The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 15
AND day after day, week after week, while he sought an opening, he very nearly starved. In a couple of months he had arrived at the conclusion that the fight in London was more sordid and more dispiriting than the direst poverty in Paris. About this time he came in for a distasteful piece of hack journalism, that brought him a disproportionate loathing and an inadequate reward of five pounds. He was strongly tempted to invest a part of this sole capital in returning to France. A couple of days later a letter arrived through the London branch of the Paris bankers from Henri de Poincy, back in the South of France on a holiday. He asked for Ethan's private address, and said if he did not hear something satisfactory by return he would conclude the beastly English climate had made him ill; in which case he was straightway coming over to look Ethan up, and persuade him to return to his friends in Nice. If he did not hear by wire or letter in three days, De Poincy would come to London and see what was the matter. They were all anxious at his silence.
This determined the matter. Gano was not going to have his old friend find him in his present plight. Besides, he already owed him money, and had sworn to himself that he would not meet De Poincy again till he could go to him with the sum in his hands. Henri was far from well off, and since his father's death the year before, had helped to support his sisters. Ethan wired: "Leaving London; quite well; remembrance to all; writing," and took the night-boat to Dieppe. He delayed further communication till he knew Henri would be back in Petersburg, and by that time he was able, by living on next to
nothing, to return a part of the loan, and to represent himself as intensely glad to be in his old haunts again. These haunts were in reality very new, albeit in Paris; but he did not enter into details further than to say he was rediscovering the fact that he could write French much more easily and much better than he could English, and was doing some book-reviewing for the Lendemain.
He might have added, but did not, that he was getting at first-hand a very considerable knowledge of the darker side of life, but had no impulse to make artistic use of it. It did not stimulate, it did not even interest--it paralyzed him. "If I'd had the makings of a genuine poet in me," he admitted to Henri de Poincy afterwards, "those years might have buffeted some good work out of me. But my muse was a miserable time-server, like the rest of my fine acquaintance. She left me when I wanted bread. The fact was, I was feeling life too keenly to write about it. Poetizing in the face of such suffering as I saw and shared seemed a drivelling impertinence. Life was more terrible, more tremendous than anything any poet had said about it, or could say."
Gano was unconsciously making himself an obscure example of the fact that a man's temperament will find him out upon the removal of the artificial ballast. This removal so seldom takes place that the vaguest notions abound as to any given person's specific gravity. We go through life unconsciously floated, balanced, by family, by inherited friends, inherited pursuits, inherited opinions, inherited money--by a thousand conditions not made by ourselves, but found ready-made to our hands, an expression of other people's energy, supporting or neutralizing our own. Gano's inclinations, not being volcanic or epoch-making, had been, up to the time of the break with his grandfather, dutifully filtered through environing circumstance. Even so, Mr. Tallmadge had had occasion to condemn his grandson's "queer tastes," his "visionary notions," his girlish compassion for suffering, his hyper-sensitiveness to blame, his even greater shrinking from
hurting the feelings of others. The tough old New Englander's contempt for "sensitiveness" had at least done Ethan the service of giving him an exterior self-control, which seemed so far to deny the feelings it only masked, that he was able to pass comfortably in the crowd as a person more impassive, if anything, than the majority. But as soon as he was left to himself, and followed no longer by critical eyes, his natural bias announced itself. He felt less and less drawn to the insouciant artist life of the town; the happy-go-lucky ways lost their first fresh savor; the suppers, the orgies, the endless comment, quite as eager as any of the work and often more brilliant; the short, merry life of the happy little flies that buzz so busily about the flower-garden of art, and that vanish with the vanishing of day--they all ended by striking some note of discord in him, and making him feel out of place there. "Was he getting too old for this kind of thing?" he asked himself, with modern youth's morbid consciousness of the value certain people set upon one time of life to the exclusion of any other, forgetting that "to travel deliberately through one's ages is to get the heart out of a liberal education," and the heart out of enlightened satisfaction as well.
