The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 12
A LETTER by the late post from cousin Ethan! It would be the last before he himself would appear. Emmie watched, with luminous eyes, her grandmother's opening of the envelope. Val, in banishment, waited impatiently outside in the dusk on the stairs to hear the news; but the face of the reader in the long room darkened as she read. She dropped the letter in her lap at the close, speechless.
"Oh! what is it, gran'ma?" quivered the sympathetic Emmie.
The old lady merely turned away her head.
"Gran'ma, he isn't dead?"
"No, not exactly dead," she said, very low.
"He is very ill?"
"No. He is gone again to France."
"But I thought he was coming here for sure this time?"
"So did I; not so Aaron Tallmadge!"
The name swept out like a sudden gust, scattering to the winds her unnatural calm.
"But you said he was nearly of age, when he would be his own master."
"Aaron Tallmadge remembered that." Her lips trembled with anger, and the big chair seemed to share her agitation. She held on to the red padded arms, as though she rocked on the high seas in a gale. "When Ethan comes of age he'll be five thousand miles away."
"But can't you stop him? Let Venie take a telegwaf."
"No, no!" The high wind, in which the great chair rocked, died down, the angry animation faded out of the old face, leaving it older still and very weary. "No, no; these things are not to be forced. It's natural. He has
been with Aaron Tallmadge all his days; he is his heir. He lives in a world where men think much of the bond of money, and little of the bond of blood. I shall not write again."
She folded up the letter and put it in its envelope. Her head drooped over the task.
"I thought cousin Ethan loved being here?"
"A long time ago. He was very little."
"But he never forgot?"
"It used to seem so."
Lower the old head sank, till the folds of white veil, falling on either side, met like two drawn curtains across her face.
"But you could see in his letters he was terribly sad and sorry to have put off coming--just to please his grandfather."
"Ah, well! it was a long time ago, and he was very little."
Mrs. Gano lifted her head--and, behold, her face was wet with tears. She found her pocket-handkerchief, and wiped them away angrily, as if she resented the salt-water drops more than her grandson's defection.
"Natural enough, I suppose," she said, with an assumption of half-scornful indifference. "Ethan's a man now, with wide means and the world before him. Why should he come to this dull, smoky town, when he can 'improve his accent' under brighter skies? There's no fortune here for him to inherit, and nothing new for him to see."
"He hasn't ever seen me," said Emmie, "nor Val."
Her grandmother drew her close and held the beautiful little face in he hands, looking down with unaccustomed tenderness, while again the tears gathered. A sudden movement of "This will never do." She cleared her voice and rose hurriedly.
"Good-night, child; go to bed. I must tell your father we needn't look for Ethan after this."
Emmie kept on going to bed at half-past eight, even
when she was old enough to have struck for another hour's freedom. But Emmie had not so much to get into her day; in fact, she was constantly going about saying she had nothing to do, and begging her grandmother to find her some way of getting through the hours. This frame of mind was, like godliness, one of the mysteries to Val. How anybody found the day long enough, and what being "bored" meant, were matters equally impenetrable. Her father was right. The world was a beautiful and absorbing place to one whose pleasure in it was unjaundiced. Val reflected with pride that her capacity for enjoyment was not blighted by too great early piety. It was no doubt because she was so singularly enlightened and advanced that, to her, just being alive, was so rapturous a joy. There was Emmie, now. With all her advantages, she wasn't happy; and she was as religious as her grandmother, if not more so. The inference was plain. People who were worried about their souls could not be expected to relish the selfish joy of being first in the games at recess. They probably didn't even eat their meals with the immense relish of the unregenerate. They didn't feel their hearts swell up with unaccountable gladness, at mere waking in the morning, to receive a broadside from the sun straight between the eyes. But it was just the same if the wind blew, or the rain fell. For no discoverable reason beyond lack of piety, Val would feel herself filled from crown to toe with tingling delight at this mere "being alive." There were, alas! other times when, for reasons partly patent, partly obscure, she was sore oppressed; but never did any hour find her so bowed down that the wild tumult of a storm would not stimulate her like strong wine. She would run about the house with flying hair and wide, excited eyes, when she couldn't manage to escape out-doors, and feel the rapturous buffet of the winds and dash of the rain in her face.
"She is like an electrical eel when there's a thunder-gust," she once overheard her grandmother say.
"Some affinity between the child and the elements," her father had replied, half seriously. "She came into the
world during the wildest and most destructive storm that ever swept over the State."
After hearing that, Val felt no apology was needed for her desire to go out and romp with the winds. It was all very well for other people to shut doors and windows and sit in the middle of non-conducting feather-beds (as her mother had done), but how should Val be afraid of thunder and lightning? They had come forth in their splendor and their might to welcome her into the wonderful world. Dangerous to others? Oh, very likely. They were friends and allies of Val Gano.
