The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 5
ALTHOUGH this visit was the only one Ethan was destined to pay to New Plymouth before he came to man's estate, he carried back with him to Boston at the holiday's end something more than an intimate understanding with his father's people, and a vivid picture of the outer aspect of life in the house of his grandmother.
Out of his fear of Aunt Jerusha that first evening grew the habit of Valeria's visiting his room ten minutes or so after he had said good-night. During those first evenings, when he was allowed a candle to go to bed by, this small attention on his aunt's part was for the ostensible purpose of putting out the light and opening his windows. Later on she went for no better reason than that the child would be expecting her. Absent-minded dreamer as she was, after the second evening of Ethan's stay she never forgot what became her kindly custom.
On this particular evening, as she sat among the litter in the blue room, her acute ears caught a faint sound of sobbing. She hurried into the adjoining chamber, and found all dark and silent, Ethan breathing regularly, apparently asleep. She bent over in the faint moonlight to kiss him, and found his face wet with tears.
"My dear! Then it was you?"
"Me?" he inquired, in a steady voice.
"Yes. Why were you crying?"
After a pause:
"I thought the walls were so awful thick," he said, as if answering her question with all circumstance.
"Shall I light the candle again?"
"No, thank you," he said, sedately; "I can see the moon through the locust-tree."
She went to the window, and leaning her folded arms on the wide seat, she repeated softly, as she looked out:
"'And, like a dying lady, lean and pale,
Who totters forth, wrapt in a gauzy veil,
Out of her chamber, led by the insane
And feeble wanderings of her fading brain
The moon arose up in the murky east
A white and shapeless mass.'"
"Is that what you've been writing, Aunt Valeria?"
"No." She came back and sat down on the side of his bed. "No; Shelley wrote it. What shall I do for you?" she said, wondering how women that were used to children would meet the exigency, for the little voice was plaintive I spite of itself.
"I don't want anything," Ethan said, stoutly, and there was another pause. Then, by way of a delicate hint: "Grandmamma has been telling me a story."
"Yes; about when she was young. Tell me about when you were young, Aunt Valeria."
The innocent petition jarred. Valeria was the youngest of her family, and had never yet been asked to think of herself as one who had left youth behind.
"There's nothing to tell about me," she said.
"Didn't you ever go to visit your grandfather Calvert in the mountains of Virginia?"
"No; he died before I was born."
"Then, you never got homesick?" His voice wavered a little, and then, quite firmly, he added: "Grandmamma did, and she used to go off by herself to meet the postman, who came only once a week, and she'd walk and walk till she heard him wind his horn. How do you 'spose he wound it?"
"He just blew a long blast."
"Did that make it wind? Well, anyhow, when he wound it , that used to make grandmamma homesicker than ever. It used to echo all about among her grandfather's mountains, and when she heard that she used to stop running, and sit down on a rock and cry and cry. You see, she was so afraid the postman wasn't bringing the letter to say Aunt Cadwallader was coming to take her home."
"Did my mother tell you that story to-night?" inquired Aunt Valeria, without enthusiasm.
"No; it was this morning, when I said I wasn't a bit homesick like Aunt Hannah said I'd be. Grandmamma seemed to think it didn't matter if I was homesick. The Ganos nearly always are, but in the end they're always glad they came."
This obscure saying seemed not to rivet Aunt Valeria's attention; she moved as if she were going. Ethan sat up in bed and asked, a little feverishly:
"Did you know about Aunt Cadwallader bein' in the war?"
"No; I never heard she was in the war."
"Well, she was. She was about four years old, and the British were firing on Fort McHenry, and all the doors and windows in Baltimore were shut, and nobody went out, and everybody was living in the cellar, so's not to get shot, and bombs were exploding in the garden, and the fambly missed Aunt Cadwallader--
"Oh yes," said Aunt Valeria; "she was out in the garden, wasn't she, picking up the bullets?"
"Yes; they were raining all about, and she was putting them in a little egg-basket she carried on her arm." Ethan finished, a shade crestfallen to find his scheme to entertain and, above all, to detain his aunt had been forestalled. "I thought perhaps if I told you you'd remember something that happened to you--when you were young, you know."
"I'm sorry I don't know any stories."
"Don't you know the one about the poor man over your fireplace?"
"What poor man?" she repeated, bewildered.
"The man without his clo'es on, tied to the wild horse."
