The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 18
He was really coming this time; in less than an hour he would be at the Fort. They were all sitting in the parlor, waiting, in festal array. Late as it was in the year, the clear autumn afternoon was steeped in warm sunshine. An occasional golden dogwood leaf fluttered past the open windows, like a lazy yellow bird.
"It reminds me of October in Maryland," said Mrs. Gano, looking up from the book she was not reading. It was, at all events, mild enough to afford Emmie the extreme satisfaction of wearing her white Confirmation dress in honor of the momentous occasion. Emmie called the new frock her "Confirmation dress," although she had not been confirmed in it, and was not expecting to be till next spring. When it had been decided before Julia Otway's party that Emmie must have a new frock, she had not needed to be told that, by a system of tucks and turnings in, it would have to serve for high days and holidays for a long time. It was a characteristic of the child that, looking into the future, the day of her Confirmation should loom so large.
Her dark curls were tied to-day with apple-green ribbon, and a green-and-white sash lent an air of festivity to the simple frock, and a snow-drop look to the pale little girl.
There was nothing new in Mrs. Gano's appearance as she sat in state between Daniel Boone and the centre table, nothing save the light in her eyes. Her veil, her lawn sleeves, and kerchief could not be whiter, even in Ethan's honor, and her rusty black silk wore resolutely its air of changeless age. But An' Jerusha, very rheumatic and tot-
tery, went brave as an autumn sunset. She was peeping in at the parlor door now, her head done up deftly in a purple and orange bandanna.
"I jes' think I'll go, mehm, en watch fur Marse Efan f'om de terrus."
"You are sure everything's ready?"
"Yes, mehm. It wus po'ful short notice, en I kin tell you it's been nip and tuck. No onery niggers could 'a'done it; but me and Venie, we done it." And Jerusha carried her splendid turban off down the terrace with the air of an aged generalissimo.
Even John Gano had made his toilet with care to-day. He joined the others in the parlor a few minutes before setting off to the station to meet his nephew. Mrs. Gano's sharp eyes traveled over him for once without protest.
"You do look nice, father," said Val.
John Gano was prematurely old. His untrimmed beard, his bent head with its leonine mane of iron-gray hair, lent him an almost patriarchal look. And yet this man was still in the forties. Such forestalling of old age is no unfamiliar phenomenon in America. He stood by the window drawing on the well-worn left-hand glove; the right, carefully folded, and good almost as new, had been much carried, but never worn.
"I must thin out these maples and dogwoods," he said with critical eyes on the abundant gold and scarlet foliage in front of the house.
"No, no," protested his mother; "I like something before my windows. Your pruning is too ruthless."
"I can't have the symmetry of the maples interfered with," he said, with great decision.
"Don't be too late to meet Ethan."
" . . . grown astonishingly!" he ejaculated with pride, as he went off; "and only planted in the fall of '81!"
Val had put her hair up. But there was too much of it; it overweighted the small head. The shifting lights in the unruly waves, and the blue of the eyes, were brought out by the particular shade of navy cloth that she wore--so
plainly made that it had the effect of a cunning artifice to show off the lithe figure.
But it was less art than necessity and scarcity of cloth that governed the design. Aunt Valeria had worn it, remodeled to the flamboyant fashion of her day, but it was the identical blue traveling-habit of family legend in which Mrs. Gano, as a girl, made that journey across the Alleghenies in a stage-coach. It was the first time Val had worn it. She was saving it up for New York. The tiny silver disks down the front of the bodice found themselves again, after half a century, buttoning up an eager young body, panting, impatient to cross the mountains from this side, with back to the westering sun, and with bright silver buttons, like bosses on a shield, ready to receive the first dart from out the east.
The party in the parlor were weary enough waiting before An' Jerusha hobbled into the front hall with a negro lad in tow, who brought the news that:
"Dey's bin a accident on de line; nobuddy hurt, but the train'll be seberal hours late. Mr. Gano reckons he'll stay ober at de station till it gits yere."
