The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 6
IN spite of Ethan's somewhat heathen faith in the power of Yaffti, and the efficacy of rites and spells, he was a true Gano, in that he early developed a deep concern about Christianity. During the stately strolls after supper with his grandmother, he propounded many a question which so taxed that practiced theologian that she was fain to turn the conversation by quoting a question-begging beatitude, or saying loftily the subject was beyond little boys. But if, like Dr. Johnson on the immortality of the soul, she sometimes left the matter in obscurity, she had a Bible quotation ready for every conceivable emergency in life. Her ingenuity in wresting from the stern old Scripture humane and cheerful counsel, fit for the infant mind of a conscience-plagued Gano, discovered how true was her comprehension of his fears, and how much wiser her teaching all unconsciously was than that of the creed she would have died for. Her own spiritual development had never for a moment been arrested. She had travelled farther than she was quite aware, since the days when she had allowed her young children to be tormented by the fears of a fiery hereafter. She soon discovered that the Presbyterian Tallmadges had done their best to plant the Calvinistic evil in the sensitive mind of her grandson, and, without misgiving, she proceeded to root it out.
"I don't see how anybody can feel sure they're going to be saved," the child said, with deep anxiety, one Sunday evening.
"Such thoughts are a temptation of the Evil One. 'O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?'"
"But how do I know I'm not one of those He meant
when He said, 'Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?'"
"Because our Saviour distinctly says it of that generation--centuries ago--of rebellious and unbelieving Jews."
"Oh-h!" He was only half reassured.
She paused on the gravel walk and looked down at him. His little grave face was upturned in the twilight, his great eyes darkened by a world of care, but he looked so very fragile withal, such a tender little baby, that she felt her lips twitching at his anxiety lest he should be the viper of the Lord's denunciation. In another moment her unaccustomed eyes were strangely wet, and she walked on with averted face.
"I can't help wondering often," the child pursued, with evident heaviness of spirit, "how I shall manage to be a profitabubble servant."
"Well, not like to unprofitabubble servant that had to be cast into outer darkness, where there was weeping and gnashing--"
"Nonsense! All that has nothing to do with you! He said, 'Suffer little children to come unto Me.'"
"You think, if I died now, I'd go to heaven?"
"Of course you would. All little children go to heaven."
"All children who aren't too wicked," corrected Ethan, gravely, with misgiving.
"There is no such thing as a wicked child," interrupted his mentor, impatiently; then, catching herself up--"They may be foolish and wayward"--she looked down on him sternly--"and they may have to be severely punished on this earth, but they don't know enough to be wicked, not enough to deserve being shut out of heaven."
"I've heard Grandfather Tallmadge say somebody--I think it was some saint--had seen"--he lowered his voice--"had seen an infant in hell, a span long." He shuddered.
"Nonsense!" retorted Mrs. Gano, angrily. "No saint ever saw anything of the sort--nor no sane creature. It was that John Calvin."
"Oh! And you think perhaps he--"
"He didn't know what he was talking about. He had a black, despairing mind, and is the only human creature who ever had any valid excuse for being a Calvinist."
"I suppose they've not neglected in Boston to tell you there is such a thing as 'the unpardonable sin'?"
The ironic intonation was lost on Ethan.
"Oh no," he said, with the animation of one who recognizes an old friend; "Grandfather Ta--"
"Now, never forget that the only unpardonable sin is to doubt the mercy of God."
"Then you think that when the end of the world comes--"
"I think," she interrupted, with a lyrical swell in her voice as she remembered the prophet's vision--"I know, that 'the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joys upon their head; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and signing shall flee away.' And now we've had enough of that for to-night," she ended, with an abrupt change of voice and style.
Oddly enough, she was not so likely to close the subject in this summary fashion if the evening talk fell upon Ulysses, or Peter the Great, or General Lee. It was sometimes Aunt Valeria who had to remind them of Ethan's bedtime, if the topic had chanced to be the Civil War, or any one of the legion of family stories of Calverts or Ganos and their doings in the South. There was Ephraim Calvert, who had fought for the King in 1774, and when he died had left his curse and his red coat for "a sign" to his rebellious sons, who had fought for independence. There was that cousin Ethan Gano, who had lost his right hand, and yet was such a famous shot and swordsman with his left that no man dared stand up against him. He had made a fortune in the India trade, by chance, as it were, for he never really cared for anything but sword and pistol practice, and would be always talking of feats of arms,
even to parsons and Quakers. "Just as that other boaster, Byron," Mrs. Gano would wind up, "was forever telling how, like Leander, he had swum the Hellespont, and took more credit to himself for being able to snuff out a candle with a pistol-shot at twenty paces than for being able to write Childe Harold. But that was not only because he was a poet," she would add meditatively over Ethan's head: "it was the direct result of inordinate vanity and a club-foot. Just as Ethan Gano would never have been a crack swordsman if he hadn't been one-armed as well as worldly."
