The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 13
AFTER several years' supremacy as "the greatest dancer on the earth," that brilliant career was suddenly abandoned. It was evident that a mistake had been made. Val's true destiny was to be Queen of Song. It was difficult to illustrate the fact in your unmusical grandmother's house, but you could do a good deal in that direction at the New Plymouth Seminary for Young Ladies. You could roar down several hundred girls in the morning hymn, and you could even have occasional surreptitious performances in the gymnasium, or at home in the kitchen, where whole cycles of impromptu operas were given in a season. For the rest, you sang to yourself in lonely places and exulted. Sometimes you trembled, shaken to the verge of tears by the beauty and pathos of your own voice.
There had been a brief interval when the sum of achievements in the drawing-class seemed, in Val's mind, to point to her becoming a second Rosa Bonheur. It was certain that her copy of Landseer's "Rabbits" was a work of extreme merit. Even her grandmother, who usually said "Hum!" when she looked at Val's original designs for wall-paper or carpet, remarked on beholding the rabbits: "I'll have them framed."
If that were not distinction, where shall it be found?
But it was grasping to set more than one snare for greatness--let Emmie be Rosa Bonheur, Val would be the great singer of her time.
"Let me have music lessons," she prayed. "I'll practise at school and at Julia's."
"It is out of the question," said her grandmother.
Val knew "out of the question" meant it was a question of being out of pocket.
"I'll give up drawing."
"Drawing is much less expensive; and even so, you and Emmie must give it up after this term."
"Then, what on earth are we going to learn besides common lessons?"
"I'll teach you botany and gardening," said her father.
"I don't care about botany," said Val, hotly, "and"--unmasking the hypocrisy of years-- "and as for gardening, there isn't anything I hate so much."
Her father couldn't believe his ears.
"Yes. I'm sorry. It's very kind of you to offer so often to teach me; but I really quite hate flowers."
Her father looked at her with a severity she had seldom seen in his face.
"Then, in that case"--he spoke as though originating a punishment fit for a new unnatural crime-- "in that case you should learn cooking."
After such a blow, there was nothing for it but to remember that for weeks Jerusha had wanted her to take some household sewing to poor old Miss Kirby up on Plymouth Hill. Val would run all the way to the Dug Road and there, in the deep cut in the hill-side, or in the even more lonely ravine above, she would sit with the bundle of sewing on her knees, raging solemnly over it at fate, and devising spirited revenges. In a wood on the farther side there was a place deep hidden in bush and brier, where a wild grape-vine made a swing between two old forest trees. It was a distinct source of comfort to Val that she didn't know the names of these trees. She would shut her eyes tight, and swing high out in the free air, with a sense that she was flying form two calling voices, afraid the accents should reach her clearly, afraid lest by an unwary peep something in bark or leaf should press back upon her impatient memory "their ugly names," cheered and strengthened after each escape by finding her ignorance intact.
Out, far out, on the wild grape-vine, swinging till she forgot the importunate trees, forgot all threatened ignominy, forgot everything but the ecstasy of living and swinging and singing, and looking forward--looking out past home perplexities and wild wood tangles, out, far out, towards the secure beauty and the certain wonder of the coming years.
Emmie came home from school earlier than usual one memorable day, and told Mrs. Gano with frightened eyes that Val had done something awful. She couldn't make out what, for all the Academic and Collegiate girls whispered about it secretly at recess. But Val was locked up in the Principal's room, and it was considered doubtful if she'd ever be let out, so angry was Miss Appleby. But even the Principal's wrath was less than the wrath of her niece, Miss Beach, the new teacher of the primary school and of gymnastics.
Emmie had naturally felt humiliated at her sister's disgrace. She thought she could never, never go back to school again. By the time the miscreant got home, Mrs. Gano was properly worked up to receive her.
Val saw at a glance from Emmie's cloudy eyes and her grandmother's, cold and gleaming, how her story had been forestalled. She held up her head, and said, carelessly:
"Well, I've got myself into a scrape."
Her grandmother fixed her silently for an instant, and then said:
"'Scrape' is not the word. You've heard that expression from Jerningham Otway. We don't get into scrapes."
Emmie seemed to Val's overheated imagination to sit and plume herself.
"All the members of your family have been well-mannered and well-conducted people. We leave 'scrapes' to others."
Val fell a sudden prey to the old loneliness in the midst of so much family rectitude.
