The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 8
NOTHING seemed to matter now that her mother was dead. It was plain Val would never be happy again. Leaving her home, to which she was devotedly attached, was hardly a misfortune, any more than going to live with her grandmother. What did anything matter? God hadn't heard her prayers; He had mocked her faith, and she was motherless. She hadn't enough interest in life even to be "owdacious," as her grandmother called it. She was passive, almost "good."
He father, observing her settled depression on the journey West, gathered her into his arms, and whispered:
"We have each other, you know."
And she lay with her face hidden, and cried a long time, so quietly that her grandmother thought she was asleep.
It was the reunion with her little sister that first roused her out of her unchildlike apathy. Not the genial warmth of family affection, not the diversion of having a playmate, but the tonic of a vigorous antagonism, as unexpected as it seemed unnatural.
"Where is my room?" Val had asked, on the evening of their arrival at the Old Fort.
"You are to sleep with Emmeline," said her grandmother.
"But, grandma, I've never slept with any one."
"Haven't you, my dear?"
"No, and I've always--"
"That will do now. Go up-stairs and wash your face and hands. Emmeline will show you the way."
Val went off quietly enough, but it might have staggered
Mrs. Gano could she have known the rage and rebellion that seethed in that small female heart.
It was dusk up in the little girls' room.
"Why haven't they lit the gas?" asked Val.
"We don't have gas here."
"Gamma thinks lamps are too esplosive."
"Do you live in the dark?"
"No; we have candles, but it ain't dark enough yet. I'll show you where everything is."
"I'll find 'em myself."
Val had espied the candles on the bureau. She lit them.
"Oh, we never have more'n one," admonished Emmie, gently.
Val went on calmly with her toilet. Presently Mrs. Gano looked in.
"Come to supper, little girls, as soon as you're ready."
She was going away without more words, when Emmie called out excitedly:
"Just look, gamma--two candles a-burnin', 'and no ship at sea!'"
Mrs. Gano smiled.
"Yes, my dear; one is enough."
She put the extinguisher over the nearest, and went down-stairs.
"Skinflint!" observed Val.
The supper was on this occasion a late and hurriedly prepared meal. There were soft-boiled eggs. Val helped herself to two, and broke them into a tumbler; then mixed in salt, and pepper, and butter, and bits of bread.
"Just look at what Val's doing!" Said Emmie, with innocent excitement, while her elder and more accomplished sister stirred the agreeable compound round and round.
"Never do that again," said Mrs. Gano, suddenly aware of the enormity. "I don't like people to make puddings in their tumblers at my table."
"T'ain't puddin'," said Val.
"That will do." Mrs. Gano ended the matter according to her usual formula. "Will you have some corn bread?"
"No, thank you; I don't like it."
"It is enough to answer, 'No, thank you.' Never say you don't like anything you see on my table."
Val wished her father had not been too tired to come to supper. She had observed that she was never so much corrected in his presence.
The full moon was shining in the gloaming as they passed the open veranda door coming from their belated meal.
"Let's go out a minute," said Val to Emmie, in a whisper.
"No; it's too late. I'd catch cold."
"Oh, nonsense! Come along."
And she dragged her little sister off. But they stayed out only a few minutes.
Emmie came in crying.
"Gamma, she made me fall down on the g'avel."
Val, without explanation or apology, flushed angrily and ran up-stairs. She knocked at her father's door.
"Come in," he said, and she went over in the dim candlelight and stood by his bed.
"How you feel, father?"
"Little tired," he answered. "Are you come to say good-night?"
"I 'spose I mustn't stay?"
"Oh, a minute or two."
She perched on the side of his bed. She had come in with the express intention of making complaints. Some vague notion of sparing him because he was ill kept her tongue-tied.
"Isn't this a nice old house?" he said, presently.
"Y--yes," she answered.
"In the daytime you'll see what capital places there are for you and Emmie to play in."
"Is it true I mustn't swing on the gate?"
"Well, I dare say--"
"Emmie says so. Is it true I mustn't roll down the terraces?"
