The Ancient Courage

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The Ancient Courage  (1916) 
by Mary Heaton Vorse

From Harper's Monthly Magazine, May 1916

He sat down heavily in a chair that creaked under his weight, and said, with indifferent politeness: "How do, Raphael?"

Then he dropped, into his usual brooding silence, until it seemed to Amy Vossema that he enveloped them all in the dark cloud of his own black temperament. It was as though she could see the lights of their spirits dimming like a lamp that is being turned out.

The Ancient Courage


HER mother always thought of her in terms of light. She seemed to her to glow with a soft, inner radiance like that of a candle set in an alabaster vase. When she came suddenly into the room in one of her breathless, still excitements, it was as though a sudden shaft of sunlight had entered. Lately she had been like an aspiring white flame.

The light of Amy Vossema's life—that Cara surely was. What she meant to her father Mrs. Vossema often wondered. Certainly his feeling toward her was different than it had been toward his boys. She was the only person who was not afraid of him. She came into Durrell Vossema's presence with as much unconcern as if he were not notoriously formidable—a man with a terrible weight in the fury of his anger and a man who enjoyed the fear he engendered. Indeed, it seemed to Amy Vossema, his wife, that if he should cease to walk in the midst of a circle of apprehension he would cease to be. She believed in her secret heart that he barked at people in sudden violence for the pleasure of seeing them start. He had never made Cara start, and with her his silence had been less grim.

In all the pictures of her inner mind there was one that stood out most clearly in Amy Vossema's mind, and that was Cara and her father walking along, hand in hand—he, bull-necked, heavy, his early good looks swallowed up in the habit of wrath; she, blond as silver, either flashing around him like uncertain sunlight or holding his hand and looking up into his face, talking incessantly. Amy Vossema often wondered what she said to him. This conversation that she could see and not hear teased her; she wondered, too, what Durrell had in his veiled and wrathful eyes when he bent down to look at Cara. She thought of these conversations—and they had ceased long ago—as she sat watching Cara from her place at the end of the long piazza whence she could watch another shadowy conversation sketch its outlines in pantomime.

A little trill of laughter fluttered continually in the air between Cara Vossema and Raphael Manta. Some high and heady joy had seized Cara's spirit and was letting it send out leaping flames. The beauty of the two of them smote through Amy Vossema's heart with a feeling of almost pain.

The laughter died away. They looked at each other with the profound and questioning scrutiny of youth. Raphael, in spite of his splendid and far-flung gaiety, his swift and quiet strength, gazed at Cara timidly, almost beseechingly, and she answered his wistful look by some deep, inner withdrawal, then turned toward him a glance as swift and sweet as a shy kiss. The conversation had stopped, and the silence between the two had become peopled with new shapes; things from the immemorable past stirred in their hearts.

A flicker of fear passed through Cara's eyes, as though she greatly feared and yet most deeply desired that which was awakening in her heart.

Again a stab of what was like pain went through Mrs. Vossema. She turned her head away, for she noticed they were not aware they were silent. They were not afraid of silence together. They were utterly without the usual restless sense of vacancy that so profoundly disturbs young people when words do not flow readily. This being so, Amy Vossema knew that they had advanced a long distance on the road of life. She had a curious sense of indiscretion at being there at all, as though she were overhearing something not meant for her ears, as though she were looking through some keyhole of the spirit into their hearts.

Then for a second her heart stood still at the sound of Durrell Vossema's light step and heavy breathing—for he moved like a cat, in spite of his weight. She never got over the sense that he was about to spring. He came on the piazza and paused for the fraction of a second to flash a glance of steel from his wife to the young people and back again. He sat down heavily in a chair that creaked under his weight, and said, with indifferent politeness:

"How do, Raphael?"

Then he dropped, into his usual brooding silence, until it seemed to Amy Vossema that he enveloped them all in the dark cloud of his own black temperament. It was as though she could see the lights of their spirits dimming like a lamp that is being turned out. Next he threw back his head with a short laugh that sounded like a bark, and stared with insolence at Raphael.

At this a sudden little change came over Cara. She settled back into herself absently and into the hammock, and let her gaze stray out across the quiet tree-tops to the bay. She had withdrawn herself into some remote fastness of the spirit where her father could not penetrate. She sat there with a calm countenance that almost seemed the calm of indifference.

