The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 29
"GRANDMA is not so well to-day," said Emmie's letter the next morning. "I think you oughtn't to be away long. She is surprised to have only a 'safe arrival' telegram from you and no letter. She says she doesn't count the post-card. But she does, and I think you'd better not send her another."
Val read it out at breakfast.
"Well, you just write and tell them I'm giving a Pink Luncheon for you to-morrow, and that there are two more dances next week. You can't possibly go till a week from Saturday."
"But perhaps, if grandma really isn't so well, I oughtn't to stay quite so long."
"My dear girl, she's been 'not so well' since before I was born."
The Pink Luncheon was a huge success. The fame of its pinkness--of Mrs. Ball's "perfectly fascinating" visitor, and that visitor's perfectly adorable cousin, Mr. Gano--were long discussed among Mrs. Ball's "first people." The ungrateful guest alone was not content.
"Miss White has just asked Will Austin," Harry whispered to her as they were leaving the table, "if I'm the man you're going to marry."
His laughing eyes left her in no doubt as to the audacious answer he had given. She glanced across at Ethan. He was lingering a moment with his neighbor, Baby Whittaker, while they ate a philopena, smiling and talking for all the world as if-- But, after all, what did it matter? Since the moment when Ethan had said that about his "caring,"
she had lived in a cloudy rapture. Nothing but a blessed happiness was clearly defined, not even the wish to define. For a time Ethan's confession was all-sufficient. She had borne with his absence and his engagements with Mr. Otway, as she bore now with his polite pretence that Miss Whittaker really existed. Val endured the inconclusive hours with a patience that would have been more surprising had it been patience at all, and not sheer absorption in the unreasoning joy of living over that moment, which she felt had justified her coming, even if it presaged no easy issue. She had determined to stay at least a week longer. A week was a lifetime; a thousand things could happen in a week.
Dimly in the background of her mind she was feeling her way to a conclusion that, if all else failed, should beyond peradventure break down this nightmare barrier. But she did not even subconsciously face the extremity.
They had all been going to ride out to Miss Baby Whittaker's in the afternoon.
Val was no friend to the plan, but too much had been said of Baby Whittaker's conquest of Ethan the day before at the Pink Luncheon for her to venture an objection. When the discreet Saturday brought with it floods of rain, Val's heart went out in gratitude.
During the little lull in the downpour, about two o'clock, Ethan had ridden over, whereupon the Ball household smiled covertly at his eagerness to go to Baby Whittaker's. But it was no use, the roads were already very bad, and down came the torrent again. It was just as well, perhaps, as Mrs. Ball wouldn't, in any case, be able to go. Old father Ball had had a seizure of some sort in the morning, and Mrs. Ball hung over him solicitously, fearing another.
Val's chief concern was lest, when Ethan saw the dropped jaw and leaden eyes, he should turn and flee. "Why did they keep their old and sick in the parlor?" thought the girl, angrily.
Suddenly Mrs. Ball gave a scream. "Harry, help me to take him into his room!"
He was struggling. Ethan went forward, and he and Harry carried the old man out.
"Is he dead?" asked the girl, when Ethan came back.
"No, he's not in luck this time, I'm afraid. I've lent Harry my horse to go for the doctor. The doctor!" He gave a little dry laugh.
They stood at the window, looking out.
Surreptitiously she glanced at him.
"Oh, you wouldn't look so grave if you knew what I know," she thought to herself. "I feel it's coming all right for us. It must, it must! But I dare not say so yet;" and with her sense of superior knowledge, of being in the councils of the gods, her spirits rose.
"How can you bear to be in the house with that awful old man?" Ethan was saying.
"Oh, he's not often like this. Isn't it wonderful," she remarked, with recovered cheerfulness, "to think he's nearly ninety?"
"Repulsive. He gave me the horrors the first time I saw him."
"I can't help staring at him. He seems hardly human."
"He's not human. Only the animal survives. To think that we can go on eating and sleeping so long after the heart and the brain have burned themselves out!" He moved away impatiently, saying, half to himself: "How perishable the best things are! How long the lower nature lasts!"
