The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 2

page 11


At the close of the war the Ganos were ruined. The rambling, verandaed house was sold for a song to the Gano-Lees, and the question was, where could John with his delicate health, his interrupted and insufficient schooling, make a livelihood? Where could Mrs. Gano live most inexpensively, and with least annoyance to sensibilities so outraged by the issue of the war? Certainly not in Virginia--not anywhere in the despoiled, prostrate South. Certainly not in the hated North. But the West--

Far off in the wilds of one of the Middle States, Mrs. Gano's father, William Calvert, had once held property, and in her early youth she had been taken from Baltimore in a stage-coach over the Alleghany Mountains to visit him during one of his long absences from home on business in connection with these Western lands. He had bought a queer, grim house in a little town on a river among the Mioto Hills, and made himself there a temporary home or headquarters for these yearly Western pilgrimages. The State where he had his interests was the first one carved out of the great Northwestern Territory, and though later on a much farther West robbed this mid-America of its early century associations of adventure and of danger, it was far remoter from the Atlantic seaboard then than the Pacific is to-day.

The house that Mrs. Gano inherited from her father had been built in times of Indian warfare for a fortress and ammunition centre. With the retreat of the Indians to the Western Reservation, the settlement's need of a fort was less than the need of a school. The solid and spacious rectangular building of stone on the height above the river

page 12

was turned into an academy for boys. A rival school sapped its prosperity in time; it declined into bankruptcy, and came upon the market. William Calvert bought it, made it into a dwelling-house, ultimately adding a wooden L, and establishing his partner's family there. This house in the small but growing town of New Plymouth was all that was left to his eldest daughter when his shrunken estate was divided at his death. Through former acquaintances of William Calvert, the position of teller in the principal bank of the town was obtained for John Gano; and hither at the close of the war came Mrs. Gano with her son of twenty and her daughter, Valeria, nineteen.

New Plymouth was not looked upon by its inhabitants as at all beyond the pale of a most advanced civilization. founded by stout New-Englanders, it was one of the oldest settlements in this part of the world. It had its churches, its court-house, its excellent academy for boys and its unparalleled seminary for young ladies, when the present capital of the State was a wild unpeopled plain, crossed by winding cow-paths.

Mrs. Gano soon discovered that her own view of her exile among a ruder people, and to a narrower and more primitive life, was not likely to be shared by her neighbors, proud of their New England origin, and secure in their honest, self-esteem. This difference of view was a matter quite unimportant to the new-comer, except that it made it easier to carry out her plan of refraining from any share in the active life of the bustling little community.

"I am an invalid," she gave out; "I neither pay nor receive visits."

She did not even go often to church. The Rev. Mr. Collins was "a person of no education," she decided, "and spoke with a vile Western accent." But she rented a pew, and with rigid regularity sent the children to sit in it. Her children! As she called them, so she treated them--John, six feet two, doing a man's work in the world, with a man's spirit, and the tall, grave Valeria.

The girl was an enigmatic creature, silent, self-absorbed,

page 13

shrinking from the give-and-take of social life. It was not the cross to her that it was to her more genial brother that their mother's craving for solitude, and not too Christian contempt for her well-meaning neighbors, precluded asking people to the house. But the young man, after the young man's fashion, escaped to some extent the tyranny of home conditions. He had come forth from his juvenile predilection for pious observances. He had developed a passion for natural science, and yet was content to work hard all day in the bank, and to spend his free evenings in a rapidly acquired circle of new friends. In summer there were moonlight drives and walks; there was boating on the Mioto, and singing songs and discreet love-making on the "stoops" of the houses of the prettiest girls. In the mild weather, too, sometimes combining a picnic with the pursuit of knowledge, he would make up a party to go to Black Hand or Cedar Rock, where the hills were rich in fossils, and sometimes he would go farther afield to find specimens in the coal seams of the region. In winter there were church sociables, "taffy-pulls," sleigh-rides, and skating-parties. he was, in short, living an active and healthy life under conditions not intrinsically inspiring, perhaps, except to the inner vision or ardent youth.

His mother offered no objection to his amusing himself in New Plymouth's somewhat crude society, but took quick alarm at a piece of chance gossip repeated by the privileged factotum Aunt Jerusha.

"Massa John done got a reel truly-truly sweetheart dis time. He'll be marryin' her berry soon, by all 'counts."