Raphael sat steady under Vossema's hostile scrutiny. He was a little flushed, put out, and troubled, but unflinching. It was as if the older man were using all the force of his personality to crush the boy. After what seemed an interminable time:

"Ha!" Mr. Vossema barked again, and then he asked, "How is your father?"

By what inflection he managed to make this inquiry an insult no one could have told. Raphael flushed more hotly.

"He's very well, thank you," he replied, holding his head a little higher, a little sternness also in his tone.

Mr. Vossema dropped his gaze broodingly on Cara. He seemed utterly lost in morose reflection which included himself and Cara and shut every one else in the world out. There was something so subtle and firm about him in the chair that he seemed to have grown there.

It was like witnessing some act of heroism to see Raphael faltering forth a question; it seemed like inviting a death sentence. Then, with much grace, Raphael rose and with composure and simplicity he said his good-byes, bowed deeply to Mrs. Vossema, who, in a toneless voice, sent regards to his mother, and departed.

All three of them sat in silence—Cara's unperturbed spirit far away, Mrs. Vossema full of the apprehension that scenes like this always gave her. It was like seeing a menacing, unnatural-colored cloud coming toward you at full speed, knowing that in a second more the blast would strike you. It came with a low, concentrated fury.

"What do you let him come here for?"

It was as if the impact of his still fury, like the rush of a great wind, took all the words from Mrs. Vossema's mouth.

Cara from her shelter answered: "Because I like him, father. We're good friends."

He paid no attention to her, but with gathering rage said, "What makes you let him come, I ask you?" He got up from his chair and walked with his light spring over to his wife, where he stood towering above her. "I'd like you to answer. What made you let him come?"

Without waiting for a reply: "Has it been going on long? That's what I want to know?"

To this she faltered, "Going on?" and then drew back involuntarily. Her fluttering, inadequate answers always maddened him, and though he had never touched her with violence, she shrank from him as though she expected a blow. There was something in his pose that suggested it was with difficulty he restrained himself from tearing her with his hands.

Mrs. Vossema glanced at Cara. It did not seem possible her perfect poise and tranquillity could be assumed. One gathered that she was in far-off spaces, where the still fury of her father's anger came to her like the humming of distant bees. She answered for her mother, however.

"He's come to see us quite a few times, father."

"Well, he's not coming any more few times!" He spoke to his wife, though he answered Cara.

No one asked him why. No one asked him what he had against Raphael Manta; such futilities had died and been buried in the far distance of Amy Vossema's past, and Cara had never learned to ask such questions.

"You heard me?" he demanded, fiercely.

"Yes," said his wife.

He snapped back his head and looked at Cara without speaking. She smiled at him, one would almost have thought indulgently.

"Yes, father," she responded.

He could not quite keep it up in the face of her young serenity. She evaded his anger, avoided it, withdrew herself from it, did not fear it. Under her calm exterior, her mother reflected, there must be something made of steel. What did she think of her father, she wondered. Did she love him? She had ceased being a child, and her prattling confidences had ceased with her childhood. As she had grown up she had been a silent spectator of more than one devastating scene between her father and the three older brothers, who had all of them gone from home because of him. Two of the boys he had driven to fury. The youngest he cowed into a sullen acquiescence; his father's grim silences, his irony and his outbreaks, had never failed to have a shattering effect upon him, as they continued to have on Mrs. Vossema herself. As for Cara, she neither rebelled nor acquiesced. She knew as well as any one the destructive force of his anger, but she had somehow developed a power which to her mother seemed almost mysterious, for she remained forever outside the circle of his wrath, as though at will she could enter into some fourth dimension of the spirit.

He left them. Mrs. Vossema looked inquiringly at her daughter. She returned her mother's glance with a smile.

"I suppose it's because he's Portuguese," Mrs. Vossema hazarded.

"He never used to mind Portuguese," Cara reflected.

"He may have quarreled with Raphael's father over some business matter," Mrs. Vossema again hazarded, her anxious eyes on Cara. "Does this hurt you?" her glance mutely asked. "Are you wounded by this?" for she was not yet far away from the spell of the deep silence of understanding that had so infolded them.