"Isn't it just like cousin Ethan!" Emmie burst out, when the two blacks had gone. "I don't believe he'll ever come--I don't believe we've got a cousin Ethan!" she wound up, with exasperation.
Partly to reassure herself, partly to kill time, she went into her grandmother's room and brought back her cousin's latest photograph.
"Don't you sometimes think this is the crossest-looking of any?" she whispered to Val.
"I don't think it's cross--just grave. I hate grinning men."
"I don't want him to grin; but his mouth looks--looks--Still, I do like his mustache brushed that way, so you can see his lips a little. And his eyes!--oh! his eyes are beautiful!"
They studied the picture for some moments held between them.
"Do you quite like his chin?" pursued Emmie.
"I like that best of all except his nose," said Val, firmly.
"Oh, what makes you like his nose?"
"Because it isn't too little, and because it's rather bony, and because it's got a bridge."
"Oh, well, I think I'd prefer it quite straight instead of aquiline. But he's very handsome. It's nice having him look like that."
Emmie held the photograph off, and tilted her head from side to side.
"Grandma says cousin Ethan and me used to be rather alike as children." She smiled contentedly. "I hope he'll go to church."
She took the picture back presently, but before she replaced it on the mantel-piece she looked round over her shoulder. Reassured, she kissed the pasteboard fervently, and put it down with shamefaced, fluttering haste.
The sun set and the light faded. Still no Ethan. A brief interval for supper at six, and the three returned to the parlor. Mrs. Gano manifested a hiterto unsuspected leaning towards illumination. The branch candlesticks, for the first time within the memory of man, held each its triple flame, and a shaded lamp shed a crimson glow over the centre table. She made an excursion into the hall and complained that the Moorish lamp burned faint and insufficiently. She came back, saying:
"It will seem cold after France," and with her own hands she lit the ready-laid fire in the grate. Later, she went to the front door and objected to the absence of the moon.
"It's really dangerous coming up those steps in the pitch-dark, especially since the second stone was broken."
At half-past eight she shut her book suddenly.
"Val, couldn't you get your father's new-fangled lantern--that patent incandescent contrivance--and set it lighted at the top of the steps?"
"Y-yes, ma'am, if you think it won't look funny. It's like the head-light of an engine."
"Funny? Not at all. There's nothing your cousin Ethan dislikes so much as the dark--unless he's greatly altered."
So Val go the lantern, and set it where the wide diverging rays flared out across the street, as a fan of zodiacal lights opens gaudily across the Milky Way on arctic nights," leaving travelers on the ways of this world but little illumined, for all the glory of heaven.
So with the patent incandescent lantern. It picked out the whitewashed hitching-post with an ostentation of good-will, flooded the farther side of the street, and fell with a kind of fierce satisfaction upon the ugly new wooden tenements opposite. But this side, gutter, and gate, and little flight of worn and broken steps, were left in denser darkness.
Val came in, complaining for the first time at the delay.
"I hope poor father isn't waiting all these hours for his supper."
"Oh, he'll go to the hotel, you may be sure."
Mrs. Gano did not speak as if the thought brought her particular satisfaction.
"It's getting cold; I just wish he'd come home. I don't believe there's the least use expecting cousin Ethan before to-morrow."
But when Emmie, half an hour later, asked for serious advice:
"Now, do you think I'd have time to eat another apple before he comes?"
"I wouldn't risk it," said Val; "we'll tell fortunes with the seeds you've got already."
The two girls sat on the moth-eaten velvet sofa. Emmie had spread her apple-seeds out on last evening's Mioto Gazette, and rubbed her fruity fingers on a diminutive pocket-handkerchief.
"Now I've named them," she said, in a whisper.
Val pointed at random:
"One I love, two I love, three I love, I say;
Four I love with all my heart, five I cast away;
Six he loves, seven she loves, eight they both love;
Nine he comes, ten he tarries,
Eleven he courts--"
"Oh," sighed Emmie, "only one more needed."
She rumpled up the paper, and with a glance towards her grandmother she thrust it behind the sofa.
"Pig!" remonstrated Val, under her breath, for once on the side of law and order.
