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Wheat in the Ear

Chapter X. — A Sweet Girl Graduate

page 103

Chapter X.
A Sweet Girl Graduate.

In Joan's nineteenth year Father and Mother were bidden to her capping. Tom Jefferies felt himself the most remarkable man of his generation. Janet like a barn-yard fowl who had hatched an eagle, watched her chick straining for the peaks with unrest and apprehension.

Father received the letter at the township, and digested the great news contained in it while he rode homeward. On arrival he was calm and collected.

“Like a man who ‘ad been rearin’ Bachelors of Art from infancy,” said Mercy ambiguously and gruffly.

But the cob could have revealed secrets had he been endowed with speech. He had heard a sob and more than one shout. The wind was smartish, the man said, and that accounted for his red eyelids.

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Mother was taken unawares, and trembled, as it was impossible not to see; but, being a woman who could wait, stitched silently while Father embarked on the reading of the letter. He unfurled all his sails of emphasis, and finally came to port, hoarse with roaring, standing with his legs wide apart, and still wearing his outdoor clothing. His hair and coat were greyer, the lines in his face deeper; but he was hale, hearty, and enthusiastic as on the night on which the rusty bag upon his back had bulged with a skipping-rope and a doll. His face rekindled her drooping spirits. His belief in the best and strongest vanquished her timorous trembling. The woman pined. She grudged the years her child's education had stolen from her.

When her man had finished his say, Janet spoke.

“She'll come home now. There's nothing to keep the maid away longer.”

A faint flush stole into her face, her eyes fixed upon her sewing. Tom looked hard at her.

“I don't know. If she can win more honour there, why shouldn't she bide?”

Tom had been drinking triumph, but he was not too dazed to see that Janet's head hung till it nearly touched her breast.

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“It's hard on me,” she said.

The needle clicked loudly in her seam.

“Look at Miss Goodyear. There's a woman devoted to woman's cause,” urged Tom.

“I've no cause to look at Miss Goodyear, special,” responded Janet tartly, tugging vigorously at a tangled thread. “It's my own child I'm wanting to see. I haven't set eyes on her, without Miss Goodyear, for more time than I care to count. It's hard on a mother to give up her child.”

“Not if it's for the child's good.”

“It's hard!”

Janet spoke as one who knew.

“You're no philosopher,” said Tom.

“I married you to be a farmer's wife.”

“An' did you never wonder what makes the autumn so still?”

Janet lifted her sad eyes interrogatively.

“Mother Nature is bereft of her young, my dear. The nests are empty. It's the pipin' of chicks, bleatin' of lambs, an' burstin' of buds that makes the voice of spring. You're a nice sort of a motherbird, you are, to grudge the music of your little skylark to the world, because it won't sing in its nest.”

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“I'm all behind the times, I suppose,” responded Janet. “But it comes natural to some mothers to philander with their babies. There's ambition mixed in a father's love. He don't separate himself from his child; he looks to it to carry on his plans and make good his failures, and transmit his name with credit.”

“Our children are bone of our bone, an' flesh of our flesh,” said Tom; “an' the Almighty set us adrift, an' said in effect—‘See what you can do.’ Our works do our Creator credit, an' our children's works do us credit,” he went on, bringing his fist down upon the table with conviction. “Every time they do somethink honourable, they're lovin' us—provin' that we're grit, just as we prove the grit of our heritage when we act the man.”

“I don't quite see that the children love us back that way.”

“Back! Mother, I am surprised at you—I am! Back, ain't the orders to the race! Why, your own chickens teach you better. You'd think it a freak of nature if they didn't grow feathers an' crow their own crow.”

When Father and Mother found themselves in town, they were lost in admiration of it, especially page 107 the West End. Every edifice seemed a structure reared to talent and merit. Janet, in her lavender silk, clung to Tom's arm, and felt in him a blessing. He was quite at ease with the city and civilisation, and sustained himself like a traveller. In his best broadcloth he dreaded no light—he did not mind the whole world's knowing his identity; indeed, he feared lest, by some disastrous mistake, he should be taken for other than the father of Joan John Jefferies.

