The Open Question: A Tale of Two Temperaments by Elizabeth Robins (1898)
IT had pleased Val's love of travel by water, and helped her to endure the thought of her long overland journey to the Pacific, that they should go down by river to the great railway centre and junction for the West. Just before noon, on the day after the ball, all was in readiness for the last leave-taking. The heavier trunks had gone down early to the landing below the Fort. Ethan was leaving his agent and several servants to wind up affairs, and the house was still in gala-dress, and overrun with people. Many of the guests from a distance were not leaving till later, and they all went down to the river "to see the Ganos off." More than half the population of the town seemed to Ethan to be bent on the same errand. He got out of the crowd at the landing, looked at his watch, said he had forgotten something, and hurried back, shaking off Scherer and others, by the way, with scant ceremony. When he reached Mioto Avenue, instead of crossing it and continuing on up to the front entrance of the Fort, he walked hurriedly along the avenue skirting the bottom of the old wilderness, now the garden. When he came to the barberry-bush, he stopped, casting a quick look to right and left. With some pains and no little violence to his hands, he wrenched one of the new palings off the fence, and let himself in. Past the garish pavilion, up the first flight of steps, with a glance towards the thicket of the hundred-leaved rose, where An' Jerusha had stood so long ago with apron to her eyes--on, round the deserted house to the front porch. He stared at his name on the door with a sense of its being strange to find it there still. He lifted the knocker and let if fall; no one came. He rang the bell.
"The people who used to live here must all be gone away," he said to himself, playing with the idea that it was "many years after."
He went round to the back veranda. The door stood ajar. He looked in, wondering to find the place open, and yet fearing to see a face. All the world was down at the landing. He ran up-stairs three steps at a time. Out of the writing-table drawer in his room he took an old notebook. It had come to light the day before, but there had been no fire in his room, and there was no means now of burning it. But he was glad he had remembered it in time. Down-stairs, as swiftly as of old when Yaffti followed hard; a moment's pause before the long-room door. He opened it, stood looking in a moment at the high red chair, and before passing on, bent his head like one who acknowledges a greeting.
As he hurried down the terrace he started, catching sight of some one crouching down by the rose-bushes. He called out sharply:
"Who is that?"
"Me, sir," said the shamefaced Venus, getting up from her kneeling posture.
"What are you doing there?"
Up and down her gingham apron she was furtively rubbing her knees. Think of Venus losing her youth and acquiring "rheumatics!" How exactly like An' Jerusha she was growing!
"I wus lef' in chawge, sah."
"Well, you've left the veranda door open!"
She stopped rubbing her knees and wiped her eyes.
"Dat do' sutny am open, sah. I wanted--t' see de las' ob yer. Dis w'ere me an' maw done spy out fo' yo' dat firs' time. Ole Mis' G'no--she didn' min' me an' maw bein' yere."
"You saw me come back?"
"Yass, sah." Then, as if to palliate the crime of the open door: "Mebbe a long time fo' I see yo' comin' in agin."
"Yes," he said, "it's likely to be a long time," and his slow look went round the place, shying at the pavilion.
Venus seemed to think it incumbent upon her to hold up her end of the conversation.
"Huh! Can't say fo' sho' why I'm carryin' on like dis yere." She mopped her eyes. "Miss Val gone away laffin' fit to kill."
"Yes, she takes it better than we do. Good-bye, Venus."
"Goo'-bye, sah. Trufe is, sah, Miss Val mighty sot on seein' de worl'. Goo'-bye, goo'-bye!"
She waved her apron till he was out of sight.
"They've rung the 'all aboard' bell twice!" Val called excitedly from the deck of the steamer as Ethan appeared at the landing.
He gladly cut his good-byes short, with an eye on the figure up there against the sky, in dull blue tweed, belted in with white wash-leather. She had shown him one morning, nearly a year ago, how neatly that same white leather strip fitted over the old Russian belt that she had clung to until he got her the one of turquoises.
"Of course," she had said that day in Paris, laughing and showing her white teeth, "if I were a clumpy lady now--if I hadn't such a nice little waist, I couldn't wear two belts, and I could never wear white at all! So mind you appreciate me."
It was that day he had gone and ordered the turquoise girdle. Was she wearing it now? Of course. Absurd child! she never dressed without it. He glanced up at her in the midst of the handshaking, seeing neither Wilbur nor Scherer nor Julia, but a wind-blown figure above him on the brow of Plymouth Hill, looking out to the future. And to-day? The same questioning eyes, shoulders well set back, the little head held high--she was still looking the world in the face; it would be defiance but for the smile.
