The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 31
IT was a little over a year after this that Mrs. Gano's life was despaired of.
"A complication of troubles, no one of them very serious, but all together, and at her age--"
The doctor completed the sentence with a gesture.
The next day Ethan stood with his cousins at the bed-side.
"I did not send for you," was Mrs. Gano's greeting.
"No; Val did," volunteered Emmie, who had not been told the result of the doctor's consultation.
" Val"--the sick woman raised her head--"you take a great deal upon yourself."
She sank back exhausted. Val could not read in Ethan's eyes that he had abandoned hope. But the girl's heart was full of dread. She went softly out of the room.
"Oh, grandma, you've hurt her feelings," said Emmie, gently.
"I saw tears in her eyes. Think of Val crying!"
"It's no great affair that one should cry now and then. Perhaps it's just as well that you've come, after all." She fixed a far from hospitable look upon her grandson. "I was about to write you. Leave us awhile, Emmeline." She closed her eyes as the girl went out, as if to summon strength. "I don't approve of the tone of your last letter to Val."
"Oh, she reads me parts still. She reads me a great deal. The tone of the later ones, especially the last--"
She shook her head with a weak, slow movement.
"I am sorry you think--"
"We haven't time to waste being sorry; let us be different." With sudden energy she pulled out one page of a letter from under her pillow. "I haven't eyesight to read your shocking writing, my dear--"
"No, no; don't try. I remember what you mean. I won't make fun of the Churchman in politics any more--not in my letters. I apologize to the bishop."
"Oh, that"--she smiled--"that was rather amusing, though not in the best taste. No; what I mean was on the last page. Read from 'whom the gods love.'"
"Do you mean this quotation?"
"'Life, though a good to men on the whole, is a doubtful good to many, and to some not a good at all.' Is that it?"
"Yes. What's the rest?"
"'To my thought it is a source of constant mental distortion to make the denial of this a part of religion to go on pretending things are better than they are. To me early death takes the aspect of salvation.'"
"Now I ask you, Can you find nothing better than that to say to a girl?"
"It was not I who found it."
"You say it's George Eliot. Well, she had too much sense to present that view to a young girl. She put it in a diary. If you've nothing better to put into yours, so much the worse for you. Don't you know there are two ways of interpreting 'whom the gods love die young'?"
"Yes"--he smiled--"'young' when they die at eight." And he looked at the living commentary.
"Very well; it's a view to keep in mind. But it's not only occasional things like that that I deprecate in your letters; the letters themselves should cease."
"Really." He drew himself up and returned her direct look, but the wasted face and sunken eyes struck compunction to his heart. "Very well," he said, soothingly.
"It's not very well at all, but very ill, that you should try to waive the subject."
"Yes. You think I'm dying, and you won't oppose me. I'm not dying, and I mean to see Val through this before I do die."
"Through her foolish befogment about you. I had a long talk with Harry Wilbur last week. He has behaved well. You--" She paused, as if trying to pluck out the heart of his mystery; then, abandoning the attempt: "I want you to promise me before you leave this room that you'll go away by the next train, and that you won't see Val, or write to her, till one or other of you is safely suitably married."
He had a moment's temptation to pacify her at all costs, but as he looked into the old face he felt that a degradation would cling to him if he played falsely with a spirit as honest and courageous as this. She wasn't a woman one could lie to comfortably.
"I can't promise you that," he said, after a struggle.
"Oh, the old reason," he answered, with a look of weary pain.
"What is that?"
She craned her head forward.
"You have to ask?"
"I have to ask."
"I love her."
"And don't you know--" Her loyalty to Val stopped her. "Why don't you tell her?"
"Then, why aren't you-- What's the trouble?"
"What's the trouble?" he echoed.
"Yes. You surely aren't waiting for me to go?"
"No, no," he said, hastily, feeling his fears for the moment dislodged and feebly flying like a flock of bats and owls before the daylight in the brave old eyes. "No, no; you are not the barrier."
"I suppose, primarily, it's Uncle John. He left us a legacy."
A sudden mist of weakness rose before her like a veil.
Ethan turned away, and paced the dim room from the bedside to the fireplace, back and forth. It came over the sick woman that it was just so John had walked and talked about this like he lacked the energy to live. How like him Ethan was growing in air and manner! It was as if John had got up out of his grave to walk the old track in the old restless fashion. What was it he was saying about "the wreck of creeds"?
