The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 26
ONE of the things nobody had been able to get Val to do any more was to sing. This had been at first set down to the death of her father, and a special association of him with music. Even Julia shared that view.
The next spring after the summer the Otways had spent at Long Branch, the three girls--Julia, Emmie, and Val--sat one chill afternoon on the hearth-rug before the fire in the blue room. With very buttery fingers they were eating the last of a great bowl of popcorn. Val, who had presided over the popping, was losing the becoming flush that occupation lent her. The years had taken from the face something of its old look of frankness and love of fun, that had been almost boyish in its simplicity. The subtler woman-look, the faint suggestion of brooding in the eyes, had matured the face and lent it meaning. Emmie was the same pretty creature, a little more fragile than before, whereas Julia was blooming and bourgeoning into a very handsome woman of somewhat majestic proportions. Instead of two, she looked five or six years older than Val's twenty-three years. The brown and choral chiné silk Julia wore this afternoon was turned away at the neck, and a lace fichu carefully drawn down over the fine bust left visible the prettiest throat in the world, as well as a little V-shaped space of fair white neck.
Emmie was tired of the talk of a party to which she was not going. It was on the night of the choir practice, and, besides, she didn't approve of dancing. She wiped her buttery fingers on her handkerchief.
"Let's go down-stairs and try our new hymn," she said, getting up.
"All right," agreed Julia.
"You two can, if you like," said Val.
"You must sing us 'Den lieben langen Tag;' I haven't heard it for years."
"Don't care about it any more." Val gathered up and crunched the hard scorched grains that had remained in the bottom of the bowl.
"It's absurd to try to sing just after eating pop-corn."
"Nonsense!" said Emmie. "Grandma's reading old letters in the pack-room, so she won't hear. If you'll put away the corn popper, I'll get the key of the piano."
"It's a great pity not to keep up your music," said Julia, as Emmie went off with the empty bowl. "You'll get hopelessly rusty."
"I shall never sing a note as long as I live," said Val, "and I wish you wouldn't bother me about it before people." Julia stared at her.
"You ought to understand without my telling you. It kills me to do it half and half. I'll forget I ever wanted have music in my life."
"You mean, I must never ask you to sing again?"
"It's the one thing about the whole matter that hurts most. You see," Val said, with an effort to speak in a commonplace tone, "I'm not sulking about it, I'm not angry; I've simply wiped off the score."
"Dear Val, I'm so sorry!" Julia got up and put her arms about her friend. "I didn't realize-- Oh, dearie, how hard it's been for you all this time, when you take it like that!"
"So--so quietly, so splendidly," said Julia, vaguely.
"Oh, you needn't think I'm trying to be a heroine," said Val, a little defiantly; "it's just that I prefer not being a bungler when I know that if I'd had half a chance--" She choked suddenly, and flung herself down before the fire with her face hidden. Julia kneeled beside her, murmuring sympathy.
"I think such a lot about my aunt Valeria these days," said Val, sitting up presently and wiping her eyes. "This was her room, you know."
Julia nodded, looking round upon the walls.
"She painted these things, didn't she?"
"Yes," said Val. "Ain't they awful? It would half kill my grandmother to hear anybody say that, and yet it's her fault that they're awful. You know she wouldn't let Aunt Valeria go away and study when she was young. Sh!"
Mrs. Gano's voice was heard outside the door calling Emmie to hunt for a certain portfolio. She came in, looking through her spectacles at some papers in her hand. She was heavily shawled and wore gloves (as she did constantly now), and she had an old white Indian scarf over her head. The broché ends hung down to her knees. She looked up sharply from the yellowed papers as she came in. The two girls jumped to their feet. Mrs. Gano greeted Julia cordially.
"Do you want us to go?" asked Val. "I brought Julia in here because there was a fire."
"Certainly don't go," said Mrs. Gano. "I only came in for Valeria's little desk."
Val helped to take off the carefully made cover that fitted over it. Between the cover and the desk was something lying flat, carefully done up in tissue-paper. Mrs. Gano opened it and smiled, recognizing the scrawl on the square of card-board.
