The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 24
EMMIE had begun to teach a class in the Infant Sunday-school. She would go off soon after breakfast, the others following an hour or so later, and meeting her at morning service.
"I don't think I'll go to-day," said Ethan the subsequent Sunday. "Why don't you take a holiday, too?"
"No," answered Val. "If I stay at home grandma will-- But you might walk part way with me, mightn't you?"
"Yes, I don't mind a walk. I'll take a book along and go up on the Hill after I leave you."
As they set off, Mrs. Gano stood at the window looking after them. Ethan made her a little half-mocking bow, whereat she smiled grimly.
Val, glancing back at her, said, "Though you do pretend to be so gloomy, you always put other people into better spirits. I haven't seen her smile since--not since. . .*nbsp;. She cares more for you than she does for anybody."
"She won't be sorry when I go."
Val flashed a side look at him, and the brightness dimmed in her eyes. But here was Miss Tibbs, hurrying by with a sharp glance and "Good-morning," and other people passing on their way home from Sunday-school. She mustn't cry in public.
"You oughtn't to say that she won't be sorry. You ought to be gratefuller to people for caring so tremendously for you--as she does." Her heart seemed to be beating high up in her throat. "Emmie and I often notice how she lets you do all the forbidden things--pick the myrtle and narcissus, play as loud and as hard as you like on the
piano, have sangaree and julep when you aren't a bit ill"--she was trying to laugh--"even lets you go through the bookcases and take out anything you like."
She glanced down at the book in his hand. He made no rejoinder. A side glance at his face showed him with brows knitted and abstracted eyes.
Suddenly the dark face lit up; he had caught sight of a charming apparition over the way. Julia was crossing the street "just in time to meet Ethan," thought Val, although her friend was coming from her Sunday-school class, at the usual time, and by the usual route.
"Good-morning," Ethan called out with a cheerfulness that made Val's heart drop in an instant, down--down.
"You two pious ones off the church?" asked Julia, as she shook hands with them.
"Not me," answered Ethan; "it's too fine a day to waste in church."
"Just what I think," said Julia, wistfully.
How bewitchingly pretty she looked in her field-flower hat and leaf-green gown! Val felt dowdy and dull in her mourning; it was an insult to the fair summer weather to go about in such clothes. No wonder cousin Ethan had brightened as he looked at Julia.
They were all walking on together now to the Otways' gate. Val breathed a silent prayer of thankfulness that Julia was a Presbyterian.
"What are you going to do, Mr. Gano, if you don't go to church?" asked Miss Otway, leaning across Val, who walked in the middle.
"Find a comfortable place under a tree."
"And read that very un-Biblical-looking book?"
They were at the gate now, which Ethan opened; but Julia lingered, in spite of Val's "Heavens! is that the church-bell?"
"Mightn't it pass for a hymnal?"
He laid the book open on the top of the gate, very willing to prolong the interview, as it seemed, in spite of Val's disingenuous interjection, "I'm afraid I'll be late."
"Too cheerful for a hymnal," said Julia, shaking her head and smiling up into his eyes.
"Cheerful only on the outside, I'll be bound," said Val, suspiciously. Then turning to the title-page: "'An Anthology collected by--' What makes you like reading poetry?"
"Why, don't you?" said Ethan to them both.
"Yes, indeed," responded Julia.
"Not a bit," said Val.
"Why not?" laughed Ethan.
"Too sad," said Val, firmly.
Julia looked pensively away from Ethan up to the blue sky, over the line of hills.
"I love sad things," she said, sympathetically.
"Oh yes, you like 'em blubbery. I don't. That's why I hate poetry. It's all sobbing and groaning, and 'Oh!' and 'Alas!' or else the silly scenery."
"Oh, not all," said Ethan.
"Well, most of it is. Now, see! I'll shut the book and open it at random:
"'O star, of which I lost have all the light,
With hertë sore well ought I to bewail,
That ever dark in torment, night by night,
Towards my death with wind in stern I sail.'
That's Mr. Chaucer. Now try again:
"'My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone!'
That cheerful gentleman is Lord Byron!"
She shut the book with a vicious snap and opened it again:
"'Out of the day and night
A joy has taken flight:
Fresh spring, and summer, and winter hoar,
Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight
No more--O, never more!'
That's Shelley's account of things. And here's Keats's:
"'The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs.'"
"Oh, but aren't there any ballads and pretty stories?" asked Julia.
