The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 32
THEY went abroad at once. At first, in a rhythm of rapture and of terror, the time went by, now with flying, now with faltering feet. But albeit living on the volcano's brink is possible to men--living there with fear is not. The fire still rages under foot, but the terror must burn out, or else the life.
It had been to Ethan a standing marvel that happiness-- forgetfulness--had visited them so persistently even in these first months. In vain he said to himself, "Fool! be sure Nemesis keeps the score!" Of what avail that a man should tell himself Nemesis would exact the uttermost farthing for every care-free hour, when life, in the guise of the woman he loved, was luring him in from one day to the next, and the next, and the next?
April found them at Nice. They had come back to their hotel one night after the play, and Val had gone out on the balcony that opened off their sitting-room, declaring the night too glorious to waste indoors. Ethan followed her, and while the town went to sleep, they sat there in the moonlight, and talked of many things. In a moment of protest against the anodyne of gladness that he felt stealing into his blood, he burst out with something of his wonder at their frequent and utter forgetting of the shadow.
"It's not wonderful at all--it's what all the world does without our good reason." She pressed closer to his side; then, as if feeling the sudden frost that had fallen on his spirit, she drew away, but smiling and unchilled. "Dear lord and master, I give you warning, I've done with fearing. I see that Life means well by us; I sha'n't doubt her any more."
"Unberufen"; and he smote the wooden balustrade with his hand.
"I tell you plainly"--she flashed a tender defiance in his face--"the Fates gave me a very small stock of fear to begin with, and I've used it up. It's"--she held up her little hands and flung them out to the right and left--" all gone!"
"Hush; don't jest about it, dear."
"Never was more serious. I'm warning you. Not all the king's horses nor all the king's men--"
"Not even"--with a disdainful toe she touched the yellow-covered book that lay on the balcony floor--"not even your old Dumas fils can frighten me."
"I never heard him accused of trying."
"Oh yes, and most insidiously, in those lines he wrote to go before Diane de Lys."
"The lines to Rose Chéri?"
"Yes. If I were going to be frightened-- Ugh! I did have a black moment."
He drew her into his arms with a sheltering impulse.
"I had forgotten the verses were--"
"Oh, it wasn't the verses, it was the situation. He had loved her--"
"Yes, I remember; and she died."
"Isn't it queer that it should be left to poor Rose Chéri's love to convince an American, with a very pessimistic lover of her own--left to Dumas to convince me of death? You know when Henri de Poincy came for you this afternoon?"
"I left you to rest and read up La Dame aux Camélias; not meditate on mortality."
"See how you've corrupted me. I was just dropping asleep over the play, when the book slipped, and the leaves turned back to the dedication of Diane. I read it. Quite suddenly"--she sat up, and her face was pale in the moonlight--"I realized Death. Not merely as a thing that might come to one's grandmother, but . . . You see, I
had considered it too much to realize it. But there was that dainty Rose Chéri before me. She had been loved--almost as well as I--"
"No, no." He pressed his lips on hers.
"All those kisses didn't keep the red on Rose Chéri's lips. They turned to evil gray ashes. Her jewel-bright eyes, back they sunk to blackness in their sockets. All that beauty and feeling--all that feeling, Ethan--wiped out." The living lovers clung together for a moment. "I suddenly saw," the girl went on, "for the first time in my life, really saw, that death wasn't a strange infrequent happening, but that everybody has the face turned that way. Yet, as I sit and tell you about it, the realization slips away--once more it's only words."
"Yes," he said, "that's part of Nature's colossal imposture."
At the word "imposture" she seemed to try to recapture the revelation of the afternoon.
"Dumas is dead," she murmured, looking across the bay from under knitted brows. "He felt all that, and yet he's dead. The beautiful woman and the strong man, they are now as if they'd never been here. Nothing availed them. His genius, her faith, her beauty, their love--futile, futile--they had to go. Were they alive as I'm alive?" She turned suddenly on her lover, in a kind of panic. "Did they feel life so keen a thing as we?"
"No, no; he hadn't you to love."
"Surely it was not like this, or they could not have died." She lay back in his arms and looked up at the full white moon. Presently she smiled. "As I sit here to-night I simply do not believe one little bit in this rumor of death--not as touching me. Other people--yes--only not me."
As she lifted her head from his shoulder and sat up so straight and sure, the man's nerves shrank under a sense of desertion. In a sudden access of physical pride and joyous sovereignty, she seemed to have cast him off, along with Rose Chéri and the rest of that great "nation that is not."
