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Wheat in the Ear

Chapter XIII. — A Young Man's Fancy

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Chapter XIII.
A Young Man's Fancy.

Whatever determined his notion of duty, David Aubrey did it. The country was his sphere of happiness; passivity and he were strangers. He did not pretend to a growth of æsthetic culture; his domain was physical life, his combat with matter. In his estimation, a thing was none the less sublime because natural. Active determination characterised his expression and movements. He had come to sub-manage Tom Jefferies' farm, and every inhabitant of Otira Gorge knew that he meant to do it. He made no fuss, but, with keen penetration, went to the point and effected his purpose.

Joan watched him with subdued admiration, puzzled evidently by the dignity with which he invested his part. She had lived among those who had more mental allotment and force than physical. On the farm, sheep had always been shorn, crops sown and garnered; but Father's religion and poetry page 149 had thrown a glamour over the whole affair. The law of nature, skill and force of man's will was the science that determined results for the young man.

His personality carried with it a power that imposed itself even upon the animals.

One morning Joan sat on a fence and watched him breaking in a filly. The animal rebelled, reared, trembled in every limb with terror, its delicate nostrils quivering, its eyes glazed. With firm mouth and shining eyes, the man commanded, cajoled, punished, coaxed, but did not relax his will to dominate. When he had conquered he caressed.

He went over to Joan with his uncovered head held high. All a man's gratified sense of mastery shone in his face.

Joan shut the admiration out of her glance.

“It was blind submission to force,” she said, with a slight inflection of scorn in her musical, fresh voice.

His face was still flushed with recent excitement. He looked a trifle disappointed, and flicked his leg with his riding-whip.

“I have mastered the beast's will, but her love must be won,” he said simply. “When I have gained her confidence affection will follow.”

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The girl changed colour; she turned her pretty head towards him, and met his eyes with challenge and defiance. She looked very sweet in her lilac cotton gown; her personal beauty suggested softness as well as brilliance.

“How fond you are of all live things,” she said unexpectedly.

He had almost thought her irritated. He vibrated to her implied compliment; her tone encouraged him to think she sympathised in this weakness; but she more than balanced his swift pleasure by the after-thought.

“My mother and you have much in common.”

The childish-looking creature had drawn a bar between them. For a moment he felt a little shame; she appeared to imply the superiority of intellectual over agricultural tastes. The next impulse was honest; he expressed his pleasure in all live things; had something to say for the cycles of life outside the hubbub of cities. He wouldn't be put aside at her humour, but grappled with his subject till she looked at him with interest.

“That's a very comfortable feeling,” she said presently; “to know just exactly what you like best and how to do it.”

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She was looking at him with much attetitiveness. How sincere, and honest, and direct of purpose he seemed. After all, was it not the knowledge and force, and not the occupation, that stamped the man? His study was farming, but he was a student. Her tone of interest appeared to please him; his face flushed, then clouded with wonder.

“You have always found the country tame?” he said.

“Never,” she answered, walking while she spoke with loitering steps towards the gorge. “I see all you have shown me, hear every sound of the open air.”

She turned her face up to him, and it struck him how large and uncouth he was beside her. He observed, too, how her eyes could widen and flash.

“But it does not satisfy me. No,” she proceeded, with a commanding little gesture; “you mistake my meaning. It is not that I think a farm-life rough and coarse; I think it takes a child-heart, or a poet, to be content with nature; and I,” she added sadly, “have neither the simplicity of the one, nor the greatness of the other. It sounds affected to plead moods, but it is true; my happiness in such a perfect day as this is transient. I am not simple page 152 enough to revel in animal sensation only, although my flesh tingles with pleasure; nor great enough to hold the key that unlocks the poet's soul. It humiliates me to know that I halt midway; for don't you think that everything between simplicity and greatness is affectation, pedantry, pretence?”

He couldn't say. He felt guilty of having at first sight delegated her to the middle rôle. He pulled at his moustache, and waited for her to go on. She leaned over a barred gate, and looked at him very seriously. How childish and womanly she was. He felt the magnetism of her presence, the subtle sweetness of the personal charm which she unconsciously drew and fettered hearts. She seemed just then the most alive thing amid the life around.

“All this wondrous tissue of light and colour,” she continued, with a gesture indicating what lay around; “I see it—look!” she exclaimed; “the grey plains beyond; the nearer undulating land, green with rising grain; the open fields and hawthorn hedges; the dark forest and purple mountains; the bright stream twisting between grey boulders and ferns; the white marguerites with golden hearts; the purple pansies and butterflies, decked out in gorgeous page 153 velvet; the pendulous branches of yellow mimosa trailing over the brown thatched roof of the barn! I hear, too—listen!—the doves and pigeons coo to their mates; the sheep bleat far off on the downs; the water gurgles over the stones; the wind plays an anthem through organ-pipes of pine and poplar! Yes, I see and hear, but I don't understand it in my heart. One ‘I’ enjoys the sensuous pleasure of it all. A-ah, the long summer! I feel it with every drop of blood; but the other ‘I’ reaches out for other communion. I am happy here, conditionally—that I can go back to town.”