"Well, here's the 'Pot of Basil' and "Waly Waly'"--Val turned the pages vindictively--"and all the rest of the desperate and deserted. Now, the man that made this anthology"--she turned sharply to her cousin--"I suppose he got together all the best things, didn't he?"
"I suppose he thought he did."
"Do you think he succeeded?"
"H'm! You see, when they do their best they are bound to be moaning and groaning, these poets. Now, the man that chose these things, was he a jaundiced kind of person, very sad and sorry?"
"Quite the contrary. I should say he's as cheerful as a man may be who isn't a fool."
Val looked at him a moment.
"Then, I say it's a good thing there are women in the world." She had forgotten the third person for the moment, forgotten that Julia, too, professed to like things "blubbery." Even when she remembered, she only clapped the book to and said: "Oh, I shall be so late!"
"I envy you your walk." Julia tilted up her round chin, catching in her loose golden hair the sunlight that filtered through the fresh green maple leaves.
"I'm going up on the Hill; you'd both of you better come."
"Gracious! we'd be killed if we did."
"Yes, indeed," agreed Val, with conviction. It would be too dreadful to have Julia tacked on to them to-day. What was Ethan thinking of?
"I've come back from Sunday-school to take my mother
to church; but there might be time for a little walk afterwards." Julia's air was charmingly wistful.
"Well, come towards Plymouth Hill," said Ethan.
If it was anybody else, thought Val, angrily, it would have to be called flirting. Julia, too, was undoubtedly "making eyes." Oh, it was disgraceful!
"I don't believe, after all, there'll be time before dinner," Miss Otway was saying.
"She knows perfectly well she's going to make time," thought Val, and then--oh, dear! oh, dear! What was becoming of her old affection for her friend?
They had said "Good-bye," and walked on in silence for a few moments. She noticed with a passion of resentment that, since leaving Julia, the cloud had settled again on her cousin's face.
"Since I'm going away so soon, I think I ought to say--" he began presently, and stopped.
"That Harry Wilbur has taken me into his confidence."
Val turned away her head.
"First-rate fellow, Wilbur." Another pause. "Fact is, he is one in a thousand."
"He's very good, but he isn't interesting."
"I think he is, you know; and so did Uncle John. I believe your father would have liked--"
"Do you like talking like this to me?" Val demanded, darkly, "or"--with a ray of hope--"are you being a martyr?"
"Something of a martyr, perhaps," he said, smiling in spite of himself.
"Oh, well, that's all right, just for once."
"Yes; please don't do it again. I can admire it-- once, but I can't be of any help. I suppose it's because of what my father told me that you said that--about--love."
"What did I say?"
"That is was the saddest of all."
"I'm afraid the reason is deeper than any your father gave."
She looked up baffled.
"At least, it's because of what my father said that you--that you--began about Harry Wilbur."
"I'm very much disappointed in you."
"I'm very sorry."
"I thought you were more--understanding. If you had known my father better," she continued, with all-unconscious irony, "you wouldn't have minded him a bit. It was just a theory."
"Ah, my child, it isn't a theory that we're first cousins." The note of finality in the low voice pierced her through and through.
"But plenty of people--" she burst out; and then one by one her father's arguments and meances, like curses, came back to roost. "If we rebel against that law, we and our innocent children are punished," she seemed to hear him say.
They walked on some time without speaking. Twice Ethan glanced down at the face beside him. For all its profound trouble, it was not the face of one defeated. He drew a perverse pleasure from the observation. Curiosity had from the first played no small part in the charm his cousin cast about him. What would she do under such and such conditions? And, meanwhile, what new longing, what new pain, that mutinous little face had planted in his heart! "I have never kissed her," he kept thinking as he looked at ther mouth. "Has Wilbur ever kissed her?" The idea was revolting. He put it from him. He thought of the people that never have children. Suppose-- He looked down at her again. This time he caught her eye, and she flushed hotly. He had no need of speech to assure him they had been thinking along the same lines.
"Of course," said Val, with an obvious effort, "I ought to behave as if I didn't understand what's involved. Any nice girl would pretend she--" Her voice got tangled and lost in a dry little sob; but she burst out again under her breath: "Oh, they aren't like me--the nice girls. No-
body ever cared so much as I do. Everything's different when you--when you care like this."