"Emmie says so. What are terraces for, anyhow? I thought," she added, with a sigh--"I thought it was going to be like the country."
"Oh, wait till you see it by daylight. It's a great deal more like the country than New York."
"She doesn't keep a horse?"
"Nor a cow?"
"No; there's no stable, you see."
"There isn't any pig, father!"
"Oh no; she wouldn't like a pig."
"But there isn't a single smallest kind of a dog here. There isn't," she wound up, tremulously--"there isn't even a chicken."
"You just wait till to-morrow, and I'll show you heaps of nice things. There isn't a finer tulipifera rhododendron in the world than the one out by the back veranda. And there's a beautiful old crooked catalpa on the terrace you can make a house in."
"Emmie says she only lets cousin Ethan climb trees."
"Oh-a, well--a--I day say there are plenty of other things. Aren't the peaches nearly ripe?"
"I don't know."
"Have you seen my Indian arrowheads and stone hatchets down-stairs in the cabinet?"
Val shook her head despairingly.
"They're in her room."
Her father seemed not to notice.
"And to-morrow I must show you the great slab of stone at the back door. The oldest inhabitant of this place told me when I first came to New Plymouth that he remembered cracking nuts there at recess in 1800, when he went to school here. There aren't any little girls who have such a wonderful old house to live in."
"N--no. I liked the little trees and houses in the silver at supper."
"You'll like lots of things. I've got an old fiddle somewhere about--"
" Have you? Oh, that'll be fun!"
She crept up under his arm and nestled down against him.
It is no part of the office of this plain chronicle to attempt to justify any person in it. Mrs. Gano herself was too little touched by other people's opinions for one who sets about reporting her to dare belittle her robust errors, or omit the defects of her qualities. Few things would have bothered her so much as"being universally beloved," as the phrase goes; and yet, or perhaps because of this, her family affections struck such deep root that plucking them up was like tearing asunder the very fibres of her life. Even now, even to her son, she could not speak of Valeria. Her long hands shook when she touched the dead woman's books. When chance would bring to light a scrap of the familiar writing, she would look away hurriedly, that she might not break down utterly and lose herself in that ocean of agonized regret that had threatened to sweep her, too, out of the world after Valeria's death. It could never have occurred to her as possible that she should set about winning anybody's affections. She would probably have regarded it as a slavish and far from upright procedure. Affection was not a thing to set snares for. It was the duty of children to love their parents (she would probably have said to "honor" them); it was the duty of parents to train the children in the way they should go. That was "the law and the prophets." She could never have quite realized the impression she made on the young or guilty-minded, but she would not have denied that she belonged to a generation disposed to treat healthy children on more or less Spartan principles. She had from time to time obtained a sufficiently all-round view of the spoiling process that had, to her thinking, wellnigh ruined Val Gano.
She had come quickly to the conclusion that she would say nothing more to the child's nervous and ailing father, but was quite definitely minded to set to work quietly and vigorously to correct in Val's upbringing the pernicious mixture of sentimentality and neglect that had made the child a révoltée and a household terror. Already in New York there had been a battle royal on the subject of the proper bedtime for a little girl. Val had announced herself in no uncertain note as mortally oppose to retiring at eight, or even nine. If there was one thing more than another that she objected to utterly it was this going to bed at all. Her mother had been helpless to prevent her from ranging the house till remorseless sleep struck her down in the midst of her delights. If she could manage to keep her eyes open, or to wake up after a brief oblivion, she had made no bones about descending during the evening in her night-gown, entirely prepared for the rapturous reception she knew awaited her from her father. Val had early, then, come to associate her grandmother with tyrannical designs on the liberty of the free-born child after the hour of eight. She also had cause to know her repulsive opinions on the value of a milk and cereal diet for the young. These, and a general sense of radically opposed interests, not unmixed with astonishment at, and fear of the alarming old lady, made up the sum of Val's dismay when she came calmly to consider what life was going to be like here at the Fort.