Among the minor advantages of life in New Plymouth was that a boy didn't come in for a scolding here if he went without his cap. In common with many children, Ethan hated head-gear of all kinds, and yet fully expected to be scolded, on strict Boston principles, the first time he was discovered hatless out-of-doors. Valeria, wearing a wide shade-hat, had Mrs. Gano, with a green-lined umbrella, came unexpectedly upon him one hot noon-day as he sat reading bareheaded in the scorching sun on the terrace steps.
"How like his father that child is!" said Mrs. Gano, stopping and looking at him as though she saw, not him at all, but another boy.
"Don't you want you hat?" asked Aunt Valeria.
"No," said Ethan, gathering courage. "I--I like the hot sun."
"Isn't that like Shelly?" said Aunt Valeria in the same way that Mrs. Gano had remarked on the likeness to Ethan's father. "If his curly hair wasn't cropped so close, his little round head would be exactly like--"
"What are you reading?" interrupted his grandmother.
"I'm studying," answered Ethan, self-righteously, and he held up his French grammar.
"Don't you do enough of that in school?" said Mrs. Gano, with what seemed strange lack of appreciation in a grandmother.
"They expect me to do some work in the holidays."
"Oh, they do, do they?"
She turned away indifferently, as if to continue her walk, glancing sharply down in that familiar way of hers at the clover fringing the path.
"Do you think I needn't study?" The child had jumped up and joined them as they walked round the house. "You see, I hate doing it most awfully."
"Yes, really, especially être and avoir; but grandfather says--"
"I notice you use that word 'awfully' a great deal. Do you know what it means?"
Ethan preserved an embarrassed silence.
"Awful means that which inspires awe. Now, your feeling about French grammar does not inspire awe. French is all very well, but it's a good thing sometimes to consider your English. You couldn't have a better task than that in the holidays."
"Shall I carry your coat?" said the child, willing to change the topic, and laying his hand on the thin wrap she had on her arm.
"This," said his grandmother, with the Tallmadge insistence on French still rankling, apparently--"this is not a 'cut,' as you call it; and that person approaching is not walking in the 'rud.' You are losing some of your twang, but thy speech still bewrayeth thee. Perhaps learning to talk like a Gano, since you are one, would be a fitting task for the holidays here. Say 'co-o-at.'" He repeated the word in a shamefaced way. "Now 'road.' Yes, that's right." She drew back suddenly and faced about. "Some one's coming in!" she whispered, hurriedly, as who should say "An enemy is at the gate."
She stalked behind the house with Ethan at her side, while Aunt Valeria went forward and greeted the visitor.
"Why, it's the same gentleman who has been here twice before," Ethan observed, looking back.
"Are you sure?" said Mrs. Gano, stopping short. "Was that Tom Rockingham again?"
"I don't know his name," answered Ethan, wondering what awful sin Tom Rockingham could have committed.
"Little, insignificant-looking man?" demanded his grandmother.
" He wasn't very big," admitted the child. "It's the one that walked home from church, as far as the corner, with Aunt Valeria and me last Sunday."
"Upon my word!" she ejaculated. "Has Tom Rockingham begun that?"
"I didn't hear his name."
" A man"--she made a gesture of contempt--"very careless about his linen?"
"I didn't notice."
"--without gloves? Hands rather grimy--"
"Aunt Valeria said he was a great scholar."
"A great fiddlestick! Of course it's Tom Rockingham."
This was evidently a most exciting character, and in any case it was pleasant to have a visitor who didn't merely leave cards and go away, as all the others did.
"Aren't we going in to see him?"
"No, certainly not, unless he stays too long."
She threw back her head in that way of hers. They walked up and down the back veranda in silence, Ethan as well aware as if she had poured forth torrents that his grandmother's ire was growing with every moment. Presently she dropped his hand, and going to the door, she called, in an unmistakable tone:
"Yes, mother, in a moment," came from the direction of the parlor.
