The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 14
DESPITE the distractions of a host of wandering fancies, Ethan Gano had been kept fairly closely at his studies till he had passed his twentieth birthday. To be sure, there had been a threatened interruption the spring before, when he seemed suddenly to lose interest in his work, and went about with vacant looks and airs of profound preoccupation. Old Mr. Tallmadge, observing him narrowly, decided that his grandson had got into debt, and that he was nervous about confessing. Ethan had never shown a proper regard for money. This was one of the many un-Tallmadge-like qualities developed by the years. It was a matter of paramount importance to counteract this flaw in Aaron Tallmadge's sole surviving heir, since of late years the old man's affairs had prospered more than ever. About the time of his brother Elijah's death, he had financed a manufacturing enterprise which, starting on a modest scale, had turned out fabulously successful. He was one of the "moneyed men" of the State. In addition to this piece of shrewd speculation, he found the income from his newspaper doubled in the last few years. Ah, yes! Nothing was of so much importance now as Ethan's fitness to gather in and husband the golden harvest. If he had been further exemplifying his unthrifty proclivities, if he needed to he told that borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry--Mr. Tallmadge, not trusting to any unperceived facilities for impromptu speech, rehearsed mentally the lecture he would administer. Ethan mustn't run away with the idea that the Tallmadge accumulations were only waiting for a lavish hand to redistribute. The first lesson a young man with his prospects must be made to learn was the value of a dol-
lar. But Ethan wore a gracious kind of reticence wrapped like a mantle round his young life. His grandfather knew very little about him, but the old man had himself belonged to the inarticulate ones of earth, and he never realized that, to this quiet, no-committal grandson of his expression of some sort was a master passion. How should Aaron Tallmadge have suspected such a thing? Some time before this Ethan quietly, alone, without making a sign, had gone through a religious crises not uncommon to his age and era. "No use to upset the family," he said to himself when he found he had come out on the other side of Tallmadge-Presbyterianism; and he went regularly to church with his grandfather without comment and without misgiving. There were still grave problems to be faced--too grave, in fact, for him to be beguiled into fancying this was one.
Now, in the midst of a perturbation not greater, but less easily disguised, he held his peace as a matter of course. Some early developed quality of aloofness in him held inquiry at bay. Then suddenly the clouds lifted. He was radiant and full of covert smiling.
Mr. Tallmadge resented this phase more than the former gloom.
"He's paying heavy interest, the young fool! And can't realize that that way damnation lies."
But all the old man's clumsy efforts to bring about an explanation were unavailing. Ethan declared with some surprise that he was not in need of funds. Mr. Tallmadge began to scrutinize the letters that came. Three mornings in succession a business-like envelope addressed in the same clerkly hand! Alone, before the fire in the dining-room, waiting for breakfast that third morning, the old man solemnly deliberated, glanced at the clock, and grumbled to himself that Ethan would certainly be ten minutes late as usual these days. "Perhaps he doesn't sleep." He examined the suspicious envelope. The flap was not securely gummed down. Mr. Tallmadge glanced again at the clock. He had not the least doubt as to his right--"duty" he would
have said--to open the letter of this unconfiding minor, who was his ward and grandson--an unpractical youth, moreover, of absolutely no business capacity whatever. Still, although Mr. Tallmadge would never have admitted it, he was a little in awe of this grandson, with so little "Tallmadge" in him. It was essential to open the letter--no doubt about that; but it would be well to have the business over before Ethan appeared. Mr. Tallmadge's desire not to be interrupted in the act might have enlightened him as to its defensibility; but he was no casuist. He took up the letter, adjusted his spectacles, and walked to the window. Inserting a long finger-nail, he easily pried up the flap.
"MY DARLING ETHAN,--Your last poem is the most beautiful thing I ever read in my life. It is far more wonderful than anything Shelley ever did. I shall be in the Beech Walk at five.
"Your wife, ALMIRA."
Aaron Tallmadge clutched the red damask curtains, with a stifled groan. The breakfast-bell clanged loudly. Its echoes had not time to die before Ethan appeared, with shining morning face.