"Twenty-three--ninety"; she did the sum. "Sixty-seven years more, perhaps."
"For you!" He wheeled round and looked at her. "Heaven forbid! Upon my soul, if I thought that you, with all you stand there for--of beauty and gladness--if I thought you'd go on living till you were the feminine counterpart of that old horror, I"--he choked with a half-whimsical fury--"I believe I could kill you with my own hands."
She came closer, smiling.
"It would be just like me to go on till I'm a hundred, if I'm not stopped."
"What prompts you to say such things to me?" he said, sharply, and turned again to the window.
"But all the old don't end like Mr. Ball. I shall be a lively old lady, if I'm not stopped."
"Oh, nothing could stop you."
"Don't be so hopeless. You see, I've studied the subject of old age. The reason it isn't more valued is because it's taken too modestly. I suppose it's difficult not to be modest if you're ninety. But no old person should be unselfish or patient. That's fatal. You see the success our own grandmother has made."
Without turning round, Ethan began to laugh, too.
"A woman must be gentle and amiable (if she can manage it) while she's young. It's becoming in the young," she said, piously; then, with a cheerful gleam, "but all old women should be defiant--yes, they should study a dictatorial style, and make the young ones toe the mark. It's the only way. Oh, I'll be an aged Tartar, and, you'll see, they'll all say, 'A person of remarkable character is old Mrs.--' H'm!"
She stopped short, and he turned round smiling and glowering at her, and then back again to the window.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, looking over his shoulder.
"What? That poor devil over there? Yes, I've been watching him."
"I don't see-- Oh, yes, the cripple. Ethan, Ethan, what is one to do with you!"
She dropped on the sofa with a face of comic despair.
"Do with me?"
"Yes--if every time you look out of the window you see a 'devil' of some sort."
He laughed, and then:
"But you said 'Oh!' and I thought--"
"I said 'Oh!' because the rain's stopped and the sun's trying to shine. And all you can see is a cripple dragging
his leg through the mud! Come along"--she jumped up--"the rain's ruined the roads, but it hasn't hurt the river, and we'll go for a row. It's going to be beautiful."
She dragged him off without ceremony.
As they passed by the Wharton House, "There's Otway," said Ethan, looking up at a group of men at the entrance.
Mr. Otway came down the steps and shook hands.
"This is a surprise!" he said to Val. "Come in and see Julia. She has no idea you're here."
"Oh, thank you, not this evening. We're going on the river, and it gets dark so soon. I didn't know Julia was coming."
"Neither did I, " laughed the indulgent father, " until this morning. Well, come in to-morrow. Good-bye!"
They got a boat, and by half-past four were speeding upstream to Ethan's steady stroke.
"It'll be a simply glorious evening. We shall have a flaming sunset, you'll see!"
"Yes. The rain has washed the world till it shines."
They talked very little at first.
"I don't think we ought to go beyond the Gray Pool," said Val, regretfully.
"About a mile on."
"Oh, we can get farther than that."
"Well, they don't know where I am, you see, after all, and it's nice by the Gray Pool, where the trees bend down. You could rest there."
"Do I look as if I wanted to rest?"
"Can't say you do."
"You've never told me what brought you here all of a sudden."
"I wanted to find out something."
"Well, have you succeeded?"
He smiled at her in that sudden way of his that made her heart contract. She couldn't speak directly, but her
silence seemed to her to say too much. She rushed nervously for the light veil of words.
"I was afraid my life was growing poorer than I had imagined. If you were going out of it, I knew I must go and find something to fill up the empty place."
"Going out of it?" He scrutinized her keenly. "Where should I go?"
"Oh, there are so many people and things beckoning to you. How could I tell? I was afraid you'd gone into some world where I couldn't follow--"
"So you came after me?" he smiled tenderly.
"Some world," she said, getting a little red, "where you didn't want me."
"I always want you--" he stopped short, drew his forward-bending figure up, and pulled hard at the oars. "But as to my world, you'd hate it if you found yourself at close quarters with it. I give you the best side of it in my letters."
