The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 7
ETHAN was not allowed to repeat his visit, and life went on for several years without incident at the old Fort. Yet, since "it is in the soul that things happen," these were stirring times. One shrinks from inquiring too closely into what the years held for the two eager-hearted women shut up there with those perilous companions, thwarted hope, stunted ambition, and pent-up energy. Well had it been for Valeria had she not possessed that small, cramped competency. If the girl had had to earn her living, she might have found peace, if not great gladness, in wholesome grappling with the material things of life. But in saying so one forgets that all this was thirty years ago, when a penniless Southern woman who had a brother, or even some distant relation, to support her, no more dreamed of getting her own bread than she does to-day of going before the mast.
Meantime, with John Gano things for a while went better. At the end of four years of uninterrupted toil, such years of all work and no play as only an American will put up with, he was able to offer his cousin the kind of home he had set his heart on. They were married in the South, and after a brief visit to Mrs. Gano, John took his bride to New York. Ten months' happiness, followed by the birth of a daughter, whom they named Valeria, and called Val; then protracted ill-health and a yearly baby for the young mother, money troubles and killing work for John Gano.
The distance between New York and New Plymouth was too great to admit of much visiting back and forth on trivial grounds for people of limited means. But young Mrs. Gano was not expected to live after the birth of her fourth
child, and her "aunt-mother-in-law" was sent for. The elder Mrs. Gano stayed till the danger was past, and, as she wrote home to her daughter, "to relieve Virginia a little of the pressure of existence," she had made up her mind to bring back Emmeline with her to the Fort. Emmeline was the younger of the two little girls, and that was the reason given for her having been chosen instead of Val, since, with a new baby in the house, a child of fourteen months was more of a charge on its mother's mind even than an enterprising young person of four. But it was presently revealed that Emmeline was by far the more attractive child, gentle, charming, and very beautiful to look upon; rather like her cousin Ethan, whose loss was still mourned silently at the old Fort. There was no further visiting between the two houses until the following winter, when Valeria's health broke down. Mrs. Gano would not hear it said that her daughter was dying of consumption.
"I've had a cough myself for half a century. Consumption? Nonsense! Valeria had undermined her constitution by too much study and a too sedentary life. What was to be expected when one remembered the hours she kept! But there! no Gano could ever do anything with moderation."
However, the jealous mother was alarmed at last, and admitted that what Valeria needed was a change.
"No," said the old-young woman; " I have reached the end."
A journey to the Adirondacks was proposed. Valeria refused to fall in with the plan.
"You wouldn't let me go away when it would have been some use," she said; "leave me in peace now."
A horrible fear clutched at the resolute heart of the mother as she took fresh and sudden note of the wasted frame, the languid, long, transparent hands, the far-away vision of the eyes.
"No, I wouldn't let you go alone and unprotected. But now that John and his wife are settled in New York it's a different story altogether. You can stay with them, and--
and study sculpture for a while," she added, with a visible effort.
Valeria shook her head. But there was a new light in the hollow eyes. Little by little she was seen to be in reality feverishly bent on availing herself of her mother's late concession. Mrs. Gano was as good as her word. She put no further obstacle in the way, and, though it was the depth of winter, took the long journey with her daughter, arriving at her son's house much exhausted, to find Mrs. John ill in bed, a mutiny among the servants, and a scene of inexpressible confusion and disorder, in the midst of which stood Val, turbulent and triumphant. Nor did she budge upon the usually subduing apparition of Mrs. Gano. Dirty and neglected, an impudent little face with bold gray eyes looking out from a wild swirl of tawny hair, there she stood in the middle of the untidy dining-room, aided and abetted in some unspeakable enormity by the mere presence of her faithful ally, a huge St. Bernard dog.
"My patience!" exclaimed Mrs. Gano, surveying the scene.
"Why, it's my dear little namesake, " said Aunt Valeria, with a kind of gentle incredulity, as she moved forward.
Her dear little namesake retreated, dragging the great dog back with her by the collar.
" That my granddaughter!"
