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Wheat in the Ear

Chapter XV. — The Unexpected

page 176

Chapter XV.
The Unexpected.

Professor Stanton bared his head. He seemed wholly unconscious that he had taken Joan by surprise. He was panting a little with unusual exertion. He must have walked all the way from the station, the girl reflected. How like him it was to start without calculation.

She felt quite excited as she held out her hand. He put her in touch again with her old desires. She was too young to accept real life, and in her reception of the man who linked her with her ideals she infused a warmth which he took to be personal. His grave lips broke into a smile that was almost radiant. His eyes were humane, looking into hers with a softness that he did not seek to veil. In her new-born consciousness she felt the contagion of his gladness.

“Yes,” he said, still holding her hand and quoting, page 177 as though following the thread of an argument, “‘this rapid and inexorable expansion of the universal life, which covers, overflows, and swallows up all individual being, which effaces our existence and annuls all memory of us, fills me with unbearable melancholy. To be born, to struggle, to disappear—there is the whole ephemeral drama of human life. Except in a few hearts—and not even always in one—our memory passes like a ripple on the water, or a breeze in the air.”’

He introduced the lecture hall in a flash. His habit of quotation was too familiar to Joan to appear strange. He never used his own words when an authority could speak for him.

Against the background of reddish-brown bank, the girl's white figure stood out in relief, and her curly head and white throat; the sweet, proud poise was emphasised.

“‘Except in a few hearts, and not even always in one … our memory passes like a ripple on the water,’” he murmured again reflectively, with his gaze intent upon the young eager face. His dusty boots and travel-stained appearance had entirely passed his ken.

Joan, embarrassed by his scrutiny, was hasten- page 178 ing to bid him to the house, when the voice over the field carolled with conviction:

“‘… springtime,
The only pretty ring-time,
Sweet lovers love the spring.’”

“Ah!” said the Professor, as if in answer to the affirmation.

Joan drew apart and walked slowly beside him. He lost the thread of his discourse and remained silent. Joan asked questions eagerly. How was Gertrude? What did she think of this idling? He answered at random; he scarcely seemed to know. When he came in sight of the house, his attention was arrested. The old place had never looked more imposing—grey-white among the purple and orange shadows of the afternoon; but the sight of it seemed to startle Stanley Stanton. He turned to his companion deprecatingly, again lifting his soft wideawake hat.

“Will you talk with me a while?” he asked. “I have no mother or sisters; the woman who feeds me remains in her offices all day.”

Through an impulse to laugh, the pitifulness of his loneliness forced itself upon the girl for the page 179 first time. Like other people, she regarded the Professor as an intelligence more than as an individual.

“All day through I sit alone,” he continued, while she turned from the house path towards the gorge, silent with surprise at his new-found speech. “But I have beguiled the hours with memories,” he went on, when they stood beside the shadowed stream.

The sun was going down behind the purple and silver peaks in a great red ball of fire; but the Professor took no more notice of his surroundings than if he stood in his familiar class-room. He appeared to have forgotten his walk of many miles; he had the manner of a man who had come far to say a given thing.

“I have a certain power of memory,” he explained, his back to the red rays of sunlight, which crimsoned the girl as though she stood in the red flame of a transformation scene. “It may be inconceivable to some, but I find the quality that constitutes the success of individuals—that frequently develops mediocrity to talent—a—a positive hindrance at times. It is often helpful to forget … I always see your face … your voice ever reaches me!”

page 180

Joan started. She suddenly heard the plaintive calling of nesting birds. She looked at the broken stems of the marguerites and the fading flowers at her belt, and asked a question that seemed wide of the subject, and to surprise herself.

“Do you think there is such a thing as permanent joy, or must there always be a reaction?”

She looked anxious for an answer, and he gave it conscientiously, as he answered every student.

“An uplifting means blood in new channels of the brain—giving pleasure. After a time the flow ceases, and quiescence, called reaction, sets in. This is the materialistic explanation.”

An uplifting? Yes, that expressed her sensation of the past months. New channels of blood to the brain! It was a matter of blood. Her face cleared; she breathed relief.

She heard the pigeons cooing drowsily; but she had spent enough time in bird study. She had quick memory for intellectual comradeship, and had tasted this man's quality. She listened for his next words.

“The incidents and avocations of the day have been incomplete without you—Johnnie.” He lingered over the last word. “It is a foolish ap- page 181 pellation,” he added, with his rare smile, “but permit it. Dear, will you come to me? Will you voice life for me?—individualise it? It is shadowy and unreal to me. ‘To be born, to struggle, to disappear.’ ‘I pass … into the grave … while still living.’”

He turned to her a face so tender that she was amazed.

“I have not learned to woo,” he added. “I must of necessity keep you in my thought, my memory being tenacious.”

The idea was new and strange to the girl; an emotion she mistook for tenderness swept over her. This was the link to her desire; could she let it go? cast from her what she most desired—encouragement, distinction? This man of well-made mind would never confound intellectual nature with sense.

“You ask me for companionship?” she queried, grown pale, but intent and earnest for his answer.

“—Companionship!” he echoed softly, catching the word from her lips.

“To be co-worker with you; to enter your domain of ideas?”

