The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 28
THE morning was warm and balmy. Val put on her blue muslin gown, thinking rebelliously how Ethan had once said that a serge coat, and skirt, and sailor hat were the proper "togs" for the river.
"Togs" was a proper ugly word for such garments. No stiff tailor-maid things for Val! "He said I'd grown prettier," she thought, gayly, as she took a last look in the glass. But it was the thousandth time she had quoted the comfortable assurance to her happy heart.
She met the unexpected Harry at breakfast with such apparent cordiality that Mrs. Ball was slightly perplexed, even slightly disappointed.
"Now, what are we going to do to-day?" asked the hostess, in the middle of the meal. "It's such a comfort, Harry, that you happen along at just this moment. A man is so useful in helping to arrange things; and Austin, of course, is too busy." Austin was already at the office.
"I've just had a note from my cousin, Ethan Gano." Val put her hand on an envelope that lay, address downward, on the cloth. "He's at the Wharton House. He'll be here at ten to take me for a row." It had given her acute discomfort to make the announcement, and the look on the two faces opposite did not restore her equanimity.
After an expressive little silence, Mrs. Ball said:
"Yes, it'll be nice on the river to-day. We can all go. I'll see about a luncheon-basket;" and she rang the bell.
Thereafter the conversation flagged. At ten o'clock Ethan duly appeared, spotless in boating flannels and white shoes. There is no more becoming garb for the modern man. Val forgot her discomfiture a moment, looking at
him. Mrs. Ball compared her cousin's "business suit" unfavorably with the new-comer's elegance, and promptly sat down Gano's grace to his clothes.
Val had been afraid her cousin would be uncomfortably restive under the infliction of the extra couple. Before long she was resenting his too amiable acceptance of the addition to the party. They drove down to the river in the Balls' carryall, Harry and Val in front with the basket, Mrs. Ball and Ethan behind. Gano was laughing and talking with an unusually gracious air. Was Val to believe that under that charming exterior he was burning with the dull rage that kept her silent and distraite? His unwonted gayety looked suspiciously like relief.
When they got down to the landing it was found that Ethan had already provided the boat and the hamper. But Val told herself that was not the reason that he, as it were, took command of the little expedition. He would always do that. Other people found it as natural as he did himself. Mrs. Ball was to sit in the stern, "and, Val, you take the tiller." When they had pulled a few yards up-stream Ethan shipped his oars, stood up, and slipped off his white flannel coat and waistcoat.
"Will you keep my watch?"
Val Nodded. How warm it felt! She put it in her bosom. No movement of her cousin's was lost upon the girl, though her eyes never rested on him. There had sprung up between them again that old, alert physical consciousness that is like a sixth sense.
That the genial, broad-chested Wilbur should appear to advantage out-of-doors was a matter of course. Val had told him once that he was like a great Newfoundland dog--"too big for the house." But the impression made by Gano's skill in open-air pursuits was partly due to a sense of surprise on the part of the on-lookers that this fine-limbed, small-handed, slender-footed creature should be as strong, apparently, as the obvious athlete.
Mrs. Ball talked incessantly about people in society--about her plan for "going to Europe" when Austin should
have a holiday; about any and every thing she poured out an unfaltering stream.
During luncheon Val, in sheer desperation, began to show some consciousness of Harry Wilbur's existence. Finding that Ethan seemed not to notice, she redoubled her friendliness and gayety. At last, "Let's go for a walk--you and me," she said, jumping up and going towards the dogwood thicket.
Harry, nothing loath, strode after her. Mrs. Ball felt herself a diplomatist, and began to relax under Mr. Gano's unruffled courtesy. The little match-maker did not know that Val's high spirits went down like foam in a champagne-glass as soon as she was beyond the reach of her cousin's eyes. But she came back smiling and trailing great branches of white dogwood over her shoulder and down her sky-blue gown. She felt it must be pretty, but she got no assurance that Ethan caught the effect. Harry's ingenuous compliments only heightened her hidden wretchedness. The day was a dreary disappointment to the girl. Ethan's apparent satisfaction in it was the most disturbing element of all. Only once did she have a word with him alone, and then not by his arrangement. She left Mrs. ball and Harry repacking their basket, of which almost nothing had been used, and ran down the bank to help Ethan to put the cushions back in the boat.