"I am waiting to hear what has happened."
Mrs. Gano folded her blue-veined hands across the open book on her knee.
"Well, I think they mean to expel me."
She shut the book with a snap.
"Oh, Miss Appleby's coming to see you," said Val, with overacted indifference. "She'll tell you everything that Emmie hasn't told you already."
"I don't choose to ask Miss Appleby for details that I ought to hear from you."
Val looked at Emmie's curiosity-lighted face and kept silence. Her grandmother understood.
"Run out and play, child; you sit too much in the house," she said to the younger child.
"I've got nobody to play with," came from Emmie, not budging.
"Then go and get me some jonquils and narcissuses."
"I've hurt my finger."
"Then take a book and sit in the porch."
"I've read all the books on the juvenile shelf."
"Leave the room!"
Val's heart swelled up in gratitude. It was considerate of her judge not to hold the court in inquiry before Emmie.
"Well," said Val, plunging into the unhappy business the moment the door was closed, "you know how we hate and despise--I mean how we don't like Miss Beach."
"Humph! I dare say Miss Beach doesn't like all her pupils."
"I should think she didn't! She hates us!"
"I don't want to hear such strong expressions. I've nothing to do with the other girls; but it's a bad lookout for you if you haven't earned the respect of an estimable woman like Miss Beach."
"You wouldn't call her that if she gave you unfair marks, and said and looked spiteful things at you."
"Looked! What nonsense are you talking?"
"Well, she"--Val dropped her eyes and crimsoned--
"she laughed at my new gymnastics dress." There was a pause. "It is unlike the others."
"Beyond a doubt. Far too good for the purpose. That broché came from Baltima'. Your aunt Valeria never wore it but once. It was as good as new."
"Well, all the other girls wear blue serge, but they never laughed. Miss Beach did. Perhaps she didn't mean me to see, but I did."
"Well, she invents new marches--in-and-out figures, you know--and she only does them once very quickly, and makes me lead off afterwards, and blames me if there's the least mistake. So I--I--just thought the next time she invented something new I'd see if I--I--couldn't make her do it slower. So--well, I collected parlor-matches for a week."
Mrs. Gano's quick movement said, " That's where the matches have gone."
"And I cut off their heads, and I gave some to--three of my friends, and I had a lot myself; and as we marched we threw 'em little by little under Miss Beach's ugly fat--I mean under her feet."
"I'm amazed at you--simply amazed!"
Mrs. Gano's eyebrows had shot up to the middle of her forehead. Val studied for the hundredth time the hairless boy arches above the piercing eyes, and the strange look of the patches of eyebrow sitting up on her forehead in that amazed fashion.
"Well, she did do that new march very slow, stopping and looking round surprise when the matches exploded, and at last she gave up marching altogether, and kind of exploded herself. She was angry, and red too-- purple, all over her ugly podgy--over her face."
"I don't wonder she blushed for you. I am very much ashamed of you myself. It was the action of a ruffianly street-boy."
"She wasn't ashamed. She was just mad--I mean angry. She asked who had done it, and nobody said--"
"I'm not surprised you wanted to hide it."
"Then she said she should get her aunt to suspend the whole class; so I had to tell her it was me, and they shut me up in Miss Appleby's room."
"Quite right," said Mrs. Gano, backing up the authorities as usual.
"Oh yes," said Val, bitterly, "that's what Miss. Beach thought too; she said it was the only thing to do with a wild beast."
"She didn't use those words!"
The eyebrows suddenly shot up again.
"Yes'm, she did. Ask Julia Otway. Miss Beach 'd say anything. Why, she was educated at a mixed school."
"You don't mean blacks and whites together?"
Mrs. Gano had some ado to recover her rigid attitude of respect for those in authority over her grandchild; but she relaxed the upward tension of her eyebrows and was studying Val straight through her spectacles.
"You can learn manners at home. Miss Beach is quite competent to teach Emmie spelling and you dancing and calisthenics, and her manners are not your business. It is only the young people who are quite perfect themselves who can waste time criticizing their elders."
"Yes'm," answered Val, meekly. She was surprised that her crowning misdeed and public disgrace were taken so calmly. "Please, who's going to tell my father I'm expelled?"
"Nobody is to tell him anything of the sort!" she fired up. "Now that things have come to this pass I must try to make you understand. We can't go on like this. What you have done to-day would disgrace a street urchin; and yet you are old enough to be a comfort to your father."
