The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 22
MRS. GANO sat with Emmie that evening in the long room. The little girl had been having restless nights, and had fallen asleep just before supper. Val went alone into the parlor after that meal, and waited for the two men to join her. They were smoking in the dining-room--a thing unprecedented. They stayed a long time. Eight o'clock--nine o'clock--nearly ten. Val lay down on the sofa in the shadow behind the big arm-chair, so worn out with emotion she fell asleep. By-and-by, through the mist of her dreaming, the low sound of voices broke: her father's with that familiar note of weary cheerfulness, and now another, deep, vibrant, full of mutiny and music. She lay a moment with shut eyes, her half-awakened senses luxuriously steeped in the sound, careless of the meaning. Now her father answered. Ah, how long his insistent staccato kept striking the troubled air. It was plain he was in one of his talking moods, when there was no stopping him, just as for days--sometimes for weeks--there would be no such thing as getting more than "Yes," or "No," or "Thank you," across his tightened lips. She was dropping off to sleep again when suddenly Ethan's voice stabbed her broad awake, saying:
"The world is a cruel place, the world is an evil place, ergo, I hate the world."
"No, no, you're wrong," said John Gano. "You're blind if you don't see the world is beautiful, is rooted in triumphing good."
Val sat up in the dark corner behind the chair, ready to cry "Hear, hear!"
"I admit," her father went on, "that man has defiled it and made it a den of thieves."
"Comes to the same thing in the end, although I don't agree--"
"It does not come to the same thing. There's all the difference in what it "comes to" between the curable and the incurable. You and I may not live to see it, but the world will one day be a fit habitation for better men than we."
Val, peering out, saw Ethan shake his head.
"When men are truly brothers, when we have worked the ape and tiger out, when we may be fortunate without blood-guiltiness. Even you," his uncle went on, a swell of enthusiasm lifting up his voice--"even you may live to see men realizing that Science is the great Captain, the true Redeemer. I should envy you your chance of hailing the beginning of that bloodless revolution, except that I am as sure of its coming as my neighbor's children's children will be when they have ocular proof and daily profit of it."
"I wish I were as sure as you."
"My boy, you've only to look about you. Mind, I don't say within. No, no"--his voice dragged--"one sees there one's own failures and defeats, and one is blinded to the larger good. I'm no sentimentalist, either." He flared up. "I'm not saying I shall reap any, or even you much, of this harvest. But come!"--he pulled his shambling figure out of the chair and stood before the fire almost erect--"life is nobler than men thought. Some men's share is to see, before they stumble into the dark, the light that other men shall walk by--see it, and tell the shorter-sighted to be of good cheer, for the light is at hand."
"And those who stumbled before the light came near enough?"
"Oh, well, at most they 'fell on sleep.'"
"Such men are no worse off than Plato, and Christ, and Buddha. The great thing was to know there was light."
"I wonder the memory of those old hopes doesn't lessen your faith in the new."
"Why? Progress isn't a passing fashion; it's the life
principle, another name for the power that makes for righteousness, the impulse towards the light, the force that pushes the acorn sprout out of the mould, and goads man night and day towards some ultimate good. as long as there's life, my boy, it will be better and ever better life. It's the law."
As he stood with arm extended, girt about with sudden authority, Ethan had a vision of Moses on Mount Sinai. This was too old an aspect of her father for Val to be much impressed. She watched the effect on her cousin, however, with feverish interest.
"You're an incurable optimist, uncle," he was saying.
"Ah, don't mistake me. I'm not one of those who drug themselves with dreaming." No Hebrew prophet now: it was the keen, practical-minded American who spoke. "The new order won't be brought about by idle optimism any more than by prayers, or politics, or private magnanimities."
"It will be the direct result of a higher standard of public health."
He spoke briskly, as one making a business proposition.
" Health!" echoed Ethan sharply--"health of the public conscience, I suppose you mean."