"I' ve told you I don't want only the best."
"What do you want?"
The brave, yet shamefaced look left nothing doubtful; but he affected to think she spoke only of letters.
"If I wrote you 'all,' I'd make a pessimist of you in no time."
"Would it be things about--about other women that would make me--"
"Chiefly about men; most of all, about the things that are stronger than men."
They were silent a moment.
"I don't know how it is," she drew her hand across her eyes; "but you give me again the old feeling that you're somehow a prisoner--"
"And that I must set you free."
His dark eyes were misty for a moment. "You couldn't do that without--"
He shook his head, turned, and glanced behind him. "Oh, look at the sun!"
It was going down in a crimson flood that dyed the whole country-side a red that was like new-spilt blood. It was one of those atmospheric effects under which the most contradictory colors in nature are subdued to a common hue. One has at such times a sense of looking at the landscape through colored glass. The white and yellow farm-houses flamed a dull orange. Their windows glowed like brass reflecting fire. The very trees and grass were soaked in the strong dye of the sun. Ethan's steady pull took them swiftly on, out of sight of farms, into the wilder country. Still the girl sat with uplifted face. Her love of autumn and of sunsetting had been no sad reflective sentiment, but something more than common--eager, subtly exhilarated, joyous. To-day, stimulated and at the same time balked, she found in the splendor of the hour a sharper sense than ever of the drama in life, the essential poetry in human experience.
"I think I must be growing old," she said, with a happy sigh.
"What are the signs?"
"I'm beginning to notice the scenery. I'm grateful to the sun."
Her eyes fell suddenly on the clean-carved features opposite; the dark head and the pale ivory of the face seemed alone of all things in the responsive world to refuse to wear the livery of light.
"Oh, I forgot," she said, "you don't like sunsets any more than you like autumn. Here's the mooring-place."
He stopped his long, steady stroke, and paddled the boat under the overhanging trees.
"On the contrary," he said, making fast, and looking the while through the branches to the conflagration in the west--"on the contrary, I've changed, too--'growing old,' perhaps, like you." He smiled and sat down, his eyes on the slow-sinking sun. "These, and scenes like them, are the conditions that reconcile me."
"Reconcile! They lift me up so high that I am dizzy."
She closed her eyes an instant, and then opened them with a fluttering smile. They seemed to have forgotten there had been any thought of going ashore.
"It is so splendid and yet so calm," he said, in a low voice. "It sets me free from the burden and heat of the day."
"It doesn't set me free--not that I want to be set free. I love the burden and heat of the day. But this-- this sets me thrilling. It clutches me at the heart, and makes my breath taste sharp, like steel, against my tongue. This is the wonder-time of day."
"Yes," he said, dreamily--"yes, in a sense, it is the wonder-time. No morning or high noon, anywhere up and down the world, can match this hour."
"But it makes you sad," she said, resentfully, as though he had spoken an ill thing of some one dear.
"No, I'm not sad any more; I'm reconciled. It is the moment when I can most easily forget my own existence, and feel melted into the general life."
She turned away with flashing eyes.
"Why are you so angry?" he said, softly, "or is it the sunset dyes you redder than it did?"
"That you can say such things so calmly, and at such a moment--with all this" (she opened her arms as if passionately to embrace the beauty of the world)--"all this spread out before us, with only you and me to see it, the unconscious world not caring that"--she snapped her quick white fingers in the lazy air. "You sit there saying the eyes that glory in it, the hearts that ache at the wonder of it, they are nothing; they are here to look on a moment, suffer, and die, while the great spectacle goes on and on and on. Why did we come here, then ? What's the good of it?"
" I'll never tell you."
"I'd begin to believe some of your libels on life if I thought there wasn't more in it than just--"
"That we are brought here with all this inside us"--she
drew her doubled hand across her breast like one in pain--"all this, and with the destiny of brutes--cheated a little while with gladness while we're children--"
" That's a superstition, too. The happiness of children is more than half an illusion of the old. I remember. Others have forgotten; that's the difference."