But Gano was, perhaps, only following the unwritten law that rules such haunts and their frequenters, for these gay Bohemians are all young--and very young indeed. No one knows where they go when their short hour is done. Their laughter lags a little behind the rest one day, and the next they are not there. A new face is in the old place, a younger voice is screaming theories and outlaughing the laughers who are left.
Gano knew whither one of these superannuated revellers of twenty-five or so had retired. This was a great good-looking Irishman, with an unaccountable French tongue in his rough, tawny head, the hardest worker, deepest drinker, and wildest theorist in the particular little circle that Gano had of late frequented. Dick Driscoll and he had got into the habit of coming away together from the modest café where the circle met. Now and then the
older man would drag Gano off on some wild adventure, or they would scour Paris with no definite end in view, arguing, disputing, catching effects, till midnight met the dawn. From living in the same quarter they came by-and-by to live under the same roof, as a direct result of the Irishman's being as ready to discuss theories of life in general, or even Gano's work in particular, as he had been to harangue "the painter fellows" about brushwork and values.
He pronounced those early poems "most awfully good, you know," and prophesied great things for the future. But for all this, deeper and deeper the conviction cut into Gano that he was not of the stuff that "makes its way in the world." This without any of the feeling that usually accompanies it--of contempt for those who were differently constituted. He sometimes soothed his harassed spirit, and consoled himself for his failures, by an odd inversion of common hopes. He bade himself realize that success would not bring him happiness, so why join the thoughtless chorus condemning poverty, obscurity, and hard work? These last were not the heads of his indictment against life. At other times he would shut his eyes to this revelation of himself to himself. "Skin-deep! skin-deep, like yours!" he burst out at Driscoll's observation on his friend's growing dissatisfaction with the scheme of things.
The Irishman was rather proud of his Schopenhauerism. It represented to him a mere mental gymnastic. This, too, although hard work, hard living, and hard drinking had injured his health, and the fact was more and more apparent. However, it is something behind experience that determines whether a man shall be an optimist or not. Gano shrank from an imputation of pessimism, as people do in whom the tendency is inborn and inveterate. "I tell you, Driscoll, if we weren't sharing it, we would think there was some good served by the ugliness and pain in the world, just as our betters do. If we took our place again in the holiday-making class, we should be as diverted as the rest, with all the games and make-believes. We, too,
should forget the essential cruelty of things." But behind the boast was a heart-sinking, and a sense that it was a lie.
He would try again: "Because life has treated me cavalierly I think I have little zest for it. If I weren't bruised from crown to toe, I'd think the world a bed of roses." And then he would remember that that was far from being the account he would ever have given of his consciousness of things.
Before he betook himself to Bohemia, Gano had spent no small portion of his time in the brilliant circle Madame Astier's grace and wit had gathered round her. The young American not only cherished an enthusiasm for his middle-aged hostess, but he discovered a deep admiration as well for the lady's husband, a distinguished advocate, whom she obviously adored. Gano's sensibilities did, it is true, shrink at first before the man's pitiless cynicism, which spared few persons and fewer ideals. But although merely dazzled at the beginning by his brilliancy, Gano came in time to be proud of his friendship, and to recognize in his point of view a wholesome, bitter tonic, a corrective to certain ills that young flesh is heir to. This man of fifty-four, who would have shrugged derisively at the notion of "teaching" anybody anything, was still in many young eyes the very type of the modern philosopher; believing blandly in the scientific point of view, unmoved by sentimentalities, unblinded by enthusiasms, keen-witted, far-sighted, practising with eminent success, in the most highly civilized society in the world, the most difficult of the arts--the art of living.
Gano was very much shaken by the terrible story of the double suicide of this brilliant pair, whose marriage had been so romantic, whose life together had seemed the one ideal of the old kind that they admitted into their smiling existence.
M. Astier, as all the world was being told, had returned home as usual on this particular afternoon from the Palais de Justice. His wife had been holding a reception. One lady remained after the other visitors had gone. When at
last the door closed upon her, too, Madame Astier went to her husband's library and told him that the last visitor had outstayed the others to say that her husband was going to fight a duel on her account the next day with M. Astier, with whom she (the visitor) had an intrigue of three years' standing. She had come to Madame Astier to prevent the men's meeting.