"Ah! Valeria's first attempt at a portrait of her father! She was a mere baby." The old eyes beamed through the gold-bound spectacles, tender with memory. "Her brother Ethan laughed at her, and said it was more like the pear-tree than like their father--you see what he meant." She laughed gently. "But Mr. Gano comforted Valeria, and said, 'It's quite like enough, my dear. I've no desire to have my daughter a limner.'"
"Do you know, I can never get over the idea that 'limner' is something immoral--indecent," said Val.
Mrs. Gano smiled reflectively. "Neither could your grandfather. That was the dash of Puritan in him."
"Oh, but I mean the mere word. You told us that story when we were children, and I didn't dare to ask; but I was sure it meant something horrid, like some of the words in the Bible that look quite innocent and yet mustn't be used in general conversation."
"Not at all," said Mrs. Gano, with a dignified air. "Your grandfather was merely agreeing with Dr. Johnson that portrait-painting was an improper employment for a woman. 'Public practice of any art and staring in men's faces is very indelicate in a female,'" she quoted, but she smiled again. "If your grandfather had lived, none of you would ever have had a drawing lesson. I am more liberal about these things."
Val flashed a convert look at Julia. John Gano and others had filled in the dim outlines of Valeria's life, and the things she had left behind were eloquent in a way their creator never dreamed, and would bitterly have resented. Mrs. Gano was lifting up the desk.
"Let me carry it in for you," said Val, preceding her grandmother with the little rosewood box.
As she came back Julia heard Val in the hall dismissing poor Emmie and her piano key with short shrift. She closed the door sharply, and confronted her friend with ominous eyes.
"How my grandmother can bear to be so much in that room!"
"Without a fire on a day like this?"
"Yes; but anyhow, it's horrible in there."
"I thought you used to love it when she let you in."
"Yes, when I was little, and didn't understand. It's full of dilapidated things that belonged to dead people. Ethan's father's fiddle--smashed. My father's patent lamps--none of 'em work. Our grandfather's walking-sticks, very tired-looking, leaning defected against the wall under a faded dirty picture of the Baptist college he built--it's a Roman Catholic hospital now. And then that thing of
Aunt Valeria's--that's the worst of all!" She came nearer, and crouched down on the rug beside her friend.
"What do you mean?"
"A pile of what used to be modelling clay. It's quite black now, but if you see it in one particular way a face seems to look dimly at you out of the dust, and, oh! it's the sorrowfullest face I ever saw. It's the face of somebody who hadn't a chance."
"What is it like?"
"My opinion is it's Aunt Valeria's face, but sometimes-- sometimes it looks like me."
Neither spoke for awhile. Val sat huddled together staring into the blaze.
" She used to lie on the rug here before the fire, too."
The girl threw back her head like one shaking off an evil dream, but her eye was suddenly arrested.
"I wonder what she thought of Mazeppa."
"Mazeppa?" echoed Julia.
"Yes." The other nodded to the iron bas-relief above the grate. "The first time I heard father talk about natural law, about lines of least resistance and all kinds of horrors (ante-natal tendencies and the rest), I used to think of Mazeppa, and feel I was being bound on the wild horse of the Past and left to the wolves. But I always knew I should escape. It troubles me when I remember that Aunt Valeria didn't. And perhaps she sat here with the same faith I have." She gave a little shiver and stood up. "No, no; of course we've been utterly different from the beginning."
"You've changed in the last two years more than anybody I ever knew."
Val turned quickly upon her friend.
"You mean, I'm getting to be like Aunt Valeria?"
"I don't know; I never saw her. But you--you are getting awfully civilized."
She laughed. Val was very grave.
"Do you remember," Julia went on, "your plan of running away to be a chorus-girl?"
"Yes"--the answer rang sharply--"and I would have done it too but that grandma needed me--" She stopped, with a face suddenly fear-stricken. "It looks as if I was growing like Aunt Valeria"--she walked up and down the room with her head caught between her two hands--"but I'm not--I'm, not."
She stopped before Julia, a prey to the feeling that is she allowed Julia to think so she would be like Aunt Valeria. She had the sense of one lying in a trance: that if he does not make a superhuman effort now and protest effectively he will be buried alive. The girl glanced excitedly round the room, and felt the old presence egging her on. It was here that other Valeria had dreamed and tried to work; it was here she faced defeat--here she died, looking out at dawn to the rampart hills that had hemmed them both in beyond escape.
