; we are not alike. We are terribly and wonderfully and forever different, and it's your first play."
The next afternoon Emmie, warmly tucked up on a sofa by the fire, had fallen asleep while her father read aloud.
Mrs. Gano made her son a sign, and they went up-stairs to his room. Without preface she began to urge him to take the money he had been going to use in his journey to New York and go instead to the far South, as the doctor advised. She could put a little to it--enough to serve. No, no; he wouldn't Why not? At last he said it was because of Val. He had promised her they would go East in the spring. He doubted if he would ever be strong enough to carry out the plan, but Val must not think he had gone back on his word. If he spent the money this winter, there would be nothing when the warm weather came.
"John," said his mother, "it is partly out of consideration for Val that I urge this."
John opened his eyes.
"I want you to go away for a change, and I don't want you to go alone. I want you to go with Ethan. I've already mentioned it to him. He knows of a place near Savannah."
John Gano seemed to be considering in a bewildered way.
"I must go back," said his mother, uneasily. "Emmie may wake and want--" She seemed oddly nervous. "Pity Emmie should choose this particular time for one of her colds."
"Yes, poor child! she's missing all the festivity."
"Festivity!" echoed his mother. "Hump! Anyhow, it leaves those two young people a great deal alone."
John Gano blinked.
"Ethan and Val?" he said, absent-mindedly.
His mother nodded.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that. He might be left to less entertaining people than Val."
They looked at each other in silence for a moment.
"You don't mean--Val? Why, she's a child."
"She is older than my mother was when I was born."
"You don't think that Ethan--"
He was suddenly alert, anxious.
"No, no; I don't think it's his fault. He, too, looks
upon her as a child. But it would be better if he went away."
"Ah! Ah, indeed; I wish I'd realized. We'll get him away as soon as possible."
His air of sudden energy seemed perhaps over-anxious.
"Don't do anything to excite suspicion. He is quite ready to go away with you at the end of the week."
"Where is he now?" demanded her son.
"In the parlor with Val."
They came down-stairs together, Mrs. Gano going back to Emmie. Her son laid his hand on the parlor door with something both anxious and inflexible in his manner. It might appear that the little scene on the other side was easily interrupted by a less extravagant expenditure of energy. So little may we know the people we spend our lives with, that the not unobservant old woman at the opposite door thought there was no more in her son's mind than in her own--a wish to save Val the pain of an unrequited devotion.
The talk with Ethan to which Mrs. Gano had just referred had taken place less than an hour before. Although it had been a most discreeet interchange, beginning and ending with John Gano, it had left the young man in a state of acute discomfort and vague rage at fate. Why had he not gone away before? Why should his lingering be punished by this awful infliction of the care of his uncle, or at best his escort hundreds of miles away, and his establishment in Georgia? It was too much. He had been ready to deal generously with these queer relations in the matter of money. But to refuse his help to keep a whole roof over their heads, and then calmly to demand this of him! It made him laugh, but it made him angry too. He cursed his folly and inertia, as he called it, in staying on. Why, he might have been at Tuxedo at this moment! He had wasted enough time here to have gone to the Riviera. But as he thought of the dozens of things he might have done, a sharp realization came to him of the inner dulness of these outwardly glittering ways of killing time. He had
tried them all; he knew them for what they were worth. Whether work or play, they were just so many devices for shortening the spun-out tale of days. He knew of old where such thoughts would lead him. He walked up and down from Daniel Boone to the mirror, glowering out from time to time at the rain. Beast of a day! Where was everybody? Suddenly he opened the door. Val started back.
"Oh--a--oh!" She said, confused. "I was just coming to see if--"
She stopped, obviously at a loss.
"And I was just wondering where you were all this time."
She came in smiling and flushing, and shut the door.
"What an awful day!" he said, drawing up a chair for her to the neglected fire.
"Is ti?" she inquired, blandly.
He walked to the window.
"I hadn't noticed." She looked after him and beyond him, through the blurred window-panes. "Yes, it is rather rainy and blowy."
"Hardly four o'clock, and dark as a wolf's mouth."
"Yes, the sun sets early these days. I love the long evenings."
She poked the low-burned fire till a feeble flame sprang up. He turned and looked at her through the twilight.
"What do you do, little cousin, when you want to kill time?"
She glanced over her shoulder with sudden gravity, shovel in hand.
"Do you know, I think to 'kill time' is th most hideous, murderous phrase in the language. I wish you wouldn't use it."
"What do you propose as a substitute?"