As the paddle churned the water there was a chorus of good-bying and hurrahing. The whistle shrieked--the steamer lumbered fussily down-stream.
"Why don't you wave, too?" said Val, excitedly. "Is that old book under your arm what you went back for? Why is your other hand full of leaves?"
"I can't imagine why." He opened his fingers and let the scarlet barberries and the small crisp leaves fall into the river.
The faces in the crowd were growing dim, but still she waved her handkerchief.
"You remember that man you once told me about?" she said.
"What man?" He looked dreamily back at the throng as though expecting to find him there.
"Don't you remember he was at play when the Roman guard came to carry him to his execution? I should like to call back to my friends as he did: 'Bear witness when I am dead that I had the better of the game!'"
Ethan's prophecy proved true. Val loved the place at Oakland, and all the walks and drives about. She delighted in San Francisco, and she ransacked Chinatown with unabated curiosity.
"You've never told me what you think of Yaffti," Ethan said to her some days after their arrival.
"Oh, I haven't encountered Yaffti as yet."
He presently realized that she had never been down to the beach since she came. Instinctively he avoided suggesting it again. He would go off for a sail sometimes himself with his man, Sam Cornish, an old sailor who had been with him years before on his yacht. But Val was ingenious in inventing inland outings. Yaffti for the most part was tethered fast in the little cove, and Sam smoked endless pipes on the pier.
But Val made the old sailor's acquaintance nevertheless, and delighted in him. One day, in an encounter down at the stables, Sam made bold to remonstrate with her upon her "fear o' the sea."
" 'Tain't wot I expected by the look o' yer, mum."
She laughed a little nervously, and went up the drive to meet Ethan.
"What's Sam being saying?" he said, conscious of the faint trace of agitation in her face.
"Sam? Oh, nothing! Sam and I are great friends." Restless under her husband's continued scrutiny, she asked: "How long have you known Sam?"
"Oh, seven or eight years, I should think."
"Well, he likes me best, anyhow," she laughed.
"I dare say," said Ethan, adopting her note; "all ignorant persons do."
"Yes, it's true!" She stopped a moment. "Now, why is that, do you suppose?" she said, with the candid air of a scientific investigator.
"Merely because you have the beau rôle to play," he said, still smiling. "You help them to believe in happiness. I'm apt to verify their worst suspicions."
Ethan left his wife very little alone, and it was strange and pitiful to him--a daily mockery of the human lot--that they should be so often happy, and in spirit closer together in these hours, than they had ever been in their lives. They clung to each other like two lost children, and the days went by in a dream.
They had had three weeks of quite perfect weather. Today, for the first time since their coming, the sky lowered, the air was heavy. Still, the sun showed his dazzling Californian face at intervals, and Ethan watched the weather signs while he dressed, his heart secretly set upon going off, by-and-by, with Yaffti and Sam for a sail. He must find out discreetly how Val was going to spend the morning.
"What's for to-day?" he said to her at breakfast.
"I've a beautiful plan if the weather behaves," she answered.
They stood at the door of the summer-house after breakfast. Val would leave him every now and then, go to the
lattice-window that looked out to sea, and come back with the latest Signal Service report. Her version was so uniformly favorable that Ethan laughed at last.
"You're like an old night-watchman!"
"I'm not a bit like an old night-watchman."
"Yes, yes," he insisted. "Weren't you told as a child how they used to go crying the hour under the windows in Baltimore, 'Eleven o'clock, and all's well!' 'Midnight, and all's well'?"
"Very nice of them, I'm sure; and if the family watchman says 'All's well' after luncheon, you are to take me to China."
It was so she always spoke of Chinatown. He thought of the narrow, malodorous alleys, the stifling shops, and regretted, with a double pang, the breezy bay and Yaffti. However, he would have a couple of hours' sail before luncheon to sustain him.
"All right," he said out loud, "we'll go to China this afternoon."
As she leaned against him he put his arm about her waist.
"Where's your turquoise gewgaw?" he said.
"Here"--she lifted a hand to her hair.
"No; I meant the other--the--" As he noticed the shade on her face: "You've lost it! Aha! I knew you would if you wore it every day."
"I haven't lost it," she said.
"Tired of it already?"
"No; I didn't put it on this morning."