"I suppose Julia told you her father was coming up to-morrow night?"
"No. What for?"
"He's chairman of our committee."
"Don't say anything about my being here."
"All right. I wish he weren't coming, though."
"Why?" said the girl, preparing to hear her own views set forth.
"Well, you see, the trouble is, old Otway is getting very deaf; he's not really fit for public business any more, and nobody has the courage to tell him. Isn't it appalling the
way people cling to things--to the things, too, that we're all forewarned will be taken from us if we stay here long enough?"
She looked at him with a fresh sense of curiosity and wonderment. What a strange new note he put into life! Yet those others laughed and jested with him, and thought him one of themselves.
He took off his jacket again.
"I'll take care of that." She began to fold it. "What's in the pocket?" She put her hand in with a thrill of joy at her audacity, and brought out an old duodecimo of battered calf-skin. "Why, I remember this: it's one of those little volumes that you brought from Paris."
"Did I have it with me--"
"Yes. Have you gone on carrying it about ever since you first came to the Fort?"
"I hadn't seen it for years till the other day. I can't think how it got among my things."
"You've marked it up frightfully. Grandma would scold you if she saw that."
"The book marked me, why shouldn't I mark the book?"
"What does it say here?"
He shook his head.
"Please tell me."
"I thought you had studied Latin."
"Y--yes; I know what the words mean, but I don't know what the sentences mean. Do translate this little bit."
"Nonsense! I might as well have it in English at once."
"You don't like people to know what you read?"
"I don't like people to read what I mark."
"It's like leaving your diary open. Why should people--"
"I'm not 'people.' Mayn't I know this tiny bit?--"Meditare utrum commodius sit, vel mortem transire ad nos vel nos ad cam." What's that?"
Ethan only smiled.
"You never gave me back my watch."
"I forgot. No; I can't think why I tell such lies. I didn't forget at all. Oh, here comes Mrs. Ball," she said, with an accent of despair, "and we've not said a word about--"
"Bother Mrs. Ball!" Ethan ejaculated under his breath; and his cousin blessed him.
Val's hostess hurried down the bank, and Ethan handed her into the boat. Harry was left to cope with the basket.
"Now, what are you two arranging for to-morrow?" said the lady, settling herself in the boat.
"We weren't arranging," replied Val; "we were speaking about a book."
She had put the volume back in the pocket of Ethan's jacket.
"There's a dance at the O'Connors' to-morrow night," said Mrs. Ball; "Perhaps you'd like to come with us."
She saw herself entering on Mr. Gano's arm.
"Ah, thanks; you're very kind, but I don't go to dances these days."
Mrs. Ball tried to think she was relieved on Val's account, but she couldn't help saying, with an air:
"The O'Connors are among the first people here; they entertain in the most princely way."
" I was suggesting a day's fishing down by the Gray Pool," said Harry, appearing with the basket; "it's that place on the Little Choctaw River."
"Nothing could be better," Ethan agreed.
And then he stopped, having caught Val's unenthusiastic glance. Another day to be lived through, cooped up in a boat, she was thinking; or pursued, at all events, by two superfluous people.
"Yes," said Mrs. Ball, "the scenery on the Little Choctaw is very wild and splendid. A cousin of mine--you know, Harry, cousin Bettie MacFadden--she says it's just like some place abroad--in Scotland, I think."
"Oh, really," said Ethan, in his charming way, "I must see that, but we might go fishing on a dull day. If it's as fine as this to-morrow, why not-- Don't I remember"--
he turned to Mrs. Ball--"that you're a very good horse-woman?"
