The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 20
VAL's unwonted silence and aloofness the evening before had not been lost upon her cousin. He recalled these unaccustomed manifestations the next morning, smiling to himself, and promising his jealous little relative amends. The day, scarce well begun, beheld him on the way to a discovery that he kept on making for years: while you were occupied in realizing that Val Gano was hurt or disappointed, she was apparently getting over it with such despatch that, as you approached with suitable looks of sympathy, lo! she would advance to meet your condolence with banners flying and trumpets blaring, so to speak, obliging you hurriedly to readjust your expression, in order fitly to greet a person so entirely pleased with the course of affairs.
But to think Val miraculously expeditious in "getting over things" was hardly to go to the root of the matter. She did not get over disappointments; she remodelled them in her imagination till they were strokes of luck in disguise, or, at the very least, stepping-stones to some dazzling victory. As she lay in bed in the early morning, she redressed the unequal balance of the night before. After all, Julia wasn't going to have the world-resounding triumphs that awaited Val. Poor Julia! let her enjoy her little hour of drawing-room success; and Val sailed away into a realm of glory, carrying cousin Ethan in her train, and making her toilet to the sound of cymbals and hosannas.
As the breakfast-bell rang, she burst open her bedroom door and went flying down-stairs three steps at a time.
"What's happened?" said Ethan, as he came down behind her, reminded suddenly of his old friend Yaffti, the
patron demon of the stair. All that had "happened" apparently was that Ethan had grown decrepit, else why not go toboganning down the banisters to breakfast, or turn a few somersaults along the hall by way of beginning the day? "In honor of what saint is that?" he called after her, as Val cleared the last three steps with a leap and a bound.
"In honor of St. Sunshiny Morning," answered the girl, turning a radiant face over her shoulder, and waiting for Ethan to overtake her.
"Thought you told me yesterday you didn't take any interest in the weather. Oh, dear, no! never noticed it at all."
"I don't care a bit whether the old sun shines or not; can't think what people mean, to go bleating about the bad weather as they do. As if it mattered?"
"And yet it's 'Hurrah!' and three steps at a time for a sunshiny morning."
"Only said that for an excuse--not to tell you the real name of my patron saint."
"But do. Tell me what's your pet superstition, and I'll tell you mine."
"Well, my pet superstition--only it's not a superstition--is, that I was born lucky."
"Oh! what's the sign?"
"Sign? Nothing outward and visible, just an inward and spiritual grace. You needn't jeer; it's quite true. I'm sure I'm lucky. Now I've told you my great article of faith, what's yours?"
But Emmie appeared at that juncture, and Val was secretly pleased that Ethan postponed his answer. Breakfast was already late, and still they waited some time before any one else came down.
Presently Aunt Jerusha appeared with a coffee-pot and a smoking plate piled high with something brown and golden.
The girls received her with a round of wild applause.
"Hi! flannel-cakes--flannel-cakes!" and they executed a war-dance round the popular favorite, who "took her call," so to speak, as pleased as any star-actor at having brought off some noble appeal to the great warm heart of the populace, which ever beats true, etc.
"Law sakes! de way dey goes on!" The black woman stood laden and smiling like some ebon effigy typifying plenty and good cheer. Evidently loath to stop the popular demonstrations in her honor, she still urged feebly: "Shucks! Go 'long, Miss Emmie, wid yo' teeterin' up and down! Law sakes! look de way Miss Val kin jump Jim Crow. Yo' gran'ma 'ud be hoppin' mad if she cotch yo' doin' dat ar 'fore folks. He! he! Sakes alive, chillen! stop dem monkey-shines, and eat up dis yer firs' batch fo' dey spile."
"Yes, yes." Val cut "Jim Crow" suddenly short.
With a lightning change, taking the place at the head of the table, and adopting a dignified and official air, she poured out the piping hot coffee.
"Nobody waits for anybody on flannel-cake days," said Emmie, drawing in her chair with a chastened satisfaction.
"Did they give you flannel-cakes in 'Gay Paree'?" asked Val, as she passed Ethan his coffee.
"No, they didn't."