Mrs. Gano spoke with mixed emotion, and hurriedly put on her spectacles.
"My darling," said Aunt Valeria, watching the dog with the tail of her eye, "come and kiss me."
The child stared solemnly without moving a muscle.
"Come, my dear, and speak to your grandmother."
Mrs. Gano advanced with majesty till she was arrested by a low growl from the St. Bernard.
"Don't be afraid of us," urged Aunt Valeria, somewhat superfluously. "I've brought you a pretty toy in my trunk. Come, darling."
The child kept a suspicious eye on the ingratiating stranger.
"She has very pretty hair," pursued Aunt Valeria, amiably.
"She hasn't pretty manners," retorted Mrs. Gano.
"Oh, she's shy. Don't be afraid of us"--she ventured a step nearer. "Come here, my sweet little one."
Never taking her eyes off her gentle aunt, the sweet little one said, with a charming childish lisp:
"Ef yer don't be thtil, I'll thick my dawg on yer."
The two ladies fell back appalled.
"Turn that great animal out of doors," said Mrs. Gano, in awful tones, to the cook. But Katie O'Flynn shrank visibly from availing herself of this kind permission.
"Sure, mum, he'd have the heart out of me; and that's just what Miss Val would like, be the Howly Mother!"
"This is beyond everything," said Mrs. Gano, more nonplussed than she had often found herself. "The child must be out of her senses. We will go up to your mistress," she said to Katie O'Flynn. "If you were my daughter," she added, solemnly, looking back at the immovable one, "I should know how to deal with you. As it is, I'll leave you to your father."
But leaving Val to her father proved a less drastic measure than Mrs. Gano anticipated. Whether because of his sentiment about the first-born--offspring of that only year of happiness and hope--or merely because her wildness was a distraction in his brief moments of respite from crushing cares, at all events, he looked upon the child with a lenient eye. He had her much about him when he was at home, smiled at recitals of her escapades, and called her his amiable firebrand, never in the least realizing that the overflow of animal spirits, which in rare hours of ease were his diversion and delight, might be to others a chronic bewilderment, and a not infrequent torment.
"Her mother," said the elder Mrs. Gano, not thoroughly understanding the situation-- "her mother has utterly spoiled the child."
"No, no," said John Gano, smiling. "Val was born like that. I've never known anybody with such high spirits."
"'Spirits?' Nonsense! Fever. And you, every one of you help to aggravate her unnatural activity of mind and body. Meanwhile, my advice to you is: Don't make an idol of your eldest daughter. It's bad enough in the case of a boy, but no girl survives it."
Mrs. Gano returned home with little loss of time. Her daughter-in-law's higgledly-piggledy house-keeping, the "slackness" that was not all ill-health, coupled with the ubiquitous and unquiet presence of Val, made the elder lady long for her peaceful home in the West. Her going left behind a memory of awe and a vivid sense of relief.
Valeria the elder, with improved health, or else strung up to a semblance of it by the potent ghost of a dear ambition, began her studies in art. She took out a course of lessons in modelling at the Cooper Institute.
The story of those months may not be written here. We will not dog her through her days of disillusionment, her shrinking from the curiosity of the students, her amazement at their facility, her heart-sinking at their youth. As the weeks went on the teacher, an Italian of fine and gentle countenance, looked at her far more often than he looked at her work; and yet it was observed by the merciless young crew in the studio that her blundering attempts were inspected with an interest and frequency not bestowed on their more creditable efforts.
Signor Conti leaned over her one day, speaking kindly phrases in broken English about the new attempt she was making.
"Don't! don't, please!" she said, on a sudden impulse. " Understand that at least I know it's bad."
"Oh, it will be better," he answered, gently.
"No," she said, very low, "it will never be much better. I've waited too long."
"You must not feel discouraged." He leaned lower and spoke under his breath. "You may yet find great happiness by means of your art."
She shook her head, and when she could steady her voice said:
"I'm going home."
The man's face changed.
"You will not do that!"
"It would be another mistake, I think."
