The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 17
THE concierge appeared, angry and shivery, and bade him either come in or go out. He was in the act of doing the latter when he remembered Driscoll. He turned back and faced the angry woman.
"Go up to Madame Burne," he said, giving the woman a franc, "and tell her--wait!" He searched his pockets, and finally drew the envelope off Mrs. Gano's birthday letter, and wrote on the back:
"Driscoll unable to sleep without some word from you. Please send down a message for him."
"Give her that and bring me the answer."
The woman shuffled up-stairs. He stood there in the dingy passage, waiting, cogitating. Suppose Mary were to send word that after all she would come when that infernal club broke up, what should he do? He would certainly have to protect poor old Driscoll against her pitiless fanaticism. That much was clear. It took her a long time to scribble a line. He paced back and forth from the foot of the mud-tracked stair to the open door, where the rain fell ceaselessly. With a sudden elation he thought of the change in his fortunes, and how soon he should have turned his back upon all this squalor. A millionaire! Yes, it had a good ring. It took the sound of Mary Burne's voice out of his tortured ears.
Suddenly he paused, hearing with relief the shambling footsteps of the returning concierge, a relief rudely dashed with fear of the message she might be bringing.
A quicker figure slipped before the square, slow-moving
woman; it was Mary Burne, running down the stairs, dressed to go out.
"I am sorry to have kept you," she said. If she noticed Gano's changed manner, she put it down to anxiety for his friend. "Come, I've brought an umbrella," she said, almost sharply, as Gano stood an instant looking out for a fiacre; "it's nearly as quick to walk, and I--I--"
He took the umbrella from her silently, and they hurried on side by side in the rain. Gano, with growing agitation, searched for some way of letting her know that he was in possession of the situation, and meant to remain in possession.
As they turned into the Rue De Provence she stopped, breathless.
"Are you quite sure he wants to see me only for a minute?"
"So he says."
"He understands that just at present I can't sit up with him any more?"
"He doesn't expect you to stay to-night, at any rate," Gano answered, in a determined voice. He began to walk on.
"Mr. Gano." She laid an arresting hand on his arm. He looked down coldly at the white face. "You've shown too plainly in these last weeks to what lengths your friendship for Dick can go. I don't pretend to apologize for asking if you can spare the time to take him away for a few weeks as soon as he gets a little better."
The man hesitated. She misunderstood.
"I've just got some money from the Semaine," she went on, "and I can anticipate my next payment. I've told you how I owe it to Mr. Driscoll that I have the money at all. It's his in a sense, anyhow."
"You want to get him out of Paris?"
"Yes, anywhere for a change."
"I might do that if he can be moved."
"Oh, thank you, thank you. Dick can't say he hasn't got friends. You are good about it." They splashed on
a few steps in the downpour, and she slackened her pace again. "But since you are going away alone with him--and, anyhow, I ought to tell you. He's developing a kind of monomania. He doesn't want to live--wants--" Her voice choked.
"I know," said Gano.
"You know! He's ventured to say it to you?"
"Then, you see, it's serious." She was clinging to him again. Gano nodded. Before he could help himself he was trying her.
"You see, he'll never get well."
"How can you say that? And say it so--so--"
Indignant tears stood in her upturned eyes, and she took her hands off his arm.
"Surely you know it's true."
"I only know that he's still alive, and that I love him."
They walked on--they were nearly at the door.
"You know how he suffers," began Gano.
"Everybody suffers," she interrupted. "He knows nothing about the worst pain. And he has his art; he has you to care about him, and--he has me. Oh, Mr. Gano"--she turned on him suddenly--"help me to take care of him--help me, for God's sake--help me to keep him in the world!"
"Yes, yes; I give you my word."
A great weight was lifted off them both. They went up-stairs together, but Gano left Mary at Driscoll's door. He wrote some letters in his own room, then he went softly up-stairs, heard the low, pleasant sound of voices, and came down without interrupting them. He went to bed, and slept soundly till the morning.
"I shall cable Bostwick & Allen first thing after breakfast," he said to himself.
When he was dressed, he went up-stairs as usual to Driscoll, knocked lightly, and, without waiting, went in. Mary Burne was still there, kneeling by his bedside. It flashed over Gano that it had been something like this very picture
that had first set him thinking about Mary Burne. But the spell had lost its potency; something had happened; some chord of sympathy had snapped. He could think of his friend whole-heartedly now, without a woman's thrusting her face between them. Driscoll was asleep this morning, just as he had been that other time when Gano had found Mary Burne worn out with watching by the bedside; but his face was hidden. Mary stirred and turned round. Gano started. No sleep weighed down her eyelids; her eyes were wide and quick-glancing, but seemed unseeing; the agonized face was pinched and gray-white, like chalk.
"What is it? What--"
Gano sprang forward to the bed. Driscoll's face was no longer in the shadow now.
"He's gone," said Mary.
She got up slowly, staggering a little. Her cloak was round her. She went unsteadily to the opposite side of the room and picked up her hat. She seemed to forget to put it on, and stood with it aimlessly in her hands, those strained, bright-glancing eyes moving uncannily in the drawn white mask of a face. Gano had flung himself down by the bed. He laid his hand over Driscoll's. It was cold.