"Ain't a pig. I shall see what my new shoe-buttons say," Emmie whispered. "Rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief, doctor, lawyer, merchant. Ha! going to be a chieftess. Now what shall I wear? Silk, satin, calico, cotton," and on till she was able to announce, with dark eyes glancing and full of glee: "Satin!"
"You cheated. You haven't any right to count the one that's off."
"Course I have. They're brand-new shoes, and the buttons haven't any right to come off first time. And it's goin' to be satin--green satin, bright, beautiful grass-green satin. Now I'll tell your fortune," she added, amiably.
But Val sprang up, crying:
There was the rattle of wheels, at all events, in the quiet side street. The two girls rushed to the door and down to the gate. A carriage stopped. Their father got out with his usual air of weary haste. He was saying something disparaging of that Europe he had never seen, applauding his nephew's return to his native land. Val, her grandmother's warning fresh in mind, caught up the lantern and held it high above her head, slanted slightly, so as to catch within the radius of light the tall, slight figure that followed her father so lightly up the broken steps.
"Your own country has need of you," John Gano was winding up; "she is waiting for just such a man."
He paused under the red-bud tree.
Val still stood with the lantern conscientiously held up, lost for that first moment in her own absorbing impressions. Young Gano looked at her with quick realization of the eager, buoyant attitude, the uplifted face on which the strong light streamed, the wide, earnest outlook of eyes with so much more in them of question than of welcome, they might have been accustomed to sweeping far horizons from the watch-towers of the world.
An infinitesimal pause, and then:
"How do you do, America?" he said, smiling, and took his cousin's hand.
Val felt intently he was laughing at her for a kind of travesty of Liberty Enlightening the World. She drew back quickly, lowering the lantern.
"I am Val," she said, "And this is Emmie."
The younger girl held up her pretty face, and her cousin kissed her.
"Where's grandmamma?" he said, eagerly, as he looked up.
She stood at the door. In the cross lights of lantern in front and Moorish lamp behind, she seemed to be in all the animate world the thing least changed since she had stood there to receive the boy nineteen summers before. Only a little frailer, a little whiter haired, subtly fined down by the years. With an impetuosity that made Val tremble for the fragile watcher at the door, Ethan sprang forward and up the two steps of the porch. He stopped before her with a curious reverence, and took her gently in his arms. Her head drooped on his shoulder. Val saw she had drawn the veil across her face. His arm still round her, Ethan turned with her into the hall.
"What!" he said, seeing the parlor lit, "am I company this time?"
"Tell Jerusha to serve supper," said Mrs. Gano, tremulously, to Val.
"Jerusha! Fancy her being still alive! But no supper, thank you; there was a dining-car on my miserable train."
The others went into the parlor, while Val took the lantern and the message to the kitchen, and then hurried back.
Emmie was beaming beside her cousin, sitting as close to him as she could get on the old velvet sofa. Opposite sat Mrs. Gano, animated, smiling. John Gano stood with parted coat-tails in front of the fire.
"And how does life abroad compare on the whole with life in America?" he was asking.
"Well, outwardly it is very different , of course."
"Different! I should think so," said Val, impulsively.
" Outwardly different," repeated John Gano. "I should think the spirit as well--the point of view utterly alien from ours."
"I believe I'd like Europe," said the sympathetic Emmie, "but Val's been wondering a great deal how you could bear it so long, especially after your grandfather was dead, and you could do as you liked."
Mrs. Gano sat very straight, not joining in the conversation at this point, but succeeding to admiration in conveying her opinions.
"I dare say," explained John Gano; "there has been some not altogether unnatural fear that the Old World might infect even you, as it has done other good Americans."
"How is that?"
John Gano shook his lion locks ominously. Ethan looked at his grandmother. Her slow head-shake set the white veil waving. Evidently, whatever the danger might be, it was something too hideous for words. He looked at Val. She turned away her eyes. The infected one began to smile involuntarily. His youngest cousin alone of that patriotic company looked at him with no shadow misgiving.