"Oh, you mean the Mazeppa on the iron fire frame."
"Yes"--Ethan sat up again, with dilated eyes--"wolfs comin' after him, wif mouths wide open."
"Oh, well, they don't eat him up; he gets away, and lives happy ever after."
"I am glad!"
He lay down, and she covered him up.
"I'd sing to you, but I'm afraid it would disturb my mother."
"Then, couldn't you say some more poetry or something?"
"I don't believe I know anything you'd like."
"Oh, I'd like anything--except the 'May Queen.'"
She sat silent a moment, and then began:
"'Once upon a midnight dreary--'
"H'm!" -- and she stopped.
"Can't you remember any more?" inquired the boy, eagerly.
"Well--a--perhaps something else;" and she made a fresh start:
"'Ah, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
"'Ah, what can--'
No, no; I must think of something a little less--"
Another pause, and then:
"'Raise the light, my page, that I may see her:
Thou hast come at last, then, haughty queen.'"
On and on the low voice chanted, whispered, verse after verse and page on page, until the child slept sound. In this wise was the habit formed of Aunt Valeria's prolong-
ing her nightly ministrations till Ethan was safe beyond the touch of homesickness, beyond the need of a doubtful cheer. From most of her selections, it must be confessed, he derived only the vague comfort of listening to the rhythmic rise and fall of a friendly, sleep-wooing voice, that sent him softly to oblivion. But as the days went on he developed tyrannous preferences, and would call for "The Neckan" as regularly as he had been used in infancy to demand "The New England Cat." He managed to keep awake longer as time went on, and it took "The Ancient Mariner," or the solemn and somnolent-burdened rhyme of the "Duchess May" to send him to the land of Nod. He came to know these favorites by heart, and would prompt Valeria if she ventured to skip or hesitated at a line. In after years he used to feel it odd to realize how much English verse he knew by heart that he had never seen upon the printed page. But Aunt Valeria's patience was sometimes sorely taxed by his wide-eyed attention to the story. Then it was she would unkindly lapse into German, against which no young wakefulness is proof.
"Now go to sleep," she would admonish, "or I'll say 'Kennst du das Land.'" Notwithstanding it was a very dull poem, she would say it over and over, and Ethan, vanquished utterly, would fall asleep with the refrain, "Dahin, Dahin, Möcht ich mit Dir O mein Geliebter ziehn," sounding in his ears. He had his own view of what it was all about, and classed it with such ditties as "Annabel Lee." "Dahin" he was satisfied was the heroine, and he determined on his return to Boston to bestow the name upon the least attractive of three terrier puppies, fresh arrivals in his absence.
There was no one to play with, apparently, here in New Plymouth, but few children could have felt the lack so little as Ethan. Nobody interfered with him, nobody seemed to want him to study. The spectre of Grandfather Tallmadge was still potent enough to make him carry about a French grammar in the shallow jacket-pocket, that was always ejecting it upon an indifferent world. Ethan, on its
every mal à propos appearance, would hurry the book out of sight with an uneasy conscience, and betake himself into the wilderness, where he owned an oasis under a barberry - bush; or he would seek diversion from linguistic cares in the sooty attic. Nobody seemed to mind, if only her were washed when he appeared on the surface again. That same attic, however, was a place of peril. You gained access to it by means of a ladder in a closet on the upper landing, and you went up through a trap-door into a dim and stifling atmosphere; not but what there were windows, but they seemed to admit only heat and soot. There was an army of disabled or disused pots, pitchers, vases, and so on, standing in the middle of the rough wooden floor, and above them stretched a long table like a counter, on which were ranged queer lamps and candlesticks, brackets, door-knobs, pewter vessels and great platters, candle snuffers and trays, and all manner of household goods and gear that had then been long out of fashion, and had not yet come back again. With grimy fingers Ethan poked about, taking great care not to step off the middle aisle of flooring on to the lath and plaster between the mighty hand-hewn beams. Sometimes, in more daring moods, he would venture farther afield, balancing cautiously on a beam to some remote cobwebby corner to examine nearer an object that had lured him long with its air of the unattainable. In this way he made acquaintance with certain pictures turned disobligingly to the wall, and a great horse-hair trunk, into which he peeped with palpitating heart; for all the world knew that such trunks were the abode of skeleton ladies. But here were only dusty papers. The far corner he never ventured into: it was there the great elk antlers shone, and the skull and white teeth grinned and threatened. One had just to pretend it was chained there, and strained impotently to get at little boys. Turning over a lot of ancient rubbish in a box one day, he came across a heavy old brass door-knocker with "E. Gano" on it. Down-stairs he rushed, all black and beaming.