"No one was ever truly alive before," she was saying half to herself, her wide shining eyes turned upward to the stars. "That was why they died. But me--"
"Oh, my darling!" he said, bending towards her, "you are quick in every fibre and in every sense. The wild taste of life has stung your palate, and I sit and wonder how long--how long--" What need to finish, she must understand. But her thoughts were turned another way.
"How long?" She laughed low and joyously. "I've enough life to last as long as the sun has heat to warm the world. I shall go on and on and on." She turned to him with a quick, free movement, and stopped at sight of his face, as though she had been smitten into stone. After a moment she bowed her head down on his knees. They sat motionless. When she raised her head, it was to say: "Never mind, we've come safely so far;" but her face was bright with tears.
"O life," she said softly, looking upward to the stars, "don't let me die!"
"Are you so happy?" he said, hungering to hear it was for what he brought her she would stay.
"Yes, yes," she said, grasping his hand; "and I'm so hungry for this being alive."
He drew his hand away.
"A thousand years," he said, with a kind of anger, "wouldn't quench your curiosity, or weary your quest for joy; but a little sorrow may."
She shook her head dreamily.
"I think my soul must have waited long about the gates of life begging to be let in. I'm so content to be here, so willing to take the rough with the smooth, so grateful for the good--"
"So patient with the wrong," he added, with tender self-reproach, and he gathered her up to his breast.
She laughed, a low laugh, with her face pressed close to his, and he felt forgiven, but the girl was only saying to herself, "To think that I've bothered about--why, it would be grotesque for me to die. There'd be no meaning in it--
a kind of violence against Nature and probability that reason revolts at. Everything matters so to me. It's for my sake the sun shines, it is for me the moonlight is mysterious, and the ways of life so many, and so thickly set with adventure."
"You'll admit," she said aloud, at last making ready to go in, "most people have never suspected how good and wonderful the world is--so, plainly, it must be for me (and one or two besides) that it's so fine and terrible a thing to be a dweller in it. Poor world!"--she stopped on the threshold and looked back at the night--"when men rail at you so dully, no wonder you stop their mouths with dust. But for me, I love you. Even when you hurt me I love you--I love you! You'll not get many to bear so good-humoredly with all your wild moods as I--make the most of me. Let me stay a long, long time." And again she went blithely to face death, after the manner of women.
In London and Paris Val made her husband renew his old friendships, and show her that picturesque and holiday side of life so charming to the American woman. Dressed for Lady Eamont's garden-party one day at the end of June, Val stood radiant in her pretty clothes before the long mirror in the drawing-room of her house in Bruton street, waiting for the carriage.
"I feel like a lady on a Watteau fan," she said, rejoicing frankly in the dainty elegance of her Paris frock. "It's all so airy and so cobwebby. Don't breathe hard," she cried, as Ethan bent over her; "a breath will blow me away."
"Are you as happy as you look?" he asked, smiling.
"Happy! I think nobody was ever so happy before. I believed I knew how beautiful life was, but I didn't."
She looked out of the open window. It was one of those peerless summer days with which England repays her months of gloom. The white silk curtains waved in the soft air, bringing in wafts of mignonette from the window-boxes. Val threw back her head with the old movement,
smiling. "Yes, it's easy to see," said Ethan to himself, "easy to see what she's thinking."
"I'm glad you're so happy. I was afraid you didn't sleep well last night; you were so restless."
"Was I?" She laughed. "Oh, I suppose I grudge the time I wasted in sleep. There's the carriage."
As the days wore on he lost his fear of pricking the bright bubble of her gladness. The life they led left little time for meditation, and Val's enjoyment of balls, races, and kindred festivities, gave him an interest in the old round that surprised no one more than himself. He saw it all in a new and tender light, this mask of fair women, leagued in their age-old conspiracy, gliding across ball-room floors, trailing flower-like fabrics over velvet lawns, decorating the tops of coaches, and making of boats up the river floating gardens. There was much art in this determined turning of life into a festival; there might be philosophy, too, in woman's light-hearted begging of the "Question."
If the men tried here and there to wile Val's heart away, why, that was part of the game, and the women certainly did not neglect Val's husband.
"You are so different to most American men," said a certain smart lady who had shown him frank preference.
"Oh," said Gano, "have you known many?"
"Well, several; and you're quite different."
"I am sorry to fall below the standard."
"You don't fall below; you do the opposite."
"You make me wonder about the others."
"Oh, they were all right, but I don't like American men as a rule."
"You must try to keep the awful knowledge from crossing the Atlantic."
"Oh, they know we don't care much for the men."
