The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 27
THAT night Mrs. Gano was prostrated by a feverish cold. The doctor was sent for, and Val carried out his instructions so faithfully that in twenty-four hours the patient was comfortably mending.
In the intervals of nursing Val had written to Ethan in pencil:
"I've got to see you. It doesn't matter that I can't ask you to the Fort, or that grandma is not to know. You must come and stay a day or two at some small town quite near here. I'll get a day off for a picnic or something, and meet you either in Blake's Woods, or at one of the steamboat landings up the river. Don't hesitate about his. I'm not a child, and I've a right to see you about a matter so important to me."
She closed without a hint as to what the matter was.
He answered by return of post, pointing out that he couldn't possibly come to see her clandestinely, for her own sake.
"For my sake! Not a bit of it. For grandma's sake. He's afraid."
The conclusion was the easier in that she was herself afraid. It was then Val remembered that Mrs. Ball, the former Jessie Hornsey, who now lived in the capital of the State, had several times asked Val to visit her. The girl went out and sent the lady a telegram. "I'm going to stay a few days with Mrs. Austin Ball," she announced with outward calm and much inward trepidation when she came home.
" You are going--" Mrs. Gano sat up in bed and stared.
"Oh, Val," remonstrated Emmie, "and grandma ill in bed!"
"That has nothing to do with it," said the invalid shortly. "But my house is not a Family Hotel for people to come and go as they --" A sneeze spoiled the effect she was making.
"There, you've caught more cold!"
Emmie rushed across the room and brought a shawl. Val wanted to help put it round her. Mrs. Gano waved her off, took the shawl herself, and with some premonition, perhaps, of a coming crisis, said:
"What does this mean?"
"It means that at last I want to accept one of Mrs. Ball's dozen invitations. The doctor says you're better. You could telegraph me if--"
"That's all very well, but in this house it is customary--"
"Yes, yes, dearest; I know it's customary to ask leave, and I do ask it. But you must let me go. I--I never go anywhere, I never do anything; all my life is slipping away, just as Aunt Valeria's did."
The old woman looked into the young face and read the signs there misguidedly enough to say:
"Well, well, we can't very well afford it, but perhaps a little change--"
"I'll make it up, you'll see."
No later than that same afternoon the girl was on her way. She had given Ethan no warning--did not even know if she would find him still at the hotel from which he had written to Julia; but she drove straight to the Wharton House, learned that he was in, and sent up word that a lady wanted to see him.
While she sat there, oblivious of the expensive ugliness of the empty hotel parlor, the thought of seeing Ethan after all these years did not shut out the haunting remembrance of her grandmother. If that scorner of deceptions could see her now! If she ever came to know that Val, whom she trusted, had acted this complicated lie in order, most unmaiden-like, to beg a stolen interview with a man! She cringed at the thought of the old woman's high unsparing scorn. "Why do I always think of her! Other girls
don't take even their fathers and mothers so seriously. They aren't haunted by them." She hunched her shoulders with discomfiture. Why didn't Ethan come? What would her grandmother say? It seemed a sudden blessed way of escape from domestic degradation. She half rose, staring absently at the sofa pattern. Suddenly the perplexed eyes widened; the vague design of the satin damask had wrought itself into her brain. Out of the scrolls and arabesques a face seemed staring at her. With a twist of pain she recognized it--that sorrowfullest of all faces--that face of some one who never had a chance. The poor dim ghost that had been shut up so long in Aunt Valeria's dusty heap of clay, that had appeared to Val like a shadowy face at a prison grating--it had escaped at last: it was here!
As she sank back in the corner, the old tide of revolt rose high within her; but the flood to-day was chill with fear of failure, and bitter with the memory of those others who had been overwhelmed. Val had herself given up all "changes" for this one that she was reaching out for to-day. She was here to put that one to proof, and-- Ethan was at the door! In that first instant of his non-recognition her heart turned sick, so cold he looked, and so remote, forbidding even. She got up and came forward.
Ethan cried out in astonishment, throwing down his hat:
" You! No, not really!"
He took both her hands, and looked into her face. Had she really thought him cold? Turning, he glanced about the room, as if to assure himself they were alone. She disengaged her hands.
