The Open Question by Elizabeth Robins (1898), Chapter 33
SHE longed more and more to go abroad again.
"As soon as ever you please," said Ethan.
How good he was to her! How he indulged her! How wonderful it was to be loved by such a man! Soon they'd be off again on their travels, seeing the beautiful Old World. Oh, Life was keeping her promises every one!
Five days after the talk about Julia came a letter from Mother Joachim, saying that Emmie's health was quite restored, but that she was inflexible about not seeing her sister. Mother Joachim herself thought it best that, for a year or so, nothing more should be said of the proposed meeting. Perhaps the girl would be willing to see her friends before taking the black veil.
With a joy, for which Val, thinking of her sister, reproached herself, she and Ethan had begun to lay their plans for a winter in Italy. Suddenly, without reason as it appeared to her, his interest seemed to falter, his good spirits to flicker out.
Athough even Val would not have denied that her husband could, if put to it, produce at any moment of the day or night the blackest charges against the order of the world, he had not hitherto proved a depressing person to live with. Like certain other unsanguine souls, he was a pleasanter companion than many an arrant optimist.
This was more certainly the case when politics were a little in the background. Val longed to see the subject banned. It seemed the one thing that took Ethan quite out of her sphere, and kept him in some world of scorn and indignation, at whose borders her smiling jurisdiction stopped.
"No more politics!" she said to Tom Scherer when he appeared after breakfast the morning after the letter had come from Mother Joachim. "I've come to the conclusion that it's bad for the digestion to talk bribery and corruption night after night till the small hours."
" Your digestion ought to be all right. You deserted us at eleven o'clock."
"I? Oh yes; but other people--"
"Never know when to go home?"
"It's not the people who go home that I am concerned about, if you'll forgive my saying so. Ethan's in one of his moods this morning."
"What sort of mood?" asked Scherer, looking into the cloudless face of the young wife. "Not very grim, to judge from its effect on yours."
"Oh, very grim indeed." As Ethan came in she waved her hand and made a little mock bow. "You knew him yesterday as His Serene Transparency, to-day Don Inscrutable Furioso of Grim Tartary; smokes like a chimney, and won't say a word."
Ethan laughed and threw his cigarette into the fire.
"Good-morning! I thought before I went to the office I'd come and have a little talk with you about that piece of property out by Ely's Farm."
Val glanced through the window.
"Hi there! Jack and Jill, where you off to? Wait!"
The men looked out, and saw two small chocolate-brown infants precipitate themselves upon Val. She sat down on the grass with the two small creatures in front of her, and soon had them rolling about and squealing with merriment.
"Where on earth did she find those pickaninnies?" asked Scherer.
"Offspring of Venus; little sunburned, that's all."
Val's dog-cart came to the gate, and she called out:
"Ethan, come and mind the twins while I get my hat."
He came out, and the children scuttled at sight of him.
"Do smile and reassure them." Val said, reproachfully. "There are ways of looking black that darkies don't mind, but-- Oh, forgive me!" She caught up his hand and smiled tenderly at him. "I was only making fun, but it was stupid fun. I don't make light of your political anxieties, but life must go on, you know, and we must smile--just a little." She ran into the house and came out with hat and gloves. "Put the babies into the cart, Ethan. They're coming for a drive."
The black children, preternaturally solemn while Ethan and Scherer lifted them in, grinned and squealed with excitement the moment they were landed by the side of "Miss Val."
"Miss Val" had been in wild spirits since she opened her eyes. The reaction had set in. After those days of vague, jealously hidden pain, she saw at hand a speedy freedom from the burden of Julia's presence.
She drove the fleet little Arab madly about the town "doing errands," she called out to the Halliwells and others, as she clattered by them in the dog-cart, with her grinning little guests breaking into shrieks of laughter at each jolt and every sudden turning of a corner. Val bought them oranges and sticks of candy. One of her "errands" was to call at the bank for Jerry, who, she said, alone understood how to make the perfection of a swing. She must have a swing. She was dying for a swing. It was so silly to give up delightful things just because children found them delightful too. And old Mr. Otway was coaxed to let Jerry come back in the cart.