"Health of the body first of all," growled the prophet. "Health mental and moral as the natural result. But since the Maker of the world established the physical basis æons before he bothered about the soul, the first thing we have to do is to make strong our foundations, since for ages we've systematically neglected them, when we haven't occupied ourselves in actively undermining them. The halt, the blind, the diseased, are not for this New Jerusalem. Its first condition of citizenship will be mens sana in corpore sano. And the beauty of it is that, to attain this health, no one man's welfare will avail. All men must share it, or all men are menaced. It means a perfect Socialism."
"Not the travesty that masquerades with banners and brass bands, and issues pamphlets against property; but the Socialism that is the true science of life, and that will make possible the men I see in the future."
Ethan regarded the rapt look of the seer with a kindly cynicism. The absent eyes of the elder fell upon the critical young face with a gleam of suspicion. Again and again since his arrival something in Ethan's easy, lounging attitudes had not only roused an obscure antagonism in the older man, but had seemed the most irritating expression of his nephew's habit of mind. His nonchalant grace seemed to say with smiling superiority: "What's your hurry" Why should I exert myself?" Let the other man walk." John Gano, looking at him now, felt, in addition to the unreasoning rage at Ethan's laissez aller way of taking life, a kind of half-morbid, half-fanatical desire to prick the young man into action, into some likeness to that desperate American strenuousness that had died so hard with John Gano.
"The men I'm thinking of aren't grown in arm-chairs or under glass, any more than they are made in filthy work-shops or in thieves' alleys; they are the sons of happy, voluntary toil, and pure air, and honest dealing."
"Ah," said Ethan, "very likely."
"Not very likely-- certain. It's one of the few things a man may be dogmatic about. It ought to be the prime article of faith. Now, you're a rich man, and you say you're going into politics--you're going to help prescribe for this sick old world. Very good. You have the more need to mark well how man's oppression of his brother recoils upon himself. It is accounted prosperity--'getting on in the world'--to be able to have a horde of grown-up, hardy men and women about you in your hot-house homes to wait upon you, to prevent you from doing any part of that work which alone will keep you whole. Why, as I think of it"--he tossed back his lion's mane with a fine contempt--"it sounds incredible this should be the rich man's own desire. It's like some cunning artifice practised
by a nimble-witted slave upon an imbecile and cruel master, a slow but certain process of undoing. You not only pay another man to take away your means of health, you usually maltreat him. Think of it from the point of view of economy, you who are going into politics. The precious contrivance spoils two constitutions, not to speak of possible heirs. One man dying for lack of physical exercise, another killing himself by doing two men's--ten men's--share. You don't believe me. You are sitting there hugging some mental reservation."
"No, no," said Ethan, "I was only turning it over."
"I assure you I know whereof I speak. These men who grind the faces of the poor; these railroad magnates, manufacturers, corn kings, bankers, toiling day and night in stuffy offices--oh, I saw them in New York; I lived among them; I see them still"--his eyes blazed--"toiling, oppressing, cheating, to lay up riches. What have they in reality left to their children--a hoard of yellow gold? More than that; more than an inheritance of strained nerves and bending backs. They have left them the means of gratifying their sloth and their gluttony."
He took a turn up and down the room, shaking his head. He stopped suddenly before his nephew with a look of grim pleasure.
"It's poor comfort, but let the beggar in the street know himself revenged. The rich man, who has just refused him a dime to buy a dinner, goes home, and what he overeats and overdrinks, that would feed and revive the beggar, provides your rich man with his gout and fifty fine disorders unknown among the poor. When he refuses to share his dinner with the hungry, your Dives gets not only curses, but diseases of the digestive organs."
Ethan burst out laughing at the vindictive satisfaction of the climax.
"Come, can you deny it?" his uncle urged. "Drugs, kurs, baths--these are needed only to repair the waste of stupid living; they are substitutes for the right kind of
labor and of fare, but they only patch the breach that simpler living would make whole."
"You make me think of James Benton. You know him by reputation?"
"Specialist?--nerves? Yes, very good man."