"No, no; I remember, too!" The raised voice was half challenge, half appeal. " I was happy, and I'm happy still, except when you--" She broke off near the brink of tears. "And I mean to be happy. Oh, it's a good, good world, and I'm glad I'm here."
" I'm glad you're here."
"But if you were right"--she looked out with a vague fear to the fading west--"if all this keen consciousness existed just to be tortured a little while, and then flung down in the dark--if that is all"--the eager face grew white--"then human life's an outrage."
Silence for a moment, and then in a low voice came the words:
"It is an outrage."
"Don't say so, Ethan; I can't bear it."
"Oh yes, we can all bear it; and by so much we ephemera get back our lost significance, our sovereignty."
She looked up.
"Through this strange fate of ours," he said, "we fulfil the end of the world."
Old doctrinal associations flitted before the phrase, blurring for her his pagan use of it.
"The end, the aim of the universe, seems to be beauty--beauty so varied in spirit and in form that it often gets strange names from men."
"Yes, it is all beautiful, isn't it, Ethan?"
"That you can always see it so, and that even I can see it sometimes, proves we are not the lowest in the scale of life. That power of finding Beauty through her disguises is the best seal civilization sets on men."
"And so even you believe we fulfil the end of the world?"
"It's as magnificent, in its way, as a mountain peak, or the going down of the sun, that puny men should accept the outrage of life and the insult of death so, nobly, with so little crying out. When one thinks of it"--he laughed harshly--"the old gods and heroes were pygmies compared with modern men. What were their doings and their destinies to the hopeless, silent battle men are waging, without God and without hope in the world? The men of today don't go reeling into battle, drunken with the wine of hope, or dazed with fairy tales of faith. But they fight none the less well, knowing they go out to die, and not even sure for what cause. It is so they fulfill the end of the world. Nothing in it is mightier than the spirit of man calmly confronting his fate."
She drew a quick breath.
"You've put it into words," she said, "but I've felt it."
He looked at her with dull foreboding. He had expected contradiction, not acquiescence.
"Come," he said, rising and catching up the boat-cushion. "It's chilly here in the boat. Why did we come under these wet trees? Let's land, and go and sit in what's left of the sunset there."
"You're not calmly confronting your fate," she said, smiling dimly.
"Come." He held out his hand.
She took it and laid her cheek against it.
"I'll come with you," she said, "into the light or into the dark."
"Child, child, what have I done to you?"
He dropped the cushion in the bottom of the boat. She clung to him. He wavered, the boat rocked violently.
"Be careful, it's deep here," she said, and drew him down on the cushion at her feet.
"Val"--he averted his face--"you must try to understand. The barrier between you and me is a real one. It's not a question of whether your father's views were right or wrong, but that our imaginations have been infected by them. I, at least, would always be fearing, expecting dis-
aster, and the fear would bring the evil to pass. Or even if it didn't, the fear would--would destroy us."
"It's true. I have no courage equal to facing either my family inheritance, or my own dread of life--in a little child." He threw off her clinging hand. " Think of any one feeling as I do about life, thrusting it on another--on some one I would love as I would love your--" He dropped his head and covered his eyes with his hand.
"Why do you think always of some possible other person? Why do you never think of me?" she cried.
He made a sudden movement, dropping his hand on the gunwale of the boat, and looking straight into her eyes, with something new in the mobile face, something that inundated, drowned her in one hot flush of passion.
"Oh!" she cried, half closing her eyes, "do you care like that?" and she drooped forward into his open arms.
"Like this and like this," he said kissing her fiercely. "Oh, my love! my love! why have you infected me? Why have you poured yourself into my very blood?" He had taken her by the shoulders almost roughly, arraigning her with sombre-burning eyes. "You put that face of yours in all my dreams. I go to sleep with it on my pillow; I wake up, it still is there. In the blackest night I see you as I saw you first, standing above the darkness, holding a great light in your hand. But the light is not to light my way. Get you back into your fortress as quickly as you can." He pushed her from him. "I am the enemy."
"'Enemy,' 'coward'--I've another name for you," she said, trembling; "and if I have any light, it surely is for you. Dear Ethan, don't you see? Don't you see?"