"There's a young man belongs to this town," she said, beginning in gentle explanatory tones, but waxing indignant as she went on, "and his name's Jimmie Battle--used to be quite a nice young man. Grandma knew his father's father--"
"Certainly, I knew all about the Battle family, from A to Izzard."
"Let me tell, grandma. Well, Jimmie Battle went to Paris for a week, and when he got back to America he called himself James Battelle. Everybody loathes and despises--I mean, doesn't like Jimmie any more."
The tension gave way at this point, and they joined in Ethan's laughter.
"I'm afraid, like the abhorred Mr. Battelle, I didn't object to the French variant of my name; but I did mind the English persistence in calling me Eth-an Gáy-no."
"Quite ridiculous," said his grandmother.
"But did they go on speaking of you in that horrid way?" asked Val, incredulously.
"I wouldn't have stayed with such people a minute," she said-- "at least, only long enough to see how ridiculous they were, and then come straight home."
"Miss Hills, she's my Sunday-school teacher," remarked Emmie, "she's been abroad, and she says all English people call cake cyke."
"Ah, let us hope Miss Hills is more conversant with the manners and customs of the ancient Hebrews."
"We thought you'd be standing up for Europe," said Val, with a commiserating smile. "Perhaps you'll say all the English don't say militree for military."
Ethan only laughed, and began to talk of Paris. Val found herself listening, not to the words, but to the tones of her cousin's voice, with a sense of rising excitement. Of all kinds of beauty, and of all forms of fascination, that which found the girl most defenseless was harmony in sound. It is doubtful if any eloquence could have reached her through a cracked or raucous voice. But this one, with its vibrant, searching resonance, that yet held no effect of harshness, its pliancy, its command of halftones, it haunting timbre--this was a voice that, no matter what it said, made music and uttered charms. No one in New Plymouth, no one Val had never heard before,
spoke like this. Yet the accent was frankly Northern, and the diction free from any obtrusive elegance or trace of pedantry. It was the voice that gave the words their quality.
Before to-night Val had judged of speech and matter critically enough, being an even uncomfortably observant young person; but this sound went thrilling along her nerves, setting up so strange a tumult as to shut out sense. After all, he was only talking about France. What did France matter? It might as well be Mars. The important fact was that in the grave, dark face, great wonderful eyes were shining, deeper, gloomier than Emmie's. But his smile made generous amends. It made the heart beat to look at the mobile mouth. And Emmie had dared to kiss him! Something caught in Val's breast as she thought of such boldness. But speaking of boldness, it was to this person she had written for help to get her into opera. How had she dared? Did he have the letter in his pocket? Would he take it out presently, and bring her to confusion before the family?
"This room's exactly the same," he said, suddenly, breaking away form the discussion as to whether Republicanism suited the volatile, spectacle-loving Gaul. "My old friend Daniel Boone's still at his post, I see; and, why, the very silver paper on the walls is the same!"
"No, no," protested Mrs. Gano. "This is new. It hasn't been up more than"--she reflected.
"Nine years ago, this coming May," said John Gano.
"Oh, really!" Ethan passed his slim, brown finger-tips lightly over the wall behind the sofa. "It's just as nice as the old kind was," he said smiling; "it comes off on your fingers, shiny and metallic."
"Yes," said Val; "just like the dust off a butterfly's wings."
"So it is." He nodded across the room at her. "I remember what fun I used to think it to rub it off--just a little, grandmamma."
"If you remember that," said Mrs. Gano, indulgently, "you remember I always reproved you for it."
"No, no." He jumped up, and stood very tall and smiling in front of her, with his hands behind his back, like a guilty urchin. "You've forgotten. When you caught me with silvery fingers, I used to be awfully alarmed. I always tried to disarm you by saying 'I was afraid you'd scold.' Then you would say, 'I never scold. I point out your defects--it's what I'm here for.'"
They all laughed, the two girls with some misgiving.
This repartee still did service on occasion.
"Oh, but those were good times!" Yet even as he said the words the gay look faded out of his face. "It was a long while ago."