"Good-morning," he said, lightly, looking down at his plate. "No letters?"
"Yes, sir." Mr. Tallmadge turned his ashen countenance round. "There is a letter."
Ethan stared at him and ran forward.
"What's the matter? Are you ill?"
Mr. Tallmadge warded him off with a shaking hand.
Ethan drew himself up arrow-straight, and his warm brown eyes grew cold.
"I knew there was some devilry afoot. I never dreamed it was as bad as this."
The old man flung the open letter down on the nearest chair.
Ethan colored, catching sight of the hand.
"So you've been reading my letters?"
"Yes; I only wish to the Lord I had exercised that right before. I might have saved you from this ruin!"
"You couldn't have saved me, sir, if that's any satisfaction."
"It's no use to think what might have been--" Then old man sat down, almost fell into the chair by the window where he had thrown the letter. "Was she a decent woman?"
"Was she a--" Ethan repeated, bewildered.
"Who is she?" thundered old Tallmadge, with renewed rage.
"Marlowe! Any relation to--"
"Daughter of the new Professor of Physics."
"Ha! Might be worse, I suppose. But--Marlowe? Marlowe? He's the new man, isn't he?"
"Marlowe? Why, it isn't a month since he was installed."
"And all this happened in six weeks?"
Mr. Tallmadge's lean face worked, speechless, then, finding a fury-coked voice:
"Tell me the circumstances, and let me see if anything can be done."
"Nothing can be done. It's irrevocable."
"But it isn't legal. You haven't a penny. You're under age."
"We can wait."
"Just what you couldn't do, apparently. You--you--"
After he had worked off his fit of incoherency, he resumed:
"Well, you've succeeded in wrecking your life pretty thoroughly. And only nineteen! How old is the girl?"
"I see," muttered the old man. "Well, I suppose now that it's 'irrevocable,' as you say, you'd better take me into your confidence."
"I don't see that you've left me much choice."
"Where is she living now?"
"In Cambridge," said Ethan, with some surprise.
"With her father still?"
"You saw her there?"
Ethan grew scarlet, and then, frowning doggedly:
"I saw her first in her garden one morning as I was going to Hall."
"I've answered your question."
"No, you haven't. I must know the facts of the case before I can-- You made acquaintance with her that first day?"
"I didn't speak to her."
The old man stared with mystified little eyes at his grandson's flushed face.
"She was there every day when you passed by?"
"H'm! Of course she would be there. When did you speak to her?"
"Not for three weeks."
He half turned away.
"Good Lord! Barely a fortnight ago!"
Ethan didn't deny it.
"How did you come to know her?"
The young face grew dark. He was writing under the catechism.
"Charlie Hammond showed her a poem I had written for the Harvard Oracle. She sent me a message about it."
"Then I went to call with Hammond."
"Then--then I met her in the Beech Walk."
"Ah! The Beech Walk."
"Don't tell me lies, sir!"
Ethan stood before him cold and rigid on a sudden. No flush now on the clear-cut features.
"You've no right to speak to me as you're doing, not if you were fifty grandfathers."
"Where did those other meeting take place, sir? Did old Marlowe countenance them?"
"There were no other meetings."
Ethan turned away.
"Now, look here!"--the old man arraigned him with a shaking hand--"you can't undo the bitter disappointment you are to me, but you can and you owe it to me to tell me fairly and squarely the details of this wretched business. I can't proceed in the matter if I'm in the dark."
" You proceed in the matter?"
Ethan wheeled about and faced him.
"It's quite plain that you were merely a yielding fool in the matter--girl older, and you--"
"--and you easy to convince that you ought to make reparation."
Ethan seemed to have ears only for the first part of this accusation. He spoke through Mr. Tallmadge's last words with a passionate shake in his voice.
"It's quite plain, at all events, grandfather, that I love her, and that nothing in heaven or on earth can part us."
"Of course--of course. A fortnight--a girl you barely knew by sight!"