Mrs. Gano waited for some seconds with sparkling eyes, then:
"Valeria, I have called you!"
Ethan was hot and cold with excitement.
"Run away and play," said his grandmother, her gleaming eyes falling on a sudden upon the child. She turned sharply and went in-doors, leaving Ethan to wonder which she was going to kill--Tom Rockingham or Aunt Valeria.
He stood quite still, waiting for developments. At last, unable to bear the combined suspense and solitude any longer, he pulled the Duchess out from the cool shade under the veranda, and sat down with her on the step.
Presently Aunt Valeria came out of the parlor and went up-stairs. He didn't see her face.
With a vague, frightened feeling, he got up with the Duchess in his arms and walked away.
Mr. Rockingham never came again, and the only reference ever made to him was weeks afterwards, when the summer was waning, and he passed by the house one evening without a word, without a pause, taking off his hat to the ladies who sat in the dusk on the front porch.
"Who is that?" Mrs. Gano asked her daughter.
"Humph!" remarked Mrs. Gano.
Aunt Valeria said nothing.
Ethan laid his cheek against her slim, white hand. But she didn't seem to him to know or to care for a little boy's sympathy. It was natural, he thought, that he should care so much more for these relations than they did for him. The holidays were ended--So Grandfather Tallmadge had written--and a French boy, a kind of cousin, had come to live at Ashburton Place and go to school with Ethan. "So now he would have a playmate," Aunt Hannah had added, as a postscript. Ethan didn't want a playmate, and he was horribly shy of a boy who knew French by a superior instinct. But to-morrow he was to go back to Boston. No help for it.
Many letters on this subject had been written; it was all no use. He had to go, and his grandmother's eyes were angry when the subject was mentioned, and his own heart heavy and sore in his breast. Aunt Valeria had never said anything, but she was even kinder to him after the decision, especially at dusk, when one felt dreary. Mrs. Gano would seldom allow even the hall lamp to be lighted in the summer evenings, probably from motives of economy; but this reason was never given for any mandate ex-
cept under great pressure. The ostensible end served by sitting in the dusk and groping one's way up-stairs, or being beholden to the moon for acting as the domestic candle, was that if darkness reigned mosquitoes and miller-moths were not attracted into the house; neither were those great winged things with horns, that one never saw in Boston, which fact would have compensated Ethan for endurance of the dark if anything could. In the moments preceding bedtime, the firefly had been a distinct consolation. That very morning he had hid Aunt Valeria's empty cut-glass camphor-bottle under the syringa-bush, and now was the time to try the experiment of bottling a few fireflies and seeing how they lightened their captivity. He sallied forth into the scented dusk, whistling softly. His plan worked wondrous well. With each new victim his spirits mounted higher, he thinking--poor deluded soul!--that he should never again feel downhearted in the dusk. He had caught and imprisoned over a dozen of these winged lamps, when Aunt Valeria came through the bushes, calling softly:
"Yes; here I am."
He concealed her camphor-bottle as well as he could under his jacket, but the bottle was big and the jacket was small.
"Bedtime," called the voice.
"Just a few more fire--I mean minutes."
"No; your grandmother says it is past the time."
"Oh, dear! then I s'pose it is." He came out of his covert, and on a sudden impulse added, hurriedly: "Aunt Valeria, do you care about your camphor-bottle?"
"Care about it?"
"Yes; do you mind if there's fireflies in it instead of camphor?"
He held it up, and the captives lit their pale lamps and fluttered despairingly.
"Oh, my dear! they'll die."
"No; they like it. It's such a beautiful bottle."
"But you've got the glass stopper in; they can't breathe."
In spite of his entreating, she took out the stopper, and put the end of her lace scarf over the opening.
"You won't take it away from me?"
"No, no," she said, gently leading him back to the front porch, repeating as she went:
"'The shooting stars attend thee,
And the elves also,
Whose little eyes glow
Like the sparks of fire, befriend thee.'"
"It isn't their little eyes that glow; it's their little tails," said Ethan, with his nose flatten against the camphor-bottle.
When they got near the porch, the prudent young gentleman took off his coat, and wrapped the bottle from the too inquiring gaze of his grandmother. Aunt Valeria was in a kind of dream, and didn't seem to notice.
"What a perfect evening!" she half whispered, looking up through the trees.
"Good-night," said Ethan to his grandmother, trying to get through the ceremony and hold his coat round the bottle on Aunt Valeria's arm at the same time.