"I suppose," she said, incredulously--"I suppose it's much gayer in Paris than it is here?"
"It's not gayer than this so early in the morning."
He looked at the confident, shadowless face, and instead of comparing it with Mademoiselle Lucie's ingénue, countenance or any beauty of the salon or the stage, memory unfairly conjured up Mary Burne and her despair-whitened features as she harangued her dingy followers. "Not so early in the morning!" Even when the lamps were lit there were places in Paris not so gay as this.
To speak by the card, there were people everywhere, rich and poor, a good deal less pleased with the world than Val Gano. Ah yes! this was why she specially interested
him. It was a satisfaction to have stumbled on the explanation, for she was surprisingly much in his thoughts, this untutored child, with her bland belief in the world and in Val Gano. She was a kind of pleasant anodyne to a mind over-full of misgiving, overcharged with fear of life's panther-like capacity for quick-leaping revenge.
It was the first morning since Ethan's arrival that his uncle did not appear.
No, he had not had a very good night, Mrs. Gano said, when at last she came in. She changed the conversation abruptly, and went up-stairs when the letters were brought, having scarcely tasted breakfast. French postmark! A letter from De Poincy; not very long, and not much news. He wrote chiefly to ask when Ethan was coming "home" to France.
"I am wondering if you had the courage to carry out your bold design of hunting up your poor relations in the West. If you did, I'm sorry for you. I see it all from here. The provincial setting which all your democracy won't prevent from getting on your nerves, the fervor of the poor relation's devotion, the bottomless pit of his need, the unblushing designs on every single woman's part to marry you, will, I fear and trust, send you back to us with a chastened spirit and a decent regret for your folly in taking exception to Mademoiselle Lucie's charming way of playing the universal game. She, by-the-way, is lost to you forever, having just married a wealthy English brewer. But there are other Lucies over here, ready to hold out their pretty hands in welcome as soon as you weary of the crudities of the New World."
Ethan looked up with a smile at his poor relations, thinking how badly they played their parts.
"What conspiracy are you two hatching?" he said.
The two sisters, who seemed not, as a rule, to have much in common, were whispering with great animation.
"Let's tell him," said Emmie.
"No," said Val, getting red.
"Yes, tell me."
"No," repeated Val.
"Why not?" urged Emmie. "He'll never tell."
"Well, we're talking about the Comet," confessed Emmie. "You don't know about it, do you?"
"Of course he doesn't, silly. I'll be very angry if you tell."
"Isn't a comet a difficult thing to keep quite to yourselves?"
"Not ours. It's a paper."
"Well, he knows now. It's an awfully nice kind of magazine. Val and me write it. It's our secret."
"Pretty kind of secret now!" said Val. "But I don't care; I'm going away. I said I wouldn't do another."
"But finish this one. Oh, do it, just a single solitary last time, dear Val."
"Do, dear Val," echoed Ethan, smiling.
The quick blood flew into the girl's face. "Dear" on his lips seemed not only a new word in the language; it called into being something that the wide world lacked before. It struck Val into silence. She sat and looked in her plate.
"We do the printing in father's room when he's well enough to be out digging and fussing with flowers," said Emmie.
"It's a thing we started ages ago, when we were young," Val explained. "It amuses Emmie."
"But there's no reason to give it up now," urged the younger girl. "We thought we'd have to once for lack of paper," she said to Ethan. "Grandma gave up only half-sheets. Then Val discovered great-grandfather Calvert's old counting-house books."
"How did you do that?"
"They were in the closet under the stairs," said Val.
"An' Jerusha and Venie and most everybody thought there was a ghost there," added Emmie, with a certain reverence in her voice. "Val said she was goin' to see, and that was how we found all that jolly paper for the Comet."
"Emmie writes most of the poetry and all of the stories; I do the illustrations," said Val.
" And the conundrums and the 'Advice to Parents' column. Oh, Val, what would happen to you if grandma ever saw--"
She began to laugh.