But not only through these more or less usual avenues did gladness reach her, but through some of the thorny by-ways before which men had set up the warning signal, "Pain!"
There was that affair of the hornet's sting. How lustily she had howled when, stepping into the ash-gray nest down by the choke-pear-tree, she found herself surrounded by an army of angry enemies, darting little poisoned knives! How frantically she had run back to the house, rending the air with shrieks, and yet queerly conscious, after the first shock of surprise, that this was a curious experience and a great discovery, not alone of the power of hornets, but a discovery, too, of the power of pain in herself! Before she reached the house, and leaving a lusty yell only half finished in her throat, she had stopped to notice, with an excitement akin to pride, how the back of her hand and arm had puffed up to an enormous size, and was stinging still, as if a thousand knives were being turned about in the flesh. Here was something quite new. While it agonized her, it kept her sense of curiosity in a tumult of painful pleasure. She stood still, watching the hand swell, while the tears poured down her flushed cheeks, absorbed in noting the action of the poison, wondering how much more the uncanny power of the sting could swell her poor little distorted hand. Was there any pain more horrible than this? Was it possible human beings could endure anything worse? And if so, what? She shut her wet eyes, dizzy with suffer-
ing, and yet in the dim background of her mind almost avid of that intenser pang, if any such there were in the arsenal of Nature's weapons against man.
Later came the memorable attack of diphtheritic sore throat, that made them all so kind. That was one of the most diverting things that had ever happened to her, not merely because her father sat by her nearly all the time, when her grandmother was or wasn't here; not only because her unwary elders fell into discussions that, no matter where else they led, could not terminate in Val's being ejected from the room, just as they got to the interesting crisis; not because of the thrilling tales of her grandmother's old acquaintance, Betsy Patterson, of Baltima', her marriage with Jerome Bonaparte, and her journey, alone and friendless, half across the world, to meet her mortal enemy and brother-in-law, the great Napoleon. Not in these obvious delights alone lay the whole advantage of the diphtheria incident, but in the discovery that there was a sensation, in or under the actual pain itself, that was new, exciting, almost agreeable. It was touching experience at a fresh point, and was far from being altogether regrettable. This sharp pain when one tried to swallow was only a keener way of feeling alive, a new accomplishment of the alert, responsive body. As if with foreknowledge that her experience in this direction was going to be limited, or as though she had heard Sir Thomas Brown say, "There is some sapor in all ailments," Val showed every inclination to make the most of this one.
"Now, you've got to behave, Emmie," she would say, if her sister seemed likely to forget that here at last her customary privileges must for the nonce give way. "You've only got a weak chest, but I've got a diphtheritic throat!"
It was during the agreeable time of convalescence that her grandmother showed her the faded samplers that she and her sisters and Aunt Valeria had worked as children. She got out the little boxes of old trinkets, too, and told the "story" of each and every one. There was volumes in these simple rings and mourning brooches, watch-chains
of hair, badly-painted miniatures, enamelled hearts and charms. She seemed to have literally dozens of gold and silver pencils. One was to be Val's and one Emmie's, when they were "old enough to take great care of them." But all the best ones seemed to belong to cousin Ethan. And there was that priceless and magnificent possession (that was also to be Ethan's) Grandfather Calvert's gold snuffbox, presented by the Burns Club, of "Baltima'," and inscribed with a verse of good-fellowship. This was the ancestor that Val took most interest in, even before the revelation of the snuffbox. He had been a merry gentleman, who amused himself so well in the "Baltima' " of his day, that he had to be sent when only nineteen as "supercargo," whatever that meant, to the West Indies. It was evident paternal punishments in those times were slight, for he had loved "supercargoing." He came home with a store of stories and a fortune, and --as it presently leaked out, to Val's and Emmie's delight--he ran away with his wife when he was only twenty-one and the little lady barely fifteen. Mrs. Gano had been betrayed into admitting that she was born before her mother had reached her sixteenth birthday.
"Why, then, our great-grandmother had a daughter when she was fifteen!"
"No, no; she was very nearly sixteen-one may say she was sixteen."