"I know her absolutely. There isn't another like her on this earth."
"And you want me to believe you've spoken to her only three or four times in your life?"
"I don't specially want you to believe it, but it's true."
"Who could you find to marry you?"
"Who could I--to marry me?" He looked as if he had
begun to doubt the old man's sanity. "Why, I've never asked anybody but Almira."
"Yes, yes, yes. Who could you find to overlook the age question? Who performed the ceremony?"
"Oh, ho! Registry-office performance, eh? and perjury! Monstrous irreligion! My grandson!"
"What do you mean?" But a light was beginning to dawn.
"Who were your witnesses?"
Ethan laughed and flushed, and then grew serious again.
"Of course, it's exactly the same as if we were married, exactly the same." He flashed a broadside of defiance out of shining eyes. "But we know we can't well be married while I'm a minor, and--"
"You aren't married?"
"Oh no. But--"
"Then, what in the name of Jehoshaphat is all this damned--what's all this disturbance about?"
"I'm sure I don't know."
Mr. Tallmadge mopped his brow, and looked about distractedly, like one who has lost his thread in a labyrinth.
"However, it's exactly the same as if we were--"
The old man got up and walked a few shaky paces back and forth. Turning, he caught sight of the letter he'd been sitting upon.
" Wife!" he exclaimed. "What the d-- What does she mean by calling herself your--" and he stopped suddenly with a look of contemptuous comprehension.
Ethan, with a start forward, had clutched the letter greedily. He couldn't, perhaps he didn't even try to keep the great gladness out of his face as he read. Mr. Tallmadge watched him with equivocal eyes. Then, dryly:
"If I were in your shoes that signature would alarm me."
"I think it very beautiful of her," said Ethan, softly.
"And not alarming?"
"Alarming?" He knitted puzzled brows. "I begged her to think of me as--like this."
There was a pause.
"It's not her doing," he resumed, hastily, striking out at some indistinct enemy lurking behind the old man's looks. "No ceremony could make us surer of each other. That's why we're not unhappy. It's exactly the same as if we were married."
" Exactly?" He eyed the young face shrewdly, and then, a little baffled by its mixture of sensitive shrinking and frank defiance: "You will oblige me by not keeping this appointment"--he motioned to the letter.
"I'm sorry I can't oblige you, sir."
"Reflect a moment."
"I can't even reflect about it. She's going away to-morrow to spend several months with her sister. After that she goes back to Vassar. I may not see her again till next summer."
"You don't mean she's going back to school this fall?"
"Yes. She lost a year. They couldn't afford-- But now she's going to finish her course."
"I beg your pardon."
"There's no reason why she shouldn't go back to school?"
"Reason why--? No."
A light broke, or rather a darkness spread, over the young man's face, wiping out the grace, stamping it fiercely with detestation of him who had dared think insulting thoughts of Almira. But the old man was smiling and rubbing his parchment hands.
"Tempest in a teacup! Come and have breakfast," he said, walking to the table; "everything's getting cold."
But Ethan put the letter of the clerkly hand into his breast-pocket, and went towering out of the room.
Aaron Tallmadge chuckled genially as he rang for hot buckwheat cakes.
"Romantic! absurd! Great baby!" he muttered, and opened the morning paper--his paper--Ethan's by-and-by.
Ethan had not needed his grandfather's recommendation to abstain from mentioning in any letter to Mrs. Gano that her more and more irregular correspondent had been ill that last severe winter before he came of age, or that he considered himself engaged to be married to a girl older than himself and penniless. Mr. Tallmadge persistently affected to put this last achievement aside as sheer youthful nonsense. But those letters in the misleading hand came to Ashburton Place with irritating regularity. He began secretly to await with no small anxiety Ethan's view of the moral as well as legal liberty conferred by the distinction of being twenty-one. Before that moment arrived, the doctors were agreeing that the young man must not, till his health should be established, spend another Christmas in New England.
"At the end of the Indian summer away with him."
"By all means," said Mr. Tallmadge. "Why wait even for the summer?" All he needs is a thorough change."