"Just remembering how little time there is for all there is to do with it." (No coal left in the scuttle--she must go and tell Venie.)
"Ah, yes," Ethan said, coming back and sitting down.
"But suppose you haven't got a mission? Suppose nobody and nothing had any particular need of you?"
"Oh, I wasn't thinking of missions and needs. I was just thinking of how much there was to see and--to--to feel--to find our about! Enough to last a million years, and we aren't given (in this life) a hundred." Gloom settled down upon her face. "I think it's simply awful that we're allowed so little time. Even elephants and ravens are better off."
He looked into her woe-begone countenance, and began to shake with laughter.
"Well, well, this is the other side of the shield."
Val was disoncerted at his mirth.
"I'm glad to see you so cheerful about it," she said. "I think it's simply tragic."
"You observe that even such optimism as yours has its dark side too."
"Dark? Yes, coal-black, but never dull." She spoke with great solemnity. "No matter what comes, it can't help being frantically interesting."
"How can you be sure of that? You may be--"
"How can I be sure? Why, just because, don't you see, it will be happening to me. That makes it quite new--makes it tremendous." She studied the dark enigmatic face, and her radiance paled a trifle. "You said so yourself the other night."
"I said so?"
"Don't you remember?--about everybody being different."
"Oh, that made me so happy." She bent towards him, beaming again. "I so love thinking that none of the dull old rules hold for me--that I'm the first one of this sort. What did for other people won't do for me--what happened to them needn't make me afraid. Oh, it's splendid to think it's all new and different because of me!"
She pressed her hands together, and her face, yes, it was like a lamp in the gathering gloom.
"I wonder what you'll do with your life?" said the man, with something very tender in the low voice.
"Do with it? I shall love it so, it will have to be good to me. I shall sing, and I shall travel--go everywhere, do everything. I mustn't miss a single thing--oh, dear no! not a single, single thing." Silence a moment, and then, "There's just one thought troubles me," she said.
"Ah yes, there's always one--when there aren't more."
"Less time than a silly old elephants's got--and here my father's had to put off starting till the spring. I hope I shall be able to wait all that time for him; but sometimes I feel as if I shouldn't."
"Ah, but your promise to me!"
Sharply, in the silence, a cry rang out. Ethan leaped to his feet.
"It's only the ghost," said Val, quietly.
"Of course--Yaffti. But what on earth--"
"I heard it as a child, and called it 'Yaffti.' What the devil is it?"
"Only the clumsy old lightning-rod shrieking in its rusty fixtures when the wind blows."
"How do you know?"
"I lay on the rug here and listened, and then walked round and round the house in the wind till I found out what it was made the crying sound."
"Weren't you frightened?"
"Oh yes, dreadfully."
"H'm! So Yaffti turns out ot be the spirit of the blast!"
"I was awfully disappointed. I hoped it was a real ghost. Why did you call it Yaffti?"
"Oh, well, what would you call it if you didn't call it Yaffti?"
"I'm forgetting you hate the gloaming. I must go and tell Venie to bring the coal, and--"
"Don't go!" He said, suddenly, holding out a hand.
She laughed, a little nervously.
"I believe you're afraid of the dark."
"Yes, little cousin, I've always been afraid of the dark."
She moved away towards the door.
"Val!" The voice seemed to fall on her naked heart, and made it shrink deliciously. "Val!"
"Yes," she said, hardly above a whisper.
Was anything else said? She never knew. She remembered nothing but groping blindly two or three steps, and then suddenly realizing that she was going towards him in the dusk with shaking, outstretched hands. For what? "Oh, God! What am I doing?" She wheeled about with a sharp inward twist of mortification. Blessing the kindly dark, she made for the door.
"Don't go!" said the voice.
"Only to get the light," she said, clinging to the doorknob, shaken into trembling fomr crown to toe.
"It's not dark, little cousin, while you're here."
She did not stir--nor he. The clock ticked loud. The wind had risen and was howling like a beaten hound. How curious, thought the man, vaguely, that the natural sounds of wind, or sea, or falling inland waters, or the voices of night creatures, are all sad or else discordant. Surely, surely the spirit of the world is the spirit of plaint and dole.
"Yes, cousin Ethan."
"You are too far off. Bring the light nearer."
She heard steps creaking down the stair. Or was it only that Yaffti turned and strained in his rusty fetters? The door was hurriedly opened.
"Why are you two sitting in the dark?" Said John Gano.
"We've been telling ghost stories," said Ethan, as Val slipped out.
End Chapter 21
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