Val fidgeted miserably.
"You have given us more trouble than all the other children of the family put together; and yet I have discovered there is a kind of reasonableness in you when it's deliberately appealed to."
Val looked up quickly. She felt there was a new note in these remarks.
"I should be very sorry to go to your father with this miserable story; he has enough to trouble him, and he is ill; he does not get better." She had laid convulsive hold on the red-padded arms of the great rocking-chair, and the purple veins started up on the long hands. "I sometimes think--I sometimes think he gets worse." Her voice had sunk very low. There was a look in the waxen features that made the girl's heart grow chill. "I have noticed your impulse to be considerate toward your father, to spare him the knowledge of your antics. I have been glad you had this instinct. You will be glad when you are older--when you are alone."
There was a long silence. Neither looked at the other. Presently, with lowered eyes, Val came closer, and on a sudden impulse, kneeling, she laid her cheek on the long left hand that still clutched the chair-arm.
"You'll see," she said, fighting down her tears-- "you'll see I shall be better."
She felt the other hand laid softly on her head, and neither of the two spoke or moved for a long time.
A sharp ring broke the spell, and the quick following clatter of "E. Gano's" knocker sent all gentle influences flying.
"Miss Appleby!" Val sprang up. Yes. They could hear her voice. Before Venus had time to come and say she was in the parlor, Mrs. Gano had opened her own door and closed it behind her. Val stood looking out of the closed widow, trembling with anxiety, registering vows that if she were let off this time, if by some miracle she were not expelled, she would be such an honor to the family, such a comfort to her father, that he would be encouraged to live practically forever.
Emmie presently opened the door very softly, and crept in.
"She's just goin', I think," whispered the little sister, who seldom bore a grudge. "Oh, she has been getting it!"
Emmie squirmed with suppressed merriment at this notion.
"I should think not! Miss Appleby's been getting it. Gran'ma said they were making a mounting out of a mole-hill--and expelling people did the school no good. Said you'd tell Miss Beach you were sorry, and that was a good deal, 'cause you didn't like beggin' pardings."
" Did she say that?"
"Yes. An' Miss Appleby said she was very grieved, but she had promised her niece not to take you back this term."
"Her niece! Her sneaking Black and White Oberlin woer-r-r-rm!"
" Gran'ma didn't call her that," whispered Emmie, with an air of gentle reproof. "She just said, 'Unless your niece is very foolish'" (Emmie could mimic astonishingly well), "'and unfit for her post, she will be glad to reconsider.' Miss Appleby got mad at that, and seemed to be going away, so I ran into the dining-room. When I got back gran'ma was saying, if they expelled you, I should be taken away too."
"And if they were both awful mad then, an' gran'ma said, Oh, she'd just as soon take us away, and she wouldn't hesitate to say why. 'We don't send our daughters to school to be called wild beasts by young women from Oberlin.'"
"Hooray! hooray!" Val spun about the room, waving her arms victoriously. "We've got a oner for a grandmother after all!"
The room door opened and the hall door banged.
"What are you doing?" said Mrs. Gano, stopping short.
"Oh, nothing," replied Val, composing herself expeditiously; "only I do love you, gran'ma," and she held up her face to be kissed.
"If you love me, keep my commandments," said the lady, without enthusiasm, and equally without sense of irreverence. "That will do. Now go."
She was turning away, when some sudden thought
occurred to her. She gleamed at Val through her glasses in an enigmatic way, and said:
"Is this true about the trouble you've given your preceptors over the Bible verse every morning?"
"I don't give trouble every morning; but it's so tiresome, gran'ma, to begin exercises every day the same way."
"I should think so, if several hundred girls will go on repeating exactly the same texts year in and year out."
"Well, when they scolded us for never learning new ones, I tried to oblige them--I did, indeed."
"Hum! Miss Appleby tells me you appeared next day with 'Jesus wept.'"
Val grinned, and then grew grave.
"They are very hard to please. They want something we hadn't all said a thousand times, and something longer than--"
"You can't think how furious they are now if we happen on the same thing. I do my best to oblige them. I suppose a--Miss Appleby--"
Val tried to find out from the non-committal face whether the principal had entered upon this. If not, so much confessing all in one day was perhaps overdoing it.
"Well," said her grandmother, "Miss Appleby tells me--I can hardly credit it--that you stood up in your place yesterday morning and recited, 'Comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love.'"
