The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 9
This was the beginning of the Four Years' War.
But although Val was worsted in this encounter, the race was sometimes to the swift and the battle to the ingenious. For instance, that very night in bed she discovered a way of reducing Emmie to submission without resorting to physical violence. Val began to tell out loud a terrible and harrowing tale, which nearly threw the younger child into fits. Emmie would do anything for her dear, dear sister if only darling Val would say the black figure wasn't a ghost. Darling Val complied, after a thorough understanding that whenever Emmie was too unbearable that black figure, which was ghost only on certain nights--that black figure should be introduced into their nocturnal amenities. Val was not always as good as her word. She did once or twice in the comfortable daytime make the sinister threat, "If you do that again I'll tell you a scary story when we're in bed to-night"; but in the morning the night is almost as far away as being grown up or dying--at all events too far off to seem very real or important. Experience proved that Val would forget the menace by the time it was dark, or else would be too sleepy to live up to it--so sleepy, in fact, that she could do nothing but kick Emmie in a desultory way, or lie like a log in the middle of the bed, leaving the younger child to find her half on the outer edge of both sides; whereupon Emmie's long-suffering patience would suddenly break down, and she would go crying to her grandmother's door, and stand there wailing till she was taken in. After some weeks' trial the plan of making the two sisters share the same
room was abandoned, and Emmie had a cot at the foot of her grandmother's four-poster.
Val was made to realize that now she had crossed the Rubicon. Up to that hour she had been on probation, but this change once effected, she was "beyond the pale." Not that she was harassed, nagged, scolded; that she would have understood and known how to meet; she was ignored, not spoken to, not even seen. For days she might have been thin air, so little did her grandmother seem able to realize her corporal presence. There had been no doubt in Val's mind from the first but what Emmie was the favorite here. The very servants, she saw, were under the spell of Emmie's pretty ways, and in any time of trouble took it for granted that the imperious Val had been the aggressor. Natural and inevitable as was this attitude of the entire household (for Mr. Gano was spared all details, and did not count), it was not calculated to make the sisters better friends, or win Val to a more amenable mind.
Nobody, from Val's point of view, could care much about what Jerusha and Venie thought, but her grandmother's good opinion was somehow, even at this stage, a secretly coveted honor. Yet there was no blinking the fact Emmie was her pet. This form of putting the hard underlying fact was the more satisfactory in that one could as soon imagine Mrs. Gano dancing the Highland fling as having a pet. Gran'ma! who wouldn't let a dog or even a bird into the house, and whom no one cold fancy nursing or caressing anything on earth! There was a suggestion of the ludicrous, a faint ironic aroma, in the phrase, which aroused angry passions. It fitted in, too, with all manner of exigencies. In any event it was apposite to remark, "Of course Emmie's the pet." This could be said with such effect of scorn that Emmie found no refuge in tears.
"What's the matter?" inquired Mrs. Gano.
She had happened on the twain as they were loitering in the hall before going off to church.
Emmie wept on. Val set her little red mouth doggedly. Her grandmother glared.
"Now what have you been doing to this poor child?" she demanded.
Gran'ma's eyes were very strange when she was angry, as Val had frequently confided to the cobwebs in the woodshed--unlike anybody's on earth--piercing, glittery; made you cold down your back. Servants shook and scuttled when she looked at them like that. Val herself was always reminded of
"Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,"
and braced herself by saying, internally: "I ain't 'fraid o' tigers and I ain't 'fraid o' gran'ma"--this, too, with a fine sense of climax.
"What is it, Emmie? Stop crying. I can't have this noise."
"V--Val says I'm your p--pet."
"Nonsense! I have no pets. You are not to worry Emmeline. Never say that again. Understand?"
Val was silent.
Gran'ma's eyes were awful.
"Are you going to promise, or do you prefer to spend the day alone?"
That had been tried, and proved a great waste of time and opportunity.
"Yes, I promise."
"Very well; now go to church; Venie is waiting."
"Aha!" said the victorious Emmie when they were out of earshot. "Now you see what you get for teasing me."
And she crowed over her comrade with restored vivacity, till Val said, with suspicious geniality:
"Oh, well, I s'pose I was mistaken. I knew you were either her pet or else--"
Emmie fixed her beautiful soft eyes expectantly on her sister.
Val turned on her with suppressed fury: "Or else a creepin', crawlin' little woo-er-er-m."
Floods of tears, and Venus to the rescue.