"It's nineteen years," said John Gano, who was wrestling with a fit of coughing. These attacks were such a commonplace in the family life that the rest were aware of this one only when Ethan said:
"What a frightful cough you've got, Uncle John."
"No--nothing unusual. It begins like this when the cold weather comes on."
"Oh, father, you don't call to-day cold!" said Emmie.
"Your uncle is much better than he used to be," said Mrs. Gano, rising with her habitual every-day decision, and glancing at the clock. "You must be tired, Ethan?"
"Do you think you're too tired--" Val began, and hesitated, seized again with an unaccustomed shyness.
"I'm as fresh as possible."
He turned and looked inquiringly at her.
"I was just thinking how excited An' Jerusha's been about your coming, and--"
"Why, of course; I'll go out and see her a moment."
"May I come, too?" asked Emmie.
"Yes, do." He glanced towards Val, but she turned away an indifferent face. "Come."
He went off with Emmie, leaving Val behind, consumed with longing to go, but feeling as if she were chained to her chair.
"I don't like to see him looking delicate," said John Gano.
"Delicate! What an idea!" remonstrated his mother.
"He is young to have that slight inclination to stoop."
"Mere habit. You see, he is so tall. A man of six feet can afford to stoop just a little. It's hardly perceptible."
John Gano shook his head.
"Thinner than he ought to be."
"My patience, but you're hard to please! As if a fat man weren't an abhorrence."
"I didn't say I wanted to see him porpoisical."
"A man of Ethan's age ought not to have an ounce of superfluous flesh."
"Well, I should say he hadn't."
"All of us have invariable been thin."
"Exactly what I have in mind. Ethan has all the physical characteristics of our family."
Out in the kitchen An' Jersuha was expressing similar sentiments.
"Law sakes! I's tickled t' death you's come home. Jes' de same as ebber; spit en image ob yo' father. I monstus glad t' see yo', Mars Efan. Been ve'y jubous 'bout yo' gitten back fo' I done kick de bucket," and she laughed to keep from crying outright.
Emmie brought him back in triumph to the parlor, and they all said good-night.
When Val got into bed and began the inevitable story where she left off the night before, behold, the hero's face was the face of her cousin, and the hero's voice was the voice of Ethan Gano.
Val woke next day with a flashing sense of something wonderful having happened. She sat up in bed. Ah, yes! A bound, and she was out on the floor, pushing wider open the heavy shutter.
Ah! how good the air smelled, a little frosty, and yet golden, with something in it aromatic, tingling. She raced through there toilet, but after it was finished she stood a long while in front of the glass. Suddenly she threw back her
head and snapped her fingers in the air. Then she ran down-stairs. Going out by the veranda, she saw her cousin standing at the farther end, where the wisteria hung down in festoons. He was looking out through the loops and tangles. He turned, hearing the suddenly arrested step.
"Good-morning, America," he said, coming forward with that easy swinging gait of his.
"Good-morning," said Val, half laughing, half offended.
She stood a little awkwardly, seeming not to see his hand. He only smiled, and leaned his tall figure in the fawn-colored clothes against the pillar.
"Tell me, America, do you have much weather as fine as this?"
"We have Indian summer in this country, if that's what you mean."
He looked so well against the pillar. Val longed to take up some nonchalant attitude by the one nearest her, but she remembered it was black with the all-pervading coal-dust, and forbore being picturesque at the price.
"Of course," Ethan assented. "I'd forgotten you had a fifth season in your calendar. Naturally, the old regulation four wouldn't content you."
"I can't think why you talk as if you weren't an American yourself. You might be some poor foreigner--"
"Just what I am, I'm afraid."
"That's the worst of living abroad a lot," he said: "you are always a foreigner there. But it's only when you come home, and find that you are more of a foreigner than ever, that you begin to mind."
"You don't look as if you minded much."
"Ah, that's the good face I put on."
("Horrid, sneering French ways," she commented to herself, not really thinking so, but feeling it a duty and a kind of instinctive defense to pretend she did. Something rueful in his laugh was not lost upon her.)