Joan received them graciously, with a little gush of courtesy, in which all passion was kept out of sight with a manner that hinted of distant revelations. She was a bright, piquant creature, a spoilt child, whose whims and moods changed twenty times a day, one phase of character appearing to atone for another's disappearance; yet always under this movement lurked an unknown quality, which seemed one hour to kneel with humility and the next to freeze with scorn.

In stature she was really below the middle height, but so daintily and perfectly proportioned that she gave the illusion of being taller than she was. She held her head with the pride and arrogance of youth, to whom no project seems impos- page 108 sible—a shapely head, framed with short, clustering curls that fell over a serene, white brow. Her deep grey eyes fixed themselves upon Janet's face.

“How sweet you look, you Quakeress,” she said; and all Janet's pride rose up to meet the great occasion. She even watched her daughter side by side with the woman she had envied, and breathed freely. Miss Goodyear would understand that it was an awkward thing to come between mother and daughter.

Miss Goodyear was too much occupied to seem to have such desire. She received her guests with her slow, quiet courtesy. She looked at the father and mother of Joan with a scrutinising glance, which seemed to ask, “Have you come for her?” Then she turned to others, her head proudly poised upon her beautiful neck, as though her heart could swell with no pride that was not intellectual.

The night of the capping was one of wind and storm, but Father and Mother were too happy and proud to notice it. Mother propped herself against Father's shoulder and worshipped her girl, who was shut off from her by a sea of professors and black-gowned folk. Father applauded everything and everyone till his chest was sore, but he felt no page 109 pain. The crowded hall was only a setting to his life's prize; his maid's success brought him joy that none had heart to rebuke.

After the capping, Miss Goodyear gave a supper. It was an immense moment when the farm couple found themselves among a learned, chattering group in the dining-room of Girton College. Joan presented them to several people, who covered them from top to toe with a glance and then turned away. At last she brought a man who stayed—a pale, meditative man who gazed afar off, while Joan said smilingly:

“Professor Stanton, my mother and father.”

Joan was flushed and radiant. She wore her academical gown, and held her head regally. This was sufficiently imposing; but she produced a profound impression on her parents' simple minds when she rested her hand familiarly upon the learned man's arm, and chatted to him with the ease of close acquaintanceship.

Father returned the Professor's bow, and deluged him with eloquence. Mother possessed herself sufficiently to curtsey, and to take pride in the crunkle of her silk. Joan stood by, dividing her watchfulness between her parents and the Professor. She page 110 half smiled as she noted the purist's anguished contraction of brow at Father's pronunciation. The substance of the good-man's speech was disregarded because of the form. Tom, innocent of all thought of antagonism, gave vent to his imagination and knowledge; and Stanley Stanton, to whom substance was nothing without style, was becoming conscious of a desire to stop his ears, when Miss Goodyear asked him to take Janet into supper. Father followed, and seated himself in his rightful place on the other side of his wife, and talked across her. It might be vanity, but he couldn't address a professor every day.

Mother's appetite was satisfied with the tasteful arrangements of the table, and by the elegant little person who was distinguished by the seat of honour.

The Professor also glanced at Joan, then back to her father. Something baffled him. While he helped Mother to salad abstractedly, she heard him saying softly:

“‘I liked that way you had with your curls wound to a ball in a net behind. Your cheek was chaste as a Quaker girl's'—I beg your pardon—salt?”

Father supped substantially. The evening had page 111 been sufficient to inspire him with hunger as well as eloquence. He had his hearers, for he was at all times a popular speaker. But his remarks, however, were directed exclusively to the learned gentleman, who did not hear them.

Miss Goodyear, at all events, was listening. She looked distinguished and handsome at the head of her table, and turned, with an unspeakable expression, from interested watching of the farmer to the farmer's daughter.