"Forty-eight years to-day," she went on to her mother, "since Shelley's body was burned on the sands at Viareggio."
"Ah, yes," returned the other, speaking very gently. "Good-night, child."
"What! Is he dead?" said Ethan, feeling a double shock.
"Yes, dear; he's dead."
And he and Aunt Valeria went up-stairs in the dark.
"You never told me," said the child, when they had passed Yaffti in safety. "I s'pose Byron's all right," he added, remembering allusions to that person's physical prowess.
"Byron's dead, too," said Aunt Valeria, sadly, "and Keats--poor Keats!"
They had been referred to as if they lived in the next street. If it had been Shelley who had come to make them a visit, it would have seemed as natural--more natural than the apparition of Tom Rockingham or the objectionable Uncle Elijah.
"I'll get a piece of net to put over the bottle while you undress." said Aunt Valeria.
When she came back Ethan was in bed.
"What relation was Shelley to me?" he asked, welcoming the camphor-bottle to his arms.
These things were obscure. The Tallmadges, for instance, weren't related to Grandmamma Gano, so she had said with emphasis.
"Then what relation was Shelley to you?"
"No relation at all, dear. He was an English poet."
"You mean he wasn't even born in America?"
Ethan sat up straight in his bed.
"He was born far away in England," said Aunt Valeria, dreamily.
"An 'dead an' burnt?"
"And never was no relation to any of us?"
He lay back on his pillow, conscious of a new loneliness--of being bereft of something he had counted his. Yes; it was just as if some one belonging to him had died.
After Aunt Valeria had told him why they had burned Shelley's body, and even after she had repeated all his favorite poems, a sense of loss remained.
She thought he was asleep when she kissed him good-night. But he stirred and gave a little sigh.
"Well, I'm glad I've got my fireflies, anyhow," he murmured.
His leave-taking next morning was extremely harrowing to his own feelings, however austerely the rest took it. He wept freely after breakfast down under the barberry-bush, but he promised himself he would get it all done down there in the blessed privacy of the wilderness, and not cry another tear after he got back to the house. He had made a tour the moment he was dressed, saying good-bye to everything. Now there was nothing left but An' Jerusha and the family. Uncle Elijah might come any minute. He dried his eyes, and crept back through the rank undergrowth to the terrace, went heavily up the two flights of stone steps, saying good-bye again to the flag lilies and the crooked catalpa and the tulip-tree, and so on sedately round the house to the kitchen. On his appearance, An' Jerusha rushed towards him with wide-spread, motherly arms, but observing his involuntary recoil, she stood still, looking at him with unlessened affection.
"Good-bye, An' Jerusha," he said, holding her hand tight in both his own.
"Good-bye, honey. Be suah you come agin soon."
"Yes, I mean to; and thank you for all the songs and the cinnamon rolls."
"Law, honey! jes' listen to de chile."
She turned away to Venie with an attempt at a chuckle, but the tears had started down her cheeks.
Ethan shook hands with the smiling Venus.
"Maw and me done put yo' in a Johnny-cake," she said, an outsider might have thought enigmatically.
"Thank you," said Ethan, tremulously--"Thank you both, awfully."
"Dat's de do' - bell, an' Massa Efan's knocker," said Aunt Jerusha, sniffing violently. "You go, Venus; I ain't 'spectabel."
"Oh, it's my uncle," said Ethan, rather relieved at the interruption; and he hurried after Venus, feeling, however, deeply dissatisfied with his leave-taking of An' Jerusha.
She had been so awfully kind--it was useless to pretend there was any other way of putting it--and she had cared so much for his father. Ought he to have kissed her? It was plain she had expected it. It was all very uncomfortable and heart-achy.
Now he was in the hall, and Uncle Elijah was there, and so was grandmamma, being very stiff to poor Uncle Elijah. Aunt Valeria came down-stairs, and the good-byes were said. Uncle Elijah's hack was at the door, and Ethan's trunk was being carried out.
Suddenly, at the very last, "Come here a moment," said his grandmother, retreating into her own long room.
Ethan followed, quaking. Had he been doing soemthing wrong? And yet she had just kissed him good-bye so kindly. As she turned and faced him, he saw her eyes were full of tears. He could hardly believe his senses, but he began to cry, too.
"I do wish I was going to stay with you," he said, breaking down and forgetting his fears.
"You will come back to me," she said; and she put her arms round him, and held him close to her for a moment, while he cried silently against her white veil, thinking the while she wouldn't like it when she discovered it was wet.