"--the mere expediency of the conventions right and wrong, and yet man's hopeless struggle to be rid of the phantom Duty. If you pass the churches by, she confronts you in the schools, in the laboratory, follows you in the streets, dogs you day and night, the 'implacable huntress.' We may free ourselves from all superstitions but Duty. She, in one guise or another, is ever at the heels of men."
"You wouldn't be a Gano if you didn't feel so," she said, wondering vaguely if she had dreamed Ethan's coming and John's going.
Which was it, walking the worn and faded track on Valeria's old blue Brussels?
"Exactly. So Uncle John said."
Ah, then it was Ethan!
"What was it John said?"
She drew herself up, and shook off the veil of faintness.
"Several unforgettable things about man's first duty to the race--about not inflicting upon others the burdens Val and I must bear."
"Burdens!" (Ah, she remembered now what they had been talking about.) "What burden, I'd like to know, does Val bear that you can't lift?"
"Humph! And you?"
"She and I are of one blood. We carry a double share."
"And let me tell you"--she sat up straight in the great bed--"a double share of Gano is not bad addition to the world's brew."
"Did you ever say that to Uncle John?"
"Good Heaven! To hear you talk, a body'd think you had invented the law of heredity--you and your uncle John."
"Well, God has forbid, and let that content you. He is quite capable of looking after His own world."
Ethan's faint head-shake and his smile seemed to infuriate her.
"My good soul, you take too much responsibility. It doesn't lie with you to refashion the world. God's universe has been good enough for a great many good people."
"That it has been good enough for you doesn't cover the question," he said, brutally, adding in haste, "even if you didn't deceive yourself. It is not, as things are, good enough for all. But Uncle John was right: it would be a better place to live in if people hesitated to perpetuate disease."
"Perpetuate disease! What folly you talk! Don't you see that your improved mew modes of living breed new diseases? If you have not the cholera of my youth, you have the Bright's disease and the influenza that we knew nothing of. Disease is part of the plan."
"What an awful doctrine!"
"Not at all. I can't be sure that it wouldn't leave the world poorer if disease were got rid of. I'm not, like you, ready to arraign the Everlasting." (Val opened the door softly, came in, and stood at the foot of the bed.) "To me finite mind, unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out. I only know that they are just, and that I am the work of His hand."
"I envy you your faith."
"No, you don't. You think yourself superior to it, and what's the result? You walk in darkness."
"Not altogether in darkness." He looked across at the girl.
"Yes, in darkness and in fear. Not the fear of God--that's tonic--but in the fear of pain. Oh, I've watched this phase of modern life. It's been coming, coming for years. The world to-day is crushed and whining under a load of sentimentality. People presently will be afraid to move, lest they do or receive some hurt."
"All people don't wear your armor."
"There is no armor but God," she said, in a clear voice. "'We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed."
He bent and kissed her hand. She withdrew it and laid it on his head, smoothing the thick, dark hair.
"You carry one Gano burden that I pity you for: you think too much about life."
"Ah, and it doesn't bear being thought about?"
"But Val will help you there," she went on, ignoring the question. "All she asks is the wages of going on." She reached out a hand to the girl, who came and stood by her cousin. "Val hasn't the letter, but she has the spirit. Remember, you two, when you come in the modern way to pick flaws in the Faith, that if I wore stout armor, as you say, it was not of this world's forging. Remember, that I told you I could not have lived the half--no, nor the quarter part of my long life, if I have not been 'persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God.'" She closed her eyes. "Now go and leave me, you two. I am tired."
Treading softly, Ethan went out of the room. Val watched beside her till the night-nurse came.
The next morning Mrs. Gano sent for the clergyman (through Emmie, saying nothing to the others), and took the Communion.
"It's a habit of mine," she told Ethan afterwards. "I always commune several time a year."
"Only at Easter and Christmas," Val told him privately, afterwards. "But she is angry if we seem to notice anything unusual."
About four o'clock Emmie, who did not appreciate the gravity of the situation, came in from visiting a young girl who was very ill--not expected to live.