"When did it happen?" Gano asked; and as the word "happen" left his lips, he started up and stared at the woman.
"About four o'clock," she said, going in that blind way to the table.
He had the impulse to rush forward and seize her by the shoulders. He would force those restless eyes to meet his steadily for once, and five up their secret; but she was counting some gold pieces out of her purse, doing it by the instinct of touch, while her roving, animal-like glance seemed to dash itself against window, wall, and door, seeking an escape.
"How did it come?" Gano demanded.
"Quite quietly; no pain--no pain at the last."
Her muffled voice seemed to reach him from far off.
"Why didn't you call me?"
"No good," she said, tonelessly; "and besides, he held fast to my hand. I am leaving some money here." She motioned to the little pile of ten and twenty franc pieces on the table, and moved towards the door. "You'll see to what's necessary." And, without waiting for his assurance, "I've enough to pay everything," she said, and went out.
Gano found his first impressions weekend by Mary Burne's clear and convincing official account of the death. The doctor accepted it without misgiving. Why should a layman have a doubt?
Driscoll was buried, and his few effects were bought in by Mary Burne at the sale. When Gano went to say good-bye to her the next day he was told she had given up her old lodging, and left no address behind.
Gano's original reluctance to return home had not been so very serious. Had his grandfather been a little forbearing, he could have had the young man back in Boston in six months; but now, too much had been sacrificed on the altar of an impetuous resolve for Gano to consider kindly going to America at once. There was plenty of time for that. He had sent instructions to Messrs. Bostwick & Allen, and he allowed the "great political organ" to remain in the experienced hands that had done so well by it in Aaron Tallmadge's declining years.
He went to Nice, and brought the De Poincys back with him to Paris, where he had taken a house. Henri de Poincy, even when little by little he learned something of those years of struggle, could not see that his friend was essentially changed by their rough lessoning. Ethan had never, even in the ignorant and care-free days, been either very outgoing or very light of heart. De Poincy, as the elder, had long ago recognized his friend as one of those unexpected, but not uncommon, products of luxurious modern
life--a young man whose vivid perception of the underlying tragedy of the common lot had seemed out of all proportion to his possible experience. If any difference appeared in him now, it was that his old easy faith in concrete human nature, as opposed to his deep mistrust of life in the abstract, had been somewhat corrected--and that was well, Henri de Poincy thought. The young diplomat did not discover that, of all the faith-destroying spectacles his friend had looked upon, not the least, to just his cast of mind, was the hot haste made, in that same city where he had walked wanting bread, to court and fête the new millionaire. But Gano had left this phase of life so far behind him he had got so out of touch with it, that he was obliged to learn over and over again that inevitable lesson taught affluent young America by the sage Old World--that money-bags are less easily and quickly filled in Europe, and the man who carries one that overflows will lack little that the craftier civilization can lay at his feet. Gano's particular kind of self-love revolted at some of his experiences at the hands of certain elegant and well-born adventurers, male and female, who, the American had fancied, liked him and sought him for himself. He was very young in many ways, for all his hardships and his twenty-six years. Still, he was not so much of a fool but that in time he learned his lesson. His fault lay in taking it too seriously. So it was that, despite his renewed literary activities and successes, and the need impressed on him of studying les moeurs, he yielded more and more to his fondness for camping out, for fishing, and for cruising about the Mediterranean with Henri de Poincy.
"I never knew a fellow," that amiable young Frenchman would say--"never knew a fellow so much at his ease in the world, who seemed so anxious to be rid of people as you are."
"I'm not at my ease in the world."
"Ah, I should have said in drawing-rooms."
"Another matter. The drawing-room is the best place I know to avoid knowing people. I should like to spend
all my days that aren't spent with a rod on a river-bank, or lying in a boat with you, in drawing-rooms. I'd like"--he stared up into the high-piled clouds sailing across the intense blue--"I'd like the big Engine-driver up yonder to look down through the white steam-puffs, and say: 'My boy, I give you my word of honor that I'll never run you into any closer quarters with life than you are in now."
"I see," laughed De Poincy, "lovely woman has pursued you till you fight shy. But don't lay it all to your looks and your winning ways, my friend; you're known to have dollars."
"Yes." His dark face flushed under some quick wave of feeling. "The most surprising thing I've found in Europe is the dominance of the money motive, that quality that they had told me distinguished the American."
He laughed a little bitterly.
"Well," said De Poincy, "you know you do hear more in America about money than you do anywhere."
"Exactly. Money's talked about with childlike and damnable iteration; but, by all the gods! if decent people with us want it, they work for it; they offer labor in exchange, not themselves. They don't, as a nation, make it the basis of friendship, of marriage."
"If you don't, it's because American women are too self-willed to hear prudence."
