The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 30
"WELL, Val, where have you been?"
"I've been boating, and--"
"Boating, after all! And poor Harry so anxious, riding along those awful roads to the Forest Park Lodge."
"Why should he do that? He might have known--"
"He knew there was a very urgent telegram for you here." Mrs. Ball was deeply reproachful. "We thought it best to open it."
Val snatched it up and read:
" Come home at once.--S ARAH C. G ANO."
"Oh, she's ill; dying, perhaps! Oh, God! not dying!" She leaned against the wall; her face frightened her hostess.
"My dear, it doesn't say a word about being ill."
"It's what it means; she knew I'd understand."
"Don't take it like that, Val." She put her arm round the girl.
Val threw her off, exclaiming: "Oh, I must go this moment. Can we send Ethan word? Quick, quick!"
"I'll let him know soon enough," returned the other, fastening suspicious eyes on the girl's pitiful face. "I expect Harry back every moment. I'll help you with your packing."
In a dim way Val was relieved on second thoughts that Ethan should not be summoned. He and she had been plotting treason. The poignant fear and grief that swayed her would wear an artificial air in his presence after what had passed.
The packing, Harry's return, the hurried supper, all went
as in a nightmare. Now she was driving to the station, now she was saying good-bye to Mr. and Mrs. Ball, and to Harry. No, he was coming with her apparently. Now they were in the train. Now they were rattling and clattering through a tunnel. She sat in a corner with closed eyes, while tears trickled incessantly from under the lids.
"Dear, dear, I love you," she said to herself, and her lover was far away from her thoughts. On the throne of life a bowed old woman seemed to sit alone. "Oh, I'll be better to you after this, only live and give me a chance." She drew her limp figure up suddenly and turned her back on Harry's whispered solicitude. A lightning-like realization, came, as she sat there, of what the life of this woman had meant to her. And it was going--going--would be gone, perhaps, before Val got home. She covered up her face. She told herself it was no common relation that she bore to the ancient châtelaine of the Fort. Something deeper than the blood tie, a thing wrought out of sheer personal force, hammered out of antagonisms, welded with fear and with love, and binding, abiding gratitude for a glimpse of the unconquerable mind.
She saw now that if life from the beginning had never worn that cheap and shabby air that it did to many girls without wealth or family distinction; if, from the beginning, and day by day to the end, life had carried itself bravely in the tumble-down old home; if in the leanest years it had never lacked dignity, nor every lost its faint old-world fragrance; Val knew who it was who had wrought the spell, and who had maintained it against all comers.
And this magical power was threatened; this costly life in danger. It suddenly seemed the one thing in the world best worth preserving. A few hours before she had faced the idea of its loss so willing--her tears gushed afresh at the memory--even with an obscure, impatient longing she had thought of this thing, that she saw now in its true aspect, as unspeakably terrible and tragic. For it was something irreparable. There was nothing like her in the
world; the things that went to her making had passed away. To think that all that was represented by such a spirit--that a force like this, after enduring and dominating life so long, should go out into Nothingness--why, it was merely incredible. But the presentment of the possibility had shaken the foundations of the world.
It was close on midnight when Val and Wilbur drove up to the gate.
"Harry," said the girl, "you've been so kind, be kinder still: let me go in alone."
"Very well. I'll come back in a quarter on an hour to see if I can do anything."
There was a light in the long room. Val lifted the knocker, and as it fell Emmie opened the door. It seemed to Val that her sister's face said "Death." She pushed past her without greeting, and into the long room. Mrs. Gano was sitting in the great chair. She leaned forward, holding fast by the arms. The veil falling on either side her face did not hide, or even soften, the expression of concentrated contempt with which she said, very low:
"So you've come back."
"Y--yes. I thought--"
"You thought you'd come before it was too late."
"Yes; I was afraid--"
"I'm glad there's something you're afraid of doing, though I can scarce imagine what."
Val put her hand up, bewildered, to her eyes.
"The last thing I would have believed of Valeria Gano was that she would do something underhand."
"Oh, but I didn't--"
"You didn't pretend to me that you were going to visit Mrs. Austin Ball when you were really running after Ethan?"
"I haven't been running after any one."
"Did he write you to come?"
"Did he expect you?"
"Some one who went up in the same train with you has had the audacity to bring back the report that you went to the hotel to see Ethan before you went to Mrs. Ball's at all."
Val did not make the expected denial.
"I'm ashamed of you"--the old face worked--"I've never been ashamed before of a woman of this house."
"I am not ashamed," said Val.
"Then all I can say is"--Mrs. Gano extended her shawled arm--"you are without the feelings of a decent woman."