"I'll tell you what we'll do"--he spoke as one having an inspiration--"we'll kill off all our men if you'll kill off all your women."
She laughed good-humoredly.
"We'd spare the Southerners for your sake; besides, the English have always had a weakness for Southerners. You're more like us. You don't make little set speeches, and you are delightfully quiet and grave."
Ethan bust out laughing.
"One has to come to England to be praised for one's blemishes," he said.
"Blemishes! Do you know the most objectionable thing in the American manner is excessive cheerfulness?"
"You surprise me."
"I've already said I didn't mean you."
Whereat Ethan laughed again with more amusement than he often showed.
"Say the most obvious, commonplace thing, and an American will laugh," she said, reproachfully.
"Ah, you see, our national sense of humor--"
"Nonsense; it's just uneasiness and excessive desire to please."
"Ah yes, we are very simple-minded."
"There's nothing so maddening as a constant smile. That girl over there in the pervenche silk, an old school friend on mine, was condoling with me before you came upon having a brother-in-law whose habitual expression is a fixed frown. I said it didn't trouble any of us in the least. Both my sister and I had long ago agreed, if we had to choose between a man with a perpetual laugh or a perpetual scowl, we'd take the scowl and be grateful."
"Ah, I begin to understand your ladyship's tolerance for me."
"Come, now, be honest; don't you realize how much more Americans laugh than other people?"
"If it is so, it's because we're the saddest race under the sun."
Still he smiled.
"Yes; in proof of it our feverish activity, and our fre-
quent laughter. You remember the boy who whistled in the dark? The American laughs on the same principle."
It was early August, and they were in Scotland. A letter came from Emmie saying that she had been ill, and was a little better; but there was a settled sadness in the few lines that roused Val out of her engrossed delight in her first experience of country-house life.
"I'm so sorry, Ethan--when we're having such a good time, too; but I almost think-- Emmie has no one in the world, you know, but me."
They took the next steamer back to America.
The news they found awaiting them at the Fort was in the shape of a letter from the Mother Superior, saying that Emmie was certainly better, but that she refused to see her sister. She was for the moment immovable in her resolve to hold no personal communication with the outside world. This, from the clinging and affectionate Emmie, was a great blow to Val. She shed the first tears since her marriage over the letter. But until Emmie relented, or was quite well, she wanted to be within call.
"You think you'll like staying here?" Ethan looked about the faded room.
"Yes; I love the Fort. I belong here."
"I must have it freshened up for you, then."
"No, I like it as she left it."
The first person to call at the Fort was Harry Wilbur. He appeared to be laboring under a suitable depression, and never addressed Val without Mrs. Gano-ing her. She said, at last:
"You mustn't be politer than I am, and I can't possibly call you anything but 'Harry.'"
He flushed and laughed.
"All right;" and he presently gave himself up to an undisguised satisfaction in Val's return.
It was from Wilbur she heard that Julia Otway was engaged to be married to Mr. Tom Scherer, Judge Wilbur's
new law partner. The late-comer was reputed to be tremendously clever, and to have written a very "modern" and highly successful novel.
"Scherer's great," Harry said, in his good-natured way. "He does and is all the things my father's been bothering so long to make me."
"And do you like him --this Scherer?"
"Course; he's taken a frightful responsibility off me. Besides, he's a capital fellow."
Val and Ethan were going over the river one morning soon after their arrival, when, on the bridge in the narrow footway, they met Julia and Jerry face to face. Val shook hands with them both, and as she talked to Jerry she heard Ethan saying they had expected to see Julia before this--when was she coming to the Fort? Julia made plausible excuses for not having called before, and Ethan laughingly blamed Mr. Scherer.
"Bring him to see us," he said, as they parted.
The next morning, Julia passed by while Ethan was giving some directions to the gardeners. He called out to her, and they talked awhile at the gate. Val, at an upper window, wondered what she could say to her husband that would not betray the ground of that old quarrel, and that yet would relieve her from pretending she had shaken off the effects of it. As she stood there the bell sounded. Julia glanced up and saw her. Ethan, seeing a change in the face, looked up, too, and called out:
"Oh, Val, here's Miss Julia; make her come in and lunch with us."
Val went down and seconded her husband's invitation. Julia declined, but Ethan insisted. In the end she came. Twice in the following week Ethan went over to play tennis at the Otways'. The last time he brought Julia and Mr. Scherer back with him.
Val was sitting on the back veranda with Ernest and Sue Halliwell.
When the Halliwells had gone, and Ethan and Mr. Scherer had strolled off to see how the newly rolled and
sodded croquet-ground was looking, Julia said, with a slight embarrassment:
"You husband just made us come back with him."