"Well, it wasn't me that laughed; and I told Miss Appleby it was in the Bible right enough."
"Yes. Well, I'll pick out your texts for you in future." She spoke with charming geniality, and a glint through her glasses. "Now go and get your lessons for to-morrow."
After the failure of Miss Beach to have Val disgraced and expelled, the girl felt that though her grandmother might herself abuse her, she would not permit any one else to do so. The early years of warfare merged by degrees, and in spite of lapses, into a less lawless scheme of life.
The reason of it was not in any great measure regard for
her father. He lived too much apart from the din of daily events for their remote effect on him to be much present to the preoccupied mind of youth. The change came about through a growing, albeit unwilling, admiration and sense of friendship for her grandmother. She was entertaining, this old lady, in spite of her terrible faults. One was never dull with her. She told delightful stories, and she laughed at yours when they were good. Indeed, no matter how abandoned had been your conduct, if you could make her laugh you were saved. It was not in child-nature not to lay traps for that pardoning gleam of the fierce eye, that involuntary twitching of the judicial mouth. An exchange of anecdotes tends inevitably to a good understanding. But more than by any other means, perhaps, the perverse school-girl and the autocratic old woman were brought together by a mutual recognition of a common regard for justice. When Val found out that her grandmother was not as arbitrary as she had supposed, the battle was half over. Mrs. Gano had been overheard advising her son, "Don't try to coerce Val. If you can convince that child's reason you can do what you like with her, but you can't drive her an inch." The girl felt that she was being understood. Perhaps the truth was they were both changing, both developing, the old no less than the young.
Certain it is they became better and better friends, and had surprisingly much in common. Still, Val had struggled so long against owning to herself that any good could come out of this Nazareth, that it was some time before a belated sense of fairness led her to avow guardedly to her old fellow-sufferer her new view of the autocrat. She must try, little by little, to convince her father that, contrary to appearance, and despite many sore experiences, his mother had her good points.
"Gran'ma's been real kind to me and Julia to-day."
"Julia thinks she's awfully nice."
This rather in the tone of "there's no accounting for tastes."
"Yes," said her father, not seeming enough impressed.
"She says I may read The H----Family and all the Frederika Bremer books now that I've finished the Waverleys."
"H'm! I never looked at them myself."
"But do you know why she was so nice about The H---- Family?" It was one thing to do justice to her good deeds, but it was no use setting up a false ideal and pretending she was better than she was. "You see, we'd read all the horrid silly little Harry and Lucys and Sandford and Mertons and Moral Tales and things, and I'd begun Bohn's Wilhelm Meister."
"I put down the book while I tied my shoe, and when I looked up she was putting it into the fire."
"But it wasn't her book at all; I got it out of your room underneath the big Brande and Taylor's Chemistry. It had your name in it."
"Yes"--reflectively-- "I bought it on April 9, 1870."
"Well, it's burnt now."
He was still smiling and stroking his ragged beard.
"I hope she isn't going to keep the big bookcases locked up forever," sighed Val.
"She will never like to see Valeria's books knocking about."
"Gracious, no! She refused to lend Mrs. Otway Helen Whitman's Poems, because she said it had Poe's notes in it; but I knew it wasn't a bit on account of Poe. It had some of Aunt Valeria's notes in it, and that was why she wouldn't let it go out o' the house. I was awfully ashamed, and Mrs. Otway looked so snubbed."
And still he only smiled.
"She isn't a bit like other people, but sometimes I'm not sorry."
"Never be sorry, my child. Never be so dull as not to realize that the woman who stands at the head of our line gives us our best title of honor--and to hope."
Val opened astonished eyes. Her father was indeed forgiving--fantastically generous. he was gazing off into space now, and his look was strangely lighted.
"She belongs to the heroic age," he said, with a kind of worship in his face. "She was born before we began to split hairs, and have nerves instead of nerve."
Val couldn't stand it. Her father was worth fifty grandmothers.
"I should imagine she thought she was a pretty fine sort of person."
"She hasn't a notion how utterly she stands alone. I've gone up and down the world for over forty years, and never seen her equal. Her equal?"
He laughed derisively, and began to talk of her as he might have talked of Semiramis or Boadicea, only more vividly. It was very annoying. He had come to care about her too, "only more so." But the real blow fell when it came out that he had felt like this all along. Appreciation, fairness were all very well, but this besotted heroine-worship was a little pitiable. All these years that Val had been so sure he was silently nursing his injuries and modestly contemplating his own superiority, he had been on the side of the oppressor.
