The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 25
After Ethan had gone, life seemed to stand still for long, long time. The only real events were his letters, not to Val, although she had written him the very night after he went away. His letters were all addressed to her grandmother, and yet every syllable seemed to the girl's mind to be meant for herself--to be charged with subtle meaning, intelligible to no one else.
At Christmas he wrote the two girls a single perfunctory page of cousinly greeting that arrived with his presents, a couple of Russian silver belts. But this letter was addressed to Val, and she would not open it till she was alone. Inside was an enclosure in a separate envelope:
"DEAR COUSIN VAL,--Forgive me for not answering your letter. It would be nice of you to send me a line, now and then, to tell me how things go on at the Fort, and whether I can do anything for anybody there. I enclose cheque.
"Your affectionate cousin, ETHAN GANO."
"'Cousin!' 'cousin!' forever 'cousin!'" ejaculated the girl; and she answered him the same day:
"DEAR ETHAN,--Thank you for the beautiful belt, but I do not forgive you for not answering my letter. Still, I will do anything in reason that you ask me if you don't ever call me cousin again."
And then followed an account of her surreptitious household expenditures. He answered early in the New Year:
"DEAR VAL,--I obey your mandate, and will not hereafter own you for a cousin. I believe that by strenuous wishing you could almost think yourself out of the relationship."
"I am very sure I could" [she wrote back] "if you would let me."
That letter, and several to follow, elicited nothing. She ate her heart out with humiliation and with longing, and then salved the hurt with dreams. Her best times were when she was quite alone, in the dark of the night or early in the morning. Regularly as she rose up, or lay down to sleep, she kissed the face of the little watch he had given her. Sometimes, under the spell of an old and long-abandoned habit, she would slip to her knees by the bedside. But instead of any prayer, old or new, she would fling her arms, crying under her breath: "How long, O Lord--how long?" Never in her blackest hour did she believe there was worse in store for her than waiting.
In a quiet way people came and went at the Fort more than ever before. Julia and Jerry, when he was home for the vacations, Ernest Halliwell, and Harry Wilbur in particular, after he had thrown up the fine position in Boston that Ethan had put in his way--they, and others, trooped in and out, carrying Val off riding, sleighing, dancing, boating. Harry Wilbur proposed to her on an average of six times a year, and took her smiling and affectionate refusal for mere postponement. It was to Val a life of waiting, but not of inaction.
Mrs. Gano, growing feebler and feebler, had allowed her eldest grand-daughter (as a special mark of favor, be it understood, and merely to "teach her how") to take the reins of household management. Yet from the royal elevation of the great four-poster, where she now spent most of her time, did Mrs. Gano rule the house as absolutely as before. Val, however, was not content to do merely the necessary, the expected. To Mrs. Gano's quiet satisfaction, the girl developed a passion for careful household government. Not only were none of Mrs. Gano's directions slighted with Val at the helm, but she bettered her instructions, discreetly not taking credit. Privately she kept expense books, learned cooking--yes, and laughed to think of her old detestation of it. With Venie's help she made cretonne covers for the furniture, and seemed to renew all things by the magic of her industrious hands, for most of
Ethan's money had to lie at the bank out of very fear. She brought down old lamps and ancient household gods form the attic and made "effects" with them. She did not care abut gardening, any more than she cared about cooing, but she hated the neglected, weed-grown borders under the windows. So she cleared and made them blossom again, filled the house with flowers, and thought a thousand times:
"If he comes to-day he will find it beautiful."
It would not be true to suppose that this quest for beauty in such a barren field was satisfying. It filled in the time. It was part of the endless satisfaction of life that the world was full of so many things to do "by the way." She had her days of fierce anger at the delays, the vagueness of the future, the fear of the new interests that must be filling Ethan's life.
After nearly a year had gone by, he answered one of her letters. She acknowledged the civility in such caustic fashion that he was piqued to reply by return of post. And so started on its uneven course that interchange of letters that was soon the greatest joy of her existence and the permanent stuff of her dreams. It gave her a feeling of having a fresh hold on him. She knew where he was now, and something of what he thought and did. Her own days were lived twice over, that he might share them, only the time she re-lived on paper was more vivid, more significant than the actual hours as they sped. Life took on such an edge in the process of being presented to Ethan that the girl wondered sometimes to find she enjoyed telling about the dance or picnic a thousand-fold more keenly than she had cared about the thing itself. At first she wrote flippantly, touching chiefly on the humors of the New Plymouth life; and when he took to sending her books, she bade him keep all the improving ones to himself. A certain English novel very much in vogue she promptly returned.