A violent scene between husband and wife.
"The end has come!" exclaims Astier.
"Yes, yes; we can't go on living after this!" cried the distracted wife.
She files to her dressing-room and attempts to swallow poison. Astier's secretary rushes after her. While he is wrenching the poison away, the report of fire-arms. Both rush back to the library, where they find M. Astier bathed in blood, dying. The wife, before she can be hindered, puts the smoking pistol to her head, fires another fatal shot, and the tragedy is done.
Gano had talked to Driscoll from time to time of the Astiers, of Clémenceau, and the other habitués of those delightful soirées, and of the regret he sometimes felt that he had not told his friends frankly of the change in his fortunes, and the reason he did not any longer frequent the Faubourg St. Honoré.
"But I couldn't, somehow, talk to them of a thing we couldn't either laugh at or satirize. Still, they'd be among the first people that I'd go to if I had a stroke of luck."
And now, out of that atmosphere of gayety and blague, this! No sky apparently so cloudless but from its blue a bolt may fall. Ethan had rushed out and bought the Justice. He read Clémenceau's article aloud, translating hurriedly as he went on for a compatriot of Driscoll's, who had happened to drop in for a pipe and a crack:
"'This pitiless scoffer, Astier, this despairing sceptic, who spoke so slightingly of women and love, is now discovered to have been a man of soft and sentimental nature, without any reserve of appliances against woman's wiles or
surging passion. The so-called libertine, cauterized by Paris against Paris, was upset by an event which could have been easily foreseen. In a situation of the most commonplace kind, he so thoroughly lost all self-control that he could hit upon no other remedy than self-destruction.' How contemptuously he writes of his old friend's 'losing self-control' and the rest of it," said Gano, angrily, "as if the double death was the real tragedy!"
"Why, the moment when that nice woman discovered that the husband she had married so romantically, and who had been so devoted to her all those years, had turned round and betrayed her in the last chapter. I agree with them both: it wasn't much use to go on living after that."
"Oh, as to going on living," observed Driscoll, shortly, "it would puzzle most people to tell why they think that they much use."
"But these people--" began Gano.
"More like the rest of the world than they pretended, that's all," the visitor summed up, as he knocked the ashes out of his pipe. "I've once or twice come near to some tragedy, as Gano has to this. It does feel a bit odd to realize we're all living our peaceful lives on the edge of a volcano. But, bless you!"--he clapped on his hat with a rakish air--"we get so used to it we forget all about it till our turn comes."
"Meanwhile, we're all in the conspiracy to pretend that tragedy is dead and buried in the works of the great dramatists," said Driscoll.
"Good job, too," commented the departing visitor, nodding to the two friends as he went off.
"Your cheerful compatriot is right," said Ethan, shaken suddenly out of his rôle as Nature's apologist. "Life simply doesn't bear being thought about."
Whereupon they proceeded to talk about it for hours on end. They uttered a deal of raw philosophy in those days, often with passion, sometimes with hope. Driscoll, for all
his profession of pessimism, had moments of splendid confidence that he had stumbled upon the Perfect Way. Gano would shake his head, repeating:
"'Myself, when young, did eagerly frequent
Doctor and saint, and hear great argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door as in I went.
"' . . . Their words to scorn
Are scattered, and their mouths are stopped with dust.'"
Through a young painter from Basle, these two were among the first outside of the German circle to have some realization of the magnitude of Friedrich Nietzsche as a force to be reckoned with. But Gano shrank from the sound and fury of the inconoclast as much as from his more coherently expressed doctrines. It was as abhorrent to his new doubts as it was to his old faiths to hear that Nietzsche had said (speaking of Germany), "Nowhere else has there been so vicious a misuse of the two great European narcotics--alcohol and Christianity." Driscoll, knowing a good deal more about the first than he did about the last, professed his withers to be unwrung. What was there in the utterance that Gano should gibe at?
Almost from the beginning they wore their rue with a difference. Driscoll raged at concrete mistakes and injustices in the scheme of things as presented to Richard Driscoll. The other, seeming to think he had fewer personal wrongs to complain of, capable of too keen a self-criticism to imagine himself a genius to whom the world owed special privileges, was coming rapidly to a more serious indictment of life on the basis of "the dread irrationality of the whole affair."