"H'm!" mused Val. "I s'pose she was different, then, to her own children."
"Ah yes; I've often observed the softening of late years."
"The growing tolerance, the forbearance with my children, that she never showed Valeria and me."
Val's imagination reeled at the thought of what her grandmother could have been like when she was more intolerant than she was to-day. And it was all forgotten and forgiven! Here he was now leaving glittering generalities, and telling story after story of his mother's courage and her wisdom. She did seem to have been a useful kind of parent, and it appeared she had been more generous in money matters than Val had thought.
"And what she did that time she has always done. She never failed anybody who depended on her. I always think of her when I read the lines:
"'Oh iron nerve to true occasion true,
. . . that tower of strength
Which stood four-square to all the winds that blew!'
Try to understand your grandmother, my child," he wound up; "she is the Pallas Athene of our line."
Val did not know that an American is never happy as when his is vaunting his womankind. But in her estimation Pallas does better over your chamber door than in an arm-chair looking at you--through you--with a grandmother's spectacles. You forget what a heroine she is when she criticizes the way you sit--"A lady never crosses her legs;" and the way you walk -- "I used to swing my arms too--very bad habit; you should study repose." And when wrought upon by your too generous-judging father, or by some private discovery of her worth, you burst out: "Oh, I do love you!" it chills you to get for all response: "You don't love me, or you'd behave differently. 'By their fruits ye shall know them.'"
It was no better later on, when, with growing freedom of speech and warmth of feeling, you would ask in an engaging way: "Why don't you love me?" and get for answer: "It's a mistake to think your relations owe you love; you have to earn it from them as you do in the world outside." Worst of all, and most humiliating to the eager spirit, was it to be "warded off" if you came to kiss her oftener than good-morning and good-night. "We are not a kissing family," she would say; and you cringed under the blow.
No; Pallas Athene was not an unqualified success--as a grandmother.
There were times, indeed, when her shortcomings nearly drove her granddaughter into considering an elopement with Harry Wilbur, the eighteen-year-old son of Judge Wilbur. With mental apologies to her ideal hero, Val had kept up a vigorous correspondence with Harry,
pending the time when the superior suitor should carry her off, and save her the trouble and ungraciousness of breaking the pleasant chains that bade fair, as the days went on, to bind her to her gallant young Hercules. Harry Wilbur was captain of the base-ball team, and the darling hero of the entire New Plymouth Seminary. Most of these studious young ladies thought more of manly strength and of that particular grace that is born of bodily vigor than they did of the qualities of the mind. It was as if, all untutored, they had the improvement of the physique of the race at heart. Julia Otway, for instance, would decant almost daily upon Harry Wilbur's "splendid figure," and how he held his shoulders; how he walked from the hip, and how easily he played the hottest game. She would give as adequate reason for despising some more wealthy or more intellectual citizen, that she hated men who did uninteresting things for a living or did nothing at all. Val shared this spirit of Julia's to an extent that gave her a pleasant sense of victory when young Wilbur showed her more attention at dances and archery tournaments that he showed the other girls. Besides, this open devotion made Ernest Halliwell sad, and Jerry Otway "mad," and that was highly agreeable. But Harry didn't "care a fip," as Jerusha said, about music, and music was the supreme affair of life until--until--
Every year saw the resources of the Ganos lessening, the problem of life more difficult to solve.
"You see," Val would say, radiant, "it just shows the need for me to study singing and make money."
"You? Ridiculous and most improper! No woman of your family has ever dreamed of taking money for anything she has done."
The following summer--or "on June 18," as he would have said, taking care to add the year, and even the hour--John Gano received a shock. A kindly letter had come to him from his old flame, Mrs. Otway, to say that, although he seemed to have forgotten her, still, for old friendship's
sake, and out of affection for Val, she felt it a neighborly duty to tell him in confidence that his eldest daughter was making preparations to run away and be a chorus-girl in New York. Mrs. Otway's own daughter had been so oppressed by the enormity of the secret, that she had told her mother. Julia had broken open her bank and given all her savings to "the cause." It was understood, too, that Val had other sources of revenue not revealed. However, merely to deprived her of the money might not be sufficient to head her off, as she had been heard to say she was going to New York, if she had to walk there.