"See?" The moody eyes were heavy with passion.
"It's all quite clear." She sat before him in the bottom of the boat, with hands clasped, and a veiled exaltation in her eyes. "We must make a compact. We Ganos are honest people; we'll play fair."
"Yes. It will seem to other people like the common
one. They'll call it marriage. It may be, we'll live a lifetime together without doing the ill you most dread doing. But if--if the worst comes to the worst, we will have had one perfect year."
"What do you mean, Val?" He seized her wrists.
"It's more than every man and woman gets," she cried.
"Then, according to the compact, we will go out together before--before we've opened the door--to another." With a broken cry she flung herself on his breast.
"Hush, hush, child! this is all--" His eyes were full of tears.
"You'll see it is the only way. No one but ourselves will pay for our being glad a little while."
"Glad! Do you think you could be glad, poor child, with such an end forever before your eyes?"
"Hasn't all the world that end in view? Aren't many of us glad in spite of all?" She smiled up into his face. "But can't you see that I'd rather be sad with you, than be glad with any other?"
He kissed her, and then: "This is nothing but madness--and my work, too," he added, bitterly--" my work."
She put her fingers on his lips.
"You take too much credit. It wasn't you who said, 'All mankind is under a sentence of capital punishment.' It isn't as if we could escape, you know."
The old sense of all the ways being barred, of being a creature trapped, lay heavy on him.
"Oh, my dear, my dear!" he said, with a weary laugh, "we ought to be less rational, or more so. You think you love me, little girl?"
He laid his hands about her throat, and as he looked into her face his senses swam again. She neither spoke nor moved, but the quick, bright scarlet was in her cheek, and all her womanhood was in her eyes.
"This leaping of the importunate blood," he thought, "all this heartache, because of the will to live of that creat-
ure who is never to be born; the spirit of the race, heedless of 'compacts,' clamoring for reincarnation."
"If life's as terrible and strange as you say," Val whispered, drawing a little away, "and if this life's all, why, it's as clear as daylight, we'd be less than rational, we'd be stark mad, to let our little day of happiness go by. You see"--she crept closer to him again in the failing light, half crying--"it concerns only us. We'll live our perfect day, and when the evening comes we'll lie down--"
"In each other's arms," he said, hiding his face in her loosened hair, his tortured mind turning with passion to the image of ultimate peace.
"Yes." Sobbing faintly, she drew away that she might see his face. His voice had sounded strangely. "This is our compact," she said, and she kissed him on the lips.
"Our betrothal," he answered, dreamily, as one who has set his lips to a philter.
"Betrothal? Yes. I didn't know what a strange sound the word had. We must exchange rings. Oh, Fate, be kind to us!" She lifted up her face as she drew off the ring she wore. "You needn't be afraid to be kind. We are honest people. We'll keep faith. Ethan," she whispered, "they can't grudge us so little as we ask."
"The powers that be?"
"You said yourself that what we ask is more than many men and women find. A year with you"--he gathered her up to his breast--"a whole year of beautiful life and beautiful love without fear of the long decline! It's a dream to draw the very gods out of their heaven. Oh, be sure they'll be jealous of you and me."
He kissed her again and again.
"We mustn't let them be jealous. Where's you ring?"
He drew off his signet, and took from her the little old band set with pearls and two small rubies.
"Too little for me," he said, "and too--"
He smiled at the obvious femininity of the old trinket.
"It's not for you to keep. We must make a sacrifice.
I'll give yours to the Spirit of the Air." She threw the signet as far up into the twilight as she could, and they both listened. "Yours is accepted." she said, triumphantly. "You must give mine to the Water."
"Aren't you afraid the Earth will be jealous?"
He held the ring over the side of the boat.
"Oh, no; the Earth is patient; she knows we'll give her more than a ring. Why do you wait? The Water-spirit will be angry."
"You never told me who gave you this."
"It was my grandmother's engagement ring."
"No; was it? If this ring hadn't been given, neither you nor I would be in the world."