"Yes. The first was for one of your temperament to come to a great noisy class like this. You cannot do your best work here. This is not the place for you."
"What could I have done?"
"You can work under some artist alone, some one who can give you more time. I tell you, you have talent, a bello ingegno, signorina."
She looked up with a gleam of hope shining through tears.
"You-- you are too busy. I'm afraid you don't receive pupils at your own studio," she said, timidly.
"No, I do not receive pupils as a rule; but I will receive you, signorina."
That was the end of lessons at the Cooper Institute, and the beginning of the brief, but best, happiness Valeria's life was to know.
Some indiscreet allusion to the change in a letter Valeria or her brother had written to their mother brought Mrs. Gano in hot haste to New York again. She found Valeria a different being--but she also found Signor Conti and a lonely studio in a side street, where her daughter worked alone with this foreigner, modelling "the members of the human body," while the sculptor worked on his "Lady at the Bath." It was all unspeakably objectionable and un-American. This was no fit milieu for a Gano. It wasn't a seemly place for any lady. Valeria must come home. She told her so the same night. No, Valeria could not do that.
"Why? Are you so attached, then, to this Italian image-maker?"
Valeria went home to the West the next day. The following winter she died.
Little Val was nearly seven when she woke up one morning and was told that the baby had died in the night. Then it was true, this thing she had heard about people dying. Her excitement and curiosity were infinitely greater than her sorrow. Had he gone to heaven yet? No, he was in the cold, uninhabited "best" room, where nobody but strangers--guests and grandmothers--had ever slept. She made Nanna hurry through the bath and dressing. The nurse was crying. Val observed her critically.
"Isn't heaven a nice place?" the child asked; and a vague uneasiness seized her with regard to this much-vaunted reward of merit.
"Av coorse, av coorse--the most beautiful place ye can think av. The streets are all gowld," said the woman, with quivering face.
"I must go and see mamma," the child said.
But she had to pass the "best" room door. She couldn't get by, but stood there rooted before it. She listened, advancing her small ear nearer and nearer. No sound. Then she put her eye to the key-hole. But the key-hole did not command the bed. She glanced over her shoulder--nobody near; the house silent. She turned the knob softly and went in, shutting the door behind her; then quickly reopening it, and leaving it prudently ajar. She tiptoed to the bed. Behold, the coverlid lay smooth, and no little dead child there at all. Then he was gone to heaven. If she'd got up a little earlier she might have seen the angel flying off with him. He hadn't left the window open; the very blind wasn't drawn up. What was that on the table? Something white, laid over something strange, and--two little sandalled feet stuck stiffly out!
On the table! It couldn't be the baby lying on the hard marble slab! The cruelty of the idea made her cold. Slowly she came nearer. She circled, fascinated, round to the other side. Yes, a gleam of the baby's yellow hair. The white cloth over him was a little awry, but it covered the body and hid the face. Horrible to have the air shut out; she felt stifled at the thought. He was lying on a
pillow, she could see. But there was something inhuman in leaving a baby like this. And they had been so irritatingly careful of him before, never left him alone a moment; neglected her on his account; wouldn't even let her hold him--oh, so carefully; and now--this! Nothing, perhaps, in all the strange circumstance--not even the subsequent burial--impressed the child so painfully as this fact of the baby being laid unguarded on a table, as though he had been no more than a book. This it was that by one stroke seemed to cut him from his high estate of life and lordly consideration. This "death" was evidently a far stranger thing than going to heaven.
A feeling of intense commiseration for the little brother swept over her. She came nearer, crying. "Poor! poor!" she whispered. Why had they shut out the air? She lifted her hand and turned the linen down from the waxen face. Her tears dried on her cheeks as she stood staring. He might be only asleep. How had they come to be so sure, and lay him unguarded on a table, when he might wake and--She saw in a flash how she would earn the gratitude of the family. She would wake him, and she, who hadn't been allowed to hold him, would carry him to her mother. And how glad they'd all be! And it would be her doing.
