The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 23
Two days later Ethan was on his way South with John Gano.
He stayed with his uncle for a month, and then sent for the despised Drouet, who was an excellent nurse. As he grew weaker, John Gano developed not only a tolerance, but a liking, for the alert, amusing Frenchman, and stayed contentedly in the quarters Ethan had found, until the spring, making a herbarium of the flora of that region. At the beginning of May he was to return home. Early in April, Drouet wired to his master in Boston to say that the doctor was alarmed at the patient's condition. Ethan went South at once, and three days after his arrival his uncle died in his arms.
"Don't drag me back to the North," he had said; "bury me where I fall." And it was done.
Mrs. Gano was too ill to travel, and telegraphed that Ethan was to come back afterwards to the Fort.
It was a very different arrival from the last. The little cousins, dressed in black, looked more than ever like snow flowers on the fringe of winter.
Mrs. Gano was profoundly moved on seeing Ethan entering alone. She motioned the children out of the room, and had one long talk with her grandson about the end. Afterwards, in her fashion when she was suffering most, she shut herself up, and no one except the servants saw her until the following Sunday, which was Easter.
It struck Ethan as curious, and unexpected, that even the girls should put such restraint upon their grief. Emmie, it was true, was often seen in tears, but the most she ever said of her father was, "He knows there's a heaven
now." Val conducted the household in default of her grandmother, and Ethan caught himself smiling surreptitiously at the old-fashioned decorum she imposed upon herself in playing the unaccustomed rôle.
Emmie was to be confirmed this Easter. She was going through a very devout phase, and, when Val was not there, she talked to Ethan about the coming consecration with a curious religious fervor. There was a strain of unconscious mysticism in the girl that struck Ethan oddly, against the bare American background. It was to him more of an anachronism than any manifestation he had yet encountered, even at the Fort, that stronghold of the past.
"I love to talk about these things to you, cousin Ethan," she said; "Val doesn't understand."
Learning something of these confidences, Mrs. Gano took the first opportunity of saying, privately:
"I do not know quite where you stand, my dear Ethan, in matters of religious faith--" and she waited.
"I don't know quite where I stand myself," he had answered.
"You used to have a fine perception for things spiritual." He smiled.
"I once thought I might find Rome at the end of my wandering."
"Ah!" she said, quite calmly, "my father used to say, 'You will all have to come back to Mother Church.' "
"I do not mean that I felt like that long," Ethan said, hurriedly, realizing that he was sailing under false colors, "or that I think now as I suppose you do. It's probably little more with me than that 'I was born in the wilds of Christianity, and the briers and thorns still hang about me.'"
"You got that from your Uncle John," she said, coldly.
"No; it was said the century before he was born."
"To me, God is the great fact of life. To be without God is to be without hope in the world."
Ethan shaded his lowered eyes with one hand as he answered:
"Yes, I've thought that, too."
She looked at him reassured.
"Ah! I have ceased to be troubled at minor differences of creed; but when we are young, we are less--catholic," she smiled, and then grew grave. "I hope you will never say anything to unsettle the faith of the little girls."
"Oh, I shouldn't dream-- But Val has not been confirmed, I understand."
"No; I don't believe any longer in pressing these things."
"She would have required pressing?"
"She has not developed any great concern about spiritual matters. And yet, as a child, she was much occupied about religion. Not as you and Emmie were. With Val it was all the wrong way up."
Mrs. Gano nodded, reflectively.
"Her interest in the Bible seemed founded upon the large opportunity it gave her for the exercise of rank unbelief. I was always hoping to overcome the tendency. But"--she shook her head--"if as a treat, I allowed her to choose what portion of the Scripture should be read aloud, it was always the Revelation."
"Oh, I don't think that so depraved."
"Neither did I, till one Sunday, as I got to the words, 'And I, John, saw,' I was arrested by a movement from the child sitting at my feet. I looked down and saw the small face puckered with the concentrated essence of suspicion. 'Who saw it 'sides John?' she demanded. And that, briefly, has been her attitude ever since. I lament it, but I don't talk to her abut it any more. The one Christian tenet that I am satisfied Val holds is the doctrine of the Resurrection. Strange--strange! Now, Emmie is like all the rest of the Ganos."
Ethan nodded. "Yes, Val is a stranger among us. Poor Val!"
Emmie was certainly a vision of innocent loveliness, as she went up to the chancel that Easter morning, to be received into the communion of the faithful. There was something poetic, something not wholly of this world, in
her fragile beauty, her rapt and lighted look. Ethan recognized in the sweet face--never so unclouded as to-day--the subtle ecstasy of the devotee. Something in him stirred painfully, regretfully, answering to it with a sense of unwilling sympathy, of kinship that would not be denied. People in the church that day whispered to each other:
"Emmie Gano and her cousin are more alike than most brothers and sisters are."
Very different was the mutinous face of the elder girl, sitting beside Ethan in her mourning, looking neither at bishop nor white-robed brides of the Church, but with unreconciled, tear-filled eyes at the white cross, in memory of her father, that hung among the Easter decorations in the chancel. The wreath upon the lectern, that all the town knew to be the annual "In memoriam" to that Valeria Gano who had been in her grave these twenty years--for that, only Ethan of the dead woman's kindred had eyes and tender remembering.