"Come out and walk; I don't like it here," she said.
He looked at her reflectively, and yet with a kind of smouldering excitement.
"We'll get a victoria, and drive out to the country."
He led the way down-stairs. "But how on earth have you managed it?" he said.
"I didn't manage, I just came."
"Grandmamma is with you?"
"She hasn't let you come alone?"
"Oh, it's all right," she said, a little impatiently. I've come to visit an old school-friend."
They chose one of the carriages in front of the hotel, and drove rapidly out of town.
She shrank back into her corner, feeling his eyes too keen upon her; but when by chance she encountered them, she would have been less than woman if she had not been reassured by the admiration in their kindling depths.
"I suppose I'm changed too," he said, smiling.
"Y-yes; you're a little more alarming than you used to be."
"Oh, really!" he laughed.
"I suppose the change in me is a different one?"
"You've kept your word."
"Don't you remember telling me that I was rather good-looking at that time, but the difference between us was that you'd improve and that I'd grow repellent and plain if I wasn't very careful?"
"I never said such a--"
"Oh yes. You used to be a wise child. Are you a wise woman?"
"Not enough to hurt," she said, with a little grimace.
He asked about Mrs. Gano and Emmie, and the bedridden An' Jerusha. The year before, Venus had married the mulatto postman, and Val, at Ethan's suggestion, had bought them a cottage, where they all lived very happily. Val told him of the advent of the twins.
"What are you doing here?" she inquired, presently.
"I suppose you think I wouldn't understand that."
"I think it would probably bore you."
"Why bore me more than any other girls?"
"I didn't say so. But most young ladies of your age--"
"I'll soon be twenty-three; Julia is only twenty- four."
She could have bit her tongue out for her maladroitness.
"Julia? Ah, how is Julia?"
"This is pretty; let us stop here."
"All right. Driver, just pull up in that shade and wait for us."
They walked across the field, to a clump of trees by the Virginia rail-fence that separated them from the large market-garden on the other side.
"Now that I've come all this way," Val said, leaning against one of the elms, with her lands loosely clasped in front of her, "I want to run home and leave things to chance."
He made no answer. She glanced up to find him looking at her with an intentness that confused her. She turned away, sat down, and took off her hat. Her hair was loose; she pinned it up as well as she could, but her hands felt unskilful, helpless. She could not free herself from the sense of those deep eyes arraigning, caressing, compelling her. She looked up with a fluttering smile.
"Sit down, and don't stare."
He only leaned back against the opposite elm.
"Yes, there's some other change in you besides the growing prettier. What's happened?"
In the hypersensitized state of her nerves the question hurt keenly. That they should not have met for all this time, and he ask that! It was all she could do to keep the tears out of her lowered eyes.
"Come," he urged, " is some of the gilt worn off your particular piece of gingerbread?"
"No," she said, with recovered firmness; "I've not come to complain. I've only come to be helped to understand."
"Ah, life has pricked you, I see that--and"--he smiled faintly--"you don't understand."
"Yes," she said--the voice was not quite so steady--"I've got hurt. If I'd sat quiet, I wouldn't have bumped myself against sharp corners. But I shall not sit quiet."
"Oh no, you may be depended on for that."
"But I have sat quiet, you know, for years. That's done with, now."
He shifted his position uneasily.
"I don't want any longer to be always fortunate, always happy. I want to know about life. I want to understand."
Still he said nothing.
"It's a kind of death not to understand," she said.
"And has some of Death's peace to recommend it. But let's come to Hecuba. What do you want to understand?"
"It--is so--hard for me to say."
"Harder than not understanding?"
"No. I--want to know--if you have any objection to releasing me from my promise?"
She put her hands up, quickly, to hide her convulsed face. He had forgotten!
"If you don't remember, that's release enough," she said, getting up.
He came forward and put his hand on her arm.
"You don't mean that about your going away from home?"
She nodded her averted head.
"Certainly I won't release you from that promise."
"Why not?" She turned swiftly on him. "What is it to you?"
"It's a great deal to me."
"Well, it's more to me. I've come to say I take my promise back."
He bent down to her.