"Baby," she said; "baby, wake up!" She put her hand on the body, and withdrew it quickly. He felt so strangely unlike and tender babyhood. An evil dread took hold on her. She strove some moments, battling with new suspicions and vague fears. "Poor little baby! poor little baby!" she whispered, tiptoed up, and kissed his cheek. Violently she started back. Who that ever, as a child, has felt that first chill contact with the mysterious enemy--who does not remember the formless horror it conjures up in the unprepared young mind? This, then, was death. She walked backward to the door, staring at the dead face, feeling that cold touch on her lips spread like a frost through her body. She must go quickly and get into her
mother's lap. With her hand on the door, "Poor! poor!" she repeated with a sob, still looking back at the face. "You can't come and get warm in mother's lap any more; you've got to go to heaven." Had they any idea how cold the baby was? Should she go and get his quilted traveling-coat? Was it any use? A faint dawning of the hopelessness of any earthly service to the dead made her resolution waver, and, with that, a horrible weight descended on her heart. She drew a hard breath, ran back to the table, and knelt down before it with folded hands and trembling lips. "Forgive me, baby," she whispered," 'bout the yellow ball. If I'd known this I wouldn't have taken it away." She scrambled to her feet and ran out as fast as she could, leaving the door ajar.
She was going up to bed that same evening, full of excitement and speculation, when her father called to Nanna over the banisters to come and help to find the smelling-salts--her mistress had fainted.
"Go to your room; I'll come presently," said the woman; and they shut her mother's door.
They hadn't let her go in since morning. Her mother was ill, they said, but that was a pretence; she was always ill. The reason Val was shut out to-day was because her grandmother had arrived that morning, and her grandmother was her enemy. She was in there now.
On every-day occasions Val would have contested the matter; but, grandmothers apart, there was a great deal to think about and consider just now.
She sat down on the stairs. She had seen her father crying that day, and the very foundations of all stabilities seemed tottering. Men could cry, it seemed--cry like little children. It was very strange; she had supposed it a thing to be outgrown. For her own part, she had nearly overcome the childish habit. The baby, of course, had cried a great deal; but one's father!
Somebody was coming up-stairs behind the servant--a strange man. What was he carrying? Something big,
and as shiny as the new musical-box. She hugged the banisters as the two passed.
"What's that?" she said to Matilda.
The servant didn't answer. She and the strange man went by. As Val was in the act of following, her grandmother appeared. She looked at Val a moment, and then called the nurse in a whisper: "Put that child to bed."
To-morrow was the funeral. She should go, she had said.
"No, certainly not," said her grandmother; and Val set her firm little mouth.
After breakfast the next morning, her father went into the room where the baby was, and stayed a long time. The doctor was with her mother. The doctor was a rude man, with a long yellow-white beard; he had spoken as sternly as if he'd been one's grandmother when Val had said she would see her mother. She lingered now by the "best" room door. Would she hear her father crying again? She hoped she would. There was something so horribly exciting in it; it made her feel as if she should die, and yet she listened eagerly to find out if he were doing it again.
No sound. He came out after a long, long while, and kissed her; his face was wet.
"Run to your nurse, my dear," he said.
She didn't tell him Nanna had been sent out. He smoothed her hair, and then went into her mother's room.
She was thinking a great deal about the baby. Nanna had been telling her more about heaven. The nurse hadn't liked it when the child had asked leading questions about the grave. But Nanna herself had said dozens of times before, "I've buried me husband and three childer." What a curious idea to put people in the dirty, black ground! And the baby! It must be very bad for his pretty white clothes. How awful to have earth on one's face, all over the ears and mouth! She choked a little. But one wouldn't feel it, of course; the real baby was in heaven. He would have everything there. "Yellow balls, too?" she had asked Nanna.