"If I want to read political economy, I've got my father's books. I like a story to be about love, and to end happily. If you think of sending me another novel,
remember I like plenty of orange-blossoms, not little bits of brain. But oddly enough, she had no rooted objection to reading aloud to her grandmother any non-religious book, however serious. Val found that many of these dignified tomes were not as dull as you might think; but for long she laid the credit to Mrs. Gano's door. It was an old story that that lady had a way of making things seem interesting. Val was always privately grateful, even touched, at being let off from the religious readings. Once when Mrs. Gano was recovering form an illness, Val, sitting at the bedside, was visited by a fresh sense of her growing comradeship, even her growing dependence upon that alert and sympathetic mind. In a softened mood she fell to thinking how ready her grandmother had always been to put the worked book-marks in her Church histories and doctrinal treatises, and listen to Val read biography and travel aloud, all the while letting the girl feel that she was not only adding to the "common stock of harmless pleasure," but was sparing the older eyes.
"You are very good to me," Val said, leaning her head against the "painted calico" coverlid. It made her happy to feel the long, thin hand upon her hair. She had never got over the old childish sense of its being a proud thing to receive a mark of favor at those hands.
"Shall we read?" said the girl, presently.
"If you like."
In a flush of generous feeling, she reached out and took up Literature and Dogma from the table at the bedside.
"What's that?" asked Mrs. Gano, narrowing her eyes. Val told her.
"Oh, no"--she sat up and looked round-- "I sent to the library after Chevalier Bunsen for you and me."
"Let me read you this. You mustn't always think abut what I like."
"Nonsense, child; Arnold's book would bore you, and you'd read it so it would bore me. Find Bunsen."
"You let Emmie read you this."
"Emmeline's different. Find Bunsen. You'll like Bunsen."
"Why do you suppose I have such a rage for biographies?" Val demanded, a shade anxiously.
"Partly because you're young."
"Emmie's younger still."
Mrs. Gano smiled and shook her head enigmatically.
"Young, and more interested in people, as yet, than in ideas."
"That has a very poor sound--like the personal column of a newspaper."
"Oh, it's natural enough. The walls of your own room tell the same story--all faces."
"Yes, but to hang up in your bedroom, what else is there?"
Mrs. Gano smiled, and then half whimsically:
"I don't say there's any special advantage in it, but I've always had a liking for the 'flower pieces' we painted in our youth, and for landscapes and marine views."
"Exactly!" And the older woman laughed outright.
"Well, I'm sure," said Val, eager to defend herself, "cousin Ethan says that to the American, to the unjaded mind the wide world over, it is the 'life' in any picture or description that interests and fixes itself in the memory. A vast amount is said and written about St. Mark's in Venice. But in how many minds does it stand a beautiful and stately background for flights of pigeons to wheel and circle against, or to settle down before, on friendly terms with the populace? Not the glories of architecture, but the brief and gentle life of doves, makes the picture vital in the mind.
"Ah, and when did Ethan say all that?"
"When--while you were ill I had a letter from him."
"Oh, indeed!" She turned with an indescribable look and settled down among the pillows.
"Shall I get the letter and read it to you?" said Val, to her own surprise and most unwillingly, but acting under a sense of strong coercion.
"As you please," said the wily old woman. "Have a look for Bunsen, too."
Val absented herself long enough, looking for Bunsen, to adapt Ethan's letter for a grandmother's ears. It had been no love-letter even in its original form, but it unconsciously paved the way for one and more to follow. Val wrote to her cousin that night:
"I have usually read your letters to the family, and think it would be better to go on doing so. It's not that my grandmother tries to make me. When I offer to, she says, 'As you please, my dear,' but I have a horrid, uncomfortable feeling if I don't. She seems to be looking through me into the back of my spine, to see why I want to keep the letter to myself. It's funny, but when I don't show it to her she makes me think she has divined not only all there was in it that I didn't want to show her, but a great deal more. It's that I resent most. So, if you want to say something you don't want her to see (about the money, you know, and things like that), just put a tiny check opposite the stamp-corner, and I'll know there's an enclosure meant only for me."