It came out that the lady in question was Miss Hattie Fox. Who was Miss Hattie Fox? Valeria had seen her at church. She was very pretty, and her father was senior warden at St. Thomas's on sundays, and attorney-at-law at 114 Main Street on week-days. To Mrs. Gano's evident annoyance, nothing obviously objectionable could be urged against the girl. The next Sunday, Mrs. Gano went to church. Coming out, the impulsive John went forward, and had a precious whispered word with the lady in ques-

page 14

tion. As the young people reached the bottom of the church steps, his mother touched him on the shoulder.

"Introduce Miss Fox to me," she said.

John performed the ceremony with the air of one who lights a powder-train, and against all canons of prudence stands waiting to see the explosion. But, behold! his mother was most gracious.

"Your family have been very hospitable to my son," she said. "I am an invalid, and do not entertain, but if you will come to supper some evening, my daughter and I will be glad to see you. Could you come to-night?

"Oh yes; do come," urged the smiling and unwary John.

She came. She was certainly a beautiful and amiable creature, but nevertheless John found himself fighting valiantly against the sudden temptation to judge her by a brand-new standard. His mother's soft Southern voice made Hattie's Western burr sound curiously common, and the manners he had thought delightfully vivacious seemed boisterous on a sudden. As he listened through his mother's ears, it dawned upon him for the first time that the girl laughed too loudly and too constantly. He set his acute discomfort down to his humiliating lack of discernment in the past, and too easy conquest by mere good looks. He did not realize that Hattie's gaucheries were intensified by her nervous awe of Mrs. Gano. She had never know any one in the least like her hostess, and so far from failing in respect, she was so deeply impressed that in her wonder and veneration she was driven to adopt the juvenile device for the working off of oppressive emotion--pretending to be extravagantly at her case.

One of two things in that evening of disillusionment stood out with painful distinctness in John Gano's memory for years. Naturally, Hattie answered "Yes" and "No" to John's mother not as Southern youths said to their elders: "Yes, ma'am," and "No, ma'am," or "Sir." But she also sat down to the piano without being invited, and sang a song which it was plain Mrs. Gano thought unre-

page 15

fined. Even John realized now that it wasn't quite the song he had imagined.

At supper, when Mrs. Gano's covert but unsparing inspection of the girl announced to her children, plain as words, that their visitor was overloaded with jewelry, John thought to mitigate the enormity of the huge frying-pan locket Hattie wore on her innocent breast by observing:

"Haven't I heard your sister say you have a daguerrotype of your father in the locket you're wearing?"

"Right you are!" she said. "I never go without it." Then to Mrs. Gano: " My! I'm awful fawnd of my paw. P'raps you'd like to see him."

Miss Fox obligingly unfastened the frying-pan, and shied it, quoit-like down the table to her hostess.

There was a pause, a hideous silence.

"Pass me the crackers, Venus," Mrs. Gano said, presently, to Aunt Jerusha's daughter. As she took the plate she, without touching it, indicated the big bold locket. "Take that to Miss Fox," she said.

And while the maid was conveying the visitor's property back to her in the middle of the large tray, Mrs. Gano had turned to Valeria and was speaking of the morning's sermon.

Poor Miss Hattie put the finishing touch to her visit by departing without taking leave of her hostess.

"Won't you come to the parlor a moment and say goodbye to my mother?" said John, when Valeria brought their guest down-stairs into the hall, hatted and gloved, and ready to go home.

"Gracious Peter! say good-bye?" The guest drew back in genuine alarm. "You may just bet I won't say 'beans' before her from now till Gabriel blows his trumpet in the morning. Did you hear the last thing she said to me? My!"

"No; I was playing 'Dixie Land.'"

"Yes; and all through it she kept looking at the clock, and when you got to the loud part she leaned over and

page 16

asked me whether I expected my father or a servant to come for me? My gracious!"

"Oh, but I--I--" stammered John.

"You-- you? Not a bit of it. She said Jerusha should see me to my door. The old hag's out at the gate now waiting for me. Oh my!

And Miss Fox fled the premises.

No word ever passed between mother and son about the young lady. It was wholly unnecessary to discuss her. John had been made to see, in a ruthless light, the unseemliness of asking this raw little Westerner to be his mother's successor in the house of Gano, even in these degenerate days.