"He won't want the likes of that," the nurse had said. Nanna was very stupid; as if the baby had ever wanted anything in his life so much as that yellow ball! Conscience pricked cruelly. She had been selfish and horrid to the poor baby. She fell a-crying. Very likely they didn't have yellow balls in heaven, and wouldn't know how much the baby loved them, and he mightn't like to ask; besides, the poor baby talked such a queer language, strangers never understood him. A sudden inspiration. It was rather confusing about the real baby in heaven, and the real baby in the "best" room. Wouldn't it be better to be on the safe side? Anyhow, there was that business about Gabriel and the Last Trump and the Resurrection. They had talked about that in church, and Nanna and mother had said it was true. The dead would surely rise; the baby in the "best" room there would one day come alive. It looked as if there'd be two real babies in the end; but never mind. She flew up-stairs, rummaged the cupboard in the nursery, and came flying down with something wrapped in her apron. The doctor was in the lower hall talking to her father; she peeped at them through the balusters, then softly on to the "best" room.
She shut the door this time, though more frightened than the day before. She stopped short in the middle of the room. Too late! the baby had gone. But there was something she'd never seen before. She went close. How pretty and shiny it was; it smelt like the piano. Why, this was what the strange man had brought up-stairs behind Matilda last night. It was bigger than the musical-box--much bigger. What was in this beautiful, shiny, new thing? She dragged a chair to the table, climbed on it, and looked down into the coffin.
She stood some time motionless; then, hearing a noise in the hall, hurriedly lifted a corner of the baby's frock and pushed a yellow ball down against the padded white satin side.
In spite of the continued "riling" presence of a grand-
mother in the house, Val made up her mind to be very good now the baby was gone, and be a comfort to her mother. No more fights with Nanna, even over the hair combing; no defiant refusals to say her prayers. Standing by the cot in her nightgown the evening of the funeral, "I shall say three prayers," she announced, sternly; "and you mustn't interrupt, Nanna."
"Three!" said the nurse, suspicious of such overwhelming piety.
"Yes; I shall say, 'Our Father,' and 'Nower Lamy,' and then one of my own--one I can understand as well as God. Now! Sh!" She knelt down and recited the two accustomed petitions, and then, still kneeling there, poured forth some stringent directions to the Lord which horrified the good Christian woman not a little.
After that, Val insisted on going to church, rain or shine. She read her Bible with vigor and astonishment, belaboring Nanna with difficult questions. Nanna was so ill-inspired as sometimes to appeal in her perplexity to the elder Mrs. Gano. But this lady found to her cost that the course so successfully pursued with little Ethan was doomed to failure here. When she thought to curb the excessive Gano concern about Biblical interpretation by saying, "It is not a book for children," she was met with:
"My Bible says, 'Suffer little children,' and people 'mustn't despise the little ones.' "
Her father began to laugh; she felt encouraged to proceed:
"And says, 'Search ye the Scriptures,' too; nothin' 'bout waitin' till you're old."
"You are too young to understand, even is I should try to explain."
"Why, I understand it nearly every bit," she answered, indignantly, "all except the mizz--I can't find where it says about the mizz."
"The mizz?" repeated Mrs. Gano.
"The mizz?" her father echoed, uneasily. "I haven't read about that myself."
"Well, you've heard about it in church. Didn't you go to church when you were young?"
"Yes," said her parent, meekly, feeling the full force of her implied criticism. "But I don't recall the--what is it?"
"The mizz. Mr. Weston says every Sunday in the Commandments: 'The sea and all that in the mizz.'"
The elder Mrs. Gano could have put up with these crude evidences of a share in the family bias, but not with her granddaughter's growing unsubmissiveness, her chronic mutiny against the smallest restraint. The child had been taught early to look upon herself as a very potent factor in the family life. She observed that arrangements that failed to meet with her approval were often altered. Her mother's sternest form of discipline had been to argue with her. More than one servant had been dismissed in obedience to Miss Val's demands. There was the case of the lady house-keeper from Boston, who, in addition to regular duties, undertook also to teach Val--a learned maiden lady with shaky nerves and a passion for history. It was supposed she left so suddenly because of illness in her family, until Val admitted that she had threatened the lady with the carving-knife after dinner one day.
"What on earth made you do that?" said the child's father, horrified.
"She talked too much about the British," replied Val, calmly.