“You like a crowd better than solitude?” he queried.

She nodded.

“I like that disembodied feeling one has in a crowd; you are, and you are not! Allied, impersonal, a spot in the great stream. As a separate entity one feels”—she hesitated for a word, tapped her little foot impatiently on the green sward; but, not being able to find the term she sought, used another—“awkward, embarrassed. One has so much in common with humanity as a whole; but individual to individual what strangers we are! That is my difficulty. I don't care very much for individuals. I wonder why?”

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She lifted her hand and pushed her curls from her fair forehead, and looked at her companion in the most natural way.

He answered dubiously that wasn't it rather unusual? and thought privately that there was not the smallest chance of her liking him.

After confusing him with her long gaze she withdrew her glance.

“Sometimes,” she continued presently, “I've got an uncanny feeling that only half of me is here in my body—the mind part of me!”

She smiled her meaning smile, and, nodding a cheerful good-morning, went away.

David watched her going. At first he felt inclined to laugh; then his face grew grave. He understood now. She did not ape superior ways; she wasn't much interested in anybody.

Joan quickened her pace. Already she repented of her little outburst of confidence. After a month's acquaintance, she had talked to this stranger as she had talked to no one before; tried to explain, to give an account of herself. What did it matter to him what she thought or felt? What did it matter to her what he thought or felt? Vanity! just because he had regarded her critically and coldly, page 155 and she was accustomed to indulgence, she had—and without any pre-conceived intention—solicited his forbearance. His! Her colour deepened to crimson. She was the more annoyed, because, although her back was turned, she could see a strong mouth and chin, a pair of dark, surprised eyes, and a tall figure clad in a knickerbocker suit of tweed.

The man looked after her wonderingly. Then his thought turned to self-scorn. Heavens, what a clod he was! How dumb and boorish he must appear in her eyes! She had talked to him, with her great eyes fixed upon his, as though expecting response; and he had stood there like a tongue-tied baby. Now he came to ponder it, it seemed that he had had only one thought—a wish that she would rest her rounded arms on the gate, and stand there talking to him all day. He had got no further than the surprise and pleasure of it. When she had raised her proud head, and lifted up her sweet face there had been a look of yearning upon it, the yearning of youth and ignorance, which is sadder than middleaged crying. He did not understand why it hurt him so to remember it, or why he felt so gentle just then, and thought all helpless things holy.

He raised his head and walked steadily towards page 156 the house, words flowing readily and softly through his mind. He longed to be with her again and hear her asking questions.

It was night when they met; she was curt, cold, satirical, and would talk nothing but crops and cows. But the young man did not stiffen; she had roused him, and her whims could not put him aside. The cold face, a few hours ago so meek, awakened the man-passion to subjugate. She was such a little thing and so untamed. Unconquerable? He could not answer. Beside her his strength was weakness.

Mother looked from one to the other curiously. Then at some secret thought blushed like a girl and smiled. Father smoked and saw nothing.

It could not be kept a secret, the young man's new-born passion for her. In the days that came and went the waters murmured it, and the winds blew it. So self-conscious was he of the thought of his heart, that, turn where he would, see and hear what he might, all things told it. And the wonder remained that she gave no sign of comprehending. She did not perceive his wish, but put every hindrance to his scheme of meeting her. Frequently he saw her in the distance, walking alone over the fields or towards the mountains. Once he approached near enough to page 157 see that she carried a volume in her hand, and to hear that she read aloud. At night she was still absorbed in her books, and if by chance he met the sweet eyes his heart leaped.

At last he met the wandering figure face to face.

“If you would speak to me sometimes,” he began humbly; and then stopped. He had so wished for days, putting his wish into words coarsened it.

She did not appear conscious of his pleading.

“I have been reading,” she remarked, in matter-offact tones, holding up the book she carried to draw his attention. “How much one strives for small results. To start is easy—to continue is the test. I should hate to fail.”

“You could not fail,” he said, answering the determination he saw in her face.

“Do you think not? It would be easy—if I let go. I have risen when the sun was below the horizon to catch the spirit of the dawn, and watched the night die, so to enter into its mystery. You people of physical feats do not understand that one may suffer exhaustion from wrestling with words.”

Yes, he could suppose it; but perfect production left no trace of effort. He should never forget the picture she reproduced that first night of her home-coming. page 158 If sometimes she would be gracious and permit him to listen—? The summer was short, and he understood that she would return to town at the close of the summer.