"Well, he'd been attending a fashionable woman in New York--for about ten years, he told me. She'd paid him enormous fees to run over from Boston and 'keep her going.' He was rather sick of it, and one day he said: 'Oh yes, I can vary the tonic and bolster you up for the season; but I could cure you, you know.' 'Brute!' she screamed, 'then why haven't you in all these years?' 'You won't take my medicine.' 'Which medicine?' 'Six months' service as housemaid in a farm-house in the White Mountains.'"
"Well," said John Gano, with interest, "and the woman?"
"Oh, she only laughed. However, there are a certain number of people, I find over here, who do care about physical culture. Fellows at the universities think a lot more about athletics than they did in my time. Girls' colleges pay tremendous attention to that sort of thing. Haven't you noticed? Our women are finding out it touches the 'beauty question.' That's done more than all the books and doctors in creation. Oddly enough, our society women in particular, as I saw at Newport--"
"Yes, yes," interrupted his uncle. "We're moving in the right direction, but slowly--very slowly. Even health is little more with us as yet than a newly discovered prerogative of the prosperous. They're finding out it's the condition of survival. Oh, give us time, and it'll come all right."
"Perhaps. But even in the Old World, where you'd think they'd had time enough, they've got at only one aspect of the evil. They're alive to the need of mere exercise, especially in England. Oh, the devices!" laughed the young man, "by which the idle well-to-do may, in default, as you would say, of trees to fell or coal to dig and bricks to lay,
develop, notwithstanding, their biceps and their chests! I've seen many a fellow, with a quite ludicrous absence of enjoyment, doing dumb-bell whim-whams, or shouldering his golf-clubs, or going off to play rackets, with the stern resolve to get his quantum of exercise, whether it amuses him or not."
"Yes, yes, yes," John Gano broke in, "mere cultivators of muscle don't interest me much, though they go a step in the right direction. A man must face and overcome hardship, real hardship, before he's good for anything. Man is like the good wheat, he flourishes where it's cold enough to give him a good pinching frost once a year. Your finest-flavored fruits are grown where man contends with Nature, not as in the tropics, where she drops her insipid increase into his idle lap. Those games that men play at while their brothers starve are well enough for those who like 'em, but the great majority of average boys and girls, and even, to some extent, perverted men and women, too, are never so well amused as when they're making something. If every one had some bit of manual labor to do, something he could do with love, studying to bring it to perfection--"
"Ah yes," said Ethan, with a livelier interest, "that might bring men back a sense of beauty."
"At all events," said the elder, sturdily, "it would bring man back to the bed-rock of wholesome endeavor; and while he was strengthening his muscles and his morals, and laying up a fit inheritance for his children, he would be helping to solve the industrial problem of the world. The vulgar stigma would be lifted from the laboring class."
"Ah--h'm--yes," murmured Ethan, with a somewhat lackadaisical air.
John Gano studied his nephew's long, careless, lounging figure with a growing disapproval.
"In the time to come," said John Gano, significantly, "the only idle will be the few, and ever fewer, sick, and the very old. Chronic disease will be looked upon as the only lasting disgrace. The evil will hide their complaints as carefully as to-day they hide their crimes. They will be
more ashamed of an attack of indigestion or of gout than a man is to-day of being seen drunk in public, or caught robbing a till. He who passes a disease down the line will be looked upon as a traitor, the only criminal deserving capital punishment."
Ethan looked up quickly, scrutinizing the grim face for a moment, and then, unaccountably to himself, his own look went down.
Val had lost the sense with which she awoke of over-hearing something not intended for her, and of being under the necessity of making her presence known in the first pause. The talk was just an amplification of views to which her father had accustomed her from childhood. She would have gone to sleep again, or come out and said good-night, but for the interest of seeing their effect on Ethan, who had already been wrought upon to the extent of saying that he "hated" the beautiful world. Why was he looking so black-browed and forbidding now? She must pay attention and follow this.
"There'll be fewer hospitals," her father was saying, with staccato emphasis, "and less vapid sentimentalizing over those who suffer from violation of the plain laws of health."
