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Wheat in the Ear

Chapter XII. — In the Spring

page 133

Chapter XII.
In the Spring.

Joan was seated beside Father in the old buggy going home.

The morning was bright, transparent, rainspangled, scented with snow-breezes and blossoms. Daisy-chains linked the tussock tufts; clover fields terminated in vivid green wheat undulating to the blue-black mountain base. The ruts of the old cartroad were fringed with sorrel; purple thistle flowers gleamed among brown dock-stalks; tiny blue and red weeds streaked the grey shingle beneath hedges of golden gorse; white ducks, with fluffy yellow ducklings, splashed in the gorge, which flashed in silver between dark flax and blue flags, rippling over slate-coloured boulders and green cresses.

Meek brown cows were grazing beneath dark gums, and under a clump of stately cabbage trees a row of thatched hives stood in a plantation of page 134 wallflower. The hawthorn hedges round the orchard were a mass of the dappled green and brown of half-opened buds. Above, the milk-white and rose of apple and peach blossom and the yellow wattle made a fragrant radiance among weeping willow and sombre fir. Brown and white laurustinus was woven into the velvet lawn; violets and polyanthus vied with pink currant blossoms along the path to the porch.

Under the porch stood Mother, grey-garbed, gladeyed, holding herself with assurance, a little pride, and gentle welcome.

“I've brought the maid,” said Father, with comforting heartiness.

Joan drew herself slowly from her mother's embrace, laughed lightly and with slight self-disdain.

“I fear,” she said, “that you will find me an encumbrance. I have been ruined for a farm.”

She stopped short with a slight flush, for beyond her mother, standing bare-headed at the threshold, was a young man, tall, bronzed, of athletic build, who regarded her half-quizzically, half-interestedly. The dark, steady eyes conveyed some hint of disapprobation, as from a harboured thought.

“The boy about the farm,” thought Joan, a swift page 135 resentment at the look stirring her blood to a crimson protest. She bowed with mocking grace, as Father, with hearty geniality, presented her:

“Mr. David Aubrey—my daughter.”

It was a solace to observe that the young man felt her mockery. Her heart swelled at some intangible offence. What right had this young man to regard her as though she had been guilty of some fault, and judge her off-hand? That look in his dark eyes was decidedly of disapproval. She touched his outstretched hand carelessly with her finger-tips.

“You do not like the country,” he affirmed.

“I love it,” she dissented, with much sweetness.

He smiled sceptically, and bowed with an old-world formality that seemed out of place in the geranium-scented porch. What was he doing here on a farm? He looked like a man who would be more at home in a city drawing-room; his sunburnt face contrasted oddly with his fair forehead. Joan passed him with a queenly air that made her appear tall.

The sunbeams were playing hide-and-seek in the old parlour. The girl stood at the doorway, her heart drawn from the city. Time, change, page 136 fashion passed unheeded here. There was Father's red-cushioned arm-chair by the hearth, and Mother's rocker opposite. The deep window-sills were ablaze with flowers. No spot tarnished the white rugs and boards, and the mahogany table reflected a bowl of violets that stood upon it. The harmonium was open, and the old hymn-book at the page, “Glory to Thee, my God, this night.”

Then, to complete the home picture, Mercy came in and scolded Joan—scolded in quite a refreshing way, for, although her voice was aggressive, her eyes were approving.

“You've taken your time in comin', Miss Joan,” she grumbled. “So long as I can recollect, this 'ouse ‘as been a-waitin’ of you. But time don't count with the unborn, an' the young dispise it!”

“You are still ambiguous,” said Joan, with a light laugh; “and eloquent I remember how you impressed me when I was a child.”

Mercy shook her head.

“You were disheartling,” she replied.

Joan noted the lines in the sunburnt cheeks, and the hair flecked with grey. A humbled, penitent feeling touched her. She knew not why. She had page 137 been several times disapproved of late; how did she merit this disapprobation?

“Mother mine,” she said impulsively, resting her hands upon Mother's shoulders, “do you find me ‘disheartening?’ I feel conscious of a falling short. I feel a prophetic little shiver of apprehension. Do you think I shall bring bad luck?”

She looked half-laughingly into the fading face a little piteously, too. She seemed to be disappointing almost everyone somehow. Why did it come natural to those who knew her to destine her to the impossible and unattainable? What duty lay before her? She had not yet investigated; she was scarce awake.

“Shall I go away again, dear?”

“Shall you go? go away?—you, my love? Never, if God's will be mine.”