"Oh, grandma, you should have seen her! so gentle and so resigned; saying good-bye to all her friends." Emmie broke down.
"H'm! I consider that an unnecessary strain on the feelings."
"Oh no," remonstrated Emmie; "it was beautiful! She prayed for us all."
"She might do that without making a scene."
"Oh, grandma, you don't realize what it was like. I never saw any one so ready for the other life as Ada Brown."
"Oh yes, you have. The best 'getting ready' isn't done on death-beds."
"You're so unsympathetic," murmured the girl.
"Yes, I've hated scenes all my life; but death-bed scenes I consider indecent."
" Oh!" Emmie got up and, with deeply injured looks, prepared to withdraw.
"If you haven't done your best, it's too late when you're dying to try to mend things. If you have done your best, there's no more to be said."
And no more was said for several hours. She lay quite peacefully, took the half-hourly restoratives from Val, but was visibly weaker on each occasion. Ethan went out and sent for the doctor. He came back in time to lift the half-unconscious form up in his arms, while Val held a glass to the pale lips.
"Enough," she whispered; "lay me down." And it was done. She opened her eyes and faintly pressed Val's hand. "Good girl," she said.
A slight spasm passed over her face. She turned her head away, clutched the sheet, and, with what seemed a
superhuman effort, drew it over her face. Ethan put out his hand to take it away, but Val arrested him.
"Don't! don't! She would never let any one see when she suffered." The girl fell sobbing at the bedside.
Some time after, Val drew the linen down. The suffering was over, so was the long life.
Venus and the "new" servant had taken turns to sit through the day in the long room, where the body lay. Ethan was to watch through the night, but Val had insisted that she should be there from ten till midnight while Ethan slept, before his watch began. He opposed her plan, but gave way at least and went to lie down--not to sleep. Just before twelve o'clock he came out of his room, down over the head of his old enemy Yaffti, and stopped outside the long room door. Again a remembrance of his childhood's awe, and the queer sense that he ought, in spite of all, to knock to-night before going in. He turned the knob and entered softly.
The long, straight outlines of the coffin set high upon a bier, the candles burning at the head, and in the shadow at the coffin's side a deeper shadow on the floor. As his eyes became accustomed to the light, he saw it was his cousin crouching there on her knees, with bowed head and hands folded straight before her, palm to palm. He went forward and tried to lift her.
"No, let me alone; I--I want to pray."
"To pray, Val?"
She bowed her white face.
"Not to God--I don't know about God--but there's some one else now out in the vague, and I--I have need of her."
Her face drooped out of sight, and the moments passed. The motionless figure with the folded palms might have been a mortuary marble on an ancient tomb, so rigid was it, so uninformed by life. Ethan sat at the coffin's foot and watched the candles flare.
What if this shock and jar were to send Val back to the
faith of her fathers? What was it in its lesser effect upon himself? What was it working in him? He looked at the long, dim outlines. Death! For the girl, too, with her joy of life, her greed of consciousness, and for him, the hour would come, of rigid quiet, and of watchers in the candle-light. He shivered involuntarily, glancing at the kneeling figure. Death! How much he had thought about it, and how little he had seen. Here it was beside him in a narrow box. He turned away his eyes, seized upon afresh by its horror and its fascination. That moment of dissolution, what had it been like? Even the brave old woman had covered up her face. He peered a moment into the pit, realizing for that instant the wrenching away of life's supports, the plunge, the sinking to the bottom. With an effort he reminded himself of the peace, too, awaiting all down there, and its being the only possible solution to the riddle of the world. But the end--the end! Earthquake and avalanche it is, for the one who lies a-dying; fire and flood and shock of battle, the true end of the world. For us the lamp of the sun was lit on the day of our birth, for us the stars will be snuffed out and chaos come again when we lie down to die.
Had it been like that with her--this dead woman at his elbow? He stood up; cautiously he came to the coffin's head, with parted lips, like one about to put an eager question. He laid back the white sheet. At sight of the tranquil features his own tense look relaxed. Ah, no; for that steadfast spirit the end had brought no terror, or if it had, the quiet face kept triumphantly its secret. A movement down in the shadow, and Val lifted her head, but not as high as the coffin.
"Ethan!"--she clutched his hand--"don't you feel how alive she is? Hush! in a moment she will speak. I've asked her for a sign."