“—Domain of ideas!”

page 182

“You honour me,” she said, wishing, while she spoke, with an independent action of brain, that she could join the fading blossoms she wore to their broken stalks. “Intellectual companionship—the whole question centres here?”

“—Centres here!”

There was something almost sublime in his humility; he did not see the satire of pupil dictating to master. They spoke in different tongues. He meant thus; she thus. She was devouring with greedy joy the prospect of his mind; he felt aching of head, hunger of heart.

“It would be hypocritical of me not to tell you,” he added unexpectedly, “not to say that I have coveted you. You have, perhaps, thought of me as a man exempt from human passion. I myself am pained to discover that reason and will have not constituted plentitude of existence to me. I am testimony of deranged balance; memory predominates; I could not forget you; I found myself brooding. It appears that your presence is my liberty of mind. If I see you constantly before me, I may lose consciousness of you. I came to say this,” he added, and turned to retrace his way, having spoken.

Joan stood before him.

page 183

“You have revealed your heart to me,” she said, with a gesture as though she would force the confession back; “and your confidence compels equal candour. You offer me your name, home, knowledge, of which to make use?”

“—Of which to make use.”

“Your name is dear and sacred to me, the source of mental effort; under the inspiration of your presence, I believe that I shall do my best; but, if it should not be?”

“—Not be?”

She stretched out both hands towards him appealingly.

“I don't know! I don't know yet what I am. A vision of myself as I might become flits before me. I rebuke myself for my poor similitude of her. I do protest against the gap between us; if I thought I should never bridge it, I should send you away.”

“—Away?” he echoed faintly.

“Yes,” continued Joan passionately, her voice sounding like music in the man's ears; “back to your loneliness and your peace.”

“Not peace,” he corrected.

It was Joan who echoed now:

“Not peace?”

page 184

“No, not peace,” he affirmed. “There is a terrible weight upon me. I am barren of speech. It shames me as a woman barren of child…. I seek enfranchisement of spirit…. I am selfish. The silent man is unknown, be his dreams ever so great. I have failed. You may. If you do, we shall, perhaps, come nearer in the darkness.”

Joan turned her back to the setting sun, and looked over the field whence David's voice had come.

“Would you be content,” she asked, turning suddenly and again facing the Professor, “to be loved a little after Enoch?”

There was no need to explain. They had read the poem often. He thought in silence for a moment, Joan watching him the while. Then his face took on a look of relief; he murmured just audibly:

“‘Yet Enoch, as a brave, God-fearing man,
Bow'd himself down, and in that mystery
Where God in man is one with man in God,
Pray'd for a blessing on his wife and babes
Whatever came to him.’”

The Professor had found his precedent, and he smiled contentedly.

page 185

“Thank you,” said Joan, relieved. “But it is only fair to tell you that there has been no Enoch.”

“I want no faultless angel—only you,” he said, and lifted his hat; “your voice, your sweet ways, your mortal faults.”

Joan answered with humility and earnestness equal to his.

“My present self dissatisfies me now; help me to strenuous days.”

… ….

“Mr. Professor Stanton, sir,” said Father, in a loud voice, his face shining with pride and gratification, “you are welcome. The house is at your service. Nothink could give Mother an' me greater pleasure—nothink!”

Mother looked doubtful. She suspected the man. She had enjoyed a season of restfulness in the thought that Joan was growing more at home in her father's house, forgetting Miss Goodyear and all that pertained thereto. While she directed Mercy about the table linen laid by in lavender for great occasions, and the silver locked in the old oak locker, and went herself to the larder to select the tenderest chickens and tastiest tart, her mind reverted to the same question—what was the Professor after?

page 186

Father did not ask; it was enough that he had come. Otira had never sheltered a more welcome guest. All through the meal Father talked. It was well he did; his voice covered the silence of the others.

“You must come again, Professor Stanton, sir, when the wheat is in the ear! Come to our harvest home. It's a time of thanksgivin' for the bounty of the Lord; a consummation of hope. The plough and sickle are heard no more in the land, nor the pantin' of labourin' cattle. When the wheat is in the ear—”

“It proves the quality o' the grain,” commented Mercy from the background, putting a plate of cherry pie before the Professor with a snort as though she grudged it.

Joan, although she had fasted since the morning, did not eat heartily, but drank her tea eagerly, and seemed pre-occupied. Mother questioned her as to her long absence; but when she answered, “I was part of the time with David,” the woman's brow cleared.

“He hasn't been near the house since morning,” she replied. “He's busy in the hayfields; he's no need to work as he does; he's never happy unless page 187 he gives a hand. He'll be in to supper; the house seems dull without him.”

Yes, he was good to Mother; Joan liked him for that. He had many pleasant household ways. She roused herself, and went to her room to bathe her face and hands. She felt a strange, dream-like calm, as though she watched another girl performing her own acts, admiring her own face in the glass as she arranged a fleecy white scarf over her head and shoulders. She opened her window and gathered a handful of white roses, some of which she tucked under the hood of her scarf, fastening the others at her breast. Her face had paled, and her great eyes shone like diamonds under her dark curls. She smiled at her reflection faintly, then turned to go out.