"Miss Val," said Jerusha, putting her head in at the door, "yo' kin run so fas', honey, an' Miss G'no say de doctor's kerridge is a stan'in' at de Tibbses do'; will yo' say de doctor's wanted yer fur Massa John." Val was off like an arrow from a bow before the old woman had finished.
Dr. Wharton was some time up-stairs. Mrs. Gano and Ethan were both in the sick-room. The verdict was that Mr. Gano was not, after all, dangerously ill, but ought to go South before it was too cold for him to travel, and that, at all events, the idea of going to New York in November was absolutely out of the question--"sheer madness."
The first keen edge of Val's anxiety wore off in an hour or so. Her father sent for her. He wasn't really even so ill as the doctor made out. Still, it was very sadly, and with a misgiving foreign to her experience, that she agreed to put off their joint expedition till the spring.
"And meanwhile," said her father, "since you are ambitious to be of use, it would be well if you took a more active part in the care of the house. Jerusha is very, very old, and--"
"I do take care of my own room."
"Ah yes, but there are other things--"
"Before cousin Ethan came I used to help Venus on Saturdays with the parlor."
" Before Ethan came?"
"Yes; I can't do it while he's here."
"Oh, it looks so odd. None of the other girls do. Head in a dust-cap, and horrid black hands! Grandma wouldn't like it at all, not while we have company."
Val seized the opportunity afforded by her father's fit of coughing to consider her audience at an end.
When she came down-stairs from this interview, she found Emmie wandering about disconsolately. Ethan closeted with grandma. No lessons this morning.
"Come," said Val to Emmie, clutching for diversion at their one common interest, "we'll do the magazine."
Emmie got the red and black ink, the fine and the broad nibbed pens, a pile of paper oddments tied with string, and a gigantic ledger, with one of its massive calf-skin covers torn off, revealing the pages, blank at this end, coarse like drawing-paper, and tough, like nothing one sees in these flimsy times--a fabric that, besides never wearing out, had been found to take kindly to the refinements of ornamental printing.
The girls established themselves in the dining-room. After executing the title of Emmie's story in florid Old English lettering, Val did a pen-and-ink sketch of the hero. That gallant individual had started out rather like Harry Wilbur. In this final issue he appeared with Ethan Gano's marked and clear-cut profile, having borrowed from that gentleman not only his tall elegance, but the slight droop of shoulders and the even more elusive characteristic by means of which, despite the occasional droop, he never lost the air of carrying himself well in some indefinable way.
"Now," said Val, bestowing a finishing touch.
Whereupon, with much gusto, Emmie began to read the last installment of "The Brown House on the Hill," Val printing at dictation in a rapid, clear italic. The minutes flew. Venus would be coming in presently to set the dinner-table. The clock, chiming the hour, masked the sound of footsteps approaching from the opposite direction. Emmie raised her voice to be heard by the printer above the dozen strokes of noon:
"What nonsense is that you are reading?" said Mrs. Gano, in the sudden silence.
The two girls started like criminals. Not only was their grandmother standing at the door, but cousin Ethan was looking in at their discomfiture over her shoulder.
Val obscured the Comet with the blotter. Emmie, grown very pink, had thrust Editha and Archibald Abalone under the table.
"What is it you have there, Emmeline?"
"Just a--just a thing I was reading Val."
"Let me see it."
She came towering into the room.
"Grandma," said Val, turning at bay, "it isn't meant for you."
"Emmeline, hand me that paper."
Trembling, the younger girl brought up the manuscript.
"It isn't honorable to read things that aren't meant for you," said Val, starting up and displacing the blotter.
" Read it!"
Mrs. Gano caught "The Brown House" out of the child's hands with strange excitement, and tore it across and across.
"Oh, oh!" wailed Emmie, with fast-flowing tears, while Val and Ethan stood transfixed.
There was "the magazine" in full sight, flaunting on its cover a splashing red comet with a fiery tail. Mrs. Gano blazed back at it through her glasses as she threw down the fragments of "The Brown House."
"Whose is this?" she said, opening the stitched and folded sheets of her father's ledger.
" Mine," said Val, laying determined hands on the folio.