Cara smiled ever so faintly—a soft little smile that modeled the contours of her face as softly as the face of one of those women whom Luini loved to paint. It was fortunate, Mrs. Vossema reflected, that Raphael Manta was only twenty and Cara but eighteen—too young for either of them to think of marrying yet awhile.

Raphael as a friend was right enough. A lovely thing, Mrs. Vossema secretly called him. His manners and bearing had a Latin grace. He had, too, a high gaiety, a sudden, flashing smile, and all this tempered by an admirable gravity and dignity of poise, as Latin as his manners and his laughter. A splendid human being, Raphael Manta, but an undesirable husband for Cara Vossema—she New England, he Portuguese; he Roman Catholic, the Vossemas Protestants. So, even if the Mantas owned half the fishing-fleet and were as powerful in the town as Durrell Vossema himself, the Vossemas would always hold themselves above the Mantas.

Mother and daughter looked deeply into each other's eyes for a moment. Then Cara spoke:

"Father's going to be like this about every one. It isn't just Raphael; it's that I have grown up."

To this her mother had no answer. She was certain there had been something in the air between Raphael and Cara that had never existed between Cara and any of the other young men who came to visit, something that she had felt and that evidently had flashed itself instantly on her father's jealous spirit. She knew that Durrell Vossema had a savage and jealous love of his own people that was as dark as his temper—part of it, perhaps.

Raphael Manta did not come any more to sit on the Vossema's piazza, and it seemed to Mrs. Vossema that through some seventh sense she was a spectral witness of a drama which was enacted in the depths of Cara's heart. A cloud was over the light of her spirit. Sitting with her, to her mother, was like sitting in the dusk instead of in radiance.

Once Mrs. Vossema came into the drawing-room to find her staring out of the window, looking very little and forlorn and very much alone, standing in the attitude of one who waits and who knows she waits in vain but still must continue to wait. And Mrs. Vossema could say nothing to comfort her, nor could she ask her anything. She was to her mother as heartbreaking a sight as a sick child who is too good. She lifted up her face with its gallant smile every day, as a starving garrison might still run up its flag. Words would have been comforting—tears still better. Instead, there was only a smiling silence. Neither of them spoke of the scene or of Raphael Manta again—yet he was always there, almost visible at their elbows.

They met him once on the street. He bowed gravely, then flashed his smile on Cara—a smile that seemed to be a compelling sort of promise. For a half-second he and Cara looked at each other, Cara with flushed cheeks and her lips half opened, her hand at her heart—a little gesture that had in it both gladness and anguish.

Two days later Cara went out to walk in the mysterious back country that lay behind the house. This country is strange and elfin, low-lying, and very wild. It gives a sense of being unsubdued by man. Its scrubby woods, festooned with impenetrable entanglements of bull-brier, its sudden marshes in which one can sink thigh-deep, make it as unconquerable as the sea or the great dunes beyond. Those who know its ways may find there hidden and mysterious places, places that seem the very abode of silence. All through it are networks of tiny trails, made by who knows what feet, for they lead nowhere. Few people from the village go there except the berry-pickers, or, in the fall, during the short, open season, men with guns taking a short cut out to the ocean.

Always this back country had reached out a silent, beckoning hand to Cara. In its intricate and mysterious places lived her serenity. It had always seemed to her since she was very little that this country, so wild and yet so gentle, was part of herself, or she part of it, so deep was her sense of oneness with it.

She came back from her walk, and it was as though her spirit had been relighted. There was a still radiance about her. She sat with a book in her hands, but Amy Vossema noticed she never turned the pages of it, but sat absorbed and withdrawn.

These were the two things that Mrs. Vossema knew about Cara. Light had ebbed from her spirit until she had sat in some mysterious twilight of the soul—and suddenly light had flooded back again. She had gone to walk in the back country and returned the luminous, shining thing that she had been before.

Mothers are strange beings. They know so little the things which concern their children most. They register their emotions, but do not know why these emotions come to them. There are some things they blind themselves to wilfully, their children ever appearing to them the way they wish them to be, not the way they are.

At first it was enough for Amy Vossema that light had come back to Cara, and she sought no answer at all, or gave herself vague assurances that she knew Cara would be what she called "a sensible girl," which meant that she would not do so unreasonable and undesirable a thing as to fall in love with Raphael Manta.