"They were telling me at the hotel you have a ride here-abouts out to some wild park."
"Yes; he means Forest Park Lodge," said Wilbur.
"Let us go there," said Ethan; "and I'll wire them to have luncheon ready."
It was all arranged before they parted, Mrs. Ball salving any prick of conscience by assuring herself it was far better not to seem afraid of this masterful Mr. Gano, with his reputation for being dangerous. It was right, and even politic, not to "leave him out." All that was necessary was that she, Mrs. Ball, should "be there."
"I don't ask you to come back with us to-night," she said, on their return to town. "We have time only to snatch a mouthful before going to a concert."
Mrs. Ball had a sense of playing up with grace and distinction to some imaginary standard of life abroad. "He will find me much more like the ladies he knows in London and Paris than most people about here."
Val had told herself that Ethan had invented the ride so that they should be freer; they would get ahead of the others, or fall behind, and have some time to themselves. But Mrs. Ball started off next morning with Mr. Gano, and ruthlessly rode beside him all the way. Val alternately raged in her heart, and forgot how sore it was, watching one of those two on in front. How well he sat his horse! But so did Harry. What was it in Ethan that distinguished him so from other men, and set him for ever apart? She tried to give it a name while Harry's small-talk trickled vaguely through her brain.
They stopped to lunch, and put up the horses at the Forest Park Lodge.
While they were dismounting, a buggy dashed up with a man and a girl in it. The miserable old mare had been driven to death, and was covered with sweat and foam.
"Brute!" said Ethan under his breath, glowering at the man, who threw the reins round the whip, and helped his companion out.
"Pretty sort of girl to let him drive like that," was Val's comment, as the couple went towards the hotel.
"Never saw so much of a beast's ribs before without the trouble of taking off his skin," said Wilbur.
"My goodness!" added Mrs. Ball, "that's not a horse; it's a plate-rack."
"Look here," said Ethan to the man who was leading their horses to the stables, "you're going to rub this other beast down, I suppose, and--"
"Never have no sich orders from Mr. Joicey," said the man. "That's Joicey." He jerked his thumb after the two figures. "Comes here a lot. Mare looks wuss'n she is. D'ye know that there nag is Blue Grass?"
"Not the filly that won--"
"Yes, siree bob; won a pile fur Joicey's father. Goes like hell even yet."
"Give her a rub down and a feed, and say nothing about it," said Gano, transferring something from his pocket to the man's hand. "For the sake of battles long ago," he added to his companions, seeming to apologize.
As they walked up to the hotel Mrs. Ball ran on volubly about the ill-treatment of animals.
"I like to remember some magnificent thoroughbreds I saw the last time I was in Holland," Ethan said in the first pause. "I fell in with their owner afterwards, a certain Monsieur Oscar."
"That the fellow that trains horses?" asked Wilbur.
"Yes, founder of the Continental Cirque. He'd been all over the world, and was giving his last performance while I was at Scheveningen. When I came across him afterwards, he had sold all the animals and properties of his great show. 'All,' he said, 'except my eight favorite horses.' I asked if he was going to keep them. 'No,' he said; 'I shot them after my last performance. I might have sold them well, but I thought perhaps they might
come down in the world, and end by going between shafts. No, I cared about 'em, so I shot 'em.'"
"Oh, how could he have the heart!" Mrs. Ball was shocked.
"You should have seen the fellow's face! He had cared. I couldn't help thinking what a lot of room there was in the world for that kind of caring."
"Gracious no, it's too brutal! He should have given them to people who would appreciate them."
"As Mr. Joicey does Blue Grass? You've heard of General Boulanger's celebrated black charger--he's a cab-horse now in Paris. Marshal Canrobert's splendid animal is in the Pasteur Institute at Garches, where it is used for the production of serum. Saint-Claude, too, the winner of the Grand Steeplechase at Auteuil in '90, he's there being experimented upon. No, dear Mrs. Ball, there seems to be just one safe asylum for horses as for men. Hello, there! did you get my telegram?" he called out briskly to the hotel-keeper. "Gano--luncheon for four."