Val had sat down like one dazed.
"Ask Emmeline," said the old voice, shaking as it rose; "the whole town is ringing with the story, how you left your home under false pretences, and pursued this man, who cares nothing for you--"
"He does care for me." Val's nerves quivered under her grandmother's derisive laugh, but it did not escape her that Emmie had caught convulsively at the corner of the great buffet, and was leaning against the pillared cupboard.
"I dare say," observed Mrs. Gano, "that Ethan cares for a good many ladies, if the truth's told, but he doesn't get most of them to run about the country after him; that honor is reserved for you."
"Wait!" Val struggled to her feet with a sense that she was choking. "I'll tell you the honor that's reserved for me: Ethan cares more for me than for any one in the world."
Emmie leaned forward with white face and glittering eyes.
"Indeed," said Mrs. Gano, "and when is the wedding, if one may know?"
Val sank slowly back in the chair, dropping her hands at her sides and her gloves on the floor.
Emmie drew herself up, and the color came back into her face.
"It's only an indefinite engagement as yet, perhaps,"
said the younger girl. Her dark eyes flew to Val's hands. "Did he give you a ring?"
"Yes," said Val, mechanically.
"Why don't you wear it?"
"What is that to you--to any one but Ethan and me?"
"It is something to your family," said Mrs. Gano. "I, too, should like to see the engagement ring."
Val thought of the gossip-loving town, the endless questions, "When is the wedding?" "Why the delay?"
"There is no engagement."
"You said he gave you a ring." Emmie's words were quick and glad under their suspicion.
"I can't show you Ethan's ring."
"Why, where's your own?" Emmie came nearer.
Val got up and faced her sister with angry eyes.
"How dare you cross-question me? Don't you suppose I know it's you that have brought in the town's chatter, and magnified it, and--"
"Your sister has done no more than her duty. She at least cares something for the family dignity. She has felt all this gossip to the quick."
"I've no doubt of it," said Val.
"Where is my ring?"
"Yes, my engagement ring. There has never been any need to hide that."
"Ah, I see! there, too, you took the initiative. You don't bring back a ring, but you left one behind. He has a pledge to show, if you haven't. But my ring was never meant for that: send and get it back. Give me your arm, Emmeline." They passed Val by. At the threshold the old woman turned. "Send and get it back, I say!"
A soft knock at the front door arrested her.
"Go and see, Emmeline." Mrs. Gano sat down on the chair just inside the door, averting her face from Val. At the sound of Wilbur's voice she half rose. "At this hour!"
"Oh, he just wants to see me a moment." Val moved forward.
Mrs. Gano stood up, blazing through her spectacles, and cut off the retreat.
"Emmeline will remind him that you are not now away from your own home. As long as I'm here, life under this roof must be conducted with some decorum."
"Oh, grandmamma, grandmamma!" said Val, hysterically, beginning to laugh and to cry all at once, "don't you see? We thought you were dying, and he's come to see if he can do anything."
" Dying, indeed!" Her tone was that of one resenting some far-fetched impertinence. "Go and tell him that I never felt better in my life, and that he'd better go home."
Mrs. Gano did not appear the next day, nor the next. Val watched her opportunity that second evening, when Emmie was out of the way, to go into her grandmother's room and see for herself how she was.
Mrs. Gano certainly appeared in excellent health. She was up, and she was dressed with all her customary care. Standing by the window in the waning light, she bent her veiled head over a book.
"Good-evening, grandmamma; how are you?"
Mrs. Gano turned and looked over her spectacles.
"I was afraid you were ill."
"You are very determined I shall be ill, it seems to me."
"No, no, but I naturally wanted to come and--" She stopped, feeling too chilled and rebuffed to say more.
"To come and bring my back my ring?"
Val, without answering, walked to the door.
"You did give it to Ethan? Answer me."
"Have you got it back?"
"But you've heard from him?"
"Yes--Emmie must have told you--letters and telegrams."
"Had you written him to send back my ring?"
It crossed the girl's mind, "Suppose I tell her, 'Because I saw him throw it away.'" She smiled faintly.
"You will write for it to-night. Go and do so at once."
"No, I'm sorry; I can't do that--I'm sorry;" and she went out.
Val had a glimpse of her the next morning, when Mrs. Gano made her final cold-weather "flitting" from the blue room up-stairs to the long room down-stairs. But it was Emmie and the servants who assisted. The removal was in the act of being finished when Val appeared on the scene. No notice was taken of her. She went out and walked about the garden. Returning to the house a little later, she met Emmie coming down the steps of the porch with a letter.
"Where are you going?"