To please him she granted his request, and the perfect voice tortured him. But for it, she might remain at home. She never could be won to domesticity while triumph awaited her in the city. He cursed the applauding crowd in his heart, and grew morose. While this mood was upon him, Mercy and Father seemed surprised. Mercy repented somewhat of her harsh thoughts man-ward. This boy about the farm added zest to the humdrum of every day. She liked him the better that he sometimes appeared headstrong and obstinate. He brought a genial magnetism into the still sameness of things, and if—

Mercy had got so far, then ruminated with folded arms, staring stonily into the fire. There are many unwritten romances beginning and ending with “if.” Mercy was not the only middle-aged woman who ever pondered in stray moods of tenderness the chapters of untold romance. It is laughable, of course, and a little pathetic; but no triumph of broom or brush brought such lustre to Mercy's eyes as the page 159 nail-prints of David's boots upon the boards. If she had been Joan—! Well, the only thing she could say was that Joan had always been eccentric. For twenty-five years the serving-woman had done the honours of Otira Farm kitchen, presided over and directed the domestic affairs of her mistress. Crows' feet had gathered about the corners of her eyes; but she had her weak moment. The practical onlooker at sentiment surprised herself in dreaming. She was not at all sure that her conclusions had always been right, and was perplexed to discover that, having regarded “Johnnie” as a bane, she at last sighed that she was not Johnnie, who did not show appreciation of her advantages, or appear to estimate as she ought her individual luck.

David did not pose, and Joan could not class him He was aristocratic by birth, democratic by occupation; she could form no theory regarding him, therefore was compelled to accept him on his own terms. He revealed himself naturally and slowly. One day a touch of hauteur and ceremony demanded attention; the next the spontaneous glad impulse of the lad won regard. When piqued, he walked upon stilts, to be humbled the next hour as he approached his divinity with hesitation—so humbled that Joan page 160 wondered at his humility. There were hours when his passion taught him a spontaneous eloquence that bridged all intellectual difference between them; then even while the girl delighted in at-one-ment, the man grew dumb, practical, energetic, and dignified his exertions with ability, communicating subtly that he was satisfied to be about his business, needing no apology.

During these skirmishings, the young man cut no undignified figure. He strove for the mastery, as men do, although he would not desert his colours. It was the pride of the soldier in his good coat and shining steel before the battle—a hint of energies to be.

Joan was undecided about him; but she was conscious of a strange expansion, a new humility and comprehension stealing in upon her. Her heart was not so shut up. For the first time, it struck her how colourless and hard the work-woman's life was.

“Mercy,” she said one day,” if cleanliness is next to godliness, you must have scrubbed your way to righteousness.”

Mercy brandished her brush and snorted at this unexpected commendation.

“I didn't never hear tell of a body scrubbin' their page 161 way up the golden stair,” she affirmed, breathing heavily.

“Nor have I,” Joan answered, “it is a lowly claim; yet I could almost suppose its efficacy.”

“Well, I am—” commented Mercy, looking after the departing figure of her young mistress, with an astounded expression. She did not complete her conviction, but laughed in a jerky, barking sort of way. “Scrub my way—to the New Jerusalem! Lord! Fancy! what a hidea!”

But she scrubbed with additional vigour.

“She do touch you in a weak spot, she do,” added Mercy, an hour afterwards, when she viewed, with head on one side, the effect of her labours. “I will say that for Miss Joan—she do know what you set most store by.”

If Joan knew as much of David, she did not reveal her knowledge. The summer was young, and her spirits vivacious and gay; and when her companion was not dramatic with strong emotion, they laughed together at the nonsense that youth breeds. They fished, walked, rode together; seemed spontaneously to solicit each other's opinion and enjoyment; and in these days the girl surprised her lover by sudden brilliant flashes of talent and wit, and hints of execu- page 162 tion, which made a pessimist of him. She could not, he told himself; no man could ask her to hide her light under a bushel. Sometimes her gaiety was forced; there was a hint of Miss Goodyear in her caustic humour. She bewildered and charmed him; but, while she made a prisoner of him, she seemed to hold herself free; he had tested her surface soil and subsoil, but did not know her depths. if One day she thrilled him with the sweet, natural impulsiveness that had first attracted him; the next, she was irreproachably prim.

For, while Joan listened, she was undecided whether he attracted or displeased her most; and, as these sensations varied, she got on and off her stilts. As a companion ready to hand he was stimulating. But he would not always be taken as a tonic; would not always assimilate with her moods. He had an imperious way of his own that did not always act as a stimulus; she found herself frequently unnerved after a draught of it. As a study he was interesting, but he couldn't remain passive enough for impersonal study; the magnetism of his mood affected her, separated or united them; and she could not think quite clearly after a talk with him. He encroached upon her ground; by some page 163 personal spell made what was intolerable to her, tolerable.

Mother surveyed these signs with complacence. She refrained from expressing her judgment. Father knew only that his affairs prospered, and applauded his own good judgment and experience for drawing to his side a young man of parts, who opposed decidedly and approved enthusiastically, as might be, but who nevertheless had won his confidence as a suitable inmate and manager of Otira Farm. The good of Otira Farm was of first-rate importance; even Providence had acknowledged so much by bestowing prosperity and happiness upon it.

But Providence keeps profound its secrets.