"I'm very glad."
"I told him you didn't want to see me."
Val looked up quickly.
"He must have thought you strange."
"He did. So then I knew you had never told."
"Oh, about that old school-girl silliness of mine."
"You must have known that I would never--"
"Yes, yes--especially now that I'm engaged."
"I don't see how that affects the situation," said Val, a little haughtily.
Julia was looking after the men.
"You've never forgiven me," she said, "and yet I should think you'd been happy enough to--"
"Not to harbor ill-will."
"I don't see what my being happy has to do with it."
"Why, everything. The one who has got what she wants hasn't much ground for complaint."
" Much ground for complaint?" Val's eyes sparkled. "What do you mean? What have I to complain of?"
"Nothing, of course, really. But I've thought the few times we've met that you--that you didn't particularly like--" She stopped.
"When I don't like things I change them," said Val, privately congratulating them both that Julia's sentence was left hanging in the air. Pride was working strongly upon her. "It's true enough that I've got what I want; but haven't you?" The two men came back round the L, crunching the new gravel under their feet. "The Halliwells said you are to be married next month."
"Other people always know what I'm going to do so much better than I do my myself."
"It's not true, then?"
"It's not settled."
The men were within ear-shot.
"you and Mr. Scherer must stay to supper," said Val, with a deliberate cordiality, as the men rejoined them, "mustn't they, Ethan?"
In the evening old Mr. Otway and Jerry came over. Julia played, and her fiancé sang student songs.
Julia noticed that Mr. Gano made no effort to get Val to sing, and she fell to imagining what his feelings had been when he found that he had silenced that wonderful voice. She went home full of secret pain and irritation--irritation at Tom Scherer because--well, because he was not Ethan Gano; pain at finding how the old feeling she had thought dead had sprung up quick, tormenting, under the careless glance of those sombre eyes.
Almost every morning she resolved to go not more to the Fort; almost every evening saw the resolution broken.
If, in the days that followed, Julia's odd footing in the house was not discouraged by Val's proud tolerance, it was maintained by an attitude on Ethan's part, entirely friendly, sometimes even flattering. With Scherer, too, he was on the best of terms. Scherer, immensely pleased at Gano's liking for his society, was ready to smoke and talk polities or literature till two in the morning. He could sit in court all day, play tennis or sing songs in the evening, and again sit up half the night.
"Do men always need outsiders? Is a wife never enough? Still, it isn't Scherer I mind," Val said, honestly enough, to herself, "although he is beginning to echo and imitate Ethan absurdly."
The real trouble was that they went almost nowhere without Julia. It was Julia and Ethan who one day, when Val was confined to her room with a cold, arranged the steamboat excursions up and down the Mioto.
Val, lying in bed in the blue room, heard them laughing down on the back veranda.
Ethan came up-stairs an hour or so later.
"Oh, you're awake!"
"Well, yes; it isn't likely I'd sleep with all that noise."
"Why, Julia and you laughing."
"Oh, I'm sorry. It was stupid of us to leave the door open."
The answer jarred.
"Does Julia know my cold's worse?"
"Yes, she wanted to come up and see you."
"I wouldn't let her disturb you. But she's got a plan--rather an amusing plan. Julia is full of ideas."
"What kind of ideas?"
"Oh, plans for passing the time. This, for instance: going one of these fine days with hampers and some good fiddlers on an absurd flat-bottomed steamboat, that stops every time a passenger comes out of the virgin forest to the water's edge and waves an umbrella to the man at the wheel."
"Going an excursion on the steamboat is an idea that every man, woman, and child in New Plymouth has had for the last century."
"Shall I read to you?"
"You don't want to talk?"
She had some ado not to cry, but she kept saying to herself: "Silly! silly! silly!"
"I don't mind," he answered; but he walked about the room looking at Aunt Valeria's atrocities, and naturally, Val said to herself, growing grave. How he had laughed down on the veranda!
In a couple of days she had shaken off her cold sufficiently to go on the river with Julia's party. Although it was little pleasure to Val, she offered no slightest objection to this excursion or to the second "up river."
But although no one noticed anything amiss, the days were bringing her an acute disquiet. She saw clearly that Julia was not in love with Tom Scherer, and she saw further. A new sense came to her, not altogether depressing, of life's fecund possibility for unhappiness. So many ways
of going wrong, only one of going right! Well, it was very exciting.