He looked at her with changed eyes. She dropped her own, went over to the lattice, and stood there facing seaward. When he came in to get the tobacco-pouch he had left on the rustic table, she went out. He thought of that morning in Paris when he had designed the belt and chosen the stones. How he had dwelt in imagination on the moment when he would clasp it round her, see her joy, and be given his reward! Then came back the actual moment of his giving her the gift--came back with an even greater
anguish than he had known in living through the moments by the fire in his wife's room at the Fort. He tasted the intolerable bitter of the contrast between what he had hoped that hour would bring, and what it actually had brought, till he was ready to cry out: "What demon made me mention it? She's right not to wear the accursed thing!"
As soon as Val went in-doors he would go for a sail. For nearly half an hour she had been trailing about the garden in hr soft white draperies, now bending down to look at some growing thing, now looking up to the wind-blown cloud masses, to where the strong sunlight poured down between the rifts. He leaned against the door of the summer-house, rolling cigarettes. He suspected rather than heard her talking her foolish "little language" to the bird in the juniper-bush, the spoiled bird that always got crumbs after breakfast. By-and-by she came towards him across the lawn with a little green branch in her hand. He realized that she must be weary, she was dragging her feet. Something curiously unlike Val, something inelastic, shackled, struck him in her gait. His face darkened suddenly; an involuntary shock of repulsion went through him, a resentment keen, impersonal, unconscious of everything save his own inward recoil, until he noticed Val had stopped short and the green branch had fallen at her feet. He went forward to pick it up. As he handed it to her he saw her eyes were full of tears.
"My dear one, what is it?" he said, with sharp remorse.
"Don't--don't look at me! Turn away your eyes."
"Your eyes hurt--oh, they hurt me!"
"How can you say such a thing!" he exclaimed, ready to perjure himself. He would have laid his arm about her, but she shrank away. "It's not like you, Val!" he began, almost indignantly.
"No, no," she said, on a wave of her old impetuosity, "it's not a bit like me! I would have loved the great miracle. I would have waited upon it reverently every step of the way, so proud, so happy--"
She broke off and went from him into the house.
His painful remorse was checkered by the reflection, "And I was going for a sail! Impossible now."
He stayed all the morning in the house or garden, reading to Val when she would let him, surrounding her with every offering of tenderness his keen self-reproach could invent. But he was too close in spirit to the woman at his side not to divine a little how she shrank from this new considerateness that was own cousin to pity.
As he sat in the library reading aloud before luncheon, he became acutely conscious of a change in her mood. At first he thought the story was interesting her deeply, and began to pay more attention to it himself, glancing up covertly now and then at the face opposite to him. The languid eyes were full of light again, her apathy swallowed up in some unexplained alertness. He was so struck with the change that he bent forward and laid his hand over hers. It trembled sharply under his touch. She rose and walked about the room. He read on till the luncheon-bell rang. She sat at the table scarcely eating, answering his remarks with gentle vagueness, and looking much out of the window.
"No hope of going to China to-day," he said, at last, following her eyes.
"Not at two, " she answered. "That was why I didn't dress."
After luncheon they went back to the library.
"What do they mean by shutting the windows?" she exclaimed, and flung them wide.
The papers in the room flew about, and he closed the door. He took up the book again, feeling that neither of them was much in the mood to talk. But the day had grown so overcast that he went and sat in the bay-window, so that he might read the small print more readily. Val moved restlessly about. He refrained from looking at her again until he became conscious that she had stopped suddenly. He glanced up, and saw her standing rooted, with a look of tension on her face, her head slightly tilted, lips parted, breath held.
"What is it?" he said, nervously.
"Don't you hear?"
"What nonsense!" he laughed.
In the silence he caught the faint far-off growl of thunder.
"You forget," he said, after a moment, speaking as one who tries to cast off some evil spirit, "you forget I've made Yaffti fast in the bay."
"He's coming inland to-day," she said; "he's tired of waiting for us."
Ethan had picked up the book, and read on with a curious under-current of excitement. As he turned the leaves he would throw out a swift glance, almost like one running for his life who keeps an eye on an enemy.
The flying cloud squadrons had rallied. They were drawn up now in serried masses, black and threatening. The sun had fallen back overpowered, vanquished utterly. Such noonday darkness in the lands of sunshine is a commonplace of sub-tropical climate, but to Ethan it came today as a portent and a warning.
Val moved from window to window, watching the great red-wood trees swaying and lashing, and taking the wind in her face.
