The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 34
IN her own room--Valeria's old blue room--she stood late the next evening, in her night-gown, before the fireplace.
"Well, Mazeppa, we've had a good run for it; but it's ill-going when one's bound--and when death follows." Only her lips stirred at the opening of the door. "That you, Ethan?"
He came in and shut the door behind him.
"These things I ordered for you in Paris came this morning," he said, speaking very low.
"What are they?" she asked, still staring at the bas-relief.
"A turquoise girdle for your beautiful white body, and a turquoise comb for your hair."
"Oh, beautiful! beautiful!" she said, as he, standing behind her, held the things across her shoulder before her eyes; "but beautiful beyond anything!" She took them in her hands. "It was dear of you--" She stopped as she glanced over her shoulder and saw the look in his eyes. Her own went down before them, and slowly filled, but no tear fell. With an effort she seemed to force the salt-water drops back to their deep well. When she spoke, it was in a tone deliberately quiet, even every-day: "You say I've always counted so serenely on being happy; you don't know how I've dreaded getting to be too old to wear pale blue." She fondled the stones of the girdle and laid the heart-shaped clasp against her check.
He watched her woman-joy in jewels with a look of hardness.
"It would take more than mere years to cure you of your passion for turquoise."
"That was what I've been afraid of." She was smiling. "I should never have been able to resist pretty blue things."
How young she looked in her straight white gown and loosened hair!
"What a baby you are, after all," he said, thinking that those eyes of hers seemed to have caught, or kept, no reflection of the glare of life. His own were hot and bloodshot, hers seemed always to have looked down on the pale cool blue of turquoises, or up to the blue of heaven.
She had nodded when he accused her of being a baby.
"And it's all very well to be a baby with brown hair and smooth forehead; but a gray-haired, wrinkled baby, dressed in baby-blue! It's just as well to be delivered from that."
"Upon my soul!" He stared at her with his strained, sleepless eyes. "You've no sooner wrenched your mind away from this joy in life, than you fall to setting up a new shrine where you may worship Death, and give him thanks and praise."
"You think I make a god of Death?" she said, very low. "If I do, it's only a new form of 'Thy gods shall be my gods.' If I've thrown away the old idols, it's not because they failed me, but because they failed you. I have more need of you than I have of them; I cannot leave you to go and kneel apart."
"Shall it be here?" she asked.
"I think I'd rather it were here--where for me it all began."
"No, no; not where she lived."
"You think she'd come back and interfere?"
He studied her face, wondering a little. "She might interfere without coming back, if we stayed here."
"Besides, to stay here would be to waste time. We must go and see countries we have never seen before."
"Yes, and the journey's end must be far away from any place where we are known."
"Why should we shock people?"
"But it's bound to shock people."
"No, that's a popular fallacy. If I hear a stranger in the street saying that some one, a stranger to us both, took his life a little while ago in the opposite house, I am slightly disturbed, perhaps, at having the mask men wear pushed away for a moment; but I continue my walk, I eat my dinner as usual."
"How shall it be, then, so that our friends shall continue their walks and eat their dinners?"
"Somewhere a long way from here--"
"Yes, yes; we'll go to the Far East--we'll go to the end of the world."
"Yes, to the end of the world."
"And then it will be quite easy, when we've come to the end, just to step off."
Val busied herself unceasingly in the preparations for going the long journey. Ethan looked on at her calmness and activity with growing wonder. His first sense of revolt and horror was little by little merged in mere incredulity, then rank suspicion.
"Is her acquiescence genuine, complete?" he tormented himself with thinking, and then scourged his doubting spirit for foul unfaith.
Still, no self-reproach could rid him quite of his mental attitude of jailer watching, argus-eyed, over a prisoner whose resourcefulness might any day or night find suddenly a way to freedom.
Life during these days of setting her house in order went on with a regularity, an outward tranquillity, that would have made a less sceptical soul than Ethan's pause and wonder. It was not Val who refused to see their few friends.
"Ethan is very busy." "Ethan is writing." "He's so sorry he can't join us to-day; but I'll go with you," etc.