"I said the Americans were just as brave. I could see she didn't think so, so I got the carvin'-knife and well, you know, she just caught the three-o'clock train."
The June of that year was intensely hot, but young Mrs. Gano was too ill to be carried out of the stifling city. Val was sent into the country to some cousins "for a change"--for whose change was not insisted upon. She was not brought back till the day after her mother's funeral. It was a strange and terrible time. For once she was passive and subdued. If the servants had not already remarked
on her hard-heartedness, she would have cried herself ill. But she was full of a dull resentment as well as pain. At the time she was sent away she had gathered, as a quick-witted child does--Heaven knows how!--that her mother was dangerously ill. During that time in the country she had prayed for her recovery as she never prayed before or after, as none but the passionate-hearted ever pray. Night after night, when the light had been put out, and the others had gone to sleep, Val would get out of bed and kneel down at the side beseeching God to save her mother's life, and making solemn compacts with the Lord of Hosts. She would be so good, and build a church, too, in memory of this answer to prayer; she would be a nun, and serve God all her days, if He would spare her mother. She pointed out how easy it was for the All-Powerful to do this little thing. She wasn't waiting till it would require a Lazarus miracle, she was asking Him in good time. He had only to let the doctors know what would cure her. But she, Val Gano, would recognize in the recovery a direct answer to prayer, and she would keep her vows. She remembered a sermon she had heard on mountain-moving faith. Hers should be perfect and unfaltering. She knew God would answer this one prayer; she saw herself already in her nun's black habit, and began to say her last farewell to the world, to the prince that she knew was coming later on, to all her children--she called them by their names, "five brave sons and five beauteous daughters." She turned her back on them all, cut her long hair, and heard the convent gates clang to--all this was an accomplished destiny in her mind, when the telegram came to say her mother was dead. Her father was ill, too, now; there was nothing but sickness and death in the world, and the child was to stay where she was. The telegram was from her grandmother to cousin Nathaniel. Four days later, when she was permitted to go home, the funeral was over, and her grandmother was in charge of her mother's house. It was very awful. What did God mean by it?
The following week John Gano returned to his post at
the bank. As he was leaving the counting-room, that first and last day after the death of his wife, he was seized with a violent hemorrhage, and was carried home, it was thought, to die.
Mrs. Gano nursed her son back to something faintly resembling health, and urged him to come home with her. No; he would stay where he was, till--
"Nonsense! you must rouse yourself for your children's sake. Here is Val, left to servants, and running wild. She must go to school. None better than the New Plymouth Seminary for Young Ladies."
"Oh, time enough for that. I can't let the child go just yet."
"There isn't time. That child is going to wreck and ruin. And you don't suppose I'm going to leave you here alone? You must come and get well and strong."
"It's no use," the invalid said, adding, half under his breath: "I'm done for."
"Hush!" she interrupted, frowning. "Anybody is done for who has made up his mind that he is."
John Gano shook his head.
"You know we all go like this. It's not a matter of imagination."
"Nearly everything's a matter of imagination," she said.
The gaunt man put his handkerchief to his lips.
"This is imagination, too, I suppose," he said, as he turned the bright spot in and out of sight--"a case of seeing red."
"That small stain means very little in itself," she retorted, seeming scarcely moved; "its effect on your mind is the only thing to be afraid of."
"You speak as though I hadn't inherited the blessed business."
"Oh, inherited--inherited! I'm sick of that white feather showing all along the line. Look at me!"
He did look at her. She seemed suddenly taller and thinner and grayer and more defiant than any being he had ever beheld.
"Look at me!" she repeated. "I have been given up by the doctors half a dozen times. My mother was told when I was sixteen that I had only a piece of a lung left--that it might last me through the winter. It has served my purpose for half a century since. But I didn't worry about the color of my handkerchiefs, and I didn't admit for a moment that I could possibly be induced to die--that is, of course"--she put on a sudden aspect of resignation that was almost funny--"unless it was the Lord's will."
End Chapter 7
Available since September 1998