In a moment he seemed to have the entire staff of the place bustling about him, waiters throwing open the windows at him complaint of closeness, putting fresh flowers on the table laid for the partie carrée, deaf to the appeals of the few other people in the big dining-room, the landlord praying Mr. Gano to remember that he was nearly half an hour before the time.
"Do they know him?" Mrs. Ball whispered to Wilbur.
"Must; or why should they take all this trouble?"
Val smiled to herself, believing it superfluous to dive into her cousin's pocket for the reason; it was there in his face, in his air. It was so, she told herself, that princes walked the world, barriers going down before them, and people vying to do them unasked service. Yes, it was not for nothing she had dreamed about the prince.
The luncheon was a distinct success. It soon became evident that Ethan was making great headway with Mrs. Ball. Her vivacity, and his unwonted responsiveness, had kept the ball rolling merrily. Was he making himself so
agreeable, Val began to wonder, that he might be surer of a welcome in West Walnut Street? "Jessie Ball is bent on impressing Ethan," thought the pitiless young observer. "She's growing quite affected"; and she watched her hostess coldly. It seemed to Val a part of Mrs. Ball's desire to play up to some imagined standard of extra punctilio that led her, towards the end of the meal, to pass her purse to Harry under the table, while Ethan wasn't looking, forming with her lips the words, "I'm hostess." Val's sense of embarrassment was acute. Ethan wouldn't like it, after ordering things himself. Val knew, too, that if her cousin had not been a rich man, Mrs. Ball's breeding would have appeared better. She would not have troubled about the bill.
Ethan's later amazement when he called for the account, that there should be a discussion as to who should pay for the repast he had ordered, made Val want to get under the table. By so much was she relieved at his giving way before Mrs. Ball's shrill insistence.
"Oh, very well, if it pleases you better so." He jumped up to cut the discussion short. "Send it out after us. And when will you have the horses--in half an hour?"
Mrs. Ball was uncomfortably conscious that her fine straw-colored hair had come out of curl in the wind, there, under the trees. With the indomitable spirit of woman in pursuit of beauty, she was determined to borrow the chambermaid's tongs, and restore the fuzziness with which she had started forth. It was essential, therefore, that she should take time as well as herself by the forelock. She hurried Val up-stairs.
"What a fascinating man!" she said, with a sigh, as she stood before the glass. "Val, dear, I hope you won't lose your heart to Mr. Gano."
"Oh, I've got past that," said the girl, with a misleading air of frankness.
"Well, I'm relieved to hear you say so. There's something about him very magnetic to my way of thinking--positively irresistible." She sighed again. "But he'd make a shocking bad husband, that's one comfort."
" Comfort!" Val laughed a little hysterically.
"Well, now, what have I said?"
But Val was hatted and gloved, and ran down-stairs. Ethan was smoking in the porch.
"Where are those funny friends of yours?" he said.
She was up in arms at once.
"You always say my friends are funny."
"And so they are, dear child."
"They're not a bit funnier than my relations."
"Oh, they don't compare."
"How long before the horses will be ready?" said Val, loftily, as one who chafes at a delay, making meanwhile a rapid calculation as to how long Mrs. Ball's work of restoration might be counted on to keep her up-stairs.
"They'll be here presently," said Ethan, throwing away his cigarette.
"Let's go and see." Val led the way round to the back of the hotel. "My friends are perfectly delightful, but I don't mean to let them monopolize every minute of our time."
He looked at her with an odd expression, and then turned away his face. Her heart gave a great leap. They went on to the stable. Wilbur was there. The buckle on Gano's saddle-girth, he said, had got bent. While it was being taken off Ethan moved about, looking in sheds and open doors.