"I perceive part of it to be unmistakably yours," said Mrs. Gano, with a cutting inflection: "' Vale, a ballad sung at the Grand Opera House by the world-renowned diva, Signorita Val Gano.'"
Val's hands had dropped from the paper as if paralyzed.
"Now, this verse-stringing is one of the things I will
not have," said the old woman, with a curious tragic intensity. "I've seen enough of young girls ruining their figures, and their eyesight, and their prospects, bending over stuff like this, till it becomes a craze, and they're fit for nothing better."
She took the Comet in her hands and tried to tear it up. The ancient paper would have held out well against less fragile fingers, but Ethan did not realize the toughness of the Calvert ledger. He hurried forward.
"Oh, don't tear it. Really, really, a little scribbling isn't so fatal."
"I don't expect you to think so, my dear Ethan, when you do it yourself in two languages, having nothing better to do in either. But if I'm any judge, we've had enough of it in this family." She turned upon the hushed, awed Emmie. " Go out and play," she commanded, but with an air of saying, "Off with your head! So much for Buckingham." "As for you"--she flashed back a look at Val as she went towards the fireplace--"never let me find you wasting your youth in this pernicious fashion again as long as you live under my roof."
She put the Comet in the fire, and with the poker she pushed it down among the red-hot coals. She waited grimly while it burned, then, without another word or look, she went back to the long room. Ethan had been perilously near laughing at the total rout of the two malefactors. No sooner had the guardian of the family virtue disappeared, and it was possible openly to relieve one's feelings, than Val began striding back and forth with clinched hands and a look of concentrated rage.
He was rather startled at the transformation in the sunny face. It was convulsed, ugly with passion.
"I won't stand it; no, I wouldn't stand it from the Angel Gabriel!" She took a turn up and down the room and burst out afresh: " She, Pallas Athene! She, patron of the arts! It's this sort of thing"--she stopped before her cousin with tragic eyes--"it's this sort of thing that has embittered my youth!"
"What!" he said, holding fast to his gravity. "Has she done this before?"
Val shook her head, and then, in a stifled voice:
"The Comet has been kept dark, but there are other things--things I really care about."
"Is there something you care about more than about writing?"
" Writing?" she echoed, with limitless scorn. "I don't care that about writing. It just does to fill in. But the way she behaves about the Comet is just a sample. I really thought she was getting to be more liberal-minded. It's a long time since we've had a terrible scene like this; but it just shows you." She turned away and strode up and down. "The only thing she ever let me do was to take drawing lessons; and the only thing she ever took my part about was in defending me from learning cooking. But do you think I ever had piano lessons? No! Do you think I've ever had a private singing lesson in my life? No! do you know what that means to me? No--because the piano's kept locked, or else I'm made to sing as if I were ashamed of myself, and you haven't a notion that I've got a voice that would make a singer's fortune. Now, have you?"
"Course not. How should you?"
"I suppose," he said, "they naturally don't want you to face the hardships of--"
"As if we didn't face hardships at home. Have you any notion how poor we are? I don't mean holes in the kitchen and rain through the roof--who cares about that? We're so poor"--she advanced upon him step by step-- "that we can't have proper clothes, we can't have proper fires, and, except when you're here, we don't have proper food. And me with a voice of gold!--so people say. What's the good of a voice of gold with a grandmother like that?" She pointed a shaking finger of scorn in the direction of the long room. A black face was put shyly in at the opposite door. "Here's Venus to set the table."
Val tumbled down from her climax and stalked miserably out. Ethan followed her.
"Come to the drawing-room," he whispered, in the passage.
"Parlor, I suppose you mean."
"We can talk there."
They pushed open the door.
"She's left the key!" cried Val, springing towards the piano.
"So she has," he admitted, with less enthusiasm.
"That's for your sake. Cousin Ethan, you could try my voice if you liked."
"Of course," he said, with misgiving.
How was he to let her down from the dizzy height of her illusion without hurting her cruelly or stultifying himself? The voice that had joined in "Maid of Athens" had been so unremarkable, he could not recall anything about it save that, unwillingly, she had sung. She opened the piano. He saw with pitying amusement how her fingers shook upon the ancient rosewood.