These were the fragments that floated up-stairs from the hall, or through his curtained windows from the gate. So little did Val seem unnerved or pain absorbed, he was sure that she was more friendly to her friends than ever, more mindful of them. He watched with wonder her childish pleasure in making little farewell presents.
"Nobody is forgotten, I think," she said, looking with outward content at a table piled with labelled packages.
Ethan in his heart was saying: "All this looks like a genuine leave-taking, all but her own face, her even, unjarred voice, her unfrightened eyes."
"This is what I'm best pleased about." She took up the long envelope with the papers referring to Venus's cottage, which had been settled on that faithful servant for life, and was afterwards to go to the twins. "Grandma would have been glad about this."
"What are you doing with all her things?" Ethan asked, with restless dark eyes searching her face for weakness or for subterfuge. "Those things you are giving away seem all to be yours."
"Yes, all yours and mine."
"And what of hers?"
She shook her head vaguely.
"You'll have to sell them."
His eyes gleamed. Was he on the track?
"Other people will sell them if you don't."
Her face clouded.
"I've already given away a great many household things, to Emmie's poor people, and others Venus has told me about."
"And the rest?"
"I hear Julia."
"She won't come up here."
He hastened to secure the door. Val ran out and met Julia at the top of the stair. Ethan listened to the greeting, and heard Julia say:
"What is it?"
"It's true, then?"
Val's voice rang quick and anxious.
"You are nicer to me these last few days."
"Oh, do you think so?"
Relief breathed through every syllable.
"Don't you realize that, until just now, you haven't kissed me since--"
"Sh! Let's go down; we mustn't disturb Ethan."
That evening, while Ethan sat smoking and writing letters in his room, Val got up from the sofa where she was lying.
"Where are you going?" he said, without turning round.
"Down-stairs. I'll be back by-and-by."
She stood beside him. He leaned back in his chair looking at her till she put her hand over his eyes.
"Don't! don't!" she whispered, leaning her cheek on his hair.
He put his two hands round the little waist, touching the turquoises in her belt.
"Who is to have this--afterwards?" he said.
She stood up straight.
"You didn't think I would give that away?"
"Well--" His air puzzled her.
"Would you be content," she said, "to think of any one else wearing it?"
"Content! But sometimes it's hard to believe you are facing the thought of laying it aside."
She flushed under his look.
"I don't know that I shall lay it aside."
While he stared she went out of the room, shutting the door.
He sat for a moment, following up first one train and
then the other suggested by her speech, till he had convinced himself finally that the explanation of these last days lay in the fact that she was not facing the compact. She would elude it. He started to his feet. It was as if he had been brought face to face with proof of wifely infidelity.
He found her in the long room kneeling before the open escritoire.
"What are you doing?"
"Getting ready," she said.
He sat down in the great chair and watched her. She carried handfuls of yellowed papers and bundles of letters, and heaped them on the bed of red coal in the grate. She tore the morocco binding off old diaries and burned the manuscript leaves.
"What are you doing?" he reiterated, starting up like one shaking off a dream.
"She always said she'd rather things were burned than pulled about by careless hands, by strangers."
"I remember." He sat down. This did not look like evasion, for Val shared his own strong sentiment for family things. "I remember, too," he said, with dull regret, "she used to tell me 'the whole history of a family is locked up in that escritoire.'"
"It takes a long time to burn."
She stirred the slow-smouldering papers to a blaze.
"It took a hundred years to make," he said; "and many hundred agonies--and joys," he added, watching her dim smile--"yes, and joys."
He helped her with the next load, looking at the writing on the outside of the letter-bundles as he undid them.
"Grandfather Gano," he said, throwing a handful on the fire. "Your father"--another handful. "Aunt Valeria"--another. "Grandma--"
"Don't," cried Val, with quivering face; "you mustn't call their names!" He looked back at her. "It's like calling them to look at the way we treat the things they left us."
He went on silently with his task. There was no doubt she felt it keenly; why do it, then? Only out of shrinking from those "stranger" hands. Then she was facing the compact, after all.
"Why do you stay here?"
"Because the time's so short."
"Dear one"--she came and leaned against him--"go and finish your writing; I'll come back in an hour."