John Gano did not break the awful news to his mother. He betrayed nothing unusual in his aspect, as he said to his daughter:
"It's a glorious afternoon! Shall we go for a walk?"
Val was not as enthusiastic as she had been wont to be, but after the fraction of a moment's preoccupied hesitation she answered, brightly:
"I should love it!"
He caught up his blackthorn stick, and they set off. Val chatted about the school Commencement, about the new archery club, and how "horrid much" the bows and arrows cost.
"I dare say I could make you a set," said her father. "I always made my own cross-bows as a boy."
"I know. And when you were only eight you cut and carved and glued together a perfect model of a stage-coach. You are wonderful about making things; but these big bows have to be of orange-wood, tough and limber, you know."
"Hickory would do."
"No; they have to be all alike. That's what parents never realize. Gran'ma was just so about my gymnasium dress. But Jerry Otway's going to bring a piece of orange-wood back. He traded with another boy at the Military Institute, swopped an old racket for it. He's going to see if he can't do a home-made bow, so's you can't tell the difference, varnish and all."
"When does Jerry get back?"
"A week from to-morrow, in time for Julie's birthday-party."
They had gone a mile or so along the old turnpike road. The sun was still very hot and the dust ankle-deep. Mr. Gano stopped meditatively, and struck his blackthorn into the gray "MacAdam" powder.
"Yet, in spite of all this to occupy and amuse you, you want to turn your back on it all."
"I understand you are thinking of running away."
Val gave a little gasp, and prayed the dusty road might gape and swallow her.
"Don't be frightened, and don't be sorry that I know," he said, gently. "I think you ought to have told me before."
She ventured to lift a pair of very anxious eyes.
"I don't blame you. You are an unfortunate child."
"Child? I am in my sixteenth year," she interposed, with dignity.
"You are an unfortunate child," he repeated, firmly, "with a great deal of surplus energy. It must go somewhere. It's a law of nature; only I hadn't quite realized how it was with you. You never seemed at a loss."
"You knew I was just dying for want of proper music-lessons."
She could not keep the excited tears out of her eyes.
"Well, well!" her father muttered, leaning with both hands on his stick and scrutinizing the dust. "I wonder if a few music-lessons couldn't be managed."
"A few? I don't want a few: I want months and years! I want to act and sing in grand opera, and--be famous," she said, to herself, but aloud--"make heaps of money."
Her father turned to walk back to the town, saying, calmly:
"Oh, as to acting and singing, that of course--"
She opened her eyes wide. Did he understand? Was he going to relent?
"A young person's wanting to go on the stage and astonish the world with her genius--that's natural enough."
Val began to shrink. She hadn't mentioned genius.
"It's a very usual sentiment, I believe, among young people," he went on, in the same calm voice. "It's a ferment natural to their time of life--not very serious, any more than first love or measles."
Val grew stiffer and more dignified with each word he uttered.
"Anybody would think from what you say, father"-- she was holding herself down with difficulty--"that people all gave up music when they arrived at years of discretion. There is such a person as Patti after all, and there may be somebody somewhere better than Patti, just" --her voice began to shake--"just waiting for a little help."
"Ah, better than Patti!"
He smiled. The look of tender amusement fell like a lash upon the spirit of his child.
"Oh yes, it's all very well to laugh, father. You don't care. Nothing matters any more to you. I dare say, even when you were young, you didn't know what it was like to feel that you'd be chopped up into little fine pieces rather than go on in the old dull way that most people do."
A quick, dim look, like the ghost of an ancient pain, flitted over the worn face of the man; but he walked on, saying nothing.
"You don't know what it's like to look over there for years and years"--she flung out a hand to the horizon--"and say to yourself, day in and day out, 'Beyond that blue line is the world! Oh, when shall I be seeing the world?'" She stopped, and so did her father, turning now to look at the excited face. "Some people never do," she said, with a kind of incredulous horror. "I can't sleep sometimes for thinking of how, here in New Plymouth, there are all these people, with all their senses (so far as you can see), and arms, and legs, and money, and yet here
they sit, just where they happened to be dumped--sit and wait till they die! Oh, it's like a nightmare, thinking of them! I feel if I don't run away quick while I'm awake and able to move, I shall freeze fast in my hole, too, and never be able to reach all the beautiful things that are waiting--out there!" She nodded over to the encircling hills. " Think of it!" and the bright tears tumbled out of her shining eyes.