It was these "enclosures" that worked the mischief. They were a standing invitation to say things too intimate for other eyes. Brief and discreet at first, and dealing with figures, they expanded as time went on, till they had to be written finely on foreign note, that the discrepancy between the letter's bulk when brought to the front door, and the letter as it appeared in the family circle up-stairs, should not challenge attention. Mrs. Gano's confinement to her room made the matter easy. Only the blind and unobservant Emmie ever saw the letter when it came. If it bore the significant check, it was opened alone; if not, the seal was ostentatiously broken under the vigilant eye. It was sure to be an exciting hour. Great preparations preceded: a popping up of pillows, and mending of the fire, if it were winter, that the reading and inevitable discussion might be uninterrupted; a proper arrangement of light and general careful "setting of the scene." Emmie, with soft eyes shining, sitting demurely by in the little green chair that had been hers--her father's too, when a child--and Val close to the bedside, reading and beating
heart and a careful emphasis (for she was scolded else) the accounts of Ethan's varied life--accounts punctuated by comment, laughter, and sometimes by scathing disapproval.
"I'd tell him, if I were you," Mrs. Gano would say, sitting up with sudden vigor; and the opinion she would express seemed frequently too provocative and "pat" to be dispensed with. Val would unblushingly annex it, and reap her reward in Ethan's spirited rejoinder, which in turn never failed to "draw" Mrs. Gano. That lady was, perhaps, not a little diverted at playing a part in the game; conscious, too, beyond a doubt, that with a girl like Val to deal with it was probably a question of accepting the correspondence and sharing in its entertainment, or knowing that it went on without her having power to direct or color it. It was so the correspondence (all save the "enclosures") came to be family property, for Val would bring in her reply, that she might be approved for her line of argument, and that she might hear the keen enjoyment of that laugh which, unconsciously, she "played for" as much as any comedian ever did.
"I corresponded with several gentlemen when I was young," Mrs. Gano once said. "I hear the fashion is going out. It is a pity. A good letter is too good a thing for the world to lose."
Val burned with a wild desire to show the "enclosures," for they were the best of all. Her grandmother would rage, but she couldn't help appreciating them, the girl said to herself, with a mixture of terror at the thought, and of longing to make the confidence. It had come to be such a habit to share things, to "try" them against the steel of that wit and judgment, that she was conscious of an incompleteness of enjoyment in keeping any specially good thing to herself. If it were a book--"No," she would say, "I'll save this for our evenings"; and even if in a dull or mediocre page some one phrase or happy word shone out, she would fly up-stairs, and at the foot of that four-posted throne lay down the treasure-trove, getting in return a finer zest and a truer value.
If, as the time went on, Ethan had hours of feeling that his continued absence from the Fort was a piece of fantastic self-sacrifice which he would end by boarding the next train, Mrs. Gano no less was minded, more than once, to yield to her hunger for a sight of him. The thought of the little boy Ethan who had begged that the Fort might be his home, even more than the thought of the man, tugged at her heart-strings. Would she die before seeing her only grandson again? If in one of these moments Ethan had himself suggested coming, she would have welcomed him with open arms. Meanwhile she waited for the news that must be on the way--the news of his marriage.
Even in "enclosures" to her cousin, Val's only reference to that "barrier," which she would not admit, was characteristically by way of a gibe.
"We were talking the other day at the Otways'" [she wrote] "about its being rather funny to think my grandmother was my great-aunt and my father was my cousin--my mother, too, and my sister as well, all cousins. Emmie and I gathered that, according to the popular superstition, we ought by rights to have very few wits, or only one arm or a piece of a leg. Emmie and I assured each other on the way home that no reflection can be cast upon our arms and legs, but we agreed that we must take great care that we are not idiots; so you may, after all, send me a few improving books."