Mothers are suspicious of others, but curiously complacent concerning their children's actions. There scarcely exists a mother who does not believe touchingly in the things that "my daughter would not do"—as though being one's daughter constituted some strange talisman that taught youth decorum.

Then one day into Amy Vossema's spirit there slid a little sickening question. It began "What if—" and then she wrung its throat. This little chill question had a thousand lives. She might choke it one day, but it came back the next, hauntingly, and got as far as "What if Cara—" before she killed it again with a fatuous "I trust my girl." The back country had always been Cara's playmate, her nearest friend; her natural refuge it had been after one of her father's storms with the boys, a sort of impregnable retreat. Often and often Cara had wept with her mother and then gone to the back country and returned, her face shining. It was as though an incorruptible self, untouched by any pain, lived there which she went out to find.

The little doubt came back at night and broke Amy Vossema's rest, pointing out in its chill little voice that others could move about the back country as easily as Cara, and that other consoling presences than Cara's shining and perfect self might wander through its enchanted byways.

Yet Cara's manner had nothing but candor. She looked into her mother's eyes with limpid happiness. She was so frank and so natural, so disarmingly unembarrassed when she told her mother where she was going. To put a question to her was impossible—a desecration of her girlhood if it was not true. And if it were true there would be nothing to prevent her lying in words as she had been lying in her manner. Of no use! Amy Vossema lay sleepless while Durrell breathed heavily beside her and muttered in his sleep.

Suddenly an icy fear gripped Mrs. Vossema's heart. What if it were so, and he should find out first? What would happen if he found out? She saw her life pulled to pieces before her eyes by his wrath—Cara and herself both shattered under its fury. There would be no forgiveness from him. The fear that shook her was like the fear of torture to one who has already known torture. Her spirit had lived through the sickening days of conflict with her sons, and she cowered into herself as she thought, "I shall be as powerless to help Cara as I was to help them."

She woke next morning from a troubled sleep where all the things she had suffered in her mind had distorted themselves and become more horrible—for they had not let her be.

Next day fog was over the face of the bay. The Vossemas' house was on the bluff above the town; it looked directly on to the roofs in the street below them, and on the tops of the trees, and from there across the shining expanse of the bay to the lighthouse beyond. To-day there was nothing but the tolling of the bell to tell where the lighthouse was—a bell that tolled mournfully, as though it were already ringing for those who would be lost at sea because of the fog.

All day Mrs. Vossema had been tortured by her thoughts. Now the question, instead of coming to her and laying its cold finger on her heart, stood before her and with naked shamelessness asked itself over and over again, and in her spirit fear and a certain new-born revolt at her helplessness strove together.

Cara came gently into the room and smiled at her mother with deep affection. She was dressed for going out.

"Isn't it too wet to walk in the back country to-day?" Mrs. Vossema let a little definiteness into her tentative manner.

"I love it in the fog."

"It's quite wringing wet," her mother objected, with more emphasis. She continued sewing and did not look at Cara.

"I love all sorts of weather," Cara gave back, her eyes seeking the window.

She was quite unembarrassed. If she was acting, it was perfect.

"Before you go will you fetch me the pieces like my dress in the piece-bag?"

There was a shade of alteration in Cara's eager manner. She soon came down a little breathless, a little flushed. "I can't find them," she said.

"They must be there, dear. Look again."

Very quietly Mrs. Vossema hid in the folds of her skirt the little pieces for which she had sent Cara. She did it without remorse; she was as cool as Cara herself. She had to put Cara to the question; she had to have certainty.

Again Cara came back. "I can't find them," she said. Her voice was even, she smiled, but there was a little look in her eyes that said: "Ah, give me leave to depart! Don't keep me!"—a little breathlessness about her.

Her mother felt as though she were tightening up some string in Cara's spirit, a string that presently would give out a note of anguish that would be her answer—or snap, which would also be her answer. "I must have them, dear," she said.

Cara went up again, and again returned without them. If she seemed now like a ship tugging at its anchor, she gave no outward sign of what oppressed her spirit.

"I'll go up and we'll look together," said Mrs. Vossema.