John's disappointment had no tragic issue, yet, in spite of the consolation of other friends, in spite of the joys of experimental science in the freedom of the woodshed, he was grievously unhappy for a time, especially on Saturday evenings, which he had been used to spend at the Foxes'. Partly in order to have an excuse for breaking through that custom, and partly for a belated doctrinal reason, he occupied his Saturday evenings in taking Hebrew lessons form the Principal of the Boys' Academy. Young Gano had the inquirer's temper, and if he had not had his bread to win, he would probably have been a traveller along many of the roads of learning.

And Valeria--she had not been as successful as her brother in shaking off the paralyzing fears and lulling hopes of the old religious view. But a new passion had found its way into her secluded life, altering, shaping, imperiously governing it. It was no sudden love for the hero of a girlish dream, no dedication of dawning woman-life to the worship of some man, made saint or savior by imagination's magic, no fairy prince's coming, no Romeo calling under her balcony in the night, that wakened this grave-eyed dreamer of dreams to a thrilling sense of life and service. It was that most blessed or accursed summons to rise and join the ranks of those who follow Art. Here in the Western wilds, among conditions grotesquely impro-

page 17

pitious, barren beyond the telling, sordid, if you like, this keen young vision, searching the horizon of a pent-up life, had seen the signal from afar, shining and beckoning her on.

Valeria at nineteen was lamely, impotently following that Will-o'-the-wisp which, under fairest conditions, may "lead to bewilder and dazzle to blind," and of which you shall say in vain, "He lights you to the swamps of death." The happy followers know the swamps of death are waiting all, but many there be who travel thither without the kind-deceiving light.

Valeria, in common with some other members of her family, had written little verses, chiefly religious; but that was nothing. It had been said long ago in Maryland that the Ganos were born with a pen in their hands. Like the others, she had given some of her time to music, when her mother was out of ear-shot. She had a smattering of French, a modicum of German, and a few lessons in painting. In the home in New Plymouth there were specimens here and there bout the house of work done before she left Maryland: a Melanchthon with a coppery face and a glimpse of hair-shirt, two copies of the portrait of Raphael done by himself, a "Beatrice Cenci," and a "Holy Family." But from the days of inarticulate childhood, with no more than a handful of her native soil and a watering-pot, or a precious lump of putty from the plantation carpenter, she had tasted the tyrannous joy of the creator, fashioning beasts and men.

And now, grown up, exiled to the West, living in poverty, and isolated from all art save that in books, she said to herself that she had been sent into the world to model beautiful forms, and express her restless spirit in enduring marble.

In vain she prayed to be allowed to go away and study--not to Paris, not to Rome: only to New York. She had a small legacy left her by an aunt. The interest was so little, why not spend the capital in studying sculpture? Her mother, amazed at the proposal, left Valeria no moment in doubt of her determination to crush it.

page 18

Valeria's Aunt Paget was with them on a visit when the matter was under discussion. Mrs. Paget was seldom admitted to family counsels, and felt herself something of a stranger in her sister's house. She was the worldly, the frivolous member of her family, who "dressed in the mode" and "cultivated society." She was surprised when on this occasion the topic proved too much of the "burning' order to be smuggle out of sight.

"Study sculpture! Such a thing is unheard of!" ejaculated Mrs. Padget, making wide blue eyes at her elder sister and her niece.

"So I tell Valeria," said Mrs. Gano. "She couldn't go to New York alone, she couldn't live there without a chaperon."

"And even if she could afford it, you need her here. You are always ill nowadays."

"It isn't that," said Mrs. Gano. "I'm thinking of Valeria herself."

"Of course; so am I. She ought to marry."

"I shall never marry!"

Aunt Paget smiled.

"Well, at all events, it won't help you to be chiselling marble."

"Help me to what?"

"To a suitable marriage, of course."

Valeria's dark eyes flashed, but before she could speak her mother said:

"I am not one of those women who are anxious for their children to marry. I shall be more than content if Valeria remains single."

"Well, Sarah, forgive me, but I think it's a mistake. I said so before we left Maryland, when she refused young Middleton. Every one of us was married before we were Valeria's age, and none of us ever dreamed of wanting to go away from our home and study sculpture, or do anything in the least unladylike.

Valeria gathered up her sewing as if to leave the room.

"You must admit," Aunt Paget went on, "there's

page 19

something unfeminine about sculpture. I'm not sure it isn't even a little irreligious."

"You don't know anything about it, Maria. You never had the least taste yourself for anything but dress and going out."

"Well, you see, that's what makes it so surprising," said the younger sister, in an apologetic tone. "You have always thought me so frivolous, and yet I wouldn't think--no, not in my wildest moments--of being a sculptor."