"Well, it strikes me," said Ethan, "that if the poor devil has got his weak digestion, or his gout, or what not, from some unenlightened ancestor--"
"It must strike you that in that case he's in the position of the man whose father died in debt, in disgrace. The loyal son must wipe out the score."
"It's devilish hard on the son. He'll say he has his own debts to pay--an obligation to himself."
"As a man of honor, or"--with a gesture of impatience--"of mere sense, he will know he has no obligation so binding as to end the evil with his life, leaving no offshoot to sow the seeds anew. It is civic duty, it"--the stern voice wavered--"it is fatherly pity. When I see my little girl's eyes bright with fever--with this old fever that's been wasting me these forty years--do you suppose I find much comfort in thinking I had it from my father, and
have by foolish living only augmented a little my inheritance?"
He shook his lion's head fiercely. The break in her father's voice, even more than the words with their dimly comprehended menace, brought back a quick realization to the girl that her father had no notion of her presence. Should she come out now? It would be embarrassing to them all, for he was strangely moved. If she waited a few moments he would bet back to generalities, and then she would come out and say good-night. But under this playing at expediency was an eager curiosity to hear more, to understand better.
"What do you mean by 'this old fever'?" Ethan asked.
"Well"--his uncle turned his rough head slowly to the door to assure himself it was shut--"I mean something that my mother and I agreed not to talk about. There is a word that no one ever hears mentioned under this roof. We don't mention the word because"--he sunk his voice to a whisper--"because the thing itself is here."
"What is the word?"
Ethan sat looking at him in silence. Val half rose. She must let them know she was there. But--consumption! She sank down. Was it true that was the ghost that haunted the Fort? Certainly it was true that she had never heard the word on the lips of her elders.
"My father and my wife died of it," John Gano was saying. "My mother has the old lingering form of it. It was 'galloping consumption' that carried my sister Valeria out of the world at thirty. I am dying of it. My children--"
A curious hoarse sound tore its way out of his throat, and he buried his head in his hands. When he looked up his eyes were wild and bright. Val held her breath, and the nails of her clinched hands dug into her palms.
"I have just one hope," her father said, "that my innocent children will go out as painlessly as may be, before the great battle begins."
Val drew back, crouching behind the chair-back with blanched face.
"It is too late to hope that," said Ethan.
"No, it's not too late; the enemy is still in ambush."
"Yes. The battle won't begin till sex finds them out."
"Then they will have to be told what I was not told in time."
"What would you say?"
"I"--the hoarse voice shook--"I'd tell them how full of holes their armor is."
"Uncle John, you'll never be so cruel."
Val, behind the big chair, lifted her scared face in the shadow, looking on as a woman might at a duel fought for her.
"It is the only kindness. When I thought I shouldn't live to see them old enough to know, I wrote the matter down. Ha!"--he laughed wearily--"in the form of a last will and testament; a legacy from a father who will leave them nothing else except--" He got up and turned away, coughing. He walked up and down the room again, with dragging step and bent head. He stopped suddenly had laid his hand on the young man's shoulder. "I see too plainly the lesson of the past not to hand my knowledge on. It's all I'm good for now. This fair future for the race that I've believed in, that I've foreseen so long--" He was interrupted by the painful cough, but conquered it an instant. "Not only have I always known I could have no personal share in it, not even through my children--"
The cough gripped him again, and he turned away with handkerchief to his lips.
Ethan watched him, unmoved, with a kind of unsympathetic fascination.
"I think," said the young man, before his uncle found his voice again, "you are going on to say something I had to try to disabuse my mind of, years ago, when my own health smashed up before I went to France."
John Gano dropped into the rocking-chair by the fire, and lay back a moment with closed eyes and laboring breath.
"I didn't know," he said, faintly, that you'd had your warning, but I see"--he opened his eyes suddenly--"I see that your New England blood is too thin, too office-stricken, to save you. You've nothing--absolutely nothing to hope for from the Gano side." His voice was strong. It rang like a challenge. "My mother is wrong! Our fathers have eaten sour grapes."
Ethan leaned forward about to speak, but his uncle broke in harshly:
"I tell you you belong to a worn-out race. We are among those who are too remote from the soil--'there is no health in us.'"