But Val and Emmie preferred the other form. A baby of your own to play with when you are only fifteen! Ha, that was the way to begin life! People in these times shilly-shallied so wastefully. This great-grandmother hadn't missed anything by her promptitude in marrying. After she was a wife and a mother, she used to call her girl friends into the high-walled garden, and stationing a slave on the gate-post, to keep watch and give warning when the husband could be seen coming home from his counting-house, this real, proper kind of a great-grandmother would tuck up her long skirts and have a rousing game of hide-and-seek, stopping breathless in the middle when Sambo
cried from his watch-tower, "Massa comin'!" She would let down her gown and pin up her curls and go demurely to the gate to meet her lord, and tell him the baby and she had had a good day. Ah, it was plain they had been a frivolous pair! Theirs were the mahogany tables with slender, twisted legs and baize-lined folding tops, that in these serious days never caught sight of a card. Instead of reading Blair's "Sermons" and Baxter's "Rest," this agreeable ancestor had accumulated all those French romances down-stairs, and even when he left gay youth behind, he had sat in his counting-house, not like the King of Hearts, counting out his money, but revelling in the novels of the Wizard of the North. And when it was noised about at home among his growing daughters that he had nearly finished the latest one, and would start fair and even from the bottom step, at his coming-home hour, and race to meet him. The lucky one who reached him first got the new Waverley.
To the adaptable eye of youth "all things are possible," with parents as with God. It never occurred to Val and Emmie as a subject for surprise or inquiry how such a person as their grandmother had come to find herself dans cette galère. Mrs. Gano would usually wind up her Calvert stories with a half-humorous, half-reverent smile.
"Your great-grandmother" --she never said "my father" or "mother," but with a detached, impartial air --"your great-grandmother was the best woman I ever knew; and your great-grandfather lived a useful life, and died, after receiving extreme unction, in all the odor of sanctity."
"He wasn't a Pisspocalian, like us?" Emmie asked.
"No; Roman Catholic. We had all gone different ways by that time, but he would say, 'Ah! wait till you're as old as I: you'll all come back into the bosom of Mother Church.'" She would smile at this. "He was not a thinker--he had lived all his best years in the active world of work and pleasure, and when he saw his end in sight, he looked about
him for a priest." She would smile again--less tenderly, more ironically. "This was priests' business; best leave it in their hands."
It was interesting to the children to observe that not even for the benefit of the young was family history falsified.
"Oh, he was consistent enough. Even before he embraced Roman Catholicism, he never spoke of religion except with the greatest reverence." She would glance sharply at the children's father, if he were present when she reached this point in that or any similar narrative, seeming for the moment to lose sight of the younger generation in her desire to point the moral for the benefit of her son. "I never heard of a Calvert who questioned revealed religion; and as for the Ganos, any one who has a mind to look, may read in the family record that they were all eminent for piety in their day and generation."
"Does that little record go further back than 1760?" her son once asked, meditatively.
"No: but that's quite far enough to show what's expected."
During this illness in particular, there were times when Val was drawn unaccountably to the strange old woman. If the child had had more encouragement, she could have loved her well and openly, renouncing for her sake domestic heresy and schism. The secret passion for loving and being loved had grown in the girl with every year. It was not only the strongest current that swept through her being--that is true of many--but even in this young and sheltered life it rose betimes to freshet and to flood, hungry, devouring, unappeased. The girl led three lives--the gay, triumphant surface one at school, the checkered existence at home, and that deep heart life apart in the sunlit valley of imagination, whither, when the wind of destiny blew bleak on the uplands of domestic life, she would retreat with all the honors of war--rally and "captain her army of shining and generous dreams."
The intensity of the craving for approbation, the love-hunger in the child's heart, would be called morbid by
those who find that epithet a ready one to apply to heights and depths from which they themselves are debarred by a niggard nature. It was true (even if, like many another fact about this young creature, it is not to be approved) that she had had an affair of the heart in New York--princes apart--when she had attained the ripe age of seven. It had been a kind of infidelity to the dark-browed hero of dream, for the gentleman in question was not a nobleman, not even a Nimrod, and he had red hair. But, nevertheless, he was a peril to the peace of mind of a diminutive maid, and all unconsciously to himself "brought her acquainted with" a more thrilling joy and a more poignant pain than some women can look back upon from the height of fifty years. Oh, these strange stirrings of the too eager heart!--the sharp rapture and the sharper pain, the whimsical, bitter pathos of them read by the light of later "exultations, agonies!" Who that has had this window opened for him into the virginal chamber of awakening woman-life can look through it without tears? But this particular window is not for our eyes. After that premature romance had come to an untimely end, or, rather, when its hopelessness was comforted and covered by the quick-growing ivy of new affections, there was peace for a time in the camp of love, or only border skirmishing. Not, of course, for any lack of enterprise, or any dearth of heroes, for almost any passer in the street will serve for a peg to drape the gossamer of a dream upon. He is perhaps the unrequited lover--he is some one in disguise; not Mr. Ernest Halliwell, the son of the local doctor, but heir to an earldom over the sea. You are sorry you can never love him; he must break his heart in vain. It is almost too sad, for his hair curls prettily over his ears, and his smile is gentle and haunting. But high above all these little "foot-notes," as it were, to the great main text of the romance, ran the radiant "continued story" of that one who cometh--he with swift, unfaltering feet, he with the sheltering arms--bearing the great gift in his bosom, and his face, still for a little space--still hidden.