"I don't want my little girl to miss any good thing," he said, presently, as they were nearing the town.
"Then help me, father. Be kind to me."
She came closer, and touched his sleeve.
"But the things waiting for those who venture out there"--he turned a look full of foreboding on the blue horizon--"they aren't all, or even most of them, good things."
"No, no. I've heard that; but I'll make the best of them."
He shook his head.
"You haven't a notion what a hard world it is for women--and for men, my dear. I want to save my little girl from--"
"What does it matter if I do have a hard time? I expect a hard time. Nobody could invent a time so hard that I couldn't bear it, and come out of it! Oh, you'll see--"
"Perhaps, when you are older--"
"Older!" Her face flashed quick alarm. "I'm dreadfully old already. I ought to have begun when I was twelve. There's little enough time to learn all I have to. If I don't run away quick--father, I feel it in my bones--something will happen; I shall never go, I shall stick here like the rest, till--till the end."
He glanced sideways at her. She met his eyes with a look he had never seen in them before.
"Val--" he cleared his throat as they neared the Fort.
"Father!" she interrupted quickly. "Don't ask me to say I won't run away. I couldn't keep such a promise."
"That was not what I was going to suggest," he answered, completing a sudden mental readjustment. "I have nothing more to say against your plan, only I think it must be rather dull to run away alone. Suppose we run away together?"
"Yes; I--I think I'm on the track of a valuable discovery, and I must follow it up."
"Well, you needn't speak of it to--a--to anyone, just yet."
"No, no, father." She was strung up to the great romantic revelation.
"Well, I believe--indeed, I am sure--that all the hot gas and blinding electric light in use in most houses are very injurious to eyesight."
She stopped and stared at him. Was he going mad? Had she heard aright? The great romantic revelation that wasn't to be spoken of to any one--
He struck his blackthorn energetically on the ground and went on:
"The increase for eye troubles is appalling. What the world wants"--he looked up suddenly with enthusiasm, and Val took heart--"what the world wants is--is a sage and soft-burning reading-lamp at a moderate price. A whole family shouldn't depend on one or two; every man his own lamp. I'm inventing it. I shall take out a patent next winter, and --well, it might make a fortune."
"How nice!" said his daughter, slowly.
John Gano seemed to hear no hint of disillusionment in the tone. He straightened himself up.
"I'm giving Black a share in it," he said, with a magnanimous air, "for a mere nominal sum, which I am spending in inspecting all the new burners and contrivances; they're all failures, not worth house-room. I've promised to see Black in New York next November, and he and I are going on to Washington for the patent. All anybody need know is that I'm taking you East with me on a little visit, and you can look over the field."
"Father! Father!" she felt for his hand. As they went up the tumble-down steps to the porch, two pairs of eyes were bent on the blue horizon.
What helped a little to reconcile Val to waiting till November was not only the simplification of the money question, but also the fact that it gave her time to carry out a daring scheme that had been suggested by the contents of the last foreign mail. No letters; but addressed in cousin Ethan's hand, a French magazine with a queer mystical kind of a story in it, marked, and a London Pall Mall Gazette with a poem signed "E.G." It was not the first time Mrs. Gano had received maters of this sort in lieu of a letter, and when she did she was always angrier, Val thought, than if she had got nothing at all.
But the poem in the Pall Mall set Val thinking. It was no part of her scheme of life to have a pleasure trip to New York and return with a mere "look over the field." She must lay her plans carefully and not trust to luck. No stone should be left unturned in her endeavor to make the most of this glorious opportunity. Cousin Ethan! Could he, perhaps, be turned to account? If there were any influence or advice he could offer, of course he would be most happy. Val would be intensely grateful to him; but all the same, it would be the crowning pride of his life that he had helped to launch his cousin on the tide of fame.
She sat down and wrote to him surreptitiously, made a score of drafts, and finally evolved this copy:
"THE FORT, June 20.
"MY DEAR COUSIN ETHAN,--I have never written to you but once since I was a child. I have never told you anything except that I wished you 'A Merry Christmas,' or was glad you were coming--which you know you never did. I don't think you ever will, and, besides, I can't wait for you. It may seem funny that, not knowing you any better, I should write you now about a matter of the deepest importance, but you are my cousin, and, after my father, you are my nearest kinsman, and I am in need of help. I want to be a singer--not a mere parlor warbler, but a Great Singer. I have a tremendous voice.