It is not a happy subject for contemplation, perhaps, but it is possible to ignore too absolutely that this is the attitude of mind of a vast number of the young people of the time. No one with his classics in his mind, no one even who has not forgotten Montaigne and Shakespeare, thinks
that this desperate guessing at "the riddle of the painful earth" is an exercise peculiar to our day. What is perhaps new in the commonness of the interrogation among young men, rich and poor, industrious and idle, who have not genius wherewith to clothe and deck their failure to produce the answer. Such men have not the distractions and rewards of genius to take their minds off the fact of failure.
What does it matter if you, in common with all the laboring earth, are feeling in every fibre the force of the Duke's bitter exhortation to Claudio? what does it matter if you can turn life's discords into music such as this? Even a less lofty strain is reward sufficient for the singer, reason enough to reconcile the monstrous egoism of genius to the presence in the world of great sorrows that can be transmuted into little songs. But to those whose music is shut up within them all their days, what shall help them bear the deafening discord of the jangling on and on of things that hurries them towards silence: There is an answer to this question, but it is not found among those usually given, which are for the most part variations of the philosophy of the ostrich.
Gano used to tell, laughing, of the way a great English lady met her son's shrinking confession of some deep, intellectual difficulty: "Do rouse yourself, St. John. Low spirits are such bad form."
"What was cultivated society?" Gano demanded of the Irishman. "A device for preventing people from serious thinking. Acceptance of this view was implicit in the very roots of language. You had to 'divert,' to 'distract' a man from the peril of looking facts in the face before you could expect him to be moderately happy. Games for grown-up children, the puerilities of country-house parties, what are they? Sage devices for preventing people from thinking, traps to snare and cage the intelligence--civilization's harmless anæsthetics. Oh yes, no mistake about our diversions being more wisely chosen in these 'scientific' times than in the days when the one escape was into
the wine-cup's cul-de-sac. What were they all--drinking, opium-eating, and the rest--but simply forms of that protest most thinking creatures find themselves making at some stage of their too-conscious life?"
Driscoll accepted this view of his excesses with equanimity, reminding Ethan in turn that there are in all ages bystanders at the board while the cup goes round--old ladies of both sexes ready to ask, "What pleasure can men take in making beasts of themselves?" and there is not always a philosopher at the objector's elbow to answer, "He, madam, who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." The great moralist knew from personal experience what he was talking about. He had the sincerity to admit that his own long-abandoned drinking had not at any time been from love of good-fellowship. Away with the genial lie, "I drank to be rid of myself!"
But Gano's point was that these old childish ways of hiding the head under the bedclothes to keep out of the dark no longer comfort so many of the grown-up children of the world. "They are afraid," he said, "not only of the night, but, with a surer wisdom, of the morning. It is not so easy to keep to-morrow at bay. Men need less and less the warning of the taverner's wife: 'They one and all regret it in the morning.'"
Said Gano to himself, summing up his survey: "We should not depend on, but keep in reserve, some draught with no such menace in the dregs. What one surer than that which brings a good-night and no morrow at all forever any more?"
Not, he felt, as a result of his own hard knocks, but out of unbiassed observation of the common lot, again and again, without personal resentment and without passion, he found himself reverting to the thought of the unlivableness of life, unless a man should carry about a conviction of freedom in his soul--a freedom that should be not a phrase but a potent fact, conferring sovereignty over life and death, and so lifting men above the meaner tricks of chance.
If solving the riddle in "high Roman fashion" did not "make Death proud to take us," which he felt to be beside the mark, the more intimate realization that escape is possible seemed to rob life of her more intolerable menace. It was not food for fear or brooding, but for exultation, this recognition that, should other remedies fail, one might still do
"That thing that ends all other deeds,
That shackles accidents, and bolts up change."