"I am a mezzo-soprano," she said. "I'll show you my range first."
And she proceeded to do so, her voice as shaky at the beginning as her hands, but steadying itself on the second note, rising slowly, with a kind of conscious pride, swelling audaciously rich, mounting higher and clearer, leaping at the top notes like some spirit of delight sounding silver trumpets to the sun.
Ethan stood staring when she finished.
"Either something's wrong with my eyes, or else you have got a wonderful voice!"
"Oh, cousin Ethan, cousin Ethan!"
She caught his hands, and pressed them in an ecstasy of relief and gladness. He was moved himself when he saw her happy eyes were wet.
"I didn't hear one of those notes last night. What did you do with your voice then?"
"Grandma--she'd put down her foot--soft pedal--she's done that all my life."
"Sing something--I'll play for you."
He swept her off the piano-stool.
"I don't know much but ballads."
She pulled the yellowed sheets out of the stand, wondering as she turned them over which, if any, of these songs he had heard sung by great artists. She was on the point of asking him, when, "Oh," she said, jumping up, "here's this from 'Trovatore,'" and she set the music before him with the firm intention of rivalling that Patti people made such a fuss about. She sang the English words, "Ah, I've signed to rest me," and not without a certain largeness of effect intensely satisfying to herself.
"There's no doubt," he said, at the end, "that you have a voice. You, naturally, don't in the least know how to use it; but it's there."
This was not what she had expected--in fact, it was a blow; for, in spite of her old desire to be taught, she looked towards a singing-master chiefly as a personal influence to help her into the operatic field. She felt it a grievance against her family that she had had no early advantages, and yet she had thought it more than probable that genius could do without them. But what if cousin Ethan was right? All the more need not to lose time.
"The question is," she said, "What's to be done?"
It flashed over her in the pause that he might think she was hinting that he should defray the expense of her training, and this suddenly seemed as repulsive to reason and to dignity as if five months before she had not calmly suggested it herself. It was Heaven's own mercy that letter had got lost! She must have been crazy when she wrote it.
"Of course," she said, "my family can't do much, and"--looking at him half apologetically, and feeling the necessity to forestall him--"I couldn't allow any one else to do more
than give me advice and letters of introduction. I have my plans all laid--but now my father's ill."
"I was going to New York with my father next month to look over the field"--at his look of incredulity, she added: "operatic field. As I haven't any money, and can't possibly borrow, I must find a way to be a chorus-girl first."
"What an idea!"
He got up from the piano, and walked the length of the room and back.
"A very good idea."
"My dear Val--"
"No, cousin Ethan"--she motioned away his imaginary offer--"the Ganos don't borrow money, they do without."
He smiled a little.
"Did grandmamma approve of this chorus-girl plan?"
"Of course she wouldn't. It's only father who knows."
"Does he approve?"
"Well, not to say approve, but he knows it's no use objecting."
"Do you know, I don't approve of it either."
She sat down on the piano-stool, looking at him doubtfully. Was this an offer of a million in disguise? or could it be--
"You don't mean," she said, "that you won't give me any letters of introduction?"
"I mean, little cousin, that I'll do all in my power to keep you from the hardships and the hurts of public life."
He put a hand on her shoulder, and was looking down upon her. She opened her lips, but no sound came.
"There won't be any lack in your life of beautiful and worth-while things; don't spoil it all--don't spoil yourself by being too eager."
"Y--you don't understand," she faltered, with a suffocating sense of throbbing in her throat.
"Oh yes, I do. I understand a lot. Promise me you won't take any steps about this without letting me know."
She shook her head, and tried to draw from under the thrilling touch of his hand.
"I shall not let you go till you promise."
The other hand had fallen on her other shoulder. It was as if chains were being hung upon her. But why wasn't she struggling? Why--why was bondage so sweet?
"I'm waiting. Promise!" said the masterful voice.
The tumult in her heart made the clang of the dinner-bell sound as if it were ringing in some far-off place.
"What--what was it I promised?" she asked herself again and again.
End Chapter 20
Available since September 1998