"Yes, thank God!" And yet we have the intelligent foreigner saying the climate makes our women sexless." He stopped and laughed. "I admit les Américaines don't so universally look on love and marriage as a profession, their only means of settlement in life. But I'll tell you what it is, my friend: the American, with all his outward frankness and naïveté, cares more, like men of other nations, for the thing he doesn't talk about than for things he's always flinging in your face. With people on this side, it's money which is too sacred to be mentioned except on solemn occasions"--he made the slightest possible grimace--"but which is the supreme consideration. With us, the thing
we don't talk about, and yet care for the more, is the relation between the sexes, the ideal of a chivalry that the elder world has lost, or, more truly, never had, I think."
"The truth is, you've been long enough away from America to begin to idealize it. By the way, I thought you were of the élite asked to the Château d'Avranchéville this autumn."
"This is better than Normandy," he said, shortly.
"Ah, but think of the dear creatures gathered there?"
"I'd rather think about 'em."
"Mademoiselle Lucie this time, hein?"
"Oh no--only that I don't love my kind."
De Poincy shook his head.
"That you don't love that kind shows you're getting blasé."
Gano sat up, and fixed his dark eyes on his friend's face.
"You know you're talking nonsense. You'll allow I met her under peculiar circumstances."
"After helping you to fish her out of an Italian lake, I will allow the circumstances were romantic."
"I thought she--"
"Of course, love at first sight. Just the thing to fetch you."
"I thought she liked me as a girl at home might have liked me, who hadn't heard that my grandfather--"
He thumped out an oath as he thrust his hands deep down in his yachtman's jacket.
De Poincy smiled.
"She's so young," Gano went on--"probably less sophisticated, I thought, than our American girls."
"To be sure, a ravishing ingénue."
"And here she was, ready to throw over poor Parthenay like that"--he tossed his cigarette overboard--"caring for him all the time, as Parthenay showed me. Then this ingénue, after turning the Tallmadge dollars into francs in her pretty baby head, was calmly arranging to help me to spend them here in France. How the devil they knew on such
short acquaintance--before the settlement question came up--"
"Oh, her brother asked me that first day."
De Poincy nodded.
"And when I thought they didn't so much as know that I was American!" He laughed with that excessive bitterness of youth perturbed, and pretended to speak apologetically. "You see, I've plumed myself on my French since I was seven, and my name tells nothing."
"Your French is all right, but you don't imagine people like that would put themselves out for the premier venue as they did for you from the start."
"My mistake was that, even without my banker's preference, I didn't look upon myself as the premier venu."
"I must say I admired the charming way they conveyed the idea to you that Mademoiselle Lucie--"
"My dear fellow, you would never have dreamed of Mademoiselle Lucie, enchanting as she is, if it hadn't been for their tact in pointing out that--"
"And you looked on!"
"To be sure, and envied you your damned good luck. She's an adorable creature, and would spend your money with distinction."
"Thanks. I needn't have come so far to find a woman who could manage that."
"I'm in the enemy's camp," De Poincy went on. "I want you to settle in France."
"And I--I want--"
Gano looked out over the dancing waves, face to face on a sudden with something so new and unexpected as to be almost incredible.
"What do you want?" asked De Poincy.
"I want to go back to America by the first boat."
"I'm in dead earnest. It sounds sudden, but it isn't.
Something's been the matter with me for a deuce of a long time. I haven't known what it was. I do now. I'm homesick."
"Doesn't it strike you you've postponed it a bit?"
"Dare say. We're offered every inducement to postpone it. We Americans are as pleased with Europe as children at a fair. We run up and down your marts with our purses out, delighted, astonished at your wares, at your ways; we want a souvenir from every booth, we want a peep at every side-show, we think it impossible ever to tire of the merry-go-round." His voice dripped. "When the night comes we're ready to go home."
Gano jumped up and paced the deck.
"I say, Henri, do you mind going back to Marseilles? If you do, mind, I must--"
"Of course I don't mind. It'll five you time to recover on the way."
He laughed good-naturedly.
His companion paced silently up and down in the fading light.
"I've known other fellows," De Poincy went on, after a long silence--"plenty of others, get rather feverish about the U.S.A., but I didn't expect it of you."
"Oh, I'm just like the rest."
"Hadn't observed the likeness before."
"I've found the Old World life a good enough game to play at; I've got no reason to complain."
"Thanks, I'm sure, in the name of France, not to mention England and Italy."
"Oh, you understand me well enough. It's wonderfully attractive, this charming Old World, but from our point of view it isn't life."
"Pretty good imitation."
"That's just it," he laughed. "It's pretty and it's good, but it's imitation. It copies, with Chinese fidelity, old originals that were once, long ago, alive and quick; but to-day--"
"You're taking a leaf out of your old governor's book," said De Poincy, with smiling malice. "I hear cousin Aaron now." And he caricatured him mercilessly. "'To an American, sir, Europe is either a museum or a scene out of a comic opera.' Now, if one said anything like that of America you'd declare war by return of post. But we"--he lit his cigarette and threw away the match with a flourish--"we are amused; we give you exactly the license you demand--that of the child at a fair."
"Well, look here, old man"--Gano laid his hand on De Poincy's shoulder--"this child wants to catch the first boat home."
End Chapter 17
Available since September 1998