She woke up on the morning after her arrival with vague sense of a duty to perform. She rubbed her eyes and kicked Emmie. Ah, yes, that was it--her grandmother had not understood. She had condemned Val, who was accustomed to her own room, with all her "things'" about her, just as she liked them, and no one to interfere--she had put Val in "another person's room," with a single big bed in it, and condemned her to sleep with Emmie. Her grandmother must be brought to a better understanding.
The child made no further announcement of her frame
of mind till she sat down to a barren breakfast with the despised Emmie. There was no coffee. There was tea going up to her father, as usual. The silent Emmie quaffed her mug of milk serenely. For a year now Val had demanded and been given her morning cup of coffee.
"Ask for some for me, please," she said, after making inquiries of Venie.
"Gamma says cawfee will make you an old woman before you're a young one," said Emmie, showing her milk-white teeth in a pleased smile. "You can't have any cawfee."
"Tell the cook, please," said Val, in a loud voice, "that I'm waitin' for my coffee."
An' Jerusha put in a turbaned head.
"Lordy, missy! don' yer yell like dat, an' I'll make yo' some cambric tea."
"I won't drink cambric tea. I'm the oldest of the famerly, and my father always let me have coffee."
"Yo' father ver'y ill, missy. Yo' mustn't worrit yo' father."
" I never worry my father--I settle everything for myself. Are you going to get my coffee?"
"Can't do dat, missy, widout leab."
"Isn't grandma coming to breakfast?"
"No; she always habs it in her own room since Miss Valery died."
The child pushed back her chair and marched out. The two women called remonstrance after her, but a mighty indignation swept her on. she halted before her grandmother's room, knocked loudly, and opened the door without further waiting.
Midway in her valiant advance upon the enemy she stood still. Mrs. Gano was sitting propped with huge feather pillows in an ancient four-poster. She wore a small shrunken cotton nightcap awry on her wonderful thick hair, which tumbled out in a tangle of silver and lay dishevelled over the white flannel jacket that was buttoned crooked over her night-gown, the sleeves hanging loose and
armless. In her long taper fingers she held an open letter. Envelopes, notes, the Baltimore Sun, and other papers were strewn thick over the silk patchwork quilt. A breakfast tray stood on a table by the bedside. It wasn't her attire, it wasn't even the shrunken, rakish nightcap (self-conscious and uneasy at its obvious shortcomings), that made the old lady's aspect so arresting. She had not said a word at the child's irruption, but she lowered her chin and looked over her heavy gold-rimmed spectacles with a strange cold stare, singularly disconcerting, even slightly paralyzing. But Val's was a bold heart. And she realized that a blow must be struck for liberty.
"They haven't given me any coffee for my breakfast," she announced, with equal directness and warmth.
The piercing eyes bored into her, but the stern mouth uttered no word. The child began to wish she'd waited till her grandmother were properly dressed and looked more human.
"I'm in my eighth year," she went on with dignity, "and I'm accustomed--"
"'Good-morning!' is the custom in this house," said the old lady.
"Oh! Good-morning!" Slight pause. "The servant says you told her I wasn't to have coffee."
"I always have it at home."
"You're not at home now."
"But I can't eat breakfast without--"
"There's no need for you to eat breakfast if you're not hungry."
" Why can't I have coffee?"
"Because I think it injurious"--the keen old eyes caught the swift disdain of the child's glance at the half-empty cup on the tray--"very injurious for children," she added.
"My mother didn't think so," Val said, feeling her throat swell.
"But I am your grandmother, you see."
She had lowered her chin again; her eyes were shooting out over her spectacles, her eyebrows terrifically high. This grandmother of hers could move her eyebrows about as easily as other people moved their arms and legs. It was a fearsome accomplishment.
"In my house," she went on, after the awful pause, "the thing to be considered is what I think. Among other matters I consider your way of entering a room might be improved. Now, you may see how quietly you can go out."