It was at the end of a brief visit to Cincinnati that Ethan's strongest temptation assailed him. It came in the commonplace form of a photograph in a forwarded letter from Val. Partly the picture, but, even more, something of the girl's eager spirit that had got between the lines of the letter, something unsaid, yet eloquent, of her unexpected power of holding out, took sudden hold on him, made his nerves tingle as if by a bodily contact. There she was, vivid as she had been for so many yesterdays, to-day triumphant, irresistible. He must go--he must go to her! He had been attempting more than he had strength to carry through. He flung some things into a valise and went down to the station. Train just gone--another in an
hour and ten minutes. He got his ticket and bought papers and magazines. In the Enquirer the report of an address before the Medical Congress caught his eye. The famous Dr. Gage had been haranguing his colleagues upon the supposed deterioration of the American race, because the birth-rate among the well-to-to classes was lamentably low, the reason being that more and more the women of these classes shrank from motherhood. It the course of his address Dr. Gage made a passing reference to his forthcoming work on Consanguineous Marriage.
In the next column, among the hotel arrivals, it appeared that the great doctor was registered at the Burnet House. Ethan took out his watch. "Why not? There's time." He jumped into the nearest carriage and drove to the hotel.
In something over an hour he returned, gave up his New Plymouth ticket, and got one for the afternoon express to New York. Nobody at the Fort ever knew how near Ethan had been to taking them by surprise.
The Otways always went away in the hot weather. The summer that Val was twenty-two, Julia and her family went to the Jersey coast for their holiday. There, at Long Branch, they found Ethan. Both he and Julia mentioned the fact in their letters, and Val tried to think the meetings as casual and unimportant as they looked on paper; but it was the hardest summer she had known.
Besides the fact that Julia was enjoying opportunities of seeing Ethan denied to Val, there was matter in her letters even more disturbing--references to Mr. Gano's constant appearance in the train of a young and wealthy widow who had a house at Long Branch. This lady, Julia wrote, was known to have been one of a party Mr. Gano had taken yachting before coming to Long Branch. Val had heard about that party from her cousin, but no mention of Mrs. Suydam. The lady was much in Val's thoughts. At last, upon an exasperated reference in one of Julia's letters to Mr. Gano's "Circe," Val wrote to him: "Tell me some-
thing about this Mrs. Suydam, whom you have never once mentioned, although you see much of her."
Ethan answered with a brief biographical sketch of the lady, carefully edited; for, in truth, Adelaide Suydam had led an eventful existence, albeit keeping her hold on society by virtue of her money and her good old Knickerbocker origin. Of other virtue she was held to have no embarrassing amount. But she was a highly accomplished person, handsome, daring, and obviously determined to make life interesting to Ethan Gano.
Her added and special attraction for him lay in his discovery that she had no design to marry him; but he was presently made aware that she meant none the less to absorb him. A little puzzled, and a good deal intrigued by her, he returned from the yachting trip very much under her spell. She had skilfully arranged the Long Branch episode for the crowning victory.
It may have been the mere act of writing about her, however discreetly--seeing her perforce through Val's eyes for a moment--that brought about the recoil. The very discretion he found himself obliged to employ convicted him, and opened wide a window on the future. A glimpse of Val through it--however distant, unattainable--brought the prospect into truer perspective for him. He saw less of the Suydam, and went to the Otways to hear about Val.
"Circe" herself, not understanding the situation, and being far too adroit to underline her temporary defeat by putting questions, believed the handsome Julia Otway was the distracting influence. She arranged an exodus to Mount Desert. A friend had lent her a house there. "Long Branch was getting stupider and vulgarer every year--it was intolerable!" She found to her dismay that Mr. Gano was not inclined to take this view. It was then she realized that she was tired, run down, even a little ill. "Would Mr. Gano take her in his yacht to Bar Harbor? He needn't stay if he really preferred Long Branch, but it would be a charity," etc. Well she knew he was the kind
of man to find just the appeal she made a hard one to withstand. Before he quite realized the full significance of the scheme, he had promised she should go round by sea. By the time he "understood," she had practised her arts with such success that he no longer wanted to alter the course she set. "Circe" saw herself on the point of being the captain's captain.