"No, I'll stay here till you've done."
"Oh, I sha'n't have done all for several days," she said, pleading.
But she knew that look in his face. No use to urge. She turned away, and scattered the charred paper down on to the hearth among the journal bindings. He made the fire up again for her. Then, one by one, she took from the mantelpiece all the old photographs of her husband, and laid them on the flame--all but the one of the baby Ethan, which she thrust in her dress, keeping her face hidden from her husband. Then she went over to a pile of pictures he had not noticed before, lying by the buffet.
She took a little hammer with a claw handle out of the drawer, and bent over the frames, loosening the nails, taking out the pictures and tearing them up.
"What are those?"
"Why do you bother with them?"
"I don't want people to be smiling at them. Oh, Ethan," she cried out with the sharpness of intolerable pain, "I--I can't bear it, if you sit there watching me! I can do it alone almost callously, thinking very little of them, thinking about you and me, till all these poor reminders are just old paper; but you--" She hid her face.
"They are just old paper, dear."
He went over to her, and she turned from him, trembling.
"No, no; when you are here, they all come alive in my
hands. Oh-h-h!" She lifted her tear-wet face, and held up clasped hands like one praying pardon. "You were right; they are a hundred agonies, they cry out while I tear and burn them."
"No, dear no; the dead are done with crying."
"But these people--" She looked up and down the long room with misty eyes, like one dimly descrying a throng. " They aren't dead, Ethan."
A sharp fear seized him that the strain had been too much.
"Come--come away," he said.
But she clung to the great brass ring in the lion's mouth on the buffet drawer. "They won't really die till we have destroyed all their work--and destroyed ourselves."
"That's true in a sense," he murmured.
"Of course it's true. Does anybody think my grandmother died when the breath went out of her body? She won't really die till the last person dies who remembers her. And the others; here they've been all these years, kept tenderly alive, in letters, in wills and certificates, diaries, poor little pictures!" Her voice wavered and recovered itself fiercely. "Shall I tell you what it's like, destroying these things?" She broke into wild weeping. "All these are like hands clinging on to life. I wrench their fingers away; I force them down. The glimpses I have of them--it's like the last look on drowning faces."
"Val," he said, hoarsely, "there's time yet. Suppose we don't shirk our trust. Suppose we hold the Fort for the Ganos as long as ever we can."
She took his handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped away her tears, but they flowed and flowed afresh.
"An understanding like ours," he said, hurriedly, "may be superseded--wiped out by a better understanding." With an eagerness that seemed strange to himself, he tried to soothe and reassure her.
His heart shrank at her unlighted look.
"Do you hear, Val? We are not so primitive that we must make a fetich of our compact."
"I'm very primitive, dear; you told me so yourself."
He loosed his hold upon her with a sinking sense of having done something he could never quite undo. Feeling his arms no longer about her, she looked up.
"Poor darling!" she said, framing the dark face in her two hands; "I didn't mean to cry and unnerve you. But I wasn't for me I cried--not even for you. You ought to forgive me that a few tears fell, just this once, over those other graves that nobody will ever remember any more."
He stared down at her, seeing how unmoved his words had left her.
"Haven't you heard what I've been saying to you, dear?"
"What was it?" she said, wearily, putting out her hand to take up another of the faded water-colors. He caught the hand, lifted her in his arms, and carried her to the big chair. He sat, holding her against him, thinking how he should put it to her--this new, this growing sense of his, that the family will to live was stronger than his individual will to die, and that there was justification in this realization for a different compact. He sat weighing the chances of the new life, trying for Val's sake to find loop-holes of escape from the prison he himself had builded, for Val's sake coercing himself to face payment of the long penalty of life and guilty fatherhood; in Val's name even trying to think all might still be well.
He looked down at the face on his breast, and saw that for the moment all was well without his troubling. Val had cried herself to sleep.
Instead of being glad, he was conscious of an absurd irritation. She could sleep, then!
Covertly he watched her the next morning, thinking with surprise:
"Yes, even in the broad daylight and away from the haunted long room, I'm of last night's opinion still. It doesn't matter about me--for her sake I must go on."