"Don't think I'm the very least like her. I don't want to be a sculptor or a poet, and that's not like Aunt Valeria. I'm not staying here out of respect for any silly old family traditions, nor even because my grandmother needs me. I've been pretending. I'm really staying for Ethan's sake"--her face grew crimson--" that's not like Aunt Valeria."
"For Ethan's sake!" echoed her friend.
"Yes. He made me promise. It's only for a little while I am giving up my music not because I'm growing civilized, as you imagine, but because I shall get something I want more, and that's not like Aunt Valeria. And it doesn't matter who says 'No' to what I want: I'll have it--yes, I'll have it in spite of all the angels in heaven and all the demons in hell, and that's not like Aunt Valeria!"
Julia, still sitting on the hearth-rug, had leaned forward, and was staring at Val with a curious expression. The crouched-together attitude had caused an envelope the girl had hidden in her bodice to work up to the bit of bare neck revealed by the low-folded fichu. Val fastened sharp eyes upon that part of the familiar gray-blue paper where
in Ethan's unmistakable hand she read as much of Julia's last name as "tway." Val's fixed stare made the other look down. Two guilty hands flew to her breast.
"Will you let me see that letter?" said Val.
"You must. I've told you my secret."
"I didn't ask you to."
Julia got up.
"There's something in it you're ashamed to show," said Val.
"Not at all."
"How long have you been corresponding with Ethan?"
"You've no right to cross-question me. I'm going home."
She moved to the door, and turned as she put her hand on the knob to say good-bye. The word died on her lips as she saw Val's face. Before Julia quite realized what was happening, the other had leaped upon her like a young panther, and was tearing away the fichu at her neck. A short struggle, and the letter was dragged out of its hiding-place. Val tore open the door and fled downstairs, out across the back and round the wooden L, in at the side-porch, through the kitchen, crying to Jerusha, "Don't tell Julia where I am!" up the back-stairs, and into an unused room opening onto the long hall. She locked herself in, and sat down in the dim light. Every pulse in her body was thumping like a stamp-mill. She slipped onto her knees before the shrouded window, and with quivering hands took out of the crumpled envelope several sheets of thin blue Irish linen-paper closely written.
"Oh, longer than any of mine!" she wailed, in her sore heart.
But, stop! it wasn't all one letter. A little note was to apologize to "Dear Miss Julia" for not answering her two former "charming letters," and to decline with many thanks the Otways' kind invitation to come and visit them.
"The audacity! To visit them indeed!"
His excuse was the pressure of political engagements.
"She had to write two charming letters to get this."
But the postmark was the capital of the State. He was less than two hours away! The other--the long communication--lacked the first page, according to the numbering. She turned to the broken sentence at the beginning:
" . . . realized I was rather too notoriously a 'rich man' to stand much chance of election, but I was at least a man who could afford to be defeated, and yet go on doing his level best to serve his country. I started in, believing that the way to serve her best was by being a Republican and a Sound Money man. It was all very well to say my own private interests lay along that line; I believe the public interest did as well. But I was not satisfied to be 'run' in blinders by an agent or a committee, pledged to see nothing but party advantages, pledged to controvert opposing opinions, however sound or unforeseen. I couldn't help seeing the other side. That's my special curse, by the way, and will stand forever between me and effective action. I have been about among the working-class and the idle poor. I took nobody's word. I investigated for myself the trades-unions, the various political and industrial organizations. I looked into Pullman patriarchal tyranny and into Carnegie despotism, and recalled the more humane, more democratic, attitude of masters to men in the effete monarchies aboard. Here, in free America, tyranny stalks naked and unashamed. The employment of politics for mere private gain, the abuse of patronage, and in business the war of extermination waged by trusts and combines--everywhere the right of moneyed might, the rich playing into the hands of the rich while pretending to serve the people--all this opened my eyes. I have just come from Ironville. The strike is not going to be settled so easily, although the suffering is appalling. The masters mean to starve the men to death; the men mean to blow the masters to atoms. This is the union I find in my native land--this the new free brotherhood of men. Sharks devouring little fishes!