Joan was a little startled by the passion of Janet's voice. The old hands clutched hers, then passed gently, and with a certain proprietorship, over the brown, curling head. The girl had spoken partly in jest, without weighing the significance of her words. Of course she should go sometime. Not yet; but—of course— She felt like a young eagle hatched in the barn-yard; her eye was on the page 138 peaks. Janet's emotion was embarrassing. It was an awkward thing to play at being domesticated. She tried to balance things.

“If need were, I would stay,” she faltered.

Janet held her off a little.

“Need? What need, child? Father and me need you. We're getting old. There won't be a day too much to love you in.”

“Dearest, since that is so, let me be my best.”

She was pleading for freedom, expansion, expression.

Janet could not mean to swallow up her individuality and efface her existence. She was not to be annihilated in this dim quiet. This mother—passion was not to obliterate and annul all; if so, to what end had she been educated? Was she to return to the elementary form—emotion?

“I've waited many days,” said Mother; “for many nights I've sat alone. But now you've come, I do suppose you'll stay until you leave me for a husband, dear.”

Janet spoke seriously; she was not trifling, Joan saw; nor was she ashamed.

The girl looked curiously at the moved face; but with a distrust of the emotion which had made it page 139 quiver. Yet this emotion weakened; she was afraid of being carried away.

This was not the time to annihilate the woman's hope she felt. Yet, beside her desire for a public life—the life of stage—she held this domestic inaction in complete indifference. It would be callous to say so now; but she could not resign, she could not sacrifice. She would appeal later. If Mother would grant her ambition, she would show her that it did not mean detachment wholly from the home-life.

She found the little world she had left not quite the same world. The boy about the farm had somewhat transformed it. He seemed perfectly at home. He came in to supper in his fresh tweeds, contrasting vividly, in his boyish enthusiasm and energy, with the middle-aged air of the house. Joan at first thought she must have mistaken the expression of his face in the morning. His manner towards Janet was protective—almost tender; and Joan noted, with a little, amused smile, that her mother had learned the trick of lingering over his name, and in her glance his way. Father also did not find his companionship insignificant; he allowed him his side of an argument. Indeed, it was not page 140 easy to exclude him, for his opinions were apparently as dear to the younger, as were the elder man's to him. But, again, Joan had the impression that in his manner towards her there was a touch of languid indifference. He had established himself as a favourite. Even Mercy's grim look softened when her eyes fell on him.

Joan was not quite certain whether or not she liked this new sensation of life about the old place she thought, with a frank and simple impulse, that she was a little jealous. And then the next moment she found herself coming under this new masculine influence. She tried to shake it off. Seated apart with Mother, she assumed an interest in the knitting of Father's grey stockings. Janet explained that it was “plain four and pearl three,” and smiled complacently as she unfolded to her own satisfaction the mystery of heeling. Joan was smothering a little ripple of laughter, which rose unbidden to her lips, when she had an uneasy feeling that David Aubrey was watching her. But she would not look to see; instead, she glanced round the charming old room, in which the firelight made harmonious tints. Her mother in her faultless dress, the old china, and the lavender were all part of the picture. Father, page 141 too, with his iron-grey head and commanding figure, belonged where he was, in the great crimson armchair; and the young man leaning against the mantelpiece, tall, strong, straight—? Yes, he was observing her with audacious criticism! Her thought was broken; she gathered herself together again, and completed her sentence—” he might have been the son of the old folk.” The thought of a brother was amusing to her. They would have been at daggers drawn, of course. He looked quite capable of shaking her. She had held her own superbly among the men at the university; and this young farmer, for some reason unknown, despised her. She rallied, and broke out in a little burst of reckless gaiety. She exhibited almost a feverish eagerness to appear bent only on amusing herself; but she and David exchanged not a word.

At ten o'clock Father sat down at the harmonium, drew out the stops, and started “Abide with me,” very much out of tune. Mother joined in in a quavering treble, content to gaze upon her husband, while she sang, “I need Thy presence every passing hour.” Tom turned to meet his wife's eyes, and unconsciously revealed the fact that Janet was his sweetheart still.

page 142

How would the stranger take the idea that the old children's thoughts were not wholly in heaven while they prayed—that they were not quite prepared for any subtle and profound change that would break their communion?

Joan's examination of the young man's face told her nothing but extreme gravity. He still stood near the fire, and listened courteously.

“Now, my girl!” said Father, “give us a reading.”

“To-night?” she asked, betrayed into a note of dissatisfaction. “I am out of tune.”

She made a little deprecating gesture when she saw the disappointment on the two faces. She felt it cruel to sadden.

“I will read you a story,” she added quickly, with her ready grace and charm.