"What are you hunting for?" Val called after him.
"A place for you to sit down. They'll be some minutes repairing that thing."
"You'd better go back to the house," said Wilbur, who was showing the man how to get the metal straight without breaking the tongue of the buckle.
"No," said Val; "I shall go in there, and up those cobwebby stairs, and sit on the hay by the door that opens into mid-air."
As she walked towards the barn-door it seemed to her that her whole existence depended upon whether Ethan followed her.
At the door she turned, and saw him looking after her. Then she went in. Was he coming? oh, was he, was he? She began to mount the stair, but her heart seemed to stay down there on the bottom step. She wouldn't look back again, but there was no sound, no sign. It was not overwhelmingly important to him to see her alone. She felt the hot tears stinging her eyes. Then the sunshine that streamed into the musty place through the open half of the double door--suddenly it was darkened. She knew it was Ethan on the threshold. He came after her up the narrow seed-strewn stair, that had no banister.
"Don't walk so near the edge," he said, and he came on the outside, pushing her a little towards the inner wall.
They went up side by side, the girl quite silenced by the sense of his nearness. She half held her breath, expecting every second he would say something--something that for her would be momentous. When they had reached the loft, and he had not opened his lips, a disappointment swept over her so acute it was almost humiliation. She waded heavily through the hay to the open door, that looked out on the horses and the group below.
"I can't think what I am to say about this visit, when I get home," she said. "It seems as impossible to tell them I've been seeing you as it does not to say so."
"When must you go?"
He accepted it, then. No crying out against her going, but merely "when." She turned away from the open door, where she could see Mrs. Ball just arrived on the scene making her a sign, and she steadied herself an instant with her hand against the wall in the shadow. The close smell of the hay choked her. Was it like this people felt before fainting? "Oh, why did I come?" she heard herself saying. And then, instead of losing consciousness, an electric sense of life and joy spread through all her body. Ethan's fingers had closed about her hand that had hung so limp at her side. There must have been some virtue in him, for at the touch she was whole again.
"Don't be sorry you came," he said.
She tried to subdue her gladness.
"No; even though parting is more than I have courage to face."
She waited an instant for what was to follow, and then, "What? I--I didn't hear what you said."
"But there are some things,' he went on, "that we must do without courage."
"Ethan"--she turned and faced him with a kind of fierceness like a creature at bay--"if you find you can do that, it will be because you don't care much."
"Don't care!"--his face came closer, his voice was so shaken out of its even cadences it sounded like a stranger's--"don't care! Do you know that I never in all my life knew what caring meant till I knew you? Do you know that I'd give everything I have on earth, and every other hope of happiness, just to be able to believe there is no barrier between you and me?"
He stopped. Val's heart was too full to speak on the instant. In the silence Wilbur's voice rang out clear at the bottom of the stairs:
"I say, Val, aren't you ever coming?"
Mrs. Ball asked Ethan to come in after their ride and have a cup of tea. He thanked her, and seemed to accept. They all went into the dim parlor, and when Mrs. Ball had drawn up the blinds old Mr. Ball was discovered asleep in the arm-chair. He woke at the noise, and blinked feebly.
"Why, paw," said Mrs. Ball, "how did you get in here?"
The old man grunted.
"You've dropped your knitting," said Val, stooping and picking up a strip of gray wool-work with needles sticking in it.
He took it, and began feebly moving his rheumatic hands, while Mrs. Ball bustled about making the tea and sending the maid-servant in and out. Ethan turned his back, and looked out of the window. Val suddenly felt
the repulsiveness of the old man as she had never felt it before. She saw that Ethan had taken out his watch.
"It isn't possible it's nearly five o'clock!" he said, as though that were an unheard-of hour for tea. "I'm sorry, but I must get back to my hotel," and almost before Mrs. Ball knew where she was, he had shaken hands and was gone.
End Chapter 28
Available since September 1998