The Four Years' War did not always rage round Emmie, although it was the innocent little sister who was the means of forcing upon Val the conviction that her grandmother was not, and never could be, her friend. It is true she cherished a dream at first of earning her gratitude and admiration by some splendid heroic deed that should cover her grandmother with shame at the memory of the way she had misunderstood and undervalued her descendant. The house would be on fire some day, and Val would "save all their lives"; or a robber would get in in the night, and by a series of thrilling adventures Val would entrap and lock him up in the closet under the stairs, where that silly old Jerusha said there was a ghost; or the ancient nag that sometimes came form the livery-stable to take her father and grandmother out for an airing--this steed would unexpectantly run away some fine day. Val saw herself dashing out of the bushes at the road-side, seizing the bit, and hanging on to it till she brought the frantic animal to a stand-still. Then her grandmother would say: "Dear, brave child, we owe you our lives," etc. "How I've misunderstood you!" etc. Val would be magnanimous, and forgive everything. She had a fixed intention of saying in reply: "Gran'ma, let the dead past bury its dead." Her grandmother would feel that. But until that day came, how was she to endure all this injustice and oppression? Emmie was her grandmother's --well, she took Emmie's word about everything, and Emmie counted on that. She didn't play fair, and she was an awful cry-baby; couldn't climb trees, or even run hard without falling down and hurting herself and saying it was Val's fault. Then for the rest of the day her grandmother would treat Val like an outcast, and dock her of Jerry's society. How sickening it was to be told Emmie was the littlest, and delicate! Val herself had at one time been "only six," but she hadn't been a sniveller; she had always played fair and never cried. Ask anybody. They'd all say Val Gano never cried. Whereupon she would steal away to the wood-shed, or climb
up high in the catalpa-tree, remind herself she had no mother, shed a private tear or two, and tell herself a story.
After all, the only serious blemishes in the scheme of creation were grandmothers and Sundays. Now that Val had renounced religion, she could not but look on the day of rest as an interruption and a time of bondage, when grandmothers and grandmothers' views pervaded creation to creation's cost.
On the third Sunday after the arrival at New Plymouth she announced that she was not going to church.
"I don't want to, either," whispered Emmie. "Let's pertend we're very ill."
"No; let's just say we won't go."
"Better not," admonished the cautious Emmie. "I think my throat is going to be sore."
So Emmie was duly cosseted by Aunt Jerusha, and given delicious black-currant jelly.
Mrs. Gano, hearing rumors of rebellion, had sent for Val. She was dressed and sitting in the big arm-chair before the fire with a book on her knees. It was quite warm, but she couldn't apparently do without a fire and a shawl. She was seldom seen about the house in these days without a shawl. She must have had hundreds--white and black and gray, striped and dotted; silk, cashmere, canton-crepe. Her gowns all seemed to be made of rusty black silk. They were so exactly alike that Val thought for long she had but one. There was always, too, the inevitable and spotless lawn at the throat; no frivolous ruffle or after-thought of tie--nothing set on, extraneous, but smooth white folds that seemed to grow up out of the dress--an integral part of the plain and changeless uniform that was the outward and visible sign of one's grandmother's severe, uncompromising spirit.
"What's this I hear? Why are you not dressing for church?"
"I--I don't feel like going to-day."
"Are you not well?"
"Ho yes"--very contemptuous. "I never get ill."
"Then you must go to church. It's the custom in this house."
"Venie says you go only twice a year. I'll go when you do."
The old lady's eyes blazed behind her gold spectacles.
"You'll go when you are told." Awful pause. "When you are my age you may suit yourself."
"Father hasn't had to wait all that time; he doesn't go not."
"Your father is very ill."
"Didn't' go when he was well; that is, hardly ever," added the explicit young person.
"He went regularly as a boy, before he had a house of his own. But I'm not accustomed to arguing with children. Go and get dressed."
Val wavered a moment, then faced about gravely. She planted herself before the old lady, with the wide-apart legs and tense look of one who braces herself to bear the crack of doom.
"I'm sorry to hurt your feelings," she said; "but I'm a infidel."
"Yes; father and I are both infidels."
"Hush! you don't know what you're saying."
"Oh yes, I do. He says, 'Damn it!' when you're not there."
"How dare you!"
"I don't. but father does, so you see--"
"I see that you talk wildly and ignorantly, as well was too much. Go and dress for church."
She had half risen, her eyebrows had risen wholly. She looked singularly alarming. Val retreated backwards to the door, and Mrs. Gano resumed her seat.
"I ain't so igorunt as you think," the child persisted.