Ethan closed his own window, and suggested that the others be put down.
"No, no," she opposed him, almost sharply.
"What's the matter with you to-day?" he said at last, unable to endure her restlessness any longer. "Can't you follow the story--can't you think when there's a thunderstorm?"
"Oh yes," she said; "I can think best of all then."
As she stood looking up in a kind of ecstasy, suddenly the lightning played about her. Involuntarily Ethan shrank and shut his eyes in that first instant. In the stupendous crash that followed he sprang up. Was the house struck?
She stood quite still with exultant eyes, listening for the thunderpeals as if they were answers to some question, waiting for the lightning like one lost in the dark, who sees a torch borne nearer.
He put down the windows in spite of her "Ah no! ah no!" just as the rain-cloud broke over the house.
"I keep thinking it's the big tulip-tree at home," she said, "making that sound like surf on the shore."
The rain dashed in floods against the window-panes, and ran down in sheets like sea-water off the port-holes of a ship.
"One good thing," said Ethan, "it's too violent to last long."
The house groaned and trembled under the bombardment of the storm.
"Listen!" she said again. "Oh, Yaffti is very angry this time. I told you he was tired of waiting so long in the bay."
She opened the library door.
"Where are you going?" she demanded.
She went back and kissed him.
"Only up-stairs. I want to write to Emmie."
Ethan had been right: the storm was too violent to last. When it had spent itself he went down to the pier. Sky still a little overcast, but louder than ever the sea called to him.
He walked up and down, up and down. The salt blew keen in his face. By-and-by he went to the boat-house to consult Sam.
"Well," in Sam's opinion, "they mout be a bigger gale on the way, and then, again, they moutn't."
But after a while the warm wind seemed to blow the clouds low down on the threshold of the ocean. The dome of heaven was swept bare and clean except for a little corner of the west. And louder than ever the sea kept calling. He would go up to the house, he told Sam, and see what Mrs. Gano was doing--if she minded his going out for an hour.
She had written to Emmie a simple family letter, full of affection and reminders of the old days. "I hope you've forgiven me for being so horrid to you when we were children. You have the comfort of remembering you were always very gentle and forbearing to everybody. I was a monster. I'm still rather a monster, but I'd like you to go on thinking kindly of me."
She found she had no stamps, and looked in Ethan's room. His travelling letter-case--it was really a portable writing-stand--lay open on the floor of his dressing-room, with his bunch of keys in the lock.
"Careless boy," she said to herself, and went over to close it.
Her eye fell on the old note-book that Ethan had gone back for that day they left the Fort. She opened it idly. He had shown her the first pages himself, with their odds and ends of verse, jottings and subjects, etc. Absently she turned the leaves to the end. The last entry was the longest, the date early in that year:
"Forgetfulness! That is all my prayer. Do I blame the men who drink? No. Opium-eaters? Not I. I wonder we do not all--all who have the taste of suffering on our lips, and the knowledge of the aimless grotesque end--I wonder we do not buy oblivion at any price. How is it we are cajoled to bear this aching at the heart?"
"What date is this?" said the woman aloud, and read again: "Nice--why, he was with me, and we were happy! Nothing had happened then," she said, forgetting all the pain of the old doubt in the greater pain of the new certainty.
She read on:
"Forgetfulness! Dear saints in heaven! it's not a crown, not the white robe and palm I crave--forgetfulness! A little sweet upon the threshold, and then the dark. By sweet I mean the present love of some one dear; or, more honestly set down, I mean the companionship of the one dear soul on that far quest. Story-makers write at the end, 'And they lived happy ever after.' Give me and my dear one the epitaph, 'And they were dead together forever after.' For those myriads who merely skimmed the surface of thought and feel-
ing--for those who had few fears and fewer heartaches, there may come a Resurrection Morn. The loud trumpet, dear, shall pierce our sleep as well, perhaps, and we will rouse and stir a little in our folded shrouds. I will whisper in your drowsy ear, 'Dear heart, it is the morning. Shall we arise? Shall we take up the round again?' And you will lie closer, with your arms of dust about me, and the dear voice will say in my ear, 'No, no, beloved; it is well with us here in our narrow house.' And I will say, 'Bethink you, this is the day when all men rise and greet their friends.' 'Friend,' you will answer, 'I give you greeting here.' And I, 'The just who rise to-day are given great reward.' But my beloved says, 'You gave me my reward; I have it in my heart of dust.' 'But Life and Light are waiting for you there.' And you will say, 'I know them both; and Death and Darkness are the better part.' Then, as I feel the blessed numbness stealing over this quintessence of the dust, I will rouse me one last moment, remembering how fair and fit for living and for loving my beloved was, and I will say with all the old world-anguish aching anew in every atom of my body's dust, 'Dear, there is much love awaiting you up there--that love you did so hunger for. Rise up. Love calls.' 'Hush, hush! I have found my love,' I seem to hear you saying, low and faint, like one who lingers but a moment on the hither shore of sleep. 'Oh, dear, dear heart, I'll say one word before we sleep. There is no other day of waking. If you stay here now, it is the end. There comes no more a Resurrection Morn.' 'There comes no more a battle or undoing,' I hear you say, so faint, so low, I scarce can part the sound from silence; 'no more retreat, no more defeat, no aching of the brave and hopeless heart.' Then, 'Goodnight,' say I. And you, 'Good-night.'"
