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Wheat in the Ear

Wheat in the Ear — Chapter I. — The Cry of the Child

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Wheat in the Ear
Chapter I.
The Cry of the Child.

The autumn wind, travelling from the east and the Pacific Ocean, ruffled in its course the surface of mighty snow-rivers, and sweeping the vast Canterbury plains, bent the long tussock-grass, with an undulating motion like sea-waves; dun waves in evening shadow, except where a shaft of sunset gold—travelling from the “Southern Alps,” bordering the western horizon—glinted with fleeting magic upon the heaving expanse.

The warm tint of the native New Zealand grass robbed the wide plains of barrenness; miles of unbroken land spread out in plenitude of promise to the distant blue-black mountain range; here and page 8 there clumps of trees relieved the monotony of the landscape, and, above the trees, the outline of a roof was sometimes visible with ascending smoke from domestic fires; while near the homesteads, cloud-like flocks of grazing sheep nibbled the short, soft grass that grew between the silky tussock tufts.

The deep silence was unbroken, save for the muffled rhythmic thud of horse-hoofs upon the turf. As horse and rider went mountain-ward in the glow from the west, there was something in the appearance of both that suggested they were not strange to that part of the country, but were consciously journeying homeward, one to a fireside and companionship, the other to stable and corn. Both man and beast looked in keeping with the scene, more weather-proof than picturesque, and hardened to the beating and buffeting of storms. The man rode with characteristic ease and inelegance; his seat was firm, but his long legs, covered to his leather leggings with a rough coat, stuck out from the horse's sides; the brim of his oilskin sou'-wester flapped with each step, and the leather bag strapped to his back bulged out behind; his short, grizzled beard was blown by the wind; and altogether he presented rather an aggressive and disreputable appearance, in- page 9 stead of looking what he was, a prosperous, simple-hearted farmer, riding home to his wife.

Memory had been appealing to him. The glimpse caught of the sunset glow shining upon clouds of fantastic shape appeared like the spires and domes of a lighted city, and transported him to “the lights o' London” and the days of youth, when as a young engineer, barren of opportunity, but full of ardour and faith, he had married Janet, and trusted to Providence. Janet was that providence. With serious sweetness she objected to starvation, and, bringing the vitality of her persuasion to bear upon her young husband's ambition and energy, directed his force from vague contemplation of Divine intervention, to external and practical ways and means of progression; with the result that, fifteen years ago, they had brought their struggle to a new land.

Tom Jefferies did not look like a man who had missed his destiny. When he lifted his rugged face in the fading light there was no sadness upon it. His grey eyes sparkled with the enthusiasm of twenty, although each one of his forty years had left a line upon his face to mark a battle—the battle of an honest, hard-headed man, who, leaving his native country in his first years of adaptability and courage, page 10 combats willingly and with hardihood every opponent on the new path, till, having conquered, he calls the strange place “home.” There was a touch of pathos to the man in the consciousness that, with the passage of time, he had ceased to dream of return to the land of his birth; that the passionate love he bore to his adopted country rivalled the affection he still had for old scenes. But thought of England brought a smile to his eyes, for he had taken into exile with him one of her best productions—an English woman, Janet, his girl wife, who without hesitation had vowed that his people should be her people; that whither he went there would she go also. And they had travelled some rough ways to comparative success. Janet's bridal home had been a sod hut of two rooms, with a floor of earth and roof of shingle, built by Tom upon the fifty-acre section he had purchased on the banks of the Otira Gorge, a swift-flowing stream that had its birth in the white snows of the mountains. The hut had not been weather-proof, and when sou'-westers raged, the young bride and bridegroom had frequently sat at their domestic hearth under the shelter of a large umbrella. But hardship had crushed neither romance nor energy; acre had been added to acre, with goodly flocks and herds; page 11 and a substantial house now stood upon the old site of the hut, whose tiny window had glowed like a beacon on many a dark night when the man had pressed blithely towards it across the tussock sea.

The crimson shaft drew in from the west, day had sheathed its sword, and the short twilight momentarily deepened, as the man rode forward with the promise of his wife's welcome in his heart. Many hundred times he had ridden through storm or starlight towards the home-rays, with one unchanging thought—Janet. He was not a sentimental man; he had practicably pursued this world's good, and prided in achievement; the enterprise and demand of his active life had engendered self-reliance. Contradictory inclinations had made no chaos for him; indecision had never once caused him to waver in his determination to reach his goal. He was not always disinterested or impersonal in his motives, but simple faith in Janet had kept green his heart.

Janet had been a sign and symbol to him of things spiritual. He would have been surprised if this truth had been made clear to him, for, while he listened to her in good-humoured sympathy, he was page 12 unaware of her influence, that she was the harmony among discords, and the strain of poetry amid much prose. In his large sense of protectiveness, he imagined that he absorbed her, and stood between her and every adverse wind that blew. But Janet had one eccentricity that her husband had consciously failed to eradicate, and it dated to the days of the sod hut. With all her heart and understanding she craved for a child—and there had been no child. Janet had refused to take the disappointment of years seriously. At first she had wept abundantly in secret; but nothing destroyed her cherished hope, and when she left weeping, she worked and planned industriously to one end. She left the finger-marks of the mother upon all she did. She engaged in no enterprise, indulged in no dreams, lent herself to no circumstance without the mental reservation—how would it affect the child's future? Tom Jefferies had at first laughed, then tried to console, then fallen under the glamour of his wife's wish, and, with much simplicity, surpassed her in preparations for the son and heir, consulting the non-existent wishes of the unborn regarding agricultural concerns, which, after Janet, were the delight of the man's life.

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The simple couple saw nothing extraordinary in acting as the agents of an unborn child—a child long unpromised save by their wish. The borders of pastures were extended, cattle multiplied, green wheat ripened to the ear, rains of seed time and sunshine of harvest imparted year by year a deeper tinge of yellow to the white stone house on the gorge, and then the woman's deferred hope became prophetic—her yearning maternity was near its satisfaction.

The man urged on his horse; his thoughts, in their backward travel, had gathered a thousand tender and vagrant memories, which in accumulation moved him with half-forgotten enthusiasm—the enthusiasm of the lover, that, reasserting itself, made him impatient for the presence he at no time regarded critically. From the tenderness of his thought, a new fear arose, and stalked like a ghost through the twilight; the firm hands that held the bridle trembled—until this moment, in gladness concerning the child, he had missed fear for the mother. But suddenly it seemed that the air became laden with the anguish of woman's travail; the wind sighing through the grass, the bleating of distant sheep, smote his ears with the page 14 appeal of pain. His lips compressed, his eyes strained through the gloom for the coveted light of the farm - house windows. Material facts diminished in significance; the habit of mathematical calculation fell from him like leaves shaken by a strong wind from an autumn tree; at that moment there was but one question to him in heaven and on earth that he had consciousness to consider—the safety of his wife. His flesh contracted; his bones ached with anxiety to know how she fared. He dug his spurs into the willing horse, then, feeling the quivering flesh beneath him, repented of the sufferings he had inflicted on a dumb brother. It was a strong man's first initiation into the mystery of pain, and it put him in love with mercy. Years after that night, Tom Jefferies told a despairing girl on those same plains how it was there, with the wind shrieking round him like a woman in agony, that he got his first real glimpse of what loss might be, and how, when staggering in from the darkness, weakened by the human conflict of fear, the sound that thrilled him on the threshold with new manhood was the cry of the child.