Mercy, who had come into the room to scoff at the scandalous late hours her mistress was keeping, remained to gape. The story was a long one, but no one remembered the time till the end of “Enoch Arden.”

“Can one love twice?’” the exquisite voice asked. “‘Can you be ever loved as Enoch was? What is it that you ask?’

“‘I am content,’ he answered, ‘to be loved a little page 143 after Enoch…. If Enoch comes—but Enoch will not come.’”

Meeting David's gaze, the girl was conscious of a strange sensation. The dark, intent eyes seemed to reiterate—” But Enoch will not come.”

She exulted in her power. Art had for the moment conquered the man's indifference. How glorious it would be, when the woman in her was helpless, to move another, to subjugate by her art! She was grateful for her gift, and her devotion that night was that of gratitude.

Joan stood by her window a long time before she went to bed. The wide land of her father stretched on either side; she felt no attraction towards it, except that its beauty stirred her. The stars shone brilliantly in the pale sky, the grey mists hung about the distant mountains; it was a poem to her, to be read and learned, but not lived. In space, individuality was effaced. Infinite will filled the spheres; she could not be effaced and silent, always uniform in aim, a slave though not in fetters. She was running away again in her mind “to see the world,” as in her childhood. The old pioneers asleep in their bed, after devout thanksgiving for the maid's safe return home, were untroubled in their dreams by page 144 thought that their daring and love of conquest had been transmitted to their daughter's blood.

Joan was roused from her reverie by the scent of a cigar from the orchard below. She drew back with a regretful and irritated sense that the privacy of the old home was invaded.

The girl was up with the sun next morning, and went out to see the farm. The leafy hedges and slender branches were fresh from their dew-bath; the daisies were not wide-eyed yet; the mist was breaking in the east to let shafts of crimson through. At regular intervals a woodman's axe from the forest smote the clear air; the house-dog barked at cackling hens and crowing cocks; the bleating of lambs mingled with the lowing of the kine. Spring had flung its message abroad; the voice of life rose to an anthem, a chord of which echoed in the girl's heart. She kept silence and let it swell. There was no outward expression save song; and the larks could not be rivalled.

Making her way to the byre, Joan sniffed the fragrance of new milk. Among the milkers David Aubrey was taking his turn, leaning his fair head against the side of a black cow. Joan noticed that his hair was light brown—lighter than his eyes. page 145 She watched him for a moment. How easily and well he milked. He saw her presently, and called out a cheerful good-morning, not at all embarrassed. Milking certainly forbade ceremony; but had he entirely divested himself of his indifference of the previous day? Joan looked at the fresh faces of the dairymaids, listened for a time to their pleasant talk and laughter, then turned away for one of her old rambles beside the gorge.

This boy about the farm was not an unmixed delight. She must expect to encounter him at every turn. He seemed possessed by a spirit of energy—masterful, too. And not only the servants, but Father and Mother, deferred to him. But the glancing stream drew Joan's attention. It pictured the blue sky in inconstant flashes, saddening and dimming at the breath of the amorous breeze.

Joan sat down among the wild mint and thyme, and thought of Gertrude Goodyear and Professor Stanton. A smile lingered about the girl's lips as her mind concentrated on the latter. What good friends they were; how he, even more than Father, was jealous of anything that should distract attention from the perfecting of her art.

page 146

“A day like this teaches,” she said aloud; “it is filled with harmony.”

She turned to a field-path. A few yards ahead, swinging along with lengthy strides, was David Aubrey, the knickerbockered legs and serge-coated back eloquent of a goal to be quickly reached. Joan laughed spontaneously.

“Our importance is increased as our environment is decreased,” she said to herself; “in a crowd individuals are overlooked. There was no chance for poor Eve in the Garden of Eden, with Adam always in the foreground. Nature is the best setting for a man after all; its simplicity and grandeur either emphasise his deficiencies or show off his good points.”

The young man strode on, unconscious of criticism, a vigorous figure in the sunshine, casting behind him a warmth that did not come from the sun, but which emanated from himself. He played into the sensation of the moment by song:

“‘It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino!
That o'er the green cornfields did pass
In the spring-time, the only pretty ring-time,
When birds do sing, hey ding ading, ding!
Sweet lovers love the spring.
page 147 “‘Between the acres of the rye,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino!
These pretty folks would sit and sigh
In the spring-time, the only pretty ring-time,
When birds do sing, hey ding ading, ding!
Sweet lovers love the spring.’”

After breakfast Joan learned two facts concerning David Aubrey. One was that he was the son of an English clergyman, that he had been destined for the Church by his father, but had turned his back rigorously upon study of any kind, save farming. Consequently, Joan was sure she shouldn't like him.