His heart contracted sharply. Had this come into his life only to go and leave him stricken in poverty? Under the girl's extravagance of speech was a richness of nature that gave her fierce young words authority. This primitive, unfaltering passion, naked and unashamed, was not only beautiful in his eyes with a kind of pagan splendor, but it soothed and satisfied his weary, doubting spirit. For the moment it carried his questioning down its swift current, making of his fears a mock, and whirling his heavy doubts like straws. And yet he kept a vigilant watch upon himself. With a man's abiding fear of being ridiculous, he was uncomfortably conscious of the little group of belated church-goers turning into St. Thomas's from Market Street, not so hurried but they might notice Val's excited face. To his companion, in her absorption, these acquaintances had been thin air.
"I dare say my father knew that, to many a girl, it wouldn't really matter much whether she married Harry Wilbur, or any other nice convenient person; but to me--"
"Come down this street," Ethan said. "You don't want to get into that mob."
He felt himself to be in one of those positons where to turn left or right, to go forward or go back, is equally to find offence and suffering. "It doesn't matter about me; I must think of her," he said to himself. At all hazards he must not forget that the girl at his side was little more than a child. He could neither explain to her why he was bound in honor to leave her, nor must he leave her with any haunting memory of the pain this [was] going to cost him. She had turned obediently when he suggested the side-street.
"Oh, I'm certain of it"--she brought one tight-clinched hand with a quick movement to her breast--"nobody ever cared like this before. Just look at their faces."
She stopped on the corner, eying, with a kind of impersonal disdain, the people that passed up the church steps.
"You can see from their faces they've never cared--like this."
"Come," said Ethan, nervously, "they'll wonder why we are hanging about."
"Most people are only half alive," she said, walking on; "they don't feel, they don't hear, they don't see, they don't even smell."
Ethan began to laugh almost hysterically.
"They can't turn such unexpected corners, anyhow," he said.
His laughter seemed a little to clear the atmosphere.
"You don't believe?" she inquired. "No, I suppose people wouldn't believe. But I've felt quite dizzy with joy at smelling hay after a rain. Heliotrope makes me want to laugh and sing. Violets make me feel meek and wistful; but they all do something to me. You, now, simply dislike the pungent smell of marigolds. I fell it stick into me like a kind of goad. But I oughtn't to tell anybody." She signed.
"Even you laughed."
"Forgive me, dear."
For the "dear" sake she smiled up at him, thrilling.
"Oh, I forgive you, though I don't much like the idea of having told you--even that much."
"What nonsense! You must tell me everything."
"Must I?" She moved closer to his side. "Only I should like you to have a good opinion of me--and--well, to care so much about smell, I'm afraid, is very vulgar."
"Oh, I don't think so."
"Novelists do. They are ready to tell you her hearing was 'most sensitive,' and all about his 'eagle eye,' that nothing escaped, but they are too refined to say nothing escaped the heroine's nose. Your friends the poets, too, have a very low opinion of smell. Of course, if I could always remember to call it 'fragrance."
"No, no," he laughed. "I admit that smell used to be
the poor relation of the senses, and was kept decently in the background; but over in France nous avons changé tout cela."
"Oh, well, that's all right, then."
"You aren't going to church?"
"Of course not."
"It's so ugly here. Shall we turn back and go up on the Hill?"
"No. Yes." (They could come down before the Presbyterian Church was out.) "Let's walk very fast."
They talked little on the way, but neither of them noticed the fact. They were approaching that point where nur das reine Zusammensein was interchange enough. From the Dug Road they turned into the ravine. Ethan caught her by the hand, and they scrambled breathless to the top.
"Let's rest here," he said.
Val sat down under the elder-bush that grew in the cleft of the Hill. She looked up at him smiling, and then turned away her conscious eyes. Instead of sitting down, he stood with his hands in his pockets, looking at her with a sense of vague uneasiness behind the tingling in his blood.
"I suppose you know that I ought to have taken you home after your flat refusal to go to church?"
"You aren't my master--yet."
"Yes, I am."
The blood flew to her face obedient to the call.
"Yes," she said, slowly, "you are."
He turned away, cursing his traitor tongue.
"I've imposed upon you," he said, after a moment, flinging himself down on the grass a little distance off--"imposed upon you frightfully, if I've made you believe that. I'm far enough from being even master of myself."
"Too late to try to patch it up now," she said; "the murder's out."
He studied her.
"I suppose you think you know me?"
She smiled confidently.
"You don't. I'm compounded of all the things that are most abhorrent to you."