"You didn't come to say that, Val."
Her wet eyes fell before his softened looks.
"I--I can't say just what I came to say."
"You're gone so far from me."
"No, I haven't, dear." The dark face was close to hers. "I've tried, perhaps, but I haven't succeeded. Val--"
He drew her suddenly into his arms. She resisted a moment, and then, with a little cry of self-abandonment, she hid her face on his breast. They stood so till, with an infinitely tender movement, he turned the lithe body over into the hollow of his arm, and kissed the upturned face. She broke away trembling.
"Now I can ask you what I came to ask. Have you been caring about some one else more than you've been caring about me?"
"What in the world put that into your head?"
You have--you have!" she said, getting white.
"But I have not."
"You like writing to others more than you do to me."
"I don't, indeed. It bores me horribly to write to other people."
"Why do you do it, then?"
"Oh, you're thinking of the letters I write Otway."
"Hezekiah Otway. You see, he's chairman of our--"
She darted forward and seized his hands, laughing and holding them to her breast as she looked up, radiant, into his face.
"Now we'll drive into town, if you please."
They went back to the carriage, and Val talked gayly about the Fort and the people Ethan had known when he was in New Plymouth.
"Where shall we meet to-morrow?" she said, when they were again in the town.
"Where does your Mrs. Ball live?"
"In the Chestnutville suburb. But that's no good."
"No; I've told you she's Miss Jessie Hornsey."
"Is that fatal?"
"Well, she'll want to do all the talking. You can come there of course, but it won't be seeing you."
"How long shall you stay?"
"Mustn't be more than three or four days."
He crossed swords with his conscience and still considered.
"You must come in the morning and take me boating," she said.
"Oh, adorable directness! How it simplifies all things! Boating be it."
"We must go quickly to the station for my things; the train I'm due by is just in."
After getting her trunks and travelling-bag, they said good-bye, and Val drove alone to West Walnut Street.
Mrs. Ball received the girl warmly, and with apologies at having only just come in and found her message.
"I'm simply delighted to have got you at last. I only hope you won't find it dull. If you'd given me a little longer notice, I would have had some parties planned, and got Harry Wilbur to come. How is my handsome cousin?"
"Oh, he's all right; and dear Mrs. Ball"--the girl sat--"the fact is, I've come on some private business. I haven't time for parties. If you want to be an angel to me, just let me go and come as I please, for the two or three days I'm here."
"Days? Make it two or three weeks, my dear. You know you've always been an immense favorite of mine; my husband likes you, too. He said when we visited my mother's last year that you were the most charming girl in New Plymouth. Now it's settled, and I think I heard Austin come in." She kissed Val on both cheeks, and went down-stairs to confide to Mr. Ball that "the most charming girl" was not in New Plymouth, but under his roof, and was evidently up to some mischief, and what ought they to do?
"Play dominos!" Mr. Ball's childish old father suggested vacantly.
That favorite pastime meant to him shuffling the dominos aimlessly about the table, and in his more lucid intervals rising to the height of matching them.
"Yes, paw." The good Mrs. Ball emptied the dominos out of the box and set the old man to turning them face downwards. He went to sleep before the task was done.
" Oh!" Ejaculated Mrs. Ball, suddenly catching sight of something in the evening paper her husband was unfolding.
"What?" She pointed to a paragraph announcing the meeting of the Sound Money men at the Central Hall. Chairman, Mr. Hezekiah Otway. Debate to be opened by Mr. Ethan Gano, etc.
"That's why she's come."
"Oh, think so?"
"Sure of it." The round good-natured face grew grave. "Husband, I think I ought to put Harry Wilbur on his guard."
"Don't you meddle with outsiders' affairs," said husband.
"My dear, Val Gano's as good as engaged to my cousin. Harry was very confidential with me the last time he was here. This Ethan Gano was at one time the barrier. Such a fascinating creature," she sighed. "Not a marrying man, and most dangerous. He sha'n't come between them again."
"You can't interfere if--"
"I can wire my cousin to come and make us a visit, and I will." She bustled out.
While Val was in her first beauty sleep, Harry Wilbur arrived.
End Chapter 27
Available since September 1998