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Wheat in the Ear

Chapter XVII. — Harvest

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Chapter XVII.

The golden haze of autumn shimmered over russet fields; the scent of ripe apples and garnered corn made the air fragrant; in the mellow light the larks poured forth their song—song in whose passionate cadence was the memory of warm flush of sunrise and sunset, the spirit of summer gone.

The granaries were fat with a rich harvest, the second crop of hay was stacked and thatched, great wains had groaned beneath their cargo of wool, and the kine had increased and multiplied. The reaping and threshing machines were silent now; but about the homestead was an air of expectation—a sense of holding breath—for the harvest home was to be a double festival, to see the daughter of the house a bride.

Mother had frequently been heard to say that the boy about the farm had brought them luck—that, page 206 with his coming, all things had prospered. It was the luck that followed zeal with knowledge, Father said; but the woman shook her head. She misgave her that he was ill requited, that Father's pride of place for Joan had blinded his eyes. She watched the quiet sternness of David's face with eyes illumined by intuition, and while she leant upon his sturdy arm, hungered to challenge his reserve. But he gave her no opportunity. Without effusion he met every occasion, infusing a gentleness that was almost tenderness into his manner towards her, but still holding his position, over which Janet could not cross, except by glances. From these occasionally he turned away his head. Joan felt sore that he gave her so little cause for grievance. There was no posing, no dramatising; he acted rationally—too much like a pure intelligence to justify her in her assumption of his sensuousness. She had arraigned him before a moral tribunal, and he conducted himself with calmness and deliberation. “Of the earth—earthy” had been her early judgment, and she was conscious of a flaw in her perception. The young farmer had succeeded in being a gentleman even as the intellectual world understood the term! He had unhesitatingly obeyed reason—that is, as she herself page 207 had presented it—and she found herself surprised and angry that natural instinct had not predominated. It was odious thus to sin against her æsthetic taste! for a girl, trained as she had been, to feel any inclination contrary to the law of mind! She was willing to put herself under restraint, lest she should not meet the exigencies of her own principles. Her remedy for this artificial sensibility was marriage. She would be linked so, irrevocably, to the desire of her mind. And David disputed nothing. If he had suffered any injury at her hands, his pride held sway over passion and resentment.

But the girl fought mutely against the contradiction of his present manner to that of the past. He no longer courted her favour, or sued for understanding, but accepted the position she had assigned to him. So the months had drifted on from summer to autumn, she schooling herself to check this degeneracy which, she estimated, would, if yielded to, leave her only a little higher than the animals. She fought valiantly, and alone. And, because she dreaded the emotional influence of her mother, drew back from Janet's advances; the woman, in ignorance of the cause, lamented that the season of her shortlived content was over, that the late awakening page 208 receptivity and responsiveness in her daughter's manner had frozen in its spring.

Joan's face had lost its light. The passionate love of those around her had left her uncomprehending—dead. For the first time, she felt—and shunned feeling as a disease.

With Father only was she at ease. His unfaltering conviction that she did well, his manifest pride and satisfaction, soothed and confirmed her in her part. His voice was her conscience and hushed her inward voice, and he drew her to him day by day, unconscious of Mother's covetous eyes and Mercy's emphasised hostility.

Upon Mother and Mercy devolved the responsibilities of the trousseau. Joan was the only wholly uninterested person concerned in the preparations. She emphatically declared that she would not wear wedding garb, but would be married in her academical robe. It was sign and symbol of the union, she perhaps thought—she did not say; but left Mother sighing:

“I could have wished a bit of a bride about the house…. Our only child … and we old.”

And Mercy wondered how she herself would have looked in white silk under a bridal veil, snorting page 209 angrily as she pondered on the arrogance with which some folk disdained their chances.

It was the day before harvest home, the eve of her wedding, and all day long Joan had wandered restlessly about. The history of the first day of her home-coming had repeated itself, with a difference. The brilliance of spring, the almost startling suddenness of bursting leaf and life, had changed to haze and stillness. That sense of limitation and fugitive satisfaction, that hint of regret and coming combat, which lingers in the autumn air, weighed heavily upon the girl's young spirit. Through the white twilight of dawn she saw David's face in the milking-yard, looking stern and cold. Later he passed before her over the fields, but the fields were reaped, and his song had something of passionate reproach in it under the changed conditions:

“‘It was a lover and his lass
That over the green cornfields did pass.’”

The tense was the past tense, and, as Joan heard, her whole consciousness seemed only to exist in the knowledge. When she found herself once page 210 more in the world of action this illusion would pass. Her waking life would explain this dream.