Cara acquiesced. Her mother felt in her that complete revolt and impatience when one is kept against one's will and made to spend precious moments in futility. It was almost as though she could see Cara's spirit winging itself ahead of her, waving to her lagging body-to hurry. The tension grew and grew. Anxiety deepened in Cara's eyes.

"Why are you keeping me?" she seemed to implore her mother, mutely. "Why do you torture me so? Let me go, let me go! For I can wait no longer; there is that waiting for me which is dearer than you, dearer than home, my heart's heart. My heart has gone out of my body and stands waiting for me in the back country."

"Here they are at last!" Mrs. Vossema gave out. She knew what she wanted to know.

One could see that Cara's spirit was like an arrow, released. But she did not hurry. She even had the courage to look with a disarming and tranquil gaze on her mother and say:

"Is there anything else you'd like me to do before I go?"

"No," Mrs. Vossema replied, absently.

She could not keep her now. She had used up her entire strength. For a moment she gazed down a dark gulf, and her spirit sickened over its depths.

There was a sound on the stairs. The two women turned to each other. Their glance said, "Why has he come back at this hour?"

Durrell Vossema flung open the door and stood menacingly before them. He seemed to his wife as though he were crouched to spring upon them and destroy them both, yet he stood there silent, contained, and in silence infolded them both in his violent gaze. But he did not speak. He poisoned them with silence and anger, crushed them and overwhelmed them with it.

Amy Vossema could feel her heart beating more and more painfully with that anguish of apprehension that she knew so well. Her heart beat so that her whole body quivered with its pain. And still he did not speak. Quiet and violent he stood there until his wife felt that she was guilty, as though some monstrous fault of hers had been unmasked, and he was standing there accusing her with his terrible silence.

The fog had blown in more deeply. It was as if they were wrapped away from the world, away from all help and from all human contact. There were not even the familiar things like trees and houses, whose presence could console them for a moment. They were alone in the world where the white heat of his anger could consume them.

At last he spoke, and the quiet of his voice and his commonplace words were more menacing than any outbreak would have been. With awful meaning, the whole of his force that had dominated every one about him throughout his lifetime concentrated in his look, he said to Cara:

"It's a bad day for walking in the back country, Cara."

The dignity of him made him more formidable. It was no mere wild, blind rage, but something as firmly directed as a shell from a great gun. There was no answer possible, still less than there was to his silence.

Cara stood trembling slightly, but with a semblance of her old, luminous indifference to his anger still giving the appearance as though it were something that could concern her not at all.

After an interminable while, he turned to his wife and, as though letting fall some casual remark of no great importance, he said, "Old Mosher tells me his boy saw Raphael Manta and Cara cruising round the back country together."

Then, as though his own words had touched some spring in himself, he trembled as with ague. But still he controlled himself, and still his white-hot silence withered the souls of them.

Then, very quietly, Cara opened the door of her room, which led from her mother's, and went into it. One could hear her lock it behind her. Then silence again—and then the storm burst, the molten torrent Amy Vossema had been expecting.

He raged at her. That she could have let this go on under her eyes. That she had perhaps connived at it! That she, who had had the bringing up of Cara, could have let her grow up with such disgraceful possibilities in her heart!

"My God!" he foamed at her, "you soft, white-livered thing! Not fit to bear children for a man! It was in your hands, wasn't it?"

She retreated from him against the wall, as though always expecting the blow of his fist that never descended.

Then the flood of his anger was checked by a little sound very far off. It was the closing of a door.

"What was that?" he demanded, in a sharp whisper.

Breathless silence surrounded them. They were shut off alone in a phantasmal and fog-bound world, listening. Not a sound in all the silent house. For a second or two he stood that way, then flung himself to the window.

"Cara!" he whispered; "she has left the house!" He looked at his wife as though he would have killed her, then noiselessly ran down the stairs.

From the window she watched the fog swallow him up as he had watched Cara. She waited for his return at first as one deprived almost of breath by the terrible and painful beating of her heart. Full of the anguish of apprehension, she walked up and down her room and then listened, and yet no sound would come from the silent world except the fog-bell from the Point. Then that feeling of revolt that she had felt before stirred vaguely within her and grew in her heart. There flamed up in her the passionate revolt of a fine spirit that has stayed too long in bondage.