Still she smiled. The unconscious passion in the young eyes warmed his blood like wine. He moved a little nearer to her, and the mere movement broke the spell. The physical obviousness of the action stung him into self-criticism, self-contempt; and then as he turned his face away from his cousin's magnet eyes, he fell to criticising his self-criticism. Why couldn't he take things simply, naturally, as Val did? Vain ambition! He must submit to seeing, always and always, the skeleton under the fair flesh, the end from the beginning.
"You are mistaken about me," he said. "I look out upon a world eternally different from the world you see."
"What's it like?"
"I hope you'll never quite realize."
"Oh, I shall; but I sha'n't mind."
"I might be doing you the best service in my power if I gave you a motion of how much you'd mind."
"I give you leave."
He looked into the tender, happy eyes, and, "I haven't the heart," he said. "After all, it may not be necessary for you to lower your opinion of the world. It will, perhaps, do if you merely modify your opinion of me."
"Don't you see I can't do that?"
"Oh yes, you can." He pulled himself together and sat up. "You're at bottom such a rational creature. You've only to realize I'm a dreadful fraud. I've talked about--you'd be sure to find me out some time, so I may as well make a clean break of it--"
"It isn't anything you've ever said, that I depend upon."
He threw back his head and laughed.
"It's partly just the look of you, but it's most of all just--just that I'm certain no one in the world is so kind and brave--"
"I brave! You poor child!"
"Yes, and kind, deep down to the core," she said, with beaming eyes. "I know it by your voice, and by the way
you feel everybody else's feeling. That's something like me: I feel, too, but it doesn't make me kind."
"Neither does it me. I'm a mass of deception. I put on a solemn look, and you think I'm sympathizing. I'm not: I'm actively engaged in despising the universe."
"That's because your standards are so high."
He laughed out an ironic " Exactly!"
"You make other people seem about so high." She held an out-stretched hand a few inches above the grass, dropped it, and, leaning forward upon it, said, with a quick-drawn breath: "It's been so exciting for us all here, knowing you. It's been like knowing Robert Bruce or Richard Coeur de Lion--"
"Oh, very like Richard Coeur de Lion especially."
"Just what I say, particularly when you put on that black look and your eyes burn. I know then you'd have the courage for anything!"
The whimsical amusement died out of his face.
"I told you I'd taken you in. I'm a mortal coward!"
He nodded, looking off down the ravine.
"I'm afraid of death. I'm even more afraid of life."
They were only obscure phrases in her ears.
"I know you're afraid of the dark," she said, smiling gently, "but only when I'm not there. You see--I must be there."
"Poor little cousin! Lucky for you that fate and your father have settled that you can't be 'there.'"
"I settle things for myself," she said, hotly; "and don't call me little cousin."
"It seems to cut me down to childhood. Besides"--she stood up--"I'm really very tall, and I've heard enough about being a cousin."
"You hardened optimist!" He lay on his back with his hands clasped behind his head, and looked up at the tall, slight figure of the girl. "You're actually ready to pit yourself against the laws of the universe, and expect not to
suffer for it. Do you know that your invincible belief that you, at least, were meant to be happy, is the most pathetic thing I've found in the world?"
"I'm not in the very least pathetic," she said, with deep indignation.
"Shouldn't wonder if it would be always like that with you," he went on, unmoved. "Stark inability to comprehend personal misfortune! Ruin will rattle about your ears--you'll believe blindly it's somehow for the best. How like life's diabolical ingenuity that just the man I am should have come across just the girl you are!"
"Thank you, most particularly. Life and I are both obliged."
"Of course, you've read that last will and testament--the one your father wrote--"
"No; haven't asked for it. Grandma hasn't mentioned it."
"Ah! She probably would if she knew--"
"You may be sure," Val interrupted, "my father doesn't think those hideous black thoughts now."
"Ah, yes, I'm sure enough of that."
"Oh yes--he's done with all that now."
"Then why on earth should we go on--"
"We're not dead, my dear."
"You don't mean--"
She looked at him with horror-filled eyes.
"What's the matter?"
"You--" But she couldn't bring the awful doubt to birth. That any one in her own range of experience should be heard to hint that the dead were done with thinking! Not that a mythical person in a book, but some one she knew, should be found saying calmly that he had abandoned hope of the life to come! "My father," she whispered, coming a trace nearer, "did he ever say he didn't believe in immortality? No! no! he couldn't. But did he ever tell you he wasn't sure?"