Returning from the fields she met David face to face at the gate at which they had parted. In a moment the man was the only reality—his eyes more expressive than all art or theory, his material strength more potent than intellectual power, his personality her pole and centre. With the suddenness of an electric shock she thrilled to her fingertips; yet she did not understand his monarchy of her sensations, his right to claim her. This force which radiated from him to her she regarded in the light of animal magnetism. With the thought her maiden pride took arms.

He had paled at the shock of meeting, rallied to a courteous greeting, then, as though something in her face had stirred him to expectancy, he bent forward slightly, there leaping to his eyes a flash of light. But she effaced his hope with serene speech, and he fell back, modifying his glance, although the hand with which he held open the gate was shaking on the rail. A moment's speaking silence, and Joan broke the spell.

“I wonder whether you will like Gertrude Goodyear. She comes to-night.”

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She had gone through the gate, and heard it shut behind her, and felt that she had passed through a fiery ordeal, panting and breathless, clutching hard at her garment of self-esteem to shield her from the scorching flame. Accustomed as she had been to analyse all emotion, she only half believed in the genuineness of her own.

When next she was conscious of David's voice, she found that he was drawing her attention to some prize cattle grazing near. Their moment had passed.

In the afternoon, Father drove the buggy to the station to meet the Professor and Miss Goodyear.

Joan had first offered to accompany him, then suddenly changed her mind. The usual afternoon repose of the farmhouse had given place to a subdued activity. The great kitchen was decorated with ripe corn, and the immense table partly prepared for the wedding feast. Joan wandered from room to room, the only unoccupied and uninterested person in the house. She felt irritated at the disturbance, at the obliteration of the old home characteristics, and finally took refuge in her garret. The great red sun was slowly disappearing behind the heights when she emerged, looking as though she had been in the company of ghosts. Not daring to page 212 risk a chance encounter with her mother, she set off with rapid strides along the road, as though her intention was to meet the buggy. The still twilight fell while she was walking; the solitary space was voiceless, save for the bleating of sheep. Her speed increased; only once before had she ever felt afraid, and that was long ago, when she had run from warmth and loving companionship in search of unknown good. She was afraid again; this time she knew not of what, but a sense of desolation paled her cheeks; her knees trembled and her steps lagged. In another minute she would have huddled to the earth, when she saw the buggy coming through the greyness towards her. She sprang forward with a little cry; there were her people, her rescue, and her refuge. Her lips trembled with the anticipation of communion; the Professor knew—Gertrude would understand.

“Woa-a, mare!”

Father's voice sounded through the tumult, and Joan was conscious of a gentle, æsthetic face, tremulous with suppressed emotion, of a lifted, wide-brimmed hat, then of a gleam of golden hair, a firmly-set mouth, and the intent searching gaze of Gertrude Goodyear's eyes.

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The next impression was of the tall stooping figure of Stanley Stanton beside her.

He took her cold little hand in his. The sensation of protection which his clasp conveyed was very welcome just then; for the first time Joan experienced what it meant to be wholly dependent upon another, in need of sympathy. The respectful admiration of his manner liberated her from her gloomy thoughts. A warm rush of gratitude loosened her tongue, and put life into her steps. When she greeted Gertrude at the house the elder woman believed that she was looking into the face of a blushing bride.

She stiffened; a tinge of scorn disfigured her beautiful eyes and lips.

“May you find in this marriage your justification and sanctification,” she said coldly.

That the undemonstrative, practical, unromantic girl could have fallen in love with the silent, solitary student, and become mobile and sensitive under the influence of passion like the most commonplace of her pupils, was a blow to Gertrude Goodyear that Joan could understand. In a passion of longing to be understood by this stately woman, whose rigidities of training had never been directed towards her page 214 personally, Joan clasped her hands about the arm of her friend; but, with rapid words upon her tongue, was silenced.

“Don't gush; spare me,” said Gertrude, with a smile almost of contempt.

Joan realised in a flash that her confidences had been procrastinated, that, apart from her wholesale distaste for marriage, Miss Goodyear had a justifiable, personal grievance. While the girl had been silently fighting with puzzling and conflicting emotions, Miss Goodyear had read her silence as an intimation that Joan's confidence in her sympathy had diminished. What Gertrude had suffered by this exclusion her cold, set face did not disclose; she made no resistance, but her reserve intimated that the barrier which Joan had raised could not be broken down in a rush of impulse. But the spell of Gertrude's leadership remained; for the first time, these two stood solely in the position of teacher and pupil.

It was a strange evening; each got through it for the sake of the others.