"Father's cross looked very beautiful," Emmie said, in a hushed voice, to her grandmother that afternoon.
Mrs. Gano inclined her head.
"I am glad we chose calla lilies; he loved them," murmured Emmie.
"He didn't love to hear them called calla lilies," said Val, without a particle of feeling in her voice.
"Yes," said Emmie, "I mean those great--"
"He would be very angry to hear you call them lilies."
"Angry?" Mrs. Gano looked up.
"Yes, angry," said Val. "Callas are not liliaceæ, they are araceæ, and belong to the Jack-in-the-pulpit family. If he hears us, he'll hate to think we've forgotten so soon." Her defiant eyes suddenly filled up. "He taught us not to be so ignorant as to call them lilies, just as he taught us not to say 'wisteria.'"
"What are you to say, then?" asked Ethan.
"Yes, it is wistaria, and we must all say wistaria, be-
cause he told us to, and because it's named after General Wistar."
"Why have you put these fine linen doilies on the arms of the chairs?" asked Mrs. Gano.
"Because the arms are covered with velvet," Val answered, without thinking, and then shot a shy look at Ethan.
"Velvet? Of course. What then?"
Val looked in her lap and said, mendaciously:
"I don't like velvet arms. Please let the doilies stay."
Mrs. Gano was satisfied in her own mind that Val was ashamed of the condition of the ancient covering. The difficulty plainly was that it had been velvet. She forbore to pursue the question before her grandson.
The days went on; Ethan refused to count them.
One late afternoon a deluge of rain brought down a part of the ceiling in the old red room that had been John Gano's. Ethan took his courage in both hands, and described to Mrs. Gano, in forcible terms, the extent of the damage and the danger of leaving the roof as it was.
"I don't propose to leave it as it is."
He studied her.
"Do you remember telling me when I was a little chap that this was my home?"
"I haven't any other now. Let me think of the Fort as my home." He paused, but her aspect was not encouraging, was hardly hospitable. He went on: "Let me look after the roof, and--"
"Certainly not. I have looked after everything for half a century. When I'm dead some one else may do it--not before."
"Ah, you know what I mean. You've lost your only son. Give me some of his privileges." She jerked away her head, as she did when she was moved, and wanted not to betray the fact. "I am tired of being homeless," Ethan said.
"You will make a home of your own, my dear."
"I want this for my home."
She turned suddenly, and looked at him with eyes that were keen and intent under their film of tears.
"No," she said, slowly, "this does for us. It is not the kind of home for you."
"It is the kind I want."
He smiled in that sudden, radiant way of his.
"No; the Fort is here to shelter and protect other people. You don't need it."
"But I do; and it's my Fort. Why, you've never even taken my name off the door."
The old woman recalled a glimpse she had had the evening before of Val laying her cheek against the graven name.
"I'm not sure but I shall take it off," she said, half smiling, half threatening.
"You don't want to get me out of the habit of thinking of the Fort as 'home'?"
"You've never really been in the habit--you belong elsewhere."
He studied her in perplexity.
"Do you realize that at this moment the rain is coming in floods into Uncle John's room?"
"The rain won't trouble your uncle John." She had turned away again.
"But there are others here--"
"It is those others I have to consider. Your uncle John's insurance will mend his children's roof."
"And you won't give me the happiness--"
"My dear boy," she said, with some impatience, "your happiness doesn't lie here."
She began to rock back and forth with lowering brow.
"You want to get rid of me."
She stopped rocking, and turned to him with a moved and gentler aspect.
"Personally, I very much want you to stay; but there are many things to think of. I am not alone here. You bring an atmosphere of--of unrest from out the world you
belong to. I see the danger that you may import some of it into our quiet lives."
"How little you realize! The young life here is seething with unrest."
"That is what I am realizing."
"But I found it like that."
She shook her head.
"You must go away, my dear."
She was of the same mind, then, as her son had been. Go away! go away! That was all the welcome they had here for Ethan Gano. A feeling of bitterness took hold on him, of such loneliness that it was as if, without warning, he had heard pronounced a sentence of perpetual exile. "For that's what it is," he thought: "she will never ask me to come again." And he was right--she never did.
He had got up after a moment or two, and gone out to the veranda, where he walked up and down, with the noise of the rain in his ears.
Presently Emmie looked out.
"Where's Val?" asked Ethan.
"Up-stairs. Ever since supper she's been seeing if the tubs and things are under all the leaks."
"Ask her to come out here when she's finished, will you?"
"Yes," said Emmie reluctantly, and turned away.
Ethan had no eyes for the sudden shadow on the sweet face. He began to stride up and down again, angrily, eagerly, looking out through the tracery of the wistaria as an animal might through the bars of its cage.
"Well, here I am!"
Val stood smiling as he turned.
"Oh, good! Let us sit down."
"On the black benches? Never!"
She gathered her skirts round her with a gesture of comic horror.
"Here, then"--he spread out a large white handkerchief--"sit on this."
"Sit down!" he commanded.