"Still, I do appreciate your Indian summer," he added.
"I should think so." She threw back her head and drew in the sweet, sun-laden air. "It's the very best time of all the year." He didn't answer. "Don't you think so?"
"I think it a little melancholy, for all it's so beautiful."
"How curious! It's the time that makes me happiest."
"Perhaps you prefer spring?' She spoke as one condescending to childishness. "A good many people seem to."
"Yes, all the old, and all--"
The breakfast-bell rang.
No trays went up-stairs that morning. Everybody appeared, and the two girls couldn't remember when so gay a party had assembled in the dingy dining-room. But the pleasantry was of that strictly family character whose special savor is withheld from the outsider.
As Ethan was taking his place by Mrs. Gano, he stopped suddenly, catching sight of the preternaturally tall silver coffee-pot, and made obeisance.
"Sir or madam," he said, "I've traveled far since we parted, but I've never seen you equal."
Mrs. Gano laughed with the rest.
"That means the Mioto air has made you readier for your morning cup than you've been since you were here before. Or perhaps you agree with Frederika Bremer's old woman, 'When I see a coffee-pot, it's the same to me as if I saw an angel from heaven.'"
"She must have meant this one."
"Emmie had another name for it," said John Gano, also unbending.
"Father!" remonstrated his little daughter, blushing, "it's a great many years since I called it anything but coffee-pot."
"But before that?" persisted cousin Ethan.
And everybody but Emmie laughed as if it were the finest jest in the world.
After breakfast they all walked about the grounds in a body, John Gano pointing out the superiority of his trees, and Ethan indicating his best-beloved old haunts, the two girls exchanging looks of amazement that he should know their playground so intimately. Ethan was much struck by the general dilapidation. If Uncle Elijah--peace to his ashes!--had found cause to remark nearly twenty years before that the place was going to ruin, there was good ground for the assertion to-day.
Ethan remembered the wilderness as being inexorably confined to that vast region (pitifully shrunken to the older eye) below the second flight of stone steps. But "Mr." Hall, who had mowed and clipped and gardened the upper region, having joined the ghosts, for who he had felt so little fellowship here on earth, the wilderness had risen in his absence and howled, mounting terrace after terrace, and was now laying open siege to the very Fort itself. To be sure, there were garden borders under the front windows, where John Gano lingered with a tender solicitude, lamenting for the Eschscholtzia's sake the lack of sun. But the flourishing and carefully tended pansy border marked only the more definitely the surrounding desolation.
"There's a strange dog!" said Mrs. Gano. "Some one has left the gate open."
"He may have got in down there where there's a picket missing in the fence," said Ethan.
"Oh, that picket hasn't been there for ages," Val answered; "but the old hundred-leaved rose-bushes are so thick in that corner, and so thorny, nothing can get past."
As she ran forward to eject the strange dog, she caught her foot in the dry, tangled grass, and, but for Ethan's quick hand, would have fallen.
" Oh!" she said, flushing and looking confused; then, without any proper acknowledgment, she darted off after the dog.
"If I did that, father, you'd say I was clumsy," said Emmie, smiling up into his face in the prettiest way in the world.
"The grass is very long," said John Gano--"long and matted."
"It grows with great rapidity," said his mother. "it seems only yesterday we had a man here cutting it."
"It was the 29th of June."
"Oh, you must be mistaken."
John Gano shook his head.
"I remember quite well. It was the anniversary of Clay's death."
Val joined them again, breathless from the chase. Ethan had paused absent-mindedly near the corner of the wooden L, where the weather-boarding was hanging loose. It wasn't in the best taste, Val felt, that he should stare so at that strip of rotten wood, that refused any longer to hold the rusty nails. She longed to touch his arm, to rouse him.
"All this needs renewing," admitted John Gano, as though in answer to a verbal observation.
"A--yes," said Ethan, and they went on.
It was odd how the unsparing sunshine and a new pair of eyes in the party revealed the wide-spread dilapidation of the place to its old inhabitation. Val had hardly noticed it before.