"No, no!" cried the living woman. "I'm apter at 'good-morning.' I'm not that woman down beside him in the dark."
"Val!" he was calling in the garden; "Val!" he was calling on the stair.
She had closed the book, and slipped it guiltily into her pocket.
She left her letter on the floor and ran out to meet him, catching up hat and gloves as she hurried through her own room.
"I was just coming to ask you--" he began. "Oh, you've changed your dress!"
"Yes," she said, not meeting his eyes.
"Well, what shall we do?" They went down together to the door. He thought regretfully of Yaffti and the shining bay. "What do you think you'd like?"
"Let us go down--" She nodded towards the boathouses.
"You don't mean down to the beach?"
He studied her a moment.
"The wind off the bay is fresh after the storm," he hesitated. "You are dressed very lightly."
"No, no--quite warm."
"In that blue cobweb, open at the throat?"
"It's the dress you like best," she said, in a low voice.
He saw now there was something more than common careful, something selected, in the simple toilet--her creamy laces, her favorite jewels.
"Very charming; but you can't deny you're not dressed for rough weather."
"Yes, I am; you'll see. But bring my reefer, too."
While he got the jacket she put on her hat and gloves.
Down on the pier she found the wind stronger than she had expected. She shivered a little, although it was warm, and drew the rough reefer together. She saw Ethan throw back his head, and his nostrils expand slightly as he inhaled the strong sea smell.
"Will ye be goin' out?" Sam asked.
"No, not to-day."
"Why not?" asked Val, quickly.
Ethan turned with a sudden light in his face.
"Do you mean you really don't mind?"
"Not--not if you take me."
He looked into her eyes and then across the bay. It was some time before he spoke:
"Sam to the contrary, I'm not sure but what the worst is to come."
She shook her head.
"'The worst' is over."
"Do you see that bank of cloud?"
"It will make a fine sunset," she answered. While Sam was getting the boat ready: "He must stay behind," she said, very low.
Ethan seemed about to give the order, but it stuck in his throat.
"Shall I tell him?" she asked.
Still no answer.
"Sa--" she called.
"We can go alone another day," Ethan interrupted, hurriedly.
She shook her head.
"When that other day comes I may not be able."
"What should prevent you?"
"Something stronger than I--or you." As he looked at her: "I may come to feel too much that sense you said I lacked. Quick, quick! Make him hurry: it's late. It might come to seem too late."
"Late. Do you realize it's not four weeks since the ball? You who wanted to go to China and Persia, and God knows where!"
"Well, I am going--God knows where." She turned away her head.
Sam was waiting to hand her in.
"No, Ethan, you," she whispered. But she looked back when she was in the boat, and smiled at the old sailor.
"You needn't come this time," she said, as he was preparing to follow Ethan. "I can manage the tiller."
Sam's doubtful looks vanished as he observed the lady's air of custom.
"Where shall we go?" said Ethan.
"I think I"ll steer for the sunset," she answered, in the same level voice.
He paused with the sheet in his hand.
"That would bring us--" He looked out across the water, far across it, beyond it, till his cloudy eyes found the cloud-hung entrance to the open sea.
"It will bring us out at the Golden Gate," she said.
Yaffti seemed to draw a long, joyous breath; the white sail bellied in the warm wind.
"Good-bye," Val called back across the water.
Sam Cornish filled his pipe. He watched Yaffti drop down the bay, and sail away into the sunset.
That night the Pacific coast was strewn with wreck. But of the Yaffti no spar was ever found.
End Chapter 36
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