"To the post-office, and grandma doesn't want to be disturbed."
"Then you'd better go stand guard at the door."
"Oh, she can lock the door."
"I'm going to the post-office; I can take the letter."
"Give it to me, I say."
"I saw the address; it shall never go."
"Grandma!" Emmie called, with all her might, holding the letter to her breast and backing up the steps. "Grandma!"
"How the old scenes of childhood repeat themselves," thought Val. "I've been 'going for her,' and she's been shouting 'Grandma!' ever since we came here as little girls."
" Grandma!" Emmie was still calling, and the long room door opened.
"I want to speak to you," said Val to her grandmother.
"Val won't let me take your letter--"
"Go this instant and do as I told you," said Mrs. Gano to Emmie.
Val barred the front door.
"I must speak to you, grandmamma, before that letter goes out of the house."
"Let me go, I say." Emmie struggle to get by. Val stood firm.
"How dare you--" Mrs. Gano began.
"I dare for a very good reason, and I'll tell you what it is if you'll take the letter and let me speak to you alone."
They stood looking at each other for a moment over Emmie's shoulder. Then Mrs. Gano caught the letter out of Emmie's hand and went back into her room. Val noticed how feebly she walked, followed, and quickly shut and locked the door.
"Open that door," said her grandmother.
"I want to speak to you alone."
"Open my door."
Val did so.
"Open it wide."
"Emmeline, go away, and don't come back till I call you. Now," she resumed, as Emmie's footsteps died away, "let us understand-- Who is mistress in this house?"
"Very well, then."
"But you are not my mistress."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I mean there are some things I must decide for myself."
"I've ceased to trouble myself for the moment about your decisions."
"That letter of yours to Ethan is to take something that concerns me more than anybody here--to take it out of my hands."
"If you can't manage your own concerns with propriety, your family must help you."
"No, I won't be helped." They looked at each other. "I must make my own mistakes. It's I who have to live with them; I've a right to choose which they shall be."
"As your natural guardian, it is well within my province to write to my grandson about your unheard-of conduct."
"Oh," she laughed derisively, "then, maybe, you will at least permit me to write and ask that my property be returned to me."
But the "please" was drowned in a tide of indignation.
"I've had enough of your preposterous assurance. I'll write what and to whom I choose."
"Ethan won't read your letter. I'll wire that he is not to."
"It's likely he'll obey you!"
"Oh, be very sure he will."
The angry old eyes were wide with wonder. What was the relation between these two?
"Has he asked you to marry him?"
"No;" and she smiled.
"You think he will?"
"Yes, I think he will."
She opened her lips to say "When?" but some astute sense had come to her of how far she could go. She contented herself with a haughty lifting of the head.
"In my young days--"
"Yes, yes, but things aren't always so simple now. Oh, haven't you any faith in me, or in Ethan either?"
"My faith has had a rude shock."
"That was only because I didn't take you into my confidence. But don't you know there are some things it's hard to tell to older people? Oh, don't you remember, grandmamma!" the girl cried.
"H'm!" but the face gradually softened.
"Give us a little time, and it'll all come right. You don't want to get rid of me instantly, do you?"
"You know quite well--"
"Yes, yes, you'd like us to be old maids, but I--" she shook her head in the manner of one regretfully declining an impossible request. "May I shut the door?"
She came back, sat down on the crimson footstool at the side of the chair, and laid her head on the arm.
"Please be kind to me," she said; "it's very lonely here at the Fort when you aren't kind." Neither moved for several moments, and then Val felt the touch on her hair. The tears rushed suddenly into her eyes. She took the hand and kissed it. "How beautiful your hands are!" she said, laying her cheek in the palm, and then raising her head to look again. "The inside is the color and the texture of a rose-leaf."
"Is that the kind of thing Ethan has been saying to you?" The inquiry rang a little grimly.
"Oh no," Val laughed. "He couldn't. My hands aren't beautiful." They were quiet awhile. "I haven't much that I can tell you, dear," the girl went on, "but that I'm very happy--oh, the happiest person in the world!" She smiled up into the vigilant old face. "And that in the end I shall have what--what I've wanted since I was sixteen--oh, ever since I was born, I think." She lowered her eyes, and the red came into her cheeks.
"Oh, he's happy, too. But that's not the park I can tell you."
"Where is he? What is he going to do?"
"He's got a great burden of responsibility on him just now, with the elections coming on. He's going to the Chicago Convention, you know."
"H'm! Well, I don't pretend to fathom those new-fangled arrangements--but understand one thing--"
"I won't have him here till there's a formal announcement."
"Very well, dear." But the bright face fell.
End Chapter 30
Available since September 1998