Mrs. Gano was sitting, as usual, very upright in the
great red chair, with Dean Stanley's History of the Eastern Church open on her knees.
"My child, you're like a blackamoor!"
"But just look what I've found!"
"Ah, yes! I had that taken off the front-door the last thing before I left Maryland."
"Why didn't you put it on the front-door here?"
"You see, it's 'E. Gano.' There was no 'E. Gano' then, " she said, with shadowed face.
"But there is now--I' m here."
"To be sure," she answered, smiling. "As your grandfather said, "It's necessary to have an Ethan in every generation to avoid re-marking things.' We'll have the knocker put up, if you like. Venie will polish it."
"Shall I ask her please to come to you as soon as she's done her work?" he said, hesitatingly, for an interview with these black women was not yet lightly to be faced.
"Tell her I want her at once," said his grandmother, a little brusquely.
He was struck with her peremptoriness.
"Sha'n't I say "please'?" he inquired.
"Certainly not. It's not as my servants please, but as I please. Tell her to come."
Ethan knew now that his manner to Aunt Jerusha and her daughter must have appeared abject according to Gano standards. He secretly determined to adopt a loftier demeanor. Vain ambition! Never once in his life did he find the accent, let alone the conviction, of the superior, except with persons of his own station. Of servants he asked service unwillingly, and, to the end of his days, with an uneasy sense that somebody was being abased--he inclined to think it was himself. The wages question never in his estimation touched the heart of the obligation. Any underlining of the relation of master and servant was as irksome to him as if he had come of generations of communists, instead of a race of tyrannous slave-holders.
Venie brightened up the knocker till it shone like gold, and Aunt Jerusha, who could do anything on earth, ap-
parently, promised to come round and screw it firmly in its place at exactly the angle it had taken on the great white door "down South."
It was over this business of the knocker that Ethan made friends with Aunt Jerusha. He was still mortally afraid of her, but he had come to that point where he was able to snatch a fearful joy in passing quite near her without flinching, as though she had been any ordinary white person, whose eyes didn't roll, and whose plaited wool didn't escape in little horns from under a flaming bandanna. He had insisted on carrying the tool-box and the hammer and the big screw-driver from the kitchen round to the front porch. It was so that his intention to be lofty and aloof had ended. At the front-door stood his grandmother.
"You've got a lazy man's load," she said.
And, as if on purpose to justify her, down dropped the screw-driver on the gravel, and out jumped the French grammar on the grass. He recovered the book, and as he reached after the screw-driver away slid the hammer off the tool-box.
"Put down your book. Don't try to do so many things at once. That's how your great-uncle Rezin put out his eyes at Harper's Ferry, and Shelley lost his life trying to read and sail a boat at the same time."
Who was this Shelley who was always being quoted, and where did he come into the family saga? Byron, too, and others he hadn't heard mentioned in Boston. The appearance of Aunt Jerusha see-sawing round the corner was a welcome diversion, and soon the glittering knocker was screwed firmly into place. It was a triumph. Aunt Valeria was called down to see, and admitted it was resplendent!
"Isn't it delicious having our very own Maryland knocker on the door again!!" remarked the young gentleman, with as heartfelt satisfaction as though he had watched the decline and fall of the old house in the South, and now saw the family fortunes to be mending.
His grandmother patted his shoulder.
"We say 'delicious' of good things to eat, not of door-knocker, even when they come from Maryland."
"Oh, you wouldn't limit such a word as delicious to things we eat," remonstrated Aunt Valeria. "That's a point where I've always differed from Byron."
"Then I'm surprised to hear it, for it's one of the few things he got right."
The younger woman withdrew into her shell, making no rejoinder, but pausing at the bottom of the stairs on her way back to her work, with an air of perfunctory deference, to hear her mother out. Ethan watched the two with interest, feeling that he and his aunt were in the same boat.