If the sovereign remedy had not been discovered in the past, the Nineteenth Century would have invented it. Never before had life been so hard for the many, never before had its value been so impugned. It might be true that every one should make a good fight. It could not be recommended to any but the craven that he should accept a degrading captivity in addition to defeat. Yet those were the terms upon which more than half the world lived. As for himself, it grew plainer and plainer that he should bear as many buffets as he could take like a man, but not one had a right to ask him to accept the disgraceful terms on which many of the excellent of earth were given their dole of bitter bread. As for the women, the power of human endurance was in them not glorified, as the foolish had though, but debased, brutalized, a thing for scorn and pointing. It was this side of the subject that ultimately roused him out of the apathy that had threatened him. He had the sense of being secretly a lantern-bearer, of carrying under his coat a wonderful sort of Aladdin's lamp, and feeling it a selfish monopoly not to cry out his discovery in the streets. For this light, that had been so gallantly upborne, so well honored, of old, had been put out in the more effeminate times, and fallen to utter discredit in these new "dark ages." It was degraded to the uses of the vile, instead of shining beacon-like upon the hill of honor, a guide less to the fallen than to those who would keep from falling. Men had so many new inventions to make, they had clean forgotten this. It was one
of the lost arts, and had need of rediscovery and new proclaiming with the accent of our time. A strange ardor of proselytism fell upon him as he looked upon those about him in whom he traced his own old fear of life: delicate women toiling in terror and incommunicable agony of spirit, or those others, more horrible still, accepting dully, or in the devil-may-care French fashion, an existence incredibly vile. Why were they not told
"Ye have no friend,
But resolution and the briefest end."
It would be absurd to say not one would listen. He couldn't take up a paper without seeing that some desperate soul had made the discovery alone, unprompted, and with all the weight of Society, Law, the Church, and ignorant human shrinking against the anarchy of the act. It should be made less horribly hard, more admittedly honorable. Illogically enough, perhaps, these were not thoughts he felt it possible to share with a man in Driscoll's state of rapidly failing health. Gano would drop any questions in their later discussions that tended too much that way, and the conversation showed in this a curious alacrity. If Driscoll pursued the matter, Gano would even go the length of cutting the interview short. The intellectual barrier thus raised was the first check to the deepening friendship. For himself, from the day that Gano realized that life was voluntary, it became sweet. He found himself growing more light-hearted than he had thought it lay in him to be. He worked with a new zest. Poverty, hunger, they couldn't cow him now. He had the whip-hand of them. "I haven't forgotten," he said to himself, "what it's like to be well housed, and fed, and friended, and to listen without misgiving to the world's fairy-tales; but, remembering the gladdest day the old life had to give, I know it never brought me such a surging, God-like joy as the burst of that revelation, We are free! If we endure the worst evils in this life, it is because we are willing to. Even the meanest of mankind are not
caught like vermin in a trap. Man's best boast and inalienable patent of nobility is that he holds in his hand a key to all the prisons of the earth. He may open the door of escape for himself. How curious to feel anew the solace of the old Roman boast: In this the gods are less to be envied than the beggar or the slave; the high gods must live on, but man may die if he will. Oh, glad tidings of great joy! oh, the sweet, fresh air of liberty, the sense of power, the exaltation of the crushed and stifled spirit! In his bare, ill-lighted room the man who had so long been the spoiled favorite of material good fortune, now with empty pockets, dinnerless, nearly friendless, would, nevertheless, lift up hopeful young hands in a defiant gladness, whispering to himself: "They taught me many things in many schools for many years, but no man ever whispered I was free! I had to find that out for myself."
In these latter days, when he went up-stairs to sit with Driscoll, he sometimes found a woman moving quietly about the room. When she had gone, there was always something there for the invalid's supper, and Gano would suppress the fact that he had brought a double provision in his pocket for an impromptu meal.
The woman wore one of those feature-destroying veils that made it impossible to judge much of her appearance, but Gano had a vague impression of slim middle age and unimpressive looks, soft ways, and a sort of "mother-tenderness" about her. But she was so colorless, so much more an influence than a person, that he did not realize he had never heard, or at least never noticed, her voice, till one evening she said Bong soir in an amazing accent.
"English!" commented Ethan, involuntarily, as the door closed.
"Australian," corrected the sick man.