She took the place meekly, with hands crossed in mockery, and laughing eyes, but her pale cheeks flushed.
"Now, you are to promise me something," he said, standing before her with folded arms.
"Oh, I've always got to promise you things. What have you ever promised me?"
His moody eyes caressed the upturned face.
"What do you want me to promise?" he said, more gently.
"Will you do it?"
"I only want to know what it is."
She looked away.
"Tell me what you want first," she said.
Instead of answering, her cousin turned and walked to the end of the dripping veranda, where the wind had blown the rain in several feet across the boards. She watched him furtively, biting her upper lip the while, catching it cruelly with her sharp white teeth to still its trembling. She watched him turn slowly, come back a few paces, raising his eyes as he was passing the first of the long room windows, and stop short with a queer, guilty start. He nodded gravely to the watchful eyes within and continued his walk, only more rapidly, muttering to himself, "The old lioness!"
Val had an impulse to go and look through the window nearest her, but something held her where she was. Presently, as Ethan pace back and forth, a pale shine came through the panes, mixing uncertainly with the evening light. Venie must have taken in the big bronze lamp. Yes, one could hear her now letting down the blinds. Val was glad she had resisted the impulse to look in. Ethan had stopped his restless pacing, as soon as the blinds were drawn.
"I have asked her," he said, with a motion of the head
towards the long room, "to let me attend to the roof, and a few little things like that." He paused, and looked sharply at the shrouded windows.
"She says you take a great deal upon yourself," Val smiled.
"Oh, she does! Well, I shall take more. I am going to take the liberty of giving you five hundred dollars, to do what you can here without her knowing; and when's it's gone I shall give you as much again, and you're not to tell anybody. Promise."
"I couldn't do that."
"Simply, I couldn't. I know so well what she'd say-- 'It's against all our traditions.' And the money you are offering--"
"You see, it's Tallmadge money!" Val resented a little his whimsical look. She drew herself up. "You can't expect us Ganos--" She broke off as he took a letter out of his pocket and unfolded it. "Oh!" She turned a sudden scarlet and grasped at the incriminating document.
"No, no," he said. "I was defrauded of this letter a long time by an imbecile postal system. But I'll take good care of it now I have got it."
"I--I was very young when I wrote it."
"--a little over a year ago," he completed her sentence, laughing.
"Please don't think I'm wanting you to help me now."
"Well, that's a good thing," he said, with an unexpected hardness, "for I haven't the smallest intention of doing so."
Val's eyes were angry and bright with drops of humiliation.
"I wouldn't take it if you begged me to," she said.
"Don't you see, dear Val"--he leaned nearer, but she averted her face from him--"don't' you see that, at all events until Emmie is older, you can't desert the Fort?" No answer. "Don't be angry with me, little cousin.
Don't you feel how much your own people need you?" Still no answer. "Seventy-five!" he went on; "you mayn't have long to wait."
She turned on him sharply.
"As is I grudged--as if I wanted to shorten the time!" She swallowed a little sob.
"No, no; of course you don't. I understand you quite well."
"The last thing father said to me was, 'Take care of her, she's growing old.' "
"That's all I mean by putting this money into your hands."
"Oh, but I can't take five hund-- I understand better than I did when I wrote that stupid letter; she'd half kill me!"
"She's not to know, and I"--he glowered down at her with a laugh--" I'll half kill you if you don't do what I tell you."
She looked in her lap. Her eyelids fluttered.
"You must write me regularly, and tell me all that's happening."
She lifted her head as if she had been stung.
"You--you aren't going away!"
"When are you coming back?"
"I don't know."
The dull rain poured, the defective spouts at the eaves played gray fountains, the great tulipifera rhododendron waved answering arms to the signals of the storm.
In the momentary lull, An' Jerusha in the kitchen could be heard quavering out wild notes, among which Ethan recognized the words:
"No mo' peace on de earf."
"I don't believe you'll go," said Val.
He couldn't see her face so well now in the gray light.
"What makes you believe I won't go?"
She clasped her hands and wrung them unconsciously.
"Or, if you go, you'll come back?"
"Don't you know that's what I must not do?"
"No," she said, in a muffled but resolute voice.
They sat silent, motionless, for some time. She turned at last with wide, shining eyes, putting her face close to his in the uncertain light, and saying, with a quick-drawn breath:
"Why, cousin Ethan!"
"What is it?"
"Why do you look like that?"
"So--so terribly unhappy."
He didn't answer.
"What's the matter?"
He tried to say something, moved his lips faintly, but no sound came.
"Oh, what is it?" she cried; "something new?"
He nodded, echoing: "Something new, and something very, very old."
"Saddest of all sad things."
"Haven't you ever heard? Love is the saddest of all."
A ray of light fell like a sword between them, and a sharp rap on the window at their backs made them fly to their feet. Turning, they saw Mrs. Gano's face against the pane. She had lifted a corner of the blind, and was beckoning with imperious hand.
"I must go," whispered Val; and she vanished.
Ethan walked up and down till the early bed hour, listening to the rain and to the sound of An' Jerusha's crooning.
End Chapter 23
Available since September 1998