"What with lawless greed on one side and lawless need on the other, the outlook frowns. The question of the future isn't silver versus gold, it isn't Republicans against Democrat, nor North against South, nor East against West, but human dignity and decency against capitalist slave-drivers and despoilers of the poor. You know the spirit of fervor and of patriotism that carried me into the campaign. I tell you I'm sick with disillusionment.
"I am far more afraid of being elected than of facing defeat. I have learned that these measures I proposed in such good faith are half-measures foredoomed to failure. Give me, if you can, some good reason to believe that this great and prosperous American is not likely to become the devil's drill-ground.
Yours very sincerely,
"Well, of all the funny letters for a man to write a girl!"
Julia give him a reason! Julia setting herself up as understanding politics! To be sure, she was two years older than Val, and was always seeing her father's political friends; but that didn't account for. . . . It came over her how little one woman knows the side another woman turns to men. It must be immensely flattering to have a "politician" writing to her on terms of equality. Oh yes, Julia must be enormously uplifted. Val was sure of it by the heaviness that weighed her down. Julia, no doubt, had "studied up" in order to share Ethan's interests on a side that Val and other girls couldn't reach.
As she came out of her hiding-place she was concocting in her mind a letter which the servant should carry over to Julia with the confiscated correspondence.
Her excitement had died down, leaving for the moment a dead weight of wretchedness. Ethan's letters to her had seemed before so full and satisfactory, even her hungry curiosity had felt no want in them that a letter could supply. For even the love he did not put into words seemed not only implicit in every line of each "enclosure," but more subtly delicious being veiled. His letters had filled up the empty spaces in her life, seeming to carry her along step by step through his. But is there was all this besides which he cared to write to Julia, what more might there not be in a life so full and varied as his? How had she been so blind, so easily content? It was years since they had said good-bye. Wasn't nearly every novel in the world a warning against believing that men remembered long the girl who was out of sight? No doubt, what she had dimly feared had happened at Long Branch last summer--Julia had improved the shining hour.
Val went wearily down the long hall, feeling that all the zest had gone out of existence forever. She stopped to lean against the last window at the head of the back-stairs. Looking out, she saw to her surprise that Julia was sitting on the terrace under the crooked catalpa-tree. Ah, she
couldn't go and leave that precious letter behind! Val went down to her with angry-beating heart. The other girl, leaning back against the tree, watched with sullen eyes the slow approach. She had wrapped the torn fichu up close about her throat. Something in Julia's handsome impassivity stirred the other to a rage, more becoming had she not been the arch offender. She dropped the crumpled envelope into Julia's lap.
"I congratulate you on being able to hold up your end of such a weighty correspondence."
"Is that all you have to say after leaping at me like a wild-cat and taking what didn't belong to you?"
"Oh, you're waiting here for me to apologize?"
Julia got up slowly.
"I never thought you would do such a dishonorable thing!"
"It wasn't dishonorable. You and I were ' best friends.' I had just given you my whole confidence. You owed it to me to be as frank with me. I took what belonged to me."
"And I say that if you broke into our house and stole the silver, you couldn't be more of a thief than you are this moment."
Val stared at her speechless, and then:
"I think if you were a man I could kill you. Why do you stay here?" she said, coming a step nearer with ill-controlled fury. "We aren't expecting Ethan to-day. Why do you stay?"
Julia squared her Junoesque shoulders against the crooked tree and stood her ground.
"You can, of course, behave like a wild savage if it suits you, but I'd like to know what you mean to do."
"Do!" Val dropped her arms listless to her sides. "What is there to do?"
"Shall you tell your cousin you stole his letters?"
"No. I shall tell my cousin exactly what happened."
She turned to go up to the house.
"I wouldn't, if I were you. Look here, there's no reason,
because our friendship's broken, that we should do more things we shall regret. You've no right because you've got hold of my secret--you've no right to pass it on to Ethan." It was an agony to hear her call him Ethan. "You mustn't tell him that I--that I carry his letters about. And I won't tell him that you--"
"Tell him what you like!"
Val went angrily up the terrace-steps; but all the same, Julia knew perfectly that she had secured herself now against Ethan's hearing what had happened. Val could, most indefensibly, tear her secret out of her keeping in the passion of the moment. But Julia had little fear that in cold blood her old friend would "give her away" to the man they both loved.
End Chapter 26
Available since September 1998