"We can't be too jealous of guarding the purity and honesty of language," Mrs. Gano said, firmly. "Any one who has the smallest pretence to caring for letters or for accuracy, of for truth, must do what he can to oppose the debasing of the current coin of speech. If you use words loosely, you'll begin to think loosely, and in the end you'll find you've lost your sense of values, and one word means no more than another. You'll be like Ethan here, who tells me 'bonny clabber' is perfectly splendid, and that he 'loves' Jerusha's Johnny-cake. After that, he mustn't say he loves you and me. It would be like kissing us after the cat."
"It's a kitten," said Ethan, feeling froward and very bold.
His grandmother laughed delightedly.
"Oh, very well, we'll be accurate, if it's only about a kitten that I haven't so much as seen."
The child flashed out to the veranda and returned with a small basket, in which lay a diminutive coal-black object.
"You said you didn't like animals," he observed, reproachfully.
"I don't--not in the house."
"This one's very little to stay out o' doors."
"Yes, it's too little to stay here at all."
"Oh no, it isn't so little as that."
He pulled out its tail that it might look as long as pos-
sible, but it would curl under. He lifted the creature up, clawing and feebly wailing.
"Why, Ethan," said Aunt Valeria over the bansiters, "it hasn't got its eyes open."
"Not just yet."
"Can it walk?"
"Well, not much," said Ethan, guardedly; "but nobody walks as young as this. The Otways' cat brought it over in her mouth. They're nice to the Otways' cat in the kitchen."
There was judgment delivered in the phrase.
"Venus must take the thing home," said Mrs. Gano, eying the wailing one with coldness.
There bade fair to be a duet of lamentation.
"It will die if it's left here."
"No, no; I'll take care of it." He clasped it fondly.
"We don't know what to do for such a young creature."
"Oh yes, we do," interrupted Ethan. He came nearer, notwithstanding Mrs. Gano's edging away from her grimy descendant, and from the small, wailing, trembling, clawing object on his breast. The child took hold of her gown, and said, with ingratiating, upturned face, "Dear grandmamma, couldn't we buy it a cow?"
The suggestion apparently pleased his unaccountable grandmother too well for her to persist in banishing the kitten. So "Duchess May," as Ethan insisted on calling her, became an acknowledged member of the sooty circle in the kitchen, and was well and safely brought up without the immediate superintendence of a cow.
Mrs. Gano's refusal to admit the Duchess to other parts of the house resulted in Ethan's spending a good deal of his time, too, in Aunt Jerusha's society. She turned out to be a most interesting and accomplished person. No wonder his father had thought well of her, but as to--no, he never, never could have kissed her!
Aunt Jerusha sang the most wonderful songs. The words were not very intelligible for the most part,
but that didn't matter: the effect was all the more exciting and mysterious. There was one monotonous chant she used solemnly to give forth when she was polishing the dining-room table--something about
" . . . de body ob de Lawd.
An' dat was wot He meant
W'en He said He'd brought a sword,
An' no mo' peace on de earf!"
Then a string of undistinguishable words, ending with something like--
"Oh, mighty keerful
All roun' de body ob de Lawb,
We done been a wrappin'
A w'ite linen napkin
All round de body ob de Lawb.
He said He'd bring a sword,
An' no mo' peace on de earf!"
There was a wild melancholy in the air that made the child's heart tremble in his breast. Particularly on wet days, when he couldn't go down into the wilderness, he used to stand in the doorway with the Duchess in his arms, listening with all his ears.
"An' Jerusha," he said, one morning during a thunderstorm, when she polished the oak in persistent silence, "why don't you sing? Grandmamma can't hear."
"No, Massa Efan, not to-day."
"Why not? This is just the day to, when the rain's makin' such a noise you can sing as loud as you like."
"Yo' won't nebber ketch dis nigger raisin' no chunes on de twenty-firs' ob July."
"Don' you know, little massa, dis de day yo' fader died?"
"Oh-h, is it?" A silence of some moments, broken only by the dash of summer rain against the window-pane.
"Did you know my father when he was quite little?"
"Law, yes, littler'n you--so little, he couldn't walk by
hisself. De firs' time I done lef' him, jes' fur a minute, standin' in de big arm-cheer by de winder, he turn roun' w'en he see I wusn't holdin' on t' him, an' he yelled like forty--" She chuckled proudly, stopped suddenly, and held out timid arms and made a baby face. " "Ow! ow! Efan fall--Efan bake!' " She relaxed into smiles again. "Break he meant, yo' see. He'd seen pitchers and china dolls and sich like fallin' and smashin' ter bits, and he wus 'feared dat's wot would happen t' him."