They were to start the next day, accompanied by Mrs. Suydam's very amenable half-sister. Ethan was going over the yacht to see that all was in readiness. Rummaging through one of the inconveniently full drawers in his cabin, he threw out on the floor a number of superfluous things to be carried away. In impatient haste he tossed out some old novels, caps, a blazer, a roll of moth-eaten bunting. "Wait a minute--isn't that--" He stooped and picked the bunting up. It unrolled--a blue flag, bearing the name "Valeria" in white letters. He stood with the end in his hand, staring at it. It had been in the bottom drawer since the day, four years before, when he had thrust it out of sight after getting that letter from Mrs. Gano: "I do not wish you to call your yacht 'Valeria.' There are plenty of other names without using that of an unmarried girl."
He remembered his old satisfaction in thinking how, under the new paint as well as in the cabin drawer, the boat still bore the forbidden name, faithful to the first allegiance. He had encouraged Val to call the yacht hers in her letters, and the habit had clung to them both. And now to-day, of all days, this blue flag comes out of hiding and goes flaunting along the floor! It was as if Val herself had walked into his cabin, to reassert her right, to keep "her" ship--that she never yet had sailed in, and most likely never would--to keep it, notwithstanding, free from profanation.
He went direct to Mrs. Suydam's. She had gone for a drive. Mrs. Ford, her sister, was also out. Only Mr. Ford was at home. Ethan found that gentleman in the billiard-room, and explained that he had a sudden need to
go to California--was, in point of fact, taking the night train. Mr. Ford was an experienced yachtsman; would he look after the ladies, ask whom he liked? etc. It was all arranged in ten minutes, and Ethan was on his way to the Pacific Coast before Mrs. Suydam had heard of the failure of her plan. Had it been the sudden effect of looking at the little drama through Val's eyes that had made him sicken and shrink from the dénouement? Or was he simply once again (as he happened before in that first year after parting from Val) taking flight from a temptation that would have interposed an evil memory between him and--the marriage that he had determined should never be?
For the first time in her life the New Plymouth gayeties seemed to Val insignificant, even irritating. She rejoiced that Mrs. Gano was so much better that she let Val drive her out almost daily. They were more than ever together, Emmie being absorbed by her church and charity work. One day, driving back into the town, Val was laughing delightfully at her grandmother's caustic remarks upon the "flabby philanthropy" of a certain local society. They passed some soldiers on parade, and a military band playing "Marching Through Georgia." Mrs. Gano's face changed, and, to Val's amazement, she began to weep. He grandmother! who, since Val was child, had said at times when other people cried and marvelled that Mrs. Gano sat dry-eyed, "My tears lie very deep, and most of them I shed before you were born!" This sudden gust of sore weeping that shook her to-day stirred the young girl's pulses with a shamed excitement, an obscure gladness. She could feel, too, then, even yet, with passion and unrestraint. But the girl looked away, and presently the shaken voice said:
"The poor old South! Did you see the ragged flag, my dear?"
"Yes, I saw. We must have made a good fight that day."
The "we" on the lips of one born after the war, who never had had her foot in the South, forged a new link. Mrs Gano had put her hand through the girl's arm and leaned lightly against the strong young shoulder.
"One may be proof against a good many things and not be proof against a tattered flag," she said, half apologetically, and she pulled the flapping veil across her face.
The old woman and the young one had drawn together in friendship absolute. Not that Mrs. Gano developed an angelic complaisance, or Val a superstitious reverence for the head of the house. They were not merely the elder and the younger of the same race, but two human beings who, side by side for many years, had struggled with themselves and with each other, striking on the flint of character, each knowing at last exactly when the sparks would fly, and each content to feel that the fire and the flint were there.
But if Val Gano were not the most irrational of her sex, how was it she could live year in, year out, this narrow life, refusing without misgiving the only apparent ways of escape, waiting for an event that even the eye of faith might well have wearied looking for, while summer passed to autumn and winter waned to spring? The girl believed, or made herself pretend she believed, that the longest conceivable term of her waiting was the term of Mrs. Gano's life. But the truth was even simpler. Val, unfortunately, was one of those persons who do not easily accept whatever Fate chooses to lay at their door. She was rather of those who stand ready to turn away the blind bringer of gifts with the rebuff: "I will have nothing at your hands but the thing I asked."
Vain, apparently, for Harry Wilbur, vain for the dashing new-comer, Mr. Lawrence O'Neil, to think time was working the will of each. Time was doing nothing so sensible.
End Chapter 25
Available since September 1998