"The reason I stopped going to church was because my conscience wouldn't let me join in."
Mrs. Gano turned and looked at the child over the back
of her arm-chair. There was a gleam of amused tolerance in the steely eyes. Val was quick to detect it.
"You see, it's not worth while to waste the whole morning nearly when the only thing you can join in is a piece they don't do every Sunday."
"Which is that?" asked Mrs. Gano, in an odd voice.
She had turned away again, and Val couldn't see her face now.
"That long piece about the weather."
"Yes--lightnings, and whales, and things. Don't you know that one? It's like this." She put her hands behind her, and shrilly intoned: "'O ye green things, angels and fowls of the air, praise Him and magnify Him for-r-rever. O ye--'"
"That will do," interrupted Mrs. Gano, in a stifled voice.
Val felt snubbed; there was a lot more that, with encouragement, she would have endeavored to do justice to. She felt for the door-handle, but paused again on the threshold.
"Mayn't I go and sit with father?"
"Certainly not; you are to go to church."
"Gran'ma." There was a renewal of courage in the clear little voice. With a bound she planted herself in front of the old lady's chair. "I oughtn't to go. It's pertending; it's wicked. For I can't say the 'I b'lieve' any more."
Mrs. Gano rose in wrath and towered. Val stood to her guns, looking up with determined, excited face.
"I used to join in when I was younger: I used to bow, just like mother. Father never bowed. I don't any more, neither."
Mrs. Gano seize her by the shoulder and propelled her to the door. Wild thoughts of dungeons and burned martyrs flew through the child's mind. Still clutching the infidel, Mrs. Gano opened the door. In an awful voice she called:
Venus appeared with perturbed countenance, out of which all genial companionableness had fled. Yes, that was the kind of face an executioner might wear.
"Take Miss Val up-stairs and get her ready for church."
Venus took hold of the child none too gently, and pulled her, wriggling vainly, up the long staircase. It was no use to cling feverishly to the banisters; it only hurt her hands. Half-way up Venus stopped for breath. Val looked back to see if her grandmother was still there. Yes; leaning exhausted against he frame of the door, with her handkerchief to her lips. Now Venus was dragging her on again. In a fresh access of rage the child put her chin over the banisters and screamed:
"All the time they're doing the 'I b'lieve,' I shall go like this." She shook her head with such passionate dissent that her shock of wild hair swirled back and forth in a cloudy circle, completely hiding the mutinous, flushed face of the infidel.
Very soon after the formal removal of Emmie and her effects to her grandmother's bedroom, Val gave up the last lingering shred of hope that she might ever, while these misunderstood days of childhood lasted, propitiate the powers that be. She was always feeding her imagination in secret with stories of the ultimate love and adoration, not only of the suitors and heroes who should line her path later on, but of her family, too. They and the entire community should adore her one day for something wonderful and novel that she was going to be and to do in that fair future when she should be grown up and great and good.
Meanwhile there were moments when this sense of present outlawry brought with it a fierce and splendid joy. It endowed even a down-trodden child with a superhuman courage. Such a one might even go and plump herself down in the great red chair of state, and rock violently back and forth in a wild abandonment of wickedness, while Emmie stood transfixed and gran'ma's awful eyes made lightning. An outlaw so brave, she could narrate unmoved that she had taken a ride in the milkman's cart.
And he had been "so perlite as to ast me how was Grandmother Gano." This horrible insult on the part of the milkman was duly punished, but Val had a momentary sense of having "got even." In the South--in any civilized community, Mrs. Gano would have told you--you did not call people "old"; it had foolishly enough come to be a term of reproach, or at least of scant respect, fit only for "any old thing" of no account. Therefore, let alone the "owdacious" familiarity of asking after a lady as "Grandmother" So-and-so, you couldn't even with decency distinguish the elder lady from her daughter-in-law by asking after old Mrs. So-and-so. In the South, where manners were still understood, you said "senior" and "junior," or, among the better class, you called the son's wife "Mrs." So-and-so, and you called the head of the family "Madam."
"Grandmother Gano, indeed! I'll grandmother him!"
It was a great score, too, when Julia Otway, Jerry's nearly two years older sister, assured Val that that common term of reproach "Grannie," was corruption of the ancient and honorable title Gran'ma. Inseparably associating the word with the drunken rag-picker, "Ole Granny Gill," and the scathing juvenile satire, "Teach your granny to suck eggs," etc., Val determined on the next provocation to introduce the subject at home. She found occasion to dilate on the virtues of Julia Otway's grandmother. This was a shrunken and timid old lady, who sat unnoticed in the corner, clicking her knitting-needles, and usually saying nothing. When she did speak it was found her speech was odd, and the children laughed.