She went on chuckling a moment, and then fell unaccountably to weeping. The thunder crashed and the wind blew loud. It lashed the great tulip-tree with fury. Ethan laid his face against the velvet back of the Duchess. Aunt Jerusha wept audibly. Ethan felt rather low in his mind himself.
"Where does this door out here lead to?" he said, feeling the need of a diversion.
"Unner dem front stehs."
"Oh, does it go under the stairs?"
"Yes; but don' yo' go dah, honey."
"It ain't a berry cheerin' kin' ob a place."
"I've noticed Venie always runs past that door. It can't be 'cause it's dirty."
"No, honey; no."
"An' Jerusha, Venie told me yesterday when grandmamma first came here she couldn't get any servants to sleep in this house, and that was why she had to send for Venie."
"Don' yo' min' Venus; she's misleadin'."
"Well, but I asked Mr. Hall while he was cutting the grass, and he said he wouldn't like to live here, and he looked at the house in such a funny kind o' way."
"Huh! yo' mus' n't listen to po' w'ite trash."
"Then you'd better tell me, or I'll ask everybody."
"No, no, honey. Yo' grandma would be hoppin' mad ef yo' should git dem iggorant pussens t' gabbin' agin."
"Then you'd just better tell me, and it'll be a secret, please, An' Jerusha."
"Well, dey do say, Massa Efan, dis yer house am hanted."
"Hanted? What's that?"
Aunt Jerusha rolled her eyes cautiously over her shoulder and lowered her voice.
"Under the front stairs?" whispered Ethan, quickly withdrawing from that proximity.
Aunt Jerusha nodded.
"Did you ever see one?"
"Law, yes; oncet or twicet."
"What was it like?"
"Like de debbil in a night-gown. Hark! Yo' heah dat?"
"Yes; oh, what was it?" Ethan was nearer Aunt Jerusha in his alarm than he had ever ventured before.
"Dat's de bad ghos' under de stehs. De fust fall we come heah he done groan and gro-o-an like dat all de time. He been mighty still now fur a spell. Hark! yo' heah dat?"
Ethan was horribly conscious of a hideous noise somewhere in front of the dining-room.
" I think he's in the parlor," he whispered, when he could command his emotions sufficiently for speech.
"No, no; I used t' 'spect he was dab, but dat's jus' his being so cute, he didn't want nobody to know he was unner de front stehs. Come into de kitchen, Massa Efan, and I'll gib yo' a cinnamon roll."
It is useless to pretend that Ethan was a stout-hearted young gentleman. From infancy he had been a prey to a thousand unseen terrors having for the most part quite respectable Christian name and origin, such as the "worm that dieth not," "the thief in the night," the "great red dragon" of the Revelation, and "the beast with seven heads." But there are some terrors that need no inculcating. It occurred to him now that the ghost under the stairs
was called Yaffti. Why "Yaffti" he could not have told, or what suggested the name to him; but Yaffti was angry when people, especially little boys, walked over his head without saying:
"Yaffti Makafti, here I am, you see;
I'll be good to you, if you'll be good to me."
His worst form of nightmare was forgetting to use this formula, and daring in his purblind sleep to stamp on the stairs directly over Yaffti's head. He realized by-and-by that the restless spirit underneath was soothed when the stairs were not used, and his young friend made the descent astride the banisters. This pleased all parties, except Mrs. Gano. Next best, from the Yaffti point of view, was walking on the narrow green border of the stair carpet, instead of in the fawn-colored centre. Little by little Yaffti enlarged his jurisdiction, and ruled the porches with a despotism as secret as it was potent, permitting no child to walk on the cracks between the boards. Yaffti was pleased, too, if in going about the town you steered clear of the cracks between the flag-stones. But all this attempt at a friendly understanding was at bottom a mere daylight truce, and with the coming on of night the hollow mockery stood exposed. Ethan, like many another, went through his childish terrors with a silent endurance that would have earned him the name of hero had he been a man, and had Yaffti boasted another name, though not necessarily a more demonstrable existence.
Nevertheless, these were wonderful and beautiful days, having in them a rapture of freedom from human interference incompatible with life under the same roof with Aunt Hannah and Grandfather Tallmadge, who seemed to have nothing better to do than to look after Ethan and spoil his fun from morning till night.
End Chapter 5
Available since September 1998