“Well, Gertrude?” asked Joan, in an undertone.

“You have not your father's gift of thinking, Johnnie. He can produce; you reproduce.”

Joan flushed scarlet.

“Do you think I am likely to be spoilt? Do I need levelling?”

Their eyes met.

“Could you resign your audience? There is no sensuousness in strictly scientific knowledge. Take care, child, or you will become lost in your desire for appreciation.”

“Am I vain?”

“Johnnie!” reproachfully.

“You imply it.”

“Dear, you mistake.”

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After supper, and just at the moment when the Professor was at the highest pitch of abstraction, Father rose, and, with a profound bow, begged his hostess's permission to speak.

Miss Goodyear inclined her head, with a gracious smile, and squeezed Joan's hand surreptitiously under the table.

The Professor brought his eyes from the far distance and looked at Tom, much in the same way that he had looked at Joan for the first time attentively, as though for understanding. He himself abhorred public speaking; he rarely spoke in private, unless to the point. Unless a man had something really to say, speech was worse than futile. It was a perverted faculty. A man used his legs and arms for a purpose; he abused his tongue.

But Father had something to say. He was a very proud and grateful man that night—proud of his daughter, grateful to Miss Goodyear, thankful to Providence. He expressed this with an upright head and moist eyes, with rugged generosity and dignity, embellishing his speech with imagery that appealed to the imagination of an audience alien to his sentiments. With the orator's true power, he page 113 subordinated his hearers; fashioned their thought for the time being, and associated them with the subject in hand; agitated and moved them till Tom Jefferies of Otira Farm and Joan, his daughter, seemed to be the most prominent and moving subjects of the time.

The Professor forgot the inexact expression in the freedom of the diction. The unfettered language moved. This was no mere mechanical effort, but spontaneous, artistic, mesmeric. The man of learning sighed. He would have given more than others knew to possess such power. Expression, which he found fugitive, courted this untaught man.

In the electric pause which followed Tom's speech, Joan, flushed, her large eyes sparkling, interposed:

“My friends will understand that my good father magnifies a very common everyday occurrence into an achievement. But, if I ever do attain success, I shall owe it to Miss Goodyear. I am lazy naturally —ask my mother.”

She spoke in a quiet, conversational tone, and smiled archly at Janet in concluding. But in that moment all the light went out of the room for the jealous mother.

In the drawing-room the Professor asked Joan for a reading.

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Since that first night, intimate as had been his acquaintance, Miss Goodyear had refused his repeated request. It distracted Joan's attention from her serious work, she said.

Joan's face quickened now at the request.

“Gertrude,” she said in a low tone to Miss Goodyear, “give me your sympathy.”

Miss Goodyear nodded, and, from her chair near the window, watched attentively. Thirty or forty persons were in the room, chattering and laughing, when the slender girl took her stand—was it instinct or design? Miss Goodyear wondered—near the Professor. She paled; her face glowed with purpose. She cast a rapid glance over her audience as she used to do at home; then, opening her Tennyson, began the story of Dora. It never could be a dead story, but it lived to-night with vital force.

A deep silence fell upon the assembly; brain and limb alike were held. Professor Stanton's face lit with an inner glow. His eyes watched Joan's. A thrill of painful expectation made audible Father's and Mother's breath.

“‘And the reapers reaped,
And the sun fell, and all the land was dark.’”

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Janet gave a little cry; she saw the night come down on her child again, as it had fallen long ago.

“—Dark!” the Professor echoed softly, seeing nothing but the wheat, and the mound that was unsown where the poppies grew, and the watching mother was waiting with her child for the favour of the stern man. They peeped with her in through the door that was off the latch, and chuckled with the old man as he played with the boy; saddened and grew remorseful with him, winced and wept at his exceeding bitter, impotent cry:—

“‘I have kill'd my son.
I have killed him—but I loved him.’”

“—Loved him!” reiterated Stanley Stanton.

May God forgive me, I have been to blame.’

“—To blame!”