"Nearly everybody else's gran'ma knits stockens," Val observed one day, with critical eyes on the eternal book open on Mrs. Gano's knees.
"You know very few grandmothers," said the lady.
"I know Julia's She's so nice. I don't wonder Julia and Jerry like her."
This elicited nothing.
"She's the kindest person. She keeps a little chest o' drawers chock-full o' doughnuts and winter-green candy."
"Very strange use for a chest of drawers. Is the lady right in her head?"
Val, very indignant: "Goodness gracious! mercy me! I should think so!"
"I've told you not to use those exclamations."
"No, you didn't say--"
"Do I understand you to be contradicting me?"
"You said I wasn't to say 'Oh, Lord!' nor 'Gee-rusa-lem!' nor 'Dear me suz!' nor 'Holy Moses!' I don't see what there's left to say."
"I said let your speech be 'Yea, yea,' and 'Nay, nay.' you are not to bring sacred names into common talk. The Jews of old had a proper instinct for these things. They never uttered the name of Jehovah even in prayer. No Jew would step upon a piece of parchment, for fear it might be inscribed with the name of God. It is impious to call upon the mercy of the Most High on trivial occasions."
"I don't call on Him--never."
"Yes, you do, when you use those expressions. God is 'gracious'; He alone is 'goodness.'"
Silence; then Val, recovering and returning to the attack:
"Jerningham Otway's grandmother knows as well as I do that this is a turbulent and stiff-necked generation, without fear of God or reverence for authority. Her remedy seems to be effacement for herself and bribes for her young barbarians. But"--she had risen, and was towering --"I'd have you know, my lady, I'm not a doughnut grandmother."
Val thought it time to depart. She moved briskly to the door, sending over her shoulder a Parthian shot:
"Julia calls her gran'ma "Granny," and so do lots o' people. It seems it's the reg'lar name."
Thereupon she took to her heels, for even outlaws know limits.
At a safe distance she would speculate darkly: "I won-
der if she knows I hate her. Oh yes; it would be a waste of breath to mention it. She knows, and she doesn't care--she's that hardened."
It was clear at such times that this Ishmaelite's hand must be against every man, and every man's hand against her. All consideration of decent restraint had been flung to the winds. She had turned her back on the hallowed customs of society, and joined the iconoclasts of earth. She would even at times plant her elbows on the dinner table before everybody, with a wild, despairing sense that nothing mattered forever any more. Nobody loved her. Even her father didn't want her about him since his relapse. He said she came in like a whirlwind on the rare occasions when she was admitted to his room. She should never forget that day when he said: "Why can't you be quiet and good like Emmie?" Like Emmie! Val fled to the wilderness, and in the neighborhood of the barberry-bush flung out her arms and apostrophized the heavens. She talked a great deal to herself in those days--arraigned society, and used long works with vague meaning, but studied accent and overwhelming effect. However, in spite of the difficulty of life, Val found it an exhaustless mine of interest. Being naughty alone was full of palpitating excitement. Besides, she was much better that her family realized; that of itself was curious, and at times sufficient. At any rate, she was not, as she frequently observed to the scarlet barberries--she was not a sniveller. Fortunately, it did not occur to her that the circumstance might be less creditable to her than she fondly imagined.
Her quarrel with domestic conditions lent a fine tragic interest, in her own mind, to a life that was deep-rooted in joy. It was impossible not to be happy, such a splendid world as it was--a world with skipping-ropes and a stolen jack-knife in it; a world where an awful jolly boy lived on the other side the osage-trees, and liked you better than that favorite of fortune who had a pet monkey; a world with wild tracts below its terraces where grandmothers ceasesd from troubling, and hard-pressed heroines could
hide and talk out loud. A new house building in the next lot, with ceilings open to the sky, and instead of common floors, great beams where a child who "never was 'fraid" could walk up and down with its heart in its mouth; blocks to be picked up, and a kind workman to talk to when it was cold and gran'ma wasn't patrolling the north side of the Fort. Even for rainy afternoos there were the beloved Scottish Chiefs; there were jack-stones, and a family next door who owned a barn. Oh, splendid world, where you got twelve winter-green drops for a cent, and could play on your father's fiddle in the back hall! Hooray! it was a good plan this being born.
End Chapter 9
Available since September 1998