They waited--in that silence that wraps the world. Then Val stood up, and gave a cry as she beheld the face for the first time since the "laying out." She caught up the candle, and held up the light before the dead, as she
had held it before the living woman on that evening long ago, when Ethan saw her first.
"Oh, Ethan, Ethan," said the girl, " she's smiling! That's her answer."
They had come back from the burial, and for the first time in their lives Val and Emmie were in the old house without that constant presence that had come to seem as much a part of the Fort as its very walls. Ethan was still there. Mrs. Otway had come to be with them through those first days; but since the dead body had been carried out of the house loneliness was lodged there like a bailiff, violating the sanctity and blessedness of home.
Ethan found Val in the long room the next evening, sitting on the floor crying, with head against the big empty chair.
"Even you can't make the awful loneliness go away," she said. "I must wait awhile before I can think about taking up life."
The next day she said to him: "You must go away now, and you must come back for me."
"You still think it possible?"
"For you to go away?"
"For me to come back."
"Possible? Inevitable! She smiled up at him with an air of tender mockery. "No escape from me. But never forget"--she was grave enough now--"we may escape paying the penalty--people do."
He studied her a moment. No; she was thinking only of the natural "chance." No idea of trying to control it had come her way. "Nor could she comprehend," he thought, "how, even if I am wrong in my inveterate mistrust, or if science should to-morrow carry us so far that we should be demonstrably beyond the reach of danger--she could not realize that no power on earth or in the heavens could make us fully credit our security, could carry us beyond the reach of fear. Imagination is, by so much, mightier than reason. Trust imagination to keep
the fear alive, to work without ceasing, by day and by night, subtly to destroy the fabric of our lives."
But even when the strong contagion of his fear had reached and mastered her a moment, it was fear with another face.
"I see plainly"--she laid her hands on his shoulders--"you think that it will mend matters if you have the treachery to go the long journey by yourself, and leave me alone in the world. But it would only mean that we should die apart, and now, when we might have died later and together, and--and"--she laid her face against him--"after great joy." He stroked her hair with an unsteady hand. "Look at me!" she cried on a sudden, lifting up her face. "You aren't afraid? Don't you see that I'd keep my word?"
"Yes, you'd keep your word."
In his inmost heart it would have helped him at that moment to have found any softness of shrinking there.
"Then you'll come when I send--you'll come and take me away?"
Was it fancy, or had she lightly stressed the "me"? He thought of how he had come first of all and taken John Gano to the South to die; how he had returned to follow his grandmother to her long home. He had a sudden vision of himself in the guise of Death. "Each time I come," he thought, I see some one of this house off on his last journey. Soon little Emmie will be left alone."
But Emmie was not left to the last, and Ethan, though he never knew it, was responsible for her, too, turning her back upon the Fort--upon the world.
The effect of Mrs. Gano's death on a clinging and dependent nature like Emmie's was painfully apparent. Val's new-born sense of tender guardianship over her younger sister was certainly not weakened by the younger girl's confession, after he went away, of her passion for Ethan.
"I always thought it might come right for me," she said, "till--till I saw the look on his face when he bade you good-bye. When will you be married, Val?"
"I don't know, dear."
"Some time during this year?"
"I should think so."
The younger girl bowed a meek head, and turned to her faith as a refuge, or, as Ethan would have said, an opiate. But the old helps seemed to have lost somewhat of their efficacy. She began to go to mass, and one day sought an interview with the Roman Catholic priest. A few months afterwards she was received in to the Roman Church.
Val would not leave her sister while she was going through these phases, and forbade Ethan to come till she should send for him.
But Mrs. Gano had not been in her grave a year when Emmie herself made the final move that broke up the old home. How much religious fervor had to do with it, how much a sense of unfitness for the battle of life, how much a feeling in the gentle heart that she was delaying Val's happiness, no one ever knew. She bade her sister good-bye with many tears, turned her back upon the Fort, and entered the first year of her novitiate at the Convent of the Sacred Heart.
A week later, in early August, Val was married very quietly to her cousin, in the Church of St. Thomas. "But the real marriage was that evening on the river when we propitiated the Fates," she whispered, as they came down the church steps.
End Chapter 31
Available since September 1998