On the crooked limb of the catalpa-tree they rigged up a splendid swing, and Jerry stayed to luncheon.
"I won't keep you after three," his old playmate said. "Ethan and I are working at Italian from three till four. But come back this evening, and receive the thanks of the assembled community."
After Jerry took himself off, Ethan and she went into the long room and began their reading. Usually this hour over their books was a time that Ethan seemed frankly
to enjoy. To-day, in spite of Val's gay good-humor, he was sometimes languid and sometimes nervously alert. He scolded her a little for forgetting a rule he had told her the day before.
"Yes, I'm stupid; forgive me," she said.
Again, towards the end of the hour, her attention wandered, remembering joyously that she was going abroad again.
"You are thinking of something else," he said, looking at her almost angrily.
"Oh, well, I won't."
"Yes, but you do. You lose half the good of learning a new language if it doesn't teach you to concentrate. Shut out everything else," he said, gravely. "It's the only way."
"Yes, yes, I'll be much better next time. But are you loving me to-day?"
He dropped the book like one whose strength is spent. Then he leaned over the arm of the great red chair and kissed her, holding her close, clinging to her.
"In spite of my sins, are you loving me more than you did yesterday?" she said, smiling.
"Twenty-four hours more," he answered, seeming to fall in with her mood.
"All that much more?"
"All that much."
"What are we going to do to-day after lessons?" She got up and stood before him with her finger in her book.
"Scherer and I are going to ride out to Ely's Farm a little after four, to look at that property. You had better come, too."
"All right. But what makes you look at me so--so--" She dropped her book and perched herself on his knee. "What are you thinking about?"
"I was thinking about this bit of Dante."
"No, no; it's wicked to tell lies. You don't smile to-day except when you make yourself. What-- are--you-- thinking--about?" she demanded.
But she waited in vain. He seemed to forget her ques-
tion--forget her presence. She put one arm about his neck, and lifting her other hand doubled, she knocked at his forehead.
"Let me in--let me in," she said.
His answer was to crush her against him, and hold her so, in a silence that was broken only by the loud, insistent ticking of the tall gilt clock. When Val spoke again it was subdued and dreamily:
"Isn't it odd how much we sit in this huge old chair of hers whenever we're here alone?"
"It's a friendly old chair," he answered, putting out his foot and setting it in motion. "Ever since the far back times when I was rocked to sleep in it, and made to forget Yaffti and all the spectres and the hurts of childhood"--his voice was sweet and lulling--"the old chair has been a haven."
"It was more of a judgment-seat to me," she said, and it crossed her mind that it must be near the anniversary of the day her grandmother had died.
She mustn't forget that date as she did all others; her whole life long she meant to remember that day, to keep it holy with special remembrance and with flowers, and some little deed of the kind she would have liked--done in memoriam. She lifted her head from Ethan's shoulder and looked for the calendar. It always hung on a brass nail beside the fireplace. It had been there three or four days ago, she was sure. She sat thinking this, with her head turned away from her husband, and then, while she speculated as to the calendar's whereabouts, another portion of her brain was thinking idly:
"Why doesn't he draw me back into his arms as he always does, and say, 'Don't be such a restless creature'? He sees I'm looking for something; why doesn't he ask for what?" And then a sudden formless presentiment seized her. "It must be because he knows. Why should he have guessed just that? Had he taken the calendar away himself? Why should he? What was the date?"
Like a blow between the eyes came the knowledge and
awakening. As if it had actually come in the form of a blow from a fist, she shut her dazed eyes, and saw the blackness sown with stars. But for that closing of the eyes, no muscle had she moved. She had indeed lost track of time. Her ineradicable failing there had made forgetfulness possible; the time of painful preoccupation about Julia had made it easy; the last days of all-absorbing gladness had made it sure. She did the mental sum again and again. Yes, it was September 16. To-morrow was the anniversary of Mrs. Gano's death. Yesterday was the last day of the old life for Val. To-day the bolt had fallen. But had it--hat it? Had she not lived through moments like this before? In those first months--yes; but then she had taken Time and Fear by the forelock. To-day she was far behind.