"Come and sit on the terrace," he said, when she was leaving the breakfast-room.
"Oh, dearest, not now."
"I--I'm a house-keeper, you know. I have many things to do in the morning."
"I give you ten minutes by my watch to order dinner."
"Ethan, if you never leave me to myself, I--I can't get ready."
He put his arm through hers, and led her out by the veranda down to the second terrace. The servant was spreading a Navajo blanket on the ground, under the catalpa-tree. Val sat down on the barbaric colored rug, and watched Ethan walking to and fro on the edge of the terrace. When they were alone
"Did you misunderstand me yesterday, that you talk again to-day of getting ready?"
"No, I understood--I understood that because I cried you were ready to let me break the compact if I wanted to."
He had never heard such contempt in her voice. He stopped and looked at her. Her face was strangely hard.
"Not because you cried, but because I see the matter from another--I think better--point of view."
She shook her head.
"You're deceiving yourself because of me."
Her words angered him unaccountably.
"I should have thought it natural that any woman, especially one of your temperament, would have welcomed the suggestion."
"As if I didn't know it!"
"That you've been looking out hour by hour, minute by minute, to see if I wasn't showing the white flag."
In his sense of being convicted, he was ready to curse her keenness.
"Do you know, it strikes me you have no inkling of the mother-sense?"
"That's part of my luck," she said, doggedly.
"You don't want to keep to the first compact?"
"Of course I do; I shall keep to it."
"No," he said, quietly.
She started, clasped and unclasped her hands.
"You are only tempting us," she said. "It may look for a moment like a possible thing--it isn't."
"It is perfectly possible if we are not superstitious. The new claim brings a new insight, a new wisdom."
"Think of founding a new existence on broken faith, on cowardice."
"You know you are talking sheer superstition."
She seemed not to hear.
"Do you realize," he went on, "that many people, enlightened enough to admit we have a right to do as we like with ourselves, would deny we had a right to deprive another--"
"You talk as if you didn't know a girl 'deprives' a whole possible family of life every time she says 'No' to a man who asks her to marry him. No use to talk to me, I'm a hardened criminal."
She made a nervous, mocking motion to get up and cut the colloquy short. Ethan stopped her with a gesture of grave rebuke.
"Do you know that, if you had committed all the crimes in the calendar, a capital sentence could not be executed upon you now."
"Think of it!" she said, with indignant eyes. "They'd not only keep the sword hanging over a poor wretch all that time--they'd let her horror and shrinking stamp itself on an innocent creature. Oh, man's justice is an odd jumble!"
"If public justice falls short, what of mine to you?" He walked a few paces up and down. "I've never seen you like this before, Val."
"I've never before lived through such days," she said, very low.
"You deceived me with your calmness."
"You see how necessary it was--you wouldn't have understood that I didn't want to break my oath."
"I understand now." He stopped before her with haggard face. "I come here into a girl's happy life--I take away her content, I snuff out her ambitions, I give her nothing in return. For years I bar the way to marriage--for all time I've shut the door on music. It is my fault you were allowed no outlet for your energies. I force you back on a barren love for a life-interest, and saying, 'There is only this,' I add, 'Accept it at your peril.' I am filled with horror at the thought of the way I've marred and broken a beautiful life."
"Oh, dear one, don't, don't! It's not true, you know. It wasn't really beautiful till you came."
He shook his head.
"Do you want to make it possible for me ever to think of myself without intolerable loathing?"
"Dear, dear!" She held out her hands.
"Promise me to forget the old evil compact."
"Ethan, you'll regret this," she said, dropping her hands; "it's not you who ask it of me--it's all those others." She nodded towards the dark mass of shadow made by the Fort against the gay autumnal background of scarlet maple and golden elm. "It's the Ganos--it's she most of all. I might have known. If you live under her roof, you come under her law."
She knew him too well to imagine she could stand out successfully against his resolution that the compact should be abandoned. What little by little helped to heal her spirit was presently her belief that he not only willed the new course, but desired it. Of that he had fully persuaded her--he had almost persuaded himself.
End Chapter 34
Available since September 1998