Meanwhile, eager friendships at school, and devotion to her father at home, and to Jerry's handsome brother in the promised land beyond the osage hedge--not all these and hope besides could fill the foolish, hungry heart. Nobody else in the world but a few novel-writers and herself seemed in the least concerned about the chief business of life, which was plainly loving and being loved. It did not appear to be a subject of conversation with grown persons. Not only at the Fort, with a grandmother who plainly could know nothing of such matters, and a father who, besides his children, loved only rocks and trees, but in the homes of the other girls as well, the supreme topic was neglected, ignored, except when considered covertly among the young, as conspirators whisper treason. It was very queer. Evidently her absorption in the subject was part and parcel of her perverted nature, her "low curiosity." It was, at all events, a weakness to be hid except from that very best of all her "best friends," Julia Otway. Not that Julia even was told of the Great Romance, but the two girls wondered and surmised together, bringing day by day to their common store every new scrap of knowledge or conjecture that came their way. Val was the more adventurous, the less fastidious. She it was who would speculate most boldly, sketching out certain chapters, certain scenes even, in that great coming drama, that are currently supposed not to enter the imagining of maidens. Yes, yes; it was all wrong perhaps to think about these things; but why, then, were they so interesting? It wasn't her fault. But at last one day, when the more modest-minded Julia said, "I want awfully to hear, but I don't think we'll tell these stories any more. I don't feel somehow as if it was quite right," then Val knew that indeed she was "low-minded," and was as humiliated as the sternest moralist could desire.
She admired Julia more than ever for her rigid asceticism. Ah yes! there was no blinking the fact. That was the kind of strength of mind it was fine to have, but the richly merited rebuke of herself made her wince with shame.
The very memory of the moment was like a dagger-thrust for years.
And still there was a buoyancy in her that was always lifting her mountains high after these deep descents into the pit. One potent device for the recovery of self-respect was to name a day from the dawn of which she should start a new life, absolutely different from the past, which was by this act cut off and dropped into oblivion. Monday mornings began not alone a new week, but a new era. Her great fresh start of the year was taken annually at Christmas, or if one made a slip--one always did--the New Year was the time, or else Easter, or, after all, one's birthday was a fitting moment for such regeneration. The girl who had been only eleven was inevitably a poor creature, but the person of twelve! Ah, when the clock struck that complete and significant number a new and quite perfect existence was inaugurated! The next year, to be about to enter one's teens, was discovered to be, after all, the psychological moment for starting a new life. Then fourteen! Ah, that was the true age of understanding, besides being twice the sacred number seven! If she was much happier than other people for the most part--as she knew she was--she had also moments of being much nearer despair. There were all the times when people hurt her feelings, and when her only consolation was the old one of pretending she hadn't any feelings to hurt. If life ministered to her more than it did to most, it bruised her too from crown to sole.
There were those hours of reaction, after long expectation of some birthday-party, or the Fourth of July fireworks, or the school Commencement, when a blank wretchedness fell upon her. It hadn't been what she had hoped. How or where it had failed was partly a mystery, but there was a strange bitterness left behind. She refused vehemently in her own mind to accept for truth the rumor abroad in the world, "Nothing ever comes up to expectation." Oh yes, things would by-and-by come up to and exceed anticipation. It was only now, and through some
fault in her, that they fell short of perfection. As she grew older she developed a pitiless self-criticism--of her speech, her manners, her looks, her attainments. This creature, among certain girls that were awkward, and certain others that put on airs and graces, this profoundly egotistical little person, was actually commended for being "perfectly un-selfconscious"; the fact being that she was far too "aware" of herself, saw herself far too vividly in her mind's eye; to go on making the current mistakes of affectation or of clumsiness. She knew unerringly when she giggled with embarrassment, when she had been "making eyes," when she was in danger of seeming superior, or what her grandmother called "toploftical." She was keenly, quiveringly self-conscious, and conscious too of other people; feeling their moods as an Æolian harp feels the light wind, brightening under their unspoken, their merely looked approval, and shrinking beneath her careless exterior at their unuttered blame, wearing her reputation for hardness like an inversion of the magic suit of mail, seeming stout armor, and yet letting every arrow through. Still, it served its purpose, since no one dared say, "See! that struck home!"
End Chapter 12
Available since September 1998