He dropped it into the river. They sat quite still, each knowing perfectly what new train had been started in the other's mind, and neither wanting to unpack the heart with words. A couple of boats came up the river, full of boys and girls, laughing and singing. When they got nearly opposite the pool their voices rang out plainly, complaining of the current, and suggesting turning back.
"What a pity you asked me that about the ring!" Val whispered.
"I'm not sure it was a pity, dear."
The passion had gone out of his voice.
"You like her standing here between us?"
"I don't like to forget what must be remembered."
If Ethan were conscious that the mental apparition of the old woman with her silent, but effectual, "I forbid the banns"--if he were quite conscious that her coming brought behind the dash of disillusionment a sense, too, of reprieve, he forbore to say as much. It was enough that the first wearer of the sunken ring had made not only the difference to those two of being summoned out of the infinite, but the difference of holding them back from the infinite as well. The compact they had made was null and void as long as their common ancestress lived. Her character and influence built high an impregnable barrier between her descendants and this thing she would despise, and which
they knew would give her her first taste of the cup of humiliation.
"It cannot be while she is in the world," said Ethan.
With unconscious cruelty the other answered:
"But she is very, very old, and we are young."
A sudden stifled cry rose apparently out of the bushes and tall water-weeds just to their left. Ethan sprang up.
"It's only those boys," said Val, as a chorus of confused exclamations came from beyond the Gray Pool.
"No, it was nearer. Didn't you hear a splash?"
The screams grew more distinct.
"One of 'em's in the water," he said. "Hallo, there!"
He paddled out from the overshadowing tree.
"Ethan!" Val held out her hands in a sudden agony of fear. "It's horribly deep here, and there's a current! It's most dangerous place on the river!"
"Yes. Bad place for a little chap. Where did he go down?" he shouted.
"It was a lady. Her boat's just behind you."
Ethan turned, and saw dimly, a few yards off, Mr. Otway grasping a side of a row-boat, and looking over into the water in a pitiable paralysis of horror.
"Where? where?" Ethan called, scanning the river on all sides.
Something vague rose up a few yards below the boats, and moved quickly down the current. Ethan was overboard in an instant, striking out in the direction of the dark object.
Val caught up the oars and followed in the boat. It was all over in a few minutes. Ethan had laid hold on the unconscious girl, and swam with her to the bank. Val rowed across, and Ethan and she, between them, dragged Julia into the boat. The boys, who had followed, called back to Mr. Otway that the lady was saved.
When the father got up with them, Julia was reviving.
"You'd better get into the boat," said Ethan to Val; "the old man's not fit top go alone down-stream, you know. You won't mind?"
"No," said Val; "but let us keep close together."
"She would come," Mr. Otway kept saying helplessly. "I told her my river days were over. She would come."
"How did the accident happen?" said Val, keeping eyes and ears intent upon the boat just in front.
Ethan bent to the oar, looking back now and then to see that Val was close. Julia lay motionless, with Ethan's coat over her.
"We must go as fast as we can," he called out. "We'll be able to get some brandy at Leigh's Landing, and a trap."
"How did it happen?" Val repeated.
"Oh, we started only five minutes after you did, and Julia rows so well we could have caught up with you. But she changed her mind or else got tired, and when you got out of sight"--he put on his pince-nez and looked anxiously after the boat in front--"when you got out of sight, she wanted to rest."
"Where was that?"
"Near the Gray Pool. She pulled the boat in among the rushes. I was tired, too. I think I fell asleep. First thing I knew we were out of the rushes, and Julia was leaning out of the far end of the boat."--("I wonder how much she heard?" was the thought that haunted Val.)--"Whether it was my speaking suddenly startled her or whether she lost her balance, I don't know--I don't know at all." And he droned on about, "She would come. I said my river days were over."
They found, as Ethan prophesied, dry clothes and warming potions at Leigh's Landing, and a farm wagon to take them back to town.
The two men sat talking volubly in front, Ethan driving. The two girls occupied the back seat, in a silence never once broken till they said "Good-night" at the Wharton House.
End Chapter 29
Available since September 1998