It was strange to herself how all her dreads--physical shrinking and mental anguish--focused in the fear of reading Ethan's consciousness in his face. If blindness could only come upon her, if only she could escape seeing the knowledge in the face she loved, she would, she knew, escape the sharpest pang of all.
What was he thinking now of her long immobility? Why didn't he speak or move? What need? Why should they look each other in the face? She felt his eyes on her back, and a shiver ran between her shoulder-blades. Those eyes of his, how she dreaded them! They peirced through to the brain. They looked into her heart and watched it as it shrank, showing her the while that, whatever she endured, his agony was more.
She bowed her head down over her knees. He gathered her up as if she had been a little child, and rocked her dumbly in his arms. They sat so for a moment, each hiding the face from the other. A loud resounding blow upon the knocker made them start agart.
"The summons!" he thought.
And that morning in the attic came back to him when as a child, he glowed with excitement and pride to find the old brass knocker bearing his own name.
Val had kept her back turned when she started up, and
was standing now before the window looking into the street. The horses were at the door. Ethan went out. She heard him speaking with Scherer, and Scherer's voice saying:
"Julia will be round in five minutes."
Val fled up-stairs and locked the door. She heard her husband coming up, and listened breathless--Scherer, too! A light knock on her door as they passed, and Ethan's voice:
"Don't be long getting ready, dear."
He never said "dear" to her before people.
"No; I won't be long," she heard herself answer.
She tore off her house-gown and hurried on her habit. She must be down first. If she were not, she felt she couldn't go, and since he was going--
When she got down to the gate the only person in sight was Julia, drawing rein by the new white mounting-block at the gate. Calling to the gardener: "Tell Mrs. Gano we've gone on before," Val mounted her horse. "I'll race you to the Maple Grove," she cried, and set off at a gallop, Julia following.
Val reached the goal first, and road back nearly half a mile to propose a shorter contest. Then another and another, till the men caught them up. They, too, seemed to have a fancy for hard riding, and when they reached Ely's Farm the four horses were in a foam.
They went over Scherer's property while it was light, and had a nondescript meal afterewards at the farm.
On the way home she heard her husband telling Scherer he must come back with them and get a book Ethan had promised him in the morning. They left Julia at her gate. When Ethan lifted Val down from her horse he whispered:
"I may walk back with Scherer after we've had a smoke. Don't wait up for me . . . go to sleep, darling."
She clung to him an instant in the dark, and then went in-doors. Her maid was waiting for her up-stairs.
"A bath," said her mistress; "I'm very hot and dusty."
The warm water refreshed and revived her. She put on
her long blue dressing-gown of soft unrustling silk. She saw with the old pleasure how white and shapely her arms showed when she lifted her hands to her hair, the wide open sleeves falling back almost to the shoulder. She uncoiled the long brown braids, and let the hair flow loose.
"Something to read, ma'am, before I go?" asked the prim foreign maid, placing the shaded lamp on the table by the fire and drawing up the arm-chair.
"No; that's all."
Val sat there alone, before the fire, till twelve o'clock; then, lighting a candle, she went to the head of the stair and listened. No sound. He had gone back with Scherer; he must surely come soon. A sudden noise, a sound like the shutting of the gate. She flew back to her room. On an uncontrollable impulse she shut and locked the door, and put out candle and lamp. Had he come that moment she would have feigned sleep. But it was a false alarm. Presently she relit the candle, opened the door, and stood listening. Slowly she went down-stairs, peering over the banisters, trailing her blue draperies from the room to room, her hand about the candle-flame and her wide eyes intent.
"Looking for what? God knows. It must be Ethan I'm looking for. Why doesn't he come? I'm to 'sleep'--to sleep!"
She went to the front door and opened it. The night smelt fresh and pungent. The scent of the first falling leaves filled the air.
"Yes," she said to herself, "it's the time of the year when things happen."
The heavy burnished knocker caught the candle gleam, and she laid her hot forehead against the cool brass.