"Don't you think," he faltered, as she released him--"couldn't this be my home?"
"Of course, it is your home. Isn't your name on the front door?"
"Oh yes," he said, smiling through his tears; "I forgot that," and the remembrance seemed to give him confidence in the future.
Mrs. Gano was looking hastily about for some excuse for bringing him into the room.
"Here is a book that belongs to your great-grandfather, called Plutarch's Lives. You will read it when you are older, and remember it was my parting present after your first visit."
"Oh, thank you," he said, brushing his sleeve across his eyes; and they went out, and Ethan got into the carriage.
"Oh, dear me, my fireflies!" he shouted, suddenly, as the driver was closing the door. "I shall need them so awfully--I mean so pertickly--in Boston"; and he scrambled out and rushed up to his bedroom.
"What does the child mean?" asked Mrs. Gano.
"It's all right," said Aunt Valeria; "something I gave him. I'll tell you afterwards."
Ethan came tumbling down-stairs in the buff middle of the carpet--anywhere, indifferent for once to Yaffti and his possible revenge.
"Good-bye," he called back from the carriage-window. "Thank you, ma'am, for Plutarch."
"Keep him covered," was Mrs. Gano's unemotional rejoinder as they drove away.
Ethan sank back breathless, clutching the camphor-bottle under his coat.
"Tired?" asked Uncle Elijah, looking at the flushed little face. Ethan nodded "Yes, sir."
"You needn't have hurried so; there's oceans of time. But I thought we could wait just as well at the station."
They were not going the way Ethan had been driven that day of his arrival, so long, long ago, at the beginning of the summer. He learned forward excitedly.
"Why, he's taking us round by the Wilderness!"
"The what?" Uncle Elijah looked out. "Moses! they do let things run wild here."
Ethan's quick eye had sought out the spot where, hidden in that tangle, was a little clearing and a "heavenly secret-house," with a barberry-bush for a roof. But no hint of such a matter to the profane passer-by!
What was that? His heart gave a great jump. Why, it was An' Jerusha on the lower terrace watching to see them go by! She stood there alone, and now she was putting her apron up to her eyes. Nobody else was looking after the carriage from this side. It was plain, for all his grandmother's momentary melting, it was An' Jerusha who had felt the parting most, and he had refused to kiss her!
"Uncle Elijah," said the child, hurriedly, "do you mind, if we've got such a lot of time, I'd like to get a barberry leaf for my fire-flies. Please stop!" he called out of the window to the coachman.
And while Uncle Elijah was saying, "What--what?--barberry leaves, fire-flies? What nonsense is this you've been learning?" Ethan had jumped out of the slowing vehicle, made a frantic sign to An' Jerusha, run up to the fence, pushed aside a loose picket of his acquaintance, and dashed into the wilderness. There was nothing for Uncle Elijah to do but to wait. The child had vanished without a trace; by the time Mr. Tallmadge had adjusted his spectacles on his nose he couldn't even find the place where his nephew had disappeared. The eminent Bostonian sat fuming while Ethan was feverishly making his way to An' Jerusha.
"Come down!" he called, when he got near the bottom of the terrace: "Come towards the barberry-bush, An' Jerusha--quick, quick!"
Her eyes rolling wildly with amazement and concern, Jerusha penetrated a few paces into the jungle.
"Wha is yo', honey? Wot's de matter? Air yo' hurt, my honey? Jes' wait; An' Jerusha's comin'."
"Oh, here I am," gasped the child, and he precipitated himself into her arms. " I forgot to kiss you good-bye, An' Jerusha, and I had to come back."
He shut his eyes and held his breath while she kissed him, muttering prayers and blessings.
"Good-bye, An' Jerusha," he said. " I sha'n't ever forget you;" and he tore his way back through the rank grasses, the mulleins and sunflowers, catching his feet in the briers, and saying to himself: "Oh, I'm quite sure my father never, never did. But for me it's different; I'm glad I went back."
He stripped a handful of leaves and coral berries off the barberry-bush as he passed, pushed back the loose picket, and reappeared all over burrs and pollen before Uncle Elijahs' astonished and unapproving eyes.
"I've got plenty of leaves for my fire-flies," was his greeting, as he clambered into the hack, "but I must get some water for them at the station. How many years should you say a fire-fly would live, Uncle Elijah, with plenty to eat and drink?"
End Chapter 6
Available since September 1998