"Oh come, Uncle John, don't talk as if we were Aztecs, or an effete monarchy."
"We are effete, and we deserve to die out root and branch."
The little movement over in the dark corner passed un-noticed in Ethan's attempt at protest.
"Or perhaps you think" said John Gano, "because we are not of noble descent, that being an old or rather a long dominant and idle race, doesn't count."
He smiled with a tinge of superior pity.
"How do you know we're so old a family?"demanded his nephew.
"I feel it in my bones; they ache-- they ache." He had begun the sentence with a hoarse laugh, and at the end his haggard face settled into lines of pain. "But whether we're an old family in the paltry social sense is beside the mark. Nature doesn't care a continental copper," he went on fiercely, "whether you're a king or a bankrupt cotton-planter, or other cumberer of the earth. What people don't realize is that a peasant or a rag-picker may come of an idle, worn-out stock, and if so, be sure Nature has marked him down. If purple and fine linen don't deceive her, neither do rags. No sickly sentimentality about her. She'll find her enemy, the unfit, through any and all dis-
guise. As for your aristocrat, she won't distinguish him even by her revenge. She has nothing to do with that figment of the pompous mind, 'belonging to an old family.' Families are all old. The question is: How closely are you related to--well, to use the ready-made phrase: How near are you to the soil?--to the fountain-head of blood made sweet by denial and swift by strenuous living? Ah, my boy, our fathers sat too long at their ease in houses that the building and the tending of made muscle and brawn for others. We lounged in arm-chairs by our fires of fat Southern pine, but the men who got the vital warmth were the men who hewed the tall trees down. We've blinded our eyes over books, and blunted our humanity in a petty concern about our souls, while our bodies were going to destruction."
There was dead silence for a few minutes.
'And those more fortunate ones," his nephew said, in a dull, resentful voice, "who are they? How is it possible to be sure? How shall your elect be known?"
"As of old, by their fruits. They and their children have broad shoulders; they haven't chest like ours--they haven't hands like mine."
He held his up, and both men (the girl, too, in the far corner) saw the fire glow red behind the thin, transparent fingers. He dropped them with an air of one who throws up a desperate game. Val pushed aside the rug that still partly covered her, and slid to the ground, arrested on the sofa's edge by Ethan's saying more angrily that she had thought that voice could sound:
"I tell you straight, Uncle John, I don't accept this paralyzing doctrine of yours, still less do I think your children will. I tell you frankly I rebel against--"
John Gano's wax-white hand caught him by the shoulder in a grip that made the young man wince.
"So did I rebel, and I've been paying for it these sixteen years. Oh yes, I knew very little, but I rebelled against the little I knew. I did worse--I married. I did worse even than that--I married my first cousin."
He drew off, as if the better to watch the effect of his words. Ethan, looking at him darkly, felt there was a devilish ingenuity in his uncle's ignoring the possibility of any further mixing of Gano blood, and yet holding up his own misdeed as a hideous warning to the word in general, a thing of unmitigated evil.
"These matters were not understood in my day," he went on, "but happily the men and women of these times are not left in darkness."
"Oh yes, they are," said Ethan. "The men and the women are new, but the darkness is the old darkness."
"No; science has put it to rout. I had no one when I was young to tell me the things I'm telling you."
Ethan's face was undisguisedly satirical, but his uncle was oblivious.
"The Ganos have all been well-intentioned people, and yet they went on down there in Virginia and Maryland, generation after generation, marrying their own cousins, breeding in and in, till--well, you, for instance, and my children are more like brother and sister than cousins. You are even nearer than some brothers and sisters are. You each have in you the concentrated essence of a single family's strain. As I've told you, when I look at my innocent children, I could curse the eternal law that will not let me pay my debt alone. If we rebel"--he fastened his lean fingers on Ethan's shoulder again, and spoke with growing excitement--"if we rebel against that commandment, we and our wretched children are punished." He released his grip, but with eyes bloodshot, menacing, he stood over the young man still: "If we rebel, instead of dying out calmly and gently, we'll have to be stamped out."