The old man was thinking--thinking not alone of the health, but ambitiously of the future, of his grandson.
"Where shall I send him?" asked Mr. Tallmadge.
"It doesn't much matter where he is in the summer," the doctors agreed; "but get him south of Mason and Dixon's line next winter."
These insensate medicos had no bowels of political compassion. They must have known well enough that the region indicated was not a part of the world lightly to be recommended to Aaron Tallmadge.
"I'll go and visit my Gano relations," Ethan had said, promptly.
"You'll do nothing of the kind," returned his grandfather. "It's no reason, because you feel the cold here, that I should send you where you'd catch yellow fever and malaria."
From the Tallmadge point of view, Mason and Dixon's line did no less than divide habitable from uninhabitable
America. Voluntarily to cross the kindly boundary was contrary to reason. There was no difficulty in deciding that Italy or the South of France would be more advantageous for the young man's conversance with modern languages, as well as farther away from Almira Marlowe, and more tolerable to his grandfather and guardian than Virginia or Florida.
Mr. Tallmadge's capable junior partner was able to relieve his chief of all active concern in the conduct of business till Ethan should be ready to assume command. To this latter end, a few years' foreign travel, and a thorough re-establishment of the young man's health, were next in order. The plan worked well on the health score. A summer in England and a winter on the Riviera seemed to have set Ethan free from the family infirmity, but also have whetted his appetite for foreign life, and increase his indifference to the proud post of chief proprietor of the greatest Republican organ in New England. But this might be merely the first effects of Miss Almira's having thrown over her first love and married a lawyer in Poughkeepsie, New York.
After all, Mr. Tallmadge reflected, his grandson was still very young, and intimate knowledge of life in other lands might not come amiss. So the energetic old man went to and fro, joining Ethan, now in Paris, now in London, travelling about with him during the summer, and returning alone to "the great Republican organ" in the autumn, leaving his grandson to new friends, new pursuits, and warmer winter haunts.
The young man was not all this time merely seeing life, he was recording it in desultory fashion. Some of his verses appearing in English periodicals raised a little dust of praise among a set in London calling itself critical. But it was the French point of view that most appealed to him.
He was under that spell which France knows so well how to cast round the young man of artistic instinct. Her tongue was the peerless language of letters. Through no medium less supple, less subtle, could the complexities of
modern life and thought hope for adequate literary expression.
And so the pleasant facile days went by in idly roving, idly writing, meeting interrogatively his predestinate experience and setting the more presentable answers down. Where answer there was none, he aped the older men, whom he called "Masters," and made shift with more or less cynical guesses. It was these last that brought him his little meed of precocious success. He had not originality enough to see that the cynicism was not his own. He was not, and seemingly was not to be, of the stature that can wear simple sincerity in the grand manner. That writer, young or old, must have something of true greatness in him who can hold out long in these days against the flattering temptation of hinting that he is laughing in his sleeve at all solemn persons. And yet no doubt seriousness a seriousness that still looked askance at itself, and smiled oftener at its own gravity than at any other wrinkle in the tragi-comic mask of humanity.
He had seem something of what people in London and Paris called "society," had been very well amused, but not enamoured of it. When men who made letters a profession--perhaps one should say trade--admonished him: "Never refuse a swagger invitation. Your opportunities considering you're a foreigner, are simply unheard of. Go everywhere, see everything. You must know life before you can write about it," Ethan would say, half impatiently: "As if you could escape from life! As if art kept her treasures in the jewel-cases of the aristocracy, and never displayed them except at social functions!"
Even in indulgent Paris he was a good deal chaffed about his success with the fair. It is a thing other men reconcile themselves to with difficulty. Some one said once to Ethan's old school friend, De Poincy:
"No one but a woman has any business to be as good-looking as that fellow Gano. I couldn't trust a man with a face like that."
"Oh, you may trust him right enough," De Poincy answered. "And as to his face--look at that jaw of his."
"Anything the matter with his jaw?"