"Is this what the story-books mean? Am I what's called jealous?" she asked herself. "Am I secretly afraid of Julia? Was Ethan right? Does even joy like ours change and pass? No, no; it will be all right to-morrow."
Although she called herself a thousand fools, and guilty of vulgar suspicions into the bargain, she presently could not rid herself of the feeling that Ethan was a little cold to her; the mere fancy that this might be so made her shrink from him, lightly evade his caress, first frustrate and then deny his tenderness.
"You are tired of being kissed?" he said, one morning.
As she only smiled and made no answer, he did not for thirty-six hours offer to repeat the offence, and went with lowered looks, silent, impenetrable, when they were alone.
"Is it really so?" she burst out that second evening, after Julia and the rest went home. "Is it only when others are here that you are happy?"
"It's only when others are here that I can forget that there's a rhythm even in such love as ours."
"What do you mean by a rhythm?"
"A rise and a fall. A winter because there has been a summer."
"No, no, Ethan." Her voice rang piteously.
"I'm not blaming you, dear."
"Blaming me? I should think not."
She spoke almost cavalierly.
"It's the same with the fortunes of love, I suppose," he went on, "as it is with the fortunes of families, of nations, creeds, crops." He laughed a little ironic laugh. "The very planets have a time of prosperity, a point of ascendancy reached, a time of failing, an ultimate--"
"Ethan, Ethan, what are you saying!" She stopped him as he paced the parlor from Daniel Boone to the mirror. She remembered the evening that her father, in that very room, had "forbidden the banns." "You know I don't let you talk like that of our dear love."
"I only say it to myself, child, as a kind of comfort."
" You need comforting, too?
He nodded, smiling in his grave way.
"I tell myself it's not my darling that is to blame. We've been almost too happy. The old leveller, Nature, is at her eternal work of rotation, turning the big wheel round. By so much as we've been on the top we must go under for a little."
"Ethan, that may be good science, but it's very poor love."
"It's the best apology I can invent for you."
"For me?" Her voice rang along an indignant circumflex.
"It's certainly not I who was tired."
"Oh, Ethan, I was never tired for the smallest little bit of an instant. Kiss me! kiss me!" She clung about his neck. "It was only that I was tired of Julia's high laugh, and--and tired of her altogether!" she burst out.
"Then why do you have her here?" he asked, without a moment's hesitation.
"Oh, only because you like her so much," Val said, with her old childish frankness.
"As to that, I like her well enough. She's provincial, but she's lively and good-tempered. However, if she's got on your nerves, I don't want her about."
"It would be very selfish of me--" Val began, with reluctantly righteous air.
"Nonsense. How long do you want to stay here, anyhow?"
"Do you mean you're ready to go away?" she asked, her lips parting and her white teeth gleaming in a half incredulous smile.
"I do call that ingratitude."
"Of course I know it was for my sake at first--"
"First and last, Mrs. Gano; though what good it does Emmie--"
"Oh-h!" She leaned her head against him with a happy sigh. "You're thinking of Emmie!"
"As to Julia," he said, reflectively, "I didn't know enough about women's friendships to be able to tell--"
He looked down at the face on his shoulder considering.
"Yes," she said, smiling, "let me in--tell me the worst."
"You see, Julia"--he hesitated--"it won't be easy to make you understand without hurting you."
Val stood suddenly erect, the smile gone. But very gently he pressed her head down on his shoulder again, and rested his cheek on her hair.
"You see, Julia is like a game of tennis, or a pleasant picture of the anecdotic kind. She doesn't give one cause to think; she is mildly amusing and agreeably irrelevant."
"What is there in that to hurt me?" said the suspicious voice under his chin.
"There is nothing that ought to hurt you. But such a person may at times be a sort of--a sort of--"
"Distraction--refuge; just what I used to be."
"As if any one ever could be what you used to be!"
He held her closer.
"You're saying what I used to be, as if--"
She struggled to get our of his arms, but he kept her prisioner.
"Hush! Listen. It's only this, dear: In sharing my life you have come a little--a little under the shadow. No, you aren't what you used to be--a gay little cousin that one could laugh with, and, as I thought, leave behind. You are something so much nearer that you are a dearer self. You give hope a new gladness:--she looked up with happy eyes--"you give fear fresh poignancy."
"No--no," she said lightly, concerned only to lift him out of his grave mood. "No, Ethan, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I have not found it dull or gloomifying to be with you. You invent sad things to say, but we've had a heavenly time--till just lately."
"Yes, we found happiness if ever two people did!" But he looked at her with so strange a passion of questioning that she kissed his eyelids down.
End Chapter 32
Available since September 1998