"What do you mean?"
No lounging now; the young man sat arrow-straight and eagle-eyed.
"I mean that certainly in this race the weakest go to the wall. We Ganos can't compete."
"I wouldn't if I were Hercules. I loathe competition."
"Exactly--exactly. It's the very cry of the unfit."
"I deny it. It's the cry of the man willing to work without ignoble spurring, who doesn't want his comrades; disaster to sweeten victory, who wants to be fortunate, as you say, without blood-guiltiness."
"When that sentiment comes of strength, my friend, it means one thing; when it comes of weakness, it means another. There's hard fighting ahead, and Hercules will be to the fore. He'll be needed. The Ganos will be occupied in hating competition."
Ethan gave vent to a sound of stifled indignation. Val watched him with suspended breath. His uncle watched him calmly, and then said:
"A Gano can inherit money. I doubt if he can make it. I doubt if he can even keep it. I doubt if he can lose it like a man."
Ethan winced, recalling the days of the lost allowance, and his impotent railing at destiny while he starved in the streets of Paris.
"There isn't the shadow of a doubt what the end of our family history will be," the hoarse voice ended. "Those of us who aren't ground under the heel of poverty will be snuffed out by disease."
"My God!" Ethan broke out; "and to think I called you an optimist! Why, you're just such another as Job, crying out: 'Let the day perish wherein I was born.' 'Oh, that I had given up the ghost, and no eye seen me'; or the Genevan confessing: 'Ma naissance fut le premier de mes malheurs.'" He would have been ready to swear that he was writing, not under the sense of an impassible barrier raised between him and some concrete coveted good, but at being confronted, where he least expected it, with a new aspect of the ugliness and pain and helplessness of the human lot. "It doesn't seem to matter which way one turns," he burst out; "the sound loudest in one's ears is the lament of all the generations that have gone up and down hunting happiness, till, as you say, they fell on sleep. Whether I go to the classics or read the new philosophies, whether it's Socrates or Seneca preaching the dignity of
death, or the volcanic Nietzche trying gloomily to exalt self, and losing himself in madness--whether I wander the Old World, or fly for better things to the New, it's the same thing. You began by telling me life was beautiful and good; you have ended by showing me afresh that it simply doesn't bear being thought about. Why, Val!"
He had risen and caught sight of the white, tear-drowned face looking out behind the chair.
"Val! echoed her father; "I thought you were in bed!"
"Oh, I wish I had been!" She came out of the corner with her plumage of brave looks crushed and broken, all her young brightness tarnished. "Father," she said, while the tears rained down, "I'm sorry you're so sad about the world, and about all us Ganos, but you needn't try to make cousin Ethan sad too, and me--and me--"
Ethan made a gesture forward, as if to take the girl in his protecting arms. John Gano's angry eyes flashed warning. He tried to hush his daughter's sobbing in his breast.
"You are my wise little girl, and you--"
"Wise! Yes; a great deal to wise to believe all this. I don't know why I'm crying so." She looked up, smiling miserably through her tears. "Why, it's just nothing but arguing. When cousin Ethan's with me he never has such awful, awful notions. he's a little sad sometimes, and has to be cheered up, and you oughtn't to argue with him like this--"
The heaving sobs clutched her voice, stifling the last words.
"Come, come, child; you're over-excited. There--there!"
"When I'm old"--she flung back her head with a poor little travesty of her common gesture--"I'll tell my children--all of them--that it's been a good world to be in, and that they're not to be afraid, and--and not to be any sadder than they can help."
"Come, come; dry your eyes and go to bed."
She turned away with her handkerchief over her face.
"Good-night, little cousin," said Ethan, steadying his voice and taking her hand.
"Oh, good-night," she faltered, and with a movement full of exquisite young tenderness she lifted her little handkerchief and brushed it lightly across his misty eyes. "Father was only arguing," she said.
But the tears flowed down her cheeks afresh as she opened the door and went out.
End Chapter 22
Available since September 1998