In what way, she asked herself, had he so supremely dominated her? It seemed to her now, through sheer noise and through her own cowardice. The house they lived in was hers; it was through her money that he had got the start in life that had enabled him later to dominate the people around him, as well as the force of his personality.

She imagined him overtaking Cara and bringing her back, her luminous spirit vanquished. Her whole self revolted against this. There came to her, too, a sudden vision of Raphael Manta. Why, he was a man—a beautiful human being, strong and tender and gay, and Cara had turned to him like a flower to the sun. In the light of his presence she had bloomed, and she had been able to go out of her father's house and do things so contrary to all her traditions of maidenhood without shame. It was as though she had said: "I am very sorry to do this thing which would be so contrary to your wishes, but what else am I to do? In the light of the love I have in my heart it seems to me a very little thing." If she had met Raphael in the back country, it was Durrell Vossema's fault, and his alone.

While she waited there it seemed to Amy Vossema that her spirit burst into a flame that forged a shining weapon in her soul—a weapon that she could use to protect herself and Durrell Vossema from himself. This new-born self looked with shame on her own timidity and her own false values of life that had let a difference of race and religion obscure Raphael from her. In her imagination she saw Cara coming home, the inner fastness of her spirit violated, which she had kept so inviolate. She sat down now and waited quietly for what might happen, not knowing what she would do, but feeling a high strength in her spirit for anything life or her husband might demand of her.

He came back alone, lowering as a dark thunder-cloud. He had not found Cara. He came to Amy Vossema's room and flung himself into a chair, accusing her with his silence. But she had escaped him. He could not touch her. She waited. Dusk enshrouded them. In the silent house there was no sound at all. Outside, great melancholy drops fell from the willow-trees.

Suddenly, anger, articulate and noisy, welled up in Durrell Vossema. He flung himself to and fro like a mad thing, demanding where Cara was, insisting on her return, as though his wife had but to summon Cara back, and it was her own wilful act of wrong-doing that kept Cara away so late. When words failed him, she looked at him with sternness.

"Be still!" she said, and left the room.

He followed her to the sitting-room, surprise in his whole attitude, and a certain curiosity.

Again silence infolded them and darkness, until she turned on the light. At that moment, as though by a signal, the silence was rent by the clamor of the telephone. Durrell Vossema sprang to his feet.

She waved him aside and answered, quietly, "Yes, Cara."

"Give it to me!" he raved. "I want to speak to Cara."

It was as though she did not hear him raging behind her. She did not even turn her head. She had stepped out into that other dimension of the spirit, even as Cara had done. Calmly she said:

"Yes, Cara dear, do that—and God bless you!—and then come home." She hung up the receiver and turned round and faced him proudly. "Cara," she told him, "telephoned from Eastport. She has gone there with Raphael, and they are to be married at once."

A noise as from some fierce and wounded creature burst from Durrel Vossema. "You!" he cried. "You dare to tell me that? You!" He raised his hands quiveringly above his head. Then the noise of him dropped, and, low and menacing, all the wrath of him concentrated, as if to strike one mortal blow, "She shall never cross this threshold again," he said.

Then there streamed forth from Amy Vossema all that she had felt throughout that day. Behind her was the heritage of the ages—the heritage of loving and courageous mothers who from all time have protected their children. Her anger was like a shining weapon. It was the lightning-flash compared to thunder. It struck him where he stood. With a flame of immortal courage in her eyes, "You talk like a child, Durrell," she told him.

Her voice was soft, but behind the little, commonplace words there was a force so much stronger than any rage he had to offer, than any of his noisy storming, that suddenly he became quiet and obedient. His anger dropped from him like a cloak.

"Don't talk nonsense. Our children come to my house whenever I wish—and I wish for them all the time. Whatever they do, I stand behind them, and you stand with me as long as you stand behind them, too. And when the time comes you don't, and you try to close my door, you can close it behind yourself."

Durrell Vossema lifted his head sharply. The old, menacing anger flamed up in his eyes, but she held them steady. She was without anger, grave; her deeply brooding gaze infolded him. It seemed as if she had drawn upon the immemorable steadfastness of all the mothers of the ages, and against this his rage would dash its puny fury in vain forever. There was no conflict now between them. Since for the first time he had met something stronger than his own fury, he bowed his head to it.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1966, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.