Seldom has a child been more surprised at an unexpected turn in affairs than was one when she found herself on the outside of the door. She stood irresolute a moment. Why had she obeyed? She gritted her little white teeth in self-contempt. Should she go back? There were loads of things she had forgot to say. The idea of being sent out like that! She went slowly up-stairs and angrily tumbled some of her clothes out of her trunk. There were three cookies, a cruller, and some chocolates in a box near the bottom. Oh, wise precaution of provident childhood! Still, her present lot was a most unhappy one.
"No breakfast! How angry my poor sainted mother would be!" She shed two tears. "No mother, no coffee, nothing but a cruel grandmother."
She revelled gloomily in the tragic picture till she heard Emmie coming up-stairs. she hid the "remainder biscuit" and hurriedly dried her eyes. There had long been a theory in the family--even her mother had shared it--that Val never cried, and hadn't any heart to speak of. She was intensely proud of this reputation for stoicism, and wouldn't for worlds have undeceived any one. She brushed past Emmie now with lofty looks and ran down-stairs and out-of-doors. She ranged about the grounds, finding that her father was right--there were great possibilities of enjoyment in these neglected haunts. She was not long in discovering the grape-vine climbing the pear-tree in the wilderness, and satisfying herself that "peaches
were ripe." The osage orange-trees that grew along the fence behind the drying-ground had dropped their rugged globes on the grass, and one could play ball with these oranges till their tough fibres grew soft and yielded grudgingly, like rubber. Presently one that she had sent flying over the trees into the adjoining grounds came mysteriously back. Val parted the fringe of lower undergrowth and peered between the fence rails, but could see no one. She shied another orange, and this time she saw a boy dart out from behind a tree and send the orange swiftly through the sunshine over her head. Val leaped up, and by a fluke caught it firmly in her hands.
"Hooray!" came involuntarily from the next-door neighbor; and they went on playing ball in ambush till curiosity prevailed over shyness.
When the next-door neighbor drew near the osage barrier, he revealed himself as a boy about Val's age, with a freckled face and a queer little knob of a nose.
"Wot's your name?" he inquired.
"Val Gano. What's yours?"
"Jerry--I mean, Jerningham Otway."
"That your house?"
She climbed upon the fence and distinguished glimpses through the bushes of an imposing place beyond.
"Yes," he answered; "and we got a bank over the river."
This eliciting nothing, he went on, genially:
"You can fire a ball 'bout as well as a boy!"
"I should hope so."
"My sister can't, and she's a year older 'n me. Most girls can't, and they're all awful mad they wasn't born boys."
"Yes. I know a girl over the river--awfully jolly girl--she's got a monkey--nicest girl I ever knew!--and Geerusalem! don't she want to be a boy!"
"She must be a ninny," observed his next-door neighbor.
"Can't think why any girl in her senses should want to be a boy!" as who should say: the least of created things.
Jerry widened saucer eyes.
"If a girl likes," his neighbor continued, "she can do all the jolly things a boy does without the bother of being a boy."
"Ho! ho! Don't find it much bother."
"Well, but it's a little dull, ain't it?"
"Not now exactly, but don't you ever think about the future?"
Jerry looked vaguely alarmed for a single instant, and then strutted off with his hands in his pockets, whistling defiantly all across the lawn. He stopped at the barn door, and whistled his way back, in time to catch a friendly ball.
The feminine wile that eventually won the young gentleman's heart, and "did for" the girl with the pet monkey, was Val's gift for turning the most surprisingly rapid somersaults all across the drying-ground. A small contorting ball, she rolled head over heels, without stopping, from one side to the other, and came up smiling, in spite of a crack on her crown against the pump.
"Gee- rusalem!" observed Jerry, when he saw she was laughing. "I say," he added, with a child's fine disregard for preface or preliminary--"I say, come over to Bentley's Pond and let's be pirates."
It seems highly probable that Val would have closed with the offer if Emmie had not made a timely appearance.
"What you doin'?" she asked, Jerry being invisible.
"None o' your business," said her polite sister.