John Gano picked up a blackened, weather-worn shingle off the grass.
"The equinox brought down a fresh crop of these," he said, tossing the old shingle into the wood-shed.
"Comes off the L, I suppose," said Ethan.
"No, the main roof."
"Doesn't it leak, then?"
"A little," answered his uncle, cheerfully.
"That must be bad for the house."
"We shall be roofed with slate next time," said Mrs. Gano; "it lasts longer."
"Oh, we can't complain of the way a shingle roof has lasted, that's done duty more than a quarter of a century," returned her son.
"Whenever it rains we have such fun," said Emmie.
"We carry up an army of buckets and basins and washtubs to catch the rain in the attic. Last week it came through into father's room in the night, and Val--"
"Emmeline," said Mrs. Gano, "walk on; the path is narrow here."
As they passed the kitchen-window Ethan glanced in.
"Good-morning, Aunt Jerusha! Morning, Venus!"
"Mawnin', Marse Efan!"
The old woman hobbled delightedly to the window, avoiding a broken place in the flooring.
"I see you don't neglect my knocker--shines like gold."
"Go long, Marse Efan!" Her rich chuckling bubbled over. "Tooby suah I ain't disremember dat ar knocker o' yourn--not oncet in twenty yeah."
"Why do you have those little squares of zinc nailed all over your kitchen floor, Aunt Jerusha?"
"Law sakes alive!"--she rolled and shook--"dey's a despit lot o'rats down sullar, an' I can't b'ar 'em up yere nohow."
Ethan was the only one of the party outside to join her cheerful laughter. But the ruinous state of the property was too obvious for him to realize that he could possibly be expected to overlook it.
When they went in-doors Ethan followed his grandmother to her own room, where he had sat with her that first evening so long ago and heard that Jerusha was his aunt. They had a long and eminently satisfactory talk until, towards its end, Ethan straightforwardly introduced the subject of the evident need of repairs, and the pleasure it would give him to--
He was "quite mistaken," she interrupted, drawing herself up, and, to his amazement, receiving the suggestion at the point of the sword. There was nothing wrong with the place. He had his head full of chateaus and palaces. Of course, this was quite an ordinary--
"No, no, it's not the least ordinary. It's picturesque
and beautiful; but it--you must see for yourself it's falling to decay."
"Like ourselves, it doesn't get younger; but it naturally suits us better than it can hope to suit you."
He gave up his point for the time being, finding a sudden flaw in his own taste, that could so soon after his arrival suggest that anything here could be changed for the better.
"Come to the upper hall," he said to Val after the mid-day dinner; "help me to unpack, and see if anything I've picked up in my travels will do for a present to Aunt Jerusha."
Val followed him up-stairs, into the seventh heaven. She knew she ought to call Emmie; but why spoil it?
"You never answered my last letter," she said with lowered voice as they reached the landing.
"Didn't I? I'm so sorry. I thought I had. But it's so long ago."
"Not so very."
"About three years. You've rather neglected me of late." He smiled down into her lifted eyes.
"Perhaps I didn't know your new address."
"'Monroe et Cie, 7, Rue Scribe, Paris,' always finds me."
"I thought you told grandma to write direct to the Rue de Provence."
"Ah yes, at one time. I left there a long while ago."
He was unlocking his trunk. Should she tell him about the letter that had evidently got lost? It somehow wouldn't be so easy as she supposed. And what was the use? Anyhow, here was Emmie trailing up-stairs with a rather downcast face, saying:
"Grandma, thought I might come too and see Aunt Jerusha's--"
"Of course; and why not, I'd lie to know?" said Ethan, with a welcoming look, as he tumbled his clothes out on the floor. It was awfully interesting--embarrassing, too. What a lot of things he had, for a man!
"I hope he isn't a dandy," thought Val, with a moment's
misgiving. As a top-heavy pile of linen and flannel fell against her arm, she was conscious of an odd sense of pleasure, under her shrinking from the contact. It was as if he himself has touched her. Emmie knelt down and gathered up these things, and folded them with her characteristic clumsy helpfulness. These mechanical offices were as far from her limited range of dexterity as the wish to be of service was ever present in her amiable soul.