"There's 'man' enough in that to relieve your mind. Ah, he's a stubborn brute, Gano is; but you can trust him." And people did trust him.
But not only did he tire presently of the gay and flaunting aspect of social life, his fastidiousness by-and-by turned aside as well from those less presentable experiences that dog the rich and idle youth of capitals.
At first with a dull old tutor, and presently without him, he had for headquarters a tiny appartement in Paris. It was there, or with the De Poincys in Nice, that he felt most at home. Something over two years had gone by in this agreeable fashion when his grandfather addressed to him a temperate but very serious letter inviting him to return, either to complete his interrupted studies "on American lines," or to enter at once on his initiation into the practical duties of editorship. Ethan at first temporized, and then, being pressed, declined to pursue either course. He "liked living abroad." This fact, thus stated, greatly irritated old Tallmadge. He ordered his grandson home. Ethan wrote, still very politely, but quite definitely, refusing to come just then. Mr. Tallmadge, angrier than ever, cabled, "Is it on account of health? Are you afraid of climate?" Ethan cabled back: "Perfectly well. Prefer Paris."
This lack of patriotism on the part of a grandson of his seemed to Aaron Tallmadge nothing short of revolutionary. It was no use Ethan's quoting to him, Tont homme a deux pays, le sien et puis la France. The more Mr. Tallmadge pondered the matter, the more he felt convinced that this incredible preference for Paris was the shameful mask of some other preference. "Some woman's got hold of him again," he decided. "I'll soon settle that." Whereupon he wired: "Come right home, or I stop allowance."
Then was his grandson most unreasonably angry. He sent back, in a blank sheet of writing-paper, the recently
received check for the next quarter, which he had neglected to cash, and he looked about for employment. Henri De Poincy, who had recently passed into the diplomatic service, was now in Russia; but young Gano started out on his quest of a living with no foreboding. He went to see various men of affairs, firm friends of his, he felt convinced, and stated the case; in fact, a cooler head than Ethan's might have suspected he overstated it. It was true he had received a "final" letter, which he thought most insulting, full of a crudely expressed conviction that Ethan was in the toils of some foreign woman, and saying that unless her returned instantly his grandfather would know this suspicion was well founded, in which case the young man had nothing to expect from him in the future.
Those persons of influence whom young Gano had consulted in his dilemma all promised to keep him in mind and see what they could do, and most of them thereafter forgot even to invite him to dinner. He began to realize that being a young American of leisure, with no axe to grind, with an absurdly large income for a man of his years, and known to be sole heir to one of the big fortunes "in the States," was an altogether different matter form being a person suddenly bereft of these advantages. He gave up his charming appartement in the Champs-Elysées, and presently found that he couldn't keep even the single room he had taken in the Rue de Miroménil. He moved to the Rue de Provence.
He was in low water--very low water, indeed--before he got the post of Parisian correspondent on a London paper. With this diminutive buoy he managed to keep afloat; but his former position as an independent young gentleman with large expectations was blown upon, and no one more hypersensitive than he to the outward and visible signs of people's appreciation of his altered circumstances. He withdrew more and more from the swim. Smart Parisian society and the rich American colony knew him no more. After a while his editor complained that his news was becoming too exclusively "literary and artistic; we ex-
pected something about the races last week. Give us more society."
To this the Parisian correspondent replied: "I never yet wrote about society unless indirectly, and I do not propose to begin."
"There was formerly," persisted the editor, who knew quite well what he wanted," a flavor of the fashionable world about your Parisian notes, which our readers miss. French art and Bohemia are overdone."
Gano sold some valuable books, and went over to London with the proceeds to have it out with the editor. The up-shot of the interview was that he declined to furnish any more "Notes." The editor seemed perfectly resigned. However, after the struggle in Paris, Gano was convinced that London was the likelier place for him to find a footing. In the background of his mind he had already, when he sold his books, foreseen and accepted the result of the further discussion of his "Notes." He would at all events be on the spot in London, and would quickly find some opening. Talent was not the drug in the market here, he told himself, that it was in France.
End Chapter 14
Available since September 1998