"Oh-h," purred Emmie. "Gamma don't let us--"
"Don't let us what?"
"What you're doin'."
"What am I doin'?"
It was difficult to say. She seemed to be just sauntering about, occasionally kicking an osage orange. But Emmie,
not without reason, had got it into her law-abiding head that whatever this sister of hers might be engaged in it was pretty sure to be something taboo, and Emmie, as an older inhabitant here, and one who never made these mistakes, was bound to keep the new-comer from transgression. Her sister had gone back to the house now. Emmie followed her up-stairs to their room. Val found her trunk gone from the upper hall, and its contents disposed in drawers and wardrobe with Emmie's belongings.
Who had done this thing?
"Venie," said Emmie.
The new-comer anathematized the officious servants of the Fort. Emmie stood looking on with growing consternation, as Val flung forth from the wardrobe to the middle of the room a shower of pinafores and petticoats, books and toys. They lay on the floor in an indiscriminate mass. What was this daring person about? Emmie stood shyly by the door, her face flushing with excitement.
"I won't have my things mixed up with other peoples'!" Val announced, severely. Then, after a moment: "What are you standing there for?"
"I--I don't know," responded Emmie.
"Haven't you got any place of your own, where you belong?"
Emmie looked bewildered, as well she might.
"I've got a little rocking-chair down in gamma's room--used to be cousin's Efan's."
"Humph! rocking-chair's just the thing for you! Why don't you go and sit in it?"
Val was clearing out the bureau now at the other end of the room. It was Emmie's things this time that were being flung out with disdain. Val's harsh question, coupled with the moving spectacle of Emmie's best hat on the floor, brought ready tears to the soft brown eyes.
"What you got in this?" demanded Val, shaking the rattling contents of a well tied-up box.
"B'longs to cousin Efan. Gamma don't let us open it."
Val untied the cord and revealed the forbidden spoil--
marbles, a jack-knife, a broken whistle, and at the bottom a little drawing-book and a French grammar.
"I'll take care of the marbles and the knife for cousin Ethan," said Val, "but you can have the other things," and she flung the treasured box to he opposite side of the room. The vandalism widened Emmie's trouble-clouded eyes. Now my clothes are going in the bureau."
Val was sorting and folding away her own belongings with a deftness characteristic of her thin little hands. Emmie watched the process tearfully.
"And my books and things like that go on this side," she went on, busily bringing order out of chaos. "Now, do you understand?" she said, sternly. "This half o' the room is mine. You can't ever come here."
The little girl at the door nodded, speechless.
"Perhaps I'll help you afterwards to put your things away in the cupboard. First go down into the hall and bring me a piece of chalk out of the lift-up chair where they keep the brushes."
"Chalk!" What was she going to do?
"Yes, chalk, goosie gander! Chalk! Chalk!"
Emmie fled. She had serious thoughts of never returning, but curiosity and the memory of her best hat sitting on the floor got the better of her fears.
"That's right," said Val, on Emmie's reappearance. "Don't come over here!" she shouted. " Stop, I tell you!" She stamped violently as the child advanced, bewildered, holding out a piece of yellow crayon. "Didn't I just say this part of the room is mine?"
"Well, it is, just as much as if it had doors, which it ought to have, and locks and bolts. Don't ever come here till you get my permission. Understand?"
"I--I--" Emmie dropped the crayon, and retreated slowly. "I was only going to say we oughtn't to use that chalk. It belongs to Aunt Valeria's painting things."
"Look here!" Val waived such puny scruples aside. "See this seam in the carpet?"
"Yes," answered a small, scared voice.
"Well, I'll make it plainer, so's there's no mistake." She stooped and drew a yellow line down the seam from wall to wall. "Now," she said, getting up and striking a threatening attitude, "you're younger than me, but I give you all that side for your room. This side is mine. If you ever cross that line without my leave, I'll kill you--yes, I'll kill you dead with cousin Ethan's knife!"
She turned her head and beheld her grandmother standing in the doorway.
End Chapter 8
Available since September 1998