I am obliged to tell you this, since you can't hear it. I practise every day by myself, though I can't use the piano much on account of grandma. I have always led the singing at school; all the rest, nearly three hundred girls, follow. But I have never been able properly to study music. I was going to run away and be a chorus girl till I could earn enough to study for grand opera, but my father has induced me to wait--just a little. He is going to take me East in the fall, and says I may 'Look over the field.' He says, too, it will give me an opportunity of seeing how difficult it is to do what I mean to do. But I don't think it's a good plan to take all that trouble (his cough is very bad) just to show me the thing is difficult. What I want to be shown is the way--no matter how hard--that may be done. The trouble is, that my dear father, who knows many great scientists, and a few politicians, doesn't know any famous singers, and nobody about here does, and nobody seems to know any one who ever did know an opera-singer, much less a manager. My grandmother has often told me that you have artistic tastes, and now comes the Pall Mall of London with your 'Song for Sylvia.' I've made up five tunes to it, and I think you would like them, since, unlike my family, you are artistic. I've been thinking a person like you must have great opportunities. You probably know singers, managers, musicians, and all sorts of delightful people. I wonder if you would help me to find out how a girl with a very exceptional voice can get it heard and get it trained? I know there are people who do these things, and when they discover a great voice they make their fortunes; so it is not a favor in the end on the part of the manager. But if you showed me the way, and could lend me five hundred dollars, it would always be a favor from you, and I would be grateful to you for ever and ever. If you will send me a letter of introduction to a manager, I think that would be best--that and five hundred dollars--and perhaps you would be so very kind as to send me the lives of Jenny Lind and Patti. It would help me to know what steps they took. I don't mind any hardship or any labor--I mind nothing but not getting my chance. Don't be afraid of encouraging me to do something the family has not been accustomed to--my father is on my side; and, anyhow, they would have to kill me before they could keep me back now. So you will not feel any responsibility. I would rather be helped by you because you are my relation, but if you won't, I must find somebody else. I remain, your affectionate cousin,
"P.S.--I am a good deal over fifteen; strangers all think I am twenty.
"P.S. No. 2.--Of course I will pay back the five hundred dollars, principal and interest. I will send you a promissory note, like the arithmetic says."
This document was conveyed to the mail with secrecy and despatch. The days went by like malicious snails; she had never known time drag before. The slow weeks gathered into monotonous months, and still no answer. Never mind, she would do everything just the same--better--without his help. Her future triumphs took on more the aspect of a judgment on cousin Ethan than a mere reward to Val. She made up scenes of the coming encounters, when, from the vantage-ground of being "better than Patti," she would overwhelm her cousin with scorn. She would meet him as a perfect stranger, declare her surprise at his claiming her for his cousin. He would find his chief distinction in this kinship. He would lay his millions at her feet. She would spurn them. "I have my own millions now. Had it been earlier, cousin, it had been kind."
September was drawing to a close. Everything was merging now in the excitement of the Eastern trip, fixed for the end of November.
Idling in the autumn sunshine at the front door after breakfast one morning, Val and Emmie had a friendly scuffle as to who should take the mail from the postman. The little heap of letters and papers was soon sown broadcast in the fray, and still no sign of either yielding, till Val was arrested on catching sight of the addressed side of one of the envelopes--"Mrs. Sarah C. Gano," in cousin Ethan's hand. But the real significance lay in the stamp. Not this time the scantily-clad gentleman and lady, clasping hands over a mauve world, of the Republique Francaise; no goggle-eyed, mustachioed Umberto, in blue, with his hair on end, and Poste Italiane Centesimi Venticinque round him in an oval frame; it was not even the twopenny-half-penny indigo head of Queen Victoria; but their own rosy two-cent Washington, risking his health in a low-neck coat, but saving his dignity by the queue. This was the first letter from Ethan in five years that did not bear a foreign postmark. While Val stood staring, Emmie had whipped up the letters and carried them in to her grandmother.
Val, in an agony of suspense, remained in the hall. Presently Emmie came flying out, clapping her hands. Mrs. Gano followed briskly with the open letter.
"All those old Tallmadges are dead!" cried Emmie, jumping up and down behind her grandmother. "He's been back in America over two months, and he's coming here next week."
Mrs. Gano was hurrying up-stairs to tell her son the great news.
End Chapter 13
Available since September 1998