"She's rather neglected you lately," remarked Gano, as a kind of apology for the unmistakable bulginess of his pockets.
He unloaded on the rickety table.
"I say, why do you bring all that truck in here?" Driscoll demanded, ungraciously.
"You keep quiet! You've got to have somebody to do your marketing for you, I suppose. I thought your Australian friend had thrown up the post."
"So she had," grumbled the invalid. "Women are damned selfish."
"Well, they repent sometimes; there's that in their favor."
Gano set about making coffee.
"She didn't repent," mumble Driscoll.
"Oh, is this the last of her?"
"No; I only meant I had to send for her." And then they talked of other things.
The next time Gano saw the woman was after Driscoll got worse. He went up one night, and found him pallid, speechless, wrestling with one of his worst attacks of pain. The woman was bending over him.
"Please go and get that filled." She held out an empty bottle, hardly looking at Gano.
He hurried obediently down-stairs. Behind his anxiety for the man he had come to feel so much liking for, was a sense of surprise that the Australian was not so middle aged as he had thought. "She's not thirty-five," he speculated in between his wondering how Driscoll could get on without a night-nurse; "and she's not bad looking." He was back again, two steps at a time, with the medicine. Driscoll was quieter. The woman motioned the bottle away. She was taking his temperature.
"Hospital nurse," was Gano's mental comment upon the air of usage and competence. He sat there awhile, and then whispered:
"I'm in the room on the left at the bottom of the first flight, if you want me."
She nodded, and he went down to his work.
When he looked up from his writing it was a quarter to one. Had the woman gone and he not heard her pass? How was Driscoll? It was awfully quiet overhead. With
a tightening of the nerves he took his lamp and hurried up-stairs. He knocked softly. No answer. Noiselessly, so that the invalid should not be wakened, if indeed he were not . . . he opened the door. Driscoll was asleep, and breathing audibly. The woman was asleep too, sitting on the floor, her head leaning against the side of the bed, Driscoll's hand in one of hers. She looked still younger in the peace of sleep, through obviously older than Driscoll, softened out of her customary wooden immobility. Gano felt that he was seeing her real face for the first time: the mask had fallen. She could never have been pretty, but there was something in her face of nobility that prevented a man from coming to an easy conclusion about her. Her black hair was sharply silhouetted against the white sheet. The hand that held Driscoll's wore a plain gold marriage-ring. She seemed to feel the light or the scrutiny of a strange glance, for she stirred and opened her gray eyes. Gano was momentarily embarrassed--she not in the least. She turned quickly to look at the sleeper.
"Wait! She whispered, as Gano seemed to be turning away.
She put her finger on the sick man's pulse, and, still kneeling there, counted the beats with absorbed, unself-conscious face. Gano was struck again with the "mother" quality in the woman. It gave all she did a definite modesty. She was getting up.
"Can you spare the light? She whispered. "I forgot to bring--"
"Of course," interrupted Gano.
He set the lamp down, and turned to the door.
"Wait a moment."
She hung the Figaro over the back of the chair between the sleeper and the light, then, quietly and without haste, she took her brown cape and hat off the peg and put them on. She leaned a moment over the sleeper, and then, "Come!" she signed rather then said, and they went softly out. At the foot of the stairs she stopped.
"Can you get a candle and a piece of paper?"
"Yes; this is my room," said Gano, opening his door.
The moonlight came palely in at the single window. Without hesitation she had followed him. He lit the candle by his bed.
"I want to leave you my address," she said. "I think he'll be all right now, but if he should be worse don't leave him; send some one to this address--send a fiacre."
She scribbled on the piece of paper, and laid it by the candle.
"Do you think I ought to sit up with him?" Gano asked, watching her intently.
"No need to sit up; you can sleep on the sofa, can't you, or--"
"Or on the floor?" he asked, smiling a little at her matter-of-factness.
"Or on the floor," she repeated quietly. "Good-night."
She went out.
"Sha'n't I get you a cab?"
"No; I shall walk. Good-night;" and she was gone.
On the paper was written:
" Mrs. Mary Burne,
21 Rue Blanche."
End Chapter 15
Available since September 1998