"Now, this was what I thought might do." He opened a box and took out an Indian silver necklace.
"Just the thing!" cried Val; "how she'll love the dangles!"
"And these for Venus, eh?" He laid down two bangles.
"Think of Venus, eh?" He laid down two bangles.
"Think of Venus havin' 'em both," murmured Emmie, hanging over them, fascinated.
Val saw there were more silver ornaments in the little box, but Ethan was diving into the trunk again.
"This is what I've brought you," he said, still on one knee over trunk. He turned and handed them each a little morocco case. A murmur of surprised thanks, a click of opening clasps, and before each girl's eyes gleamed a tiny watch, round which lay coiled a fine little chain.
"Oh, oh, oh!" Emmie dropped a pile of shirts on the floor and danced about. "My initials on the back in pink coral!"
"Mine in turquoise! Oh, how did you know blue was my color?" But Emmie had precipitated herself upon Ethan's bosom and was hugging him wildly.
He was laughing, and crying "Help! help!" And when Emmie desisted, "Help me to throw those clothes back."
They put everything away in wild disorder, except one small package, which he had pocketed.
"Let's go and show our watches to grandma," said Emmie; and they all went down to the long room.
Ethan had his hand on the door-knob.
"Oh, we always knock," said Emmie, not too excited
even by a gold and coral watch but what she could supply so alarming an omission.
Ethan paused a moment on the threshold while his cousins rushed in. He was thinking how that particular "Come in," aided perhaps by the preliminary formality of a discreet knock (how could he have forgotten!); the unchanged aspect of the big room and its occupant in the queer red chair--how it all gave him back his childhood; gave him back, too, in some indefinable way, his old feeling of being "in the Presence." All the adulation of which he himself had been the object at home and abroad had not changed this. In Paris he was a personage; in the press of two continents he was a respectfully mentioned millionaire; in the select circles of half a dozen capitals he was courted and fawned upon as a great parti; but in the long room he was a vassal, if not still a child. It amused him to think that he humored the notion. Mrs. Gano had received the deputation smiling, and had put on her spectacles. But as she examined the watches, while the girls chorused, and Ethan walked about, hands in pockets, looking at the browned engraving, the old woman grew grave.
"These watches are very handsome," she said; "too handsome for little girls."
"I'm not a little girl," said Val; "I'm--"
"They won't be in keeping, but they are very beautiful."
She was shriveling up in some unaccountable way.
"I couldn't think," said Ethan, coming forward, "what souvenir I should bring you of France." He drew the package out of his pocket and opened it. "Do you remember how I used to ask you about the French Revolution when I was a child, and all the stories you used to tell me, and how sorry we were for Louis and poor Marie Antoinette? You remember telling me how, when she heard the people were dying for want of bread, she asked, 'Why don't they eat cake?'"
He had opened a box and taken out an enameled cruci-
fix, from which hung a long chain of small but exquisitely chosen pearls fastened with a jeweled clasp.
"This is something Marie Antoinette wore. I thought you'd like to have it."
"Oh no!" drawing back quickly.
He stared at her. She added, almost nervously:
"I--I never wear jewelry."
"But--but this!" he protested, not a little dashed.
"Why, grandma, you're wearing pearl pins in your veil this very moment," said Val.
"They--oh, they are little old seed-pearls; they are nothing. I couldn't think of wearing a costly think like this." She waved her long fingers towards the chain with an air of distaste. "Such things are not suitable here."
"But why--why not?" exclaimed Ethan.
"You have only to look about," she said gravely. "That is a beautiful and costly toy, my dear. Keep it for your wife."
"Let's go and give Jerusha her necklace," suggested Emmie, by way of carrying off a trying situation.
"Ah yes," said Mrs. Gano, with an air of relief; "I'm glad you've remembered Jerusha," and she gave the silver collar praise unstinted.
End Chapter 18
Available since September 1998