"He came, first, on such a night. And she went away from us two years ago to-morrow--no, it's to-day."
She came in and shut the door, but some one had entered with her. Val stood a moment in the silent hall, quite still. The dead woman seemed to have come back from her grave. The quiet house was full of her. Val stood before the long room door, and almost before she realized
what she was doing, she had lifted her hand and knocked. Smiling faintly, she went in. In that dim light it was all just as it used to be. The only reason she couldn't see the figure in the great crimson chair was that the high back concealed the judge and comforter sitting there.
Val set the candle down, and, for the first time since the blow had fallen, she felt the rush of tears filling her wide strained eyes. They blurred the dim outlines of things, but, with hands out-stretched, she went towards the empty chair like one praying help and succor. At the side she knelt down and laid her cheek on the arm, crying noiselessly, remembering other days and other pains, but never before this stark denial of all comfort. How good it had been, as a child, to feel the light hand on her hair! Ah! the hand was lighter now. "Well, and so will the hearts of her children be, when they're dust," she said to herself, and rose up. She looked into the parlor. Daniel Boone, his hunters and his dogs, and before the big painting a picture etched on the air of a wild little girl with long flying hair, dancing in the dusk, until a fear fell on her that struck the quicksilver out of her veins and hung her limbs with lead. On the other side of the room was the new grand-piano that had come too late.
The Ethan of ten years ago stood in the corner with his hands on a girl's shoulders, saying "Promise!" And the girl sang no more.
She went on from room to room as if still looking for that something she had lost. Up-stairs again--into the room that had been her father's long ago, her husband's now, and full of the impress of his spirit. His pictures, his books--it was the one room in the house wholly, utterly changed, in atmosphere and outward seeming. In the corner of the red damask lounge by the fire, a little old book. She picked it up. Seneca! She hadn't seen it since that day two years ago on the river, when he refused to translate the passage he had marked. She would take it away and spell out for herself those things in the marked book that had marked the soul of the man she
loved. A large empty envelope, folded double, had fallen out. It bore the stamp of the Navy Department, and the Washington postmark. A memorandum in pencil in Ethan's fine handwriting: "Army contracts--fight corruption." On the other side some verses.
Ah! he was beginning to write again. No; there was an unfamiliar name at the end. Still, what was it that he had taken the trouble to copy?
"Be still, my soul, be still; the arms you bear are brittle,
Earth and high heaven are fixt of old and founded strong.
Think, rather-call to thought, if now you grieve a little,
The days when we had rest, oh soul, for they were long.
"Men loved unkindness then, but lightless in the quarry
I slept and saw not; tears fell down, I did not mourn;
Sweat ran, and blood sprang out, and I was never sorry:
Then it was well with me, in days ere I was born.
; "Now, and I muse for why, and never find the reason,
I pace the earth, and drink the air, and feel the sun.
Be still, be still, my soul--it is but for a season;
Let us endure an hour and see injustice done.
"Ay, look! high heaven and earth ail from the prime foundation;
All thoughts to writhe the heart are here, and all are vain:
Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation--
Oh, why did I awake? When shall I sleep again?"*
She looked up and saw her husband standing at the door. With a cry she let fall paper and candle, and fled into his arms.
"My dear, my dear!" he whispered, trying to soothe her. They stood there locked in each other's arms while the minutes went by. At last, "Help me to find the candle," she said, faintly, and as they both went towards the fireless grate, groping and stooping to feel about the floor, "Perhaps we should rather try to get used to the dark," she said; and he, with breaking heart, caught at her, crying hoarsely:
* By permission, from A Shropshire Lad, by A. E. Housman.
"Val! Val! I can't bear it!"
"I'll help you, dear."
"I can't let you die."
"Isn't it strange?--everybody's said that who has loved some one. And where are they all?"
"But you are so young." They had reached the sofa in the dark, and sat there locked together.
"Yes, thank Heaven, we're young." She pressed her face against his wet cheek. "Ah! don't be so terrible unhappy, dear. To die!--why, that's the most wonderful of all."
End Chapter 33
Available since September 1998