"How can any one be sure?"
"How can you bear to live if you're not sure?" she cried.
He stared at her in astonishment, forgetting Mrs. Gano's saying, "The one Christian tenet I am satisfied Val holds is the doctrine of the Resurrection."
"I thought you said your father talked quite freely to you."
The girl grasped the slender branches of the elder-bush.
"Then there are people, and I know them, who don't believe in immortality."
The world seemed to swim. As she lifted up her dazed eyes, she saw a green-clad figure lingering disconsolately along the brow of the hill. Another instant Julia and she had recognized each other.
"Not to believe in immortality!" she repeated, as though she had never heard of the idea before. "Then, for such people it's all this life-- this life. They can't afford to miss anything here; it's their only chance. Do you hear, cousin Ethan? This life--this life may be all."
On an uncontrollable impulse he seized her hand to draw her down beside him.
"Julia's coming," said Val, hurriedly, and advanced to meet her friend.
"Oh, here you are!" called out the new-comer. "I didn't get to church, after all. And I've a message from my father," she said to Ethan, as he came forward. "He wants you to come to supper to-night to meet Senator Green."
When Val and Ethan got home late for dinner, they were met in the hall by Mrs. Gano.
"Lo! She comes, 'with high looks like the King of Assyria,'" Ethan quoted.
Mrs. Gano levelled an unmistakably cold stare at the culprits.
"Emmeline tells me you were not in church."
"No; we were late," said Ethan. When Val had run up-stairs to take off her things: "You must forgive me
this once," he added, speaking low, for I'm going away to-morrow."
He had no word alone with his cousin till the next morning. Nothing further had been said about his going, but his trunk was packed and the carriage ordered. He found Val sitting along in the parlor, in a corner of the sofa by the window.
"What are you doing here?" he said, shutting the door.
"Don't do that, such a bad habit."
"Oh, I'm just trying to get accustomed to realizing there are people who believe"--she spread out her hands and let them fall--"this is all."
"Don't bother about such people," he said, sitting down.
Val, usually so ready of tongue, was seized upon by silence. Ethan, too, sat speechless, struggling with the sense of keen-edged wretchedness that pressed knife-like on his heart. How was he to say good-bye? and--with a long look down the road--how was he to live afterwards? She--oh, she would console herself; she was very young. But for him . . . the immense dead weight of life pressed intolerably hard. The futility of it extinguished the very sun. Presently, as they sat there so silent, Val bowed her head, hiding her face in her hands. It shot through him that some realization had come to her of the unseen forces that make of us their sport--some vision of the bitter absurdity of the pigmy human lot we make such a pother about.
The sense of a vision shared, of a common pain, merged swiftly into physical yearning. The physical yearning cried aloud for assurance that it, too, was "common." He looked down upon the bowed head and the little white nape of her neck. He noticed how out of the upturned swaths of firm-bound hair the wild love-locks were falling--locks so fine that they looked like faint wavy shadows falling over the ears.
Had she any faintest notion of the hunger in him that would not let him sleep? As he bent over her the white
neck was suffused with rose. Ah, she knew! The traitor blood had signalled him behind her back.
"Kiss me, dear," he whispered. Had she heard? The little ears glowed scarlet. "Dear--" He slipped his hand under her chin, and turned her face to him. The curtaining lids still hid her eyes, but the lashes quivered, and the odd little pulse in her upper lip, that was beating, too, "piteously," he said to himself. "Look at me, dear. Val, open your eyes, I say."
It was like a shaft of sunshine; the rapture of the look startled him. He would have been prepared for tears, but this cloudless joy--
Ah, she was very young!
"Kiss me, child."
He did not bend towards her. She should come to him for this last greeting that was the first as well.
The radiant face, flushing, paling, came closer. He felt the breath from out her parted lips.
But the sweetness of her nearness could not for him wipe out the fact that before them lay parting and long heartache.
"Good-bye," he said, brokenly.
She drew back before the kiss was more than inhaled.
"Good-bye!" she echoed. "No; I will never kiss you 'good-bye.'" She freed herself from his prisoning arms. "Never, never, never!" She sprang up. "To get that kiss from me you must be lying dead."
And she fled out of the room.
A little later he made his farewells to the assembled household in the hall. Having kissed Emmie, he turned to Val.
She grasped his hand as she averted her white face, whispering:
"I will kiss you when you come again."
End Chapter 24
Available since September 1998