As Valeria left the room, Mrs. Gano looked with pride after the tall, willowy figure.

"You must remember," she said, speaking unusually gently, "the Ganos are more artistic than we Calverts. Valeria has great talents.

But having talent altered little. Valeria beat her wings against the walls of the old Indian fortress all in vain. But she studied books, she got clay for modelling, and tools, and in secret wrought rude images that mocked her dreams. By-and-by she flung the tools aside, and the plastic clay that she had meant to fashion into forms of beauty hardened uncouthly into an unmeaning mass. An interim of aimlessness and despair of life was followed by a gradual healing of the spirit and restored activity of mind, through nothing more nor less than the power of poetry. Saturated with Keats and Shelley, she took up again her old childish habit of verse-making, but very seriously now, thinking of herself as a poet. Some hint of the way she passed her time, some whisper, through servants or others, of the reams of paper she engrossed with verse, got abroad in the town. She was asked to contribute to the Mioto Gazette, and was stopped on her way from church, by people she scarcely knew, to hear that her fellow-townsmen were full of curiosity and pride at having a poet among them. She was embarrassed, but not altogether displeased. Not so Mrs. Gano, whose favorite remark about the good people of New Plymouth was that they didn't know a B from a bull's foot. Of course they were impressed that any one in this benighted place should write a verse!

page 20

"Just tell them the next time they bother you that the Ganos do it by the yard."

It was very difficult to impress this mother of hers, who took so much for granted.

"I think," said Valeria, with dignity, laying down a volume of Aurora Leigh--"I think I shall seriously devote myself to literature."

"Ah! then in that case be careful you don't adopt New Plymouth standards."

"I am not likely to."

"I don't know. Nothing is more difficult than to avoid measuring yourself by the people you live among. John is an ignoramus compared to his father, but he tells me he is considered here a highly educated person."

"I think, mother," the girl said, gravely, "that you'll protect me from having too good an opinion of my work."

But the conversation had set her thoughts in a new groove. There was truth in this. She must guard against an ignorant satisfaction in her poems. She must have better standards of style; she must know what the masters taught and practised. She must learn to be more critical than even her critical mother. "The great teachers of the world shall be my teachers," she said to herself, and there sprang up within her a new and fiery curiosity about the classics.

She asked her mother to let the Roman Catholic priest teach her Latin, and the request was granted with but slight demur, as an alternative to the pursuit of art away from home. Quietly and doggedly Valeria went on with her studies, teaching herself Greek, and lying long mornings on the floor in the Blue Room, getting by heart the wit and wisdom of men to whom the existence of a creature like Valeria Gano, in such a world as America, would have been harder to grasp than she, unaided, had found the niceties of the historical tense, or tolerance for her masters' morals.

While the girl up-stairs was patiently learning letters of the pagans, in the room below the mother conned Church

page 21

History and Biblical Criticism, searching the Creeds and her own unquiet heart for justification and for peace. And all the while about these two absorbed, self-centred women surged the turbulent life of the little town. Gossip was busy with Mrs. Gano from the first, albeit her face was unknown to most of her towns-people--to nearly all who had not seen her in her rare pilgrimages to St. Thomas's. They speculated, too, about the young girl who dressed so severely, and whom one couldn't fancy at a party or a picnic--who, though an irreproachable Episcopalian, learned Latin from Father O'Brien, wrote verses about heathen gods and goddesses, if report spoke true, and yet sat in church on Sunday with the rapt look of a medieval saint.

It was universally agreed by the neighbors that John Gano was the flower of the flock. He, at least, was an addition to New Plymouth society, being a very rising as well as agreeable person.

There was more than one sore young heart in the town when, in the following year, John Gano came back from a visit to his childhood's home in the South, engaged to marry his cousin Virginia Gano-Lee, just sixteen at the time. His mother, who had never ceased to fear that, despite her vigilance, he might be beguiled into marrying some one of these "ill-mannered Western girls," hailed the idea of further alliance with the Gano-Lees. However, much too big as her house was for her own use, she did not welcome John's natural propposal to bring his wife there to live.

"No; wait till you can make a home of your own," his mother had said.

So it behoved the young man to better his worldly position as speedily as possible. An opening in a bank in New York, with a little larger salary, and prospect of a partnership, took him away from New Plymouth the following year, and left his mother and sister alone in the old house.

End Chapter 2
Next Chapter

Available since September 1998