The great front parlour—unused except upon very special occasions—was thrown open. It was the only ugly room in the house. The wall-paper page 215 and carpet matched in an inartistic floral design; stiffly-starched blue-white curtains depended from the brass cornice poles; two large gilt-framed portraits of Father and Mother respectively hung one in either recess of the fireplace, and, between the windows, a flaring “painting” of Joan as a child, represented her in her scarlet frock and fez, and with a very pert, if not bold, expression. Here also were gathered all Father's agricultural and horticultural prizes. Stuffed birds stared glassily from their cases, and in the place of the sweet scented lavender in the living-room, wax flowers flaunted in the mantel vases in colours which, setting Dame Nature at defiance, strictly matched the crimson and yellow of the upholstery. Great bunches of ivy filled the open fireplace, and a design in butterflies had the place of honour over the mantel-shelf. A large print of Napoleon hung on one wall, facing “The Death of Nelson.” On a round table in one bay window lay the family Bible upon a spotless antimacassar; on the Bible, under a glass case, rested the floral decoration of Tom and Janet Jefferies' wedding-cake. The whole apartment was speckless, and wore a general air of primness and holiday discomfort which, until the page 216 occupants vitalised the atmosphere, overwhelmed with a feeling of isolation and alienation.

The Professor sat in the seat of honour, a great uncompromisingly stiff arm-chair, looking nervous and distracted at being the occasion of the domestic demonstration, his gaze directed afar off, lost, it seemed, in silent contemplation of a way of escape. The kindness and the beneficence of his countenance was disturbed; he had conceived the ideal of union as the poets conceive it—without its practical and commonplace preliminaries. He had journeyed here in a dream, his silent companion disturbing no illusion. If he had anticipated at all, it had only been the return, his dream fulfilled. The intervening ceremony and the family fuss had escaped his vision. Both he and Gertrude Goodyear abhorred fuss, and Joan winced at the unspoken criticism in the woman's eyes, and at the helpless, worried expression of the man.

Father was cordial, loud, and emphatic in his endeavours to approach the pale, silent student as a flesh and blood son-in-law. He raised his voice the more he strove to make himself understandable, glowing and expanding under his own exertions; airing his accumulated witticisms and senti- page 217 mentalities till the fastidious recipient of his courtesies rose hurriedly, as though to escape from the weight of blended patronage and forced affection which were crushing him. Then, his appealing glance resting upon Joan's face, he murmured a line from “Maud”—

“‘There is none like her—none.’”

Gertrude Goodyear heard the murmur, and saw the sudden life and warmth that emphasised it. The tone of conviction, and the reassured manner of the man, were a revelation to her. She flushed, then paled, still watching with her intent gaze the glow of transformation that had changed the critical student into a human being. This was something more than idle susceptibility. The night in the oak avenue recurred to her forcibly, as it had frequently of late—when the Professor had first shown the man! Were all hearts to be reached by the smile of a girl? Great heroic hearts content to fall back upon nothingness? Were not even men like Stanley Stanton sufficient in themselves to fulfil their own destiny? or would he, later, replunge into the inner life which he was now forsaking?

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The addition of David to the party made the position more painfully constrained. He had honoured the occasion by wearing his dress suit; he seemed determined to regard it seriously, to assume that the success or non-success of the evening depended upon external things, and did his best to dissipate Mother's visible anxiety and disappointment with his most charming manner. Joan was conscious of his every movement; also of Gertrude's attempts to quench the young man's attentions towards herself. The climax of the girl's discomfort was reached when Father, carried away by the sentimental suggestions of the hour, sang “John Anderson, my jo,” seeing nothing incongruous or amiss in it. It was then that Joan wrenched the position from unyielding and incompetent hands, and dignified it. The ludicrous blundering of her well-meaning father covered her with confusion. He had conducted matters in a way befitting the nuptials of a dairy-maid; and Gertrude had sat by and seen her scourged without an attempt to liberate her.

The girl lifted her head and rallied her scattered force, and, by the immortal power of genius, drove all other influences into the background. The self-restraint and self-repression of the past few months page 219 were forgotten the moment she began to read. The slender, white-frocked girl emancipated herself and her audience from the room, and the rigidities of courtesy and prejudice. More than once while she read, a quiver of passion shook her voice. Expectation broke through the shadow of Gertrude's reserve; David grew pale, and, standing under the print of Napoleon, unconsciously fell into his attitude, with arms folded upon his breast, telling something of the restraint he put upon his feelings. Once he looked up, but not at Joan; the Professor riveted his glance. The man was bent forward, with enthralled gaze upon the girl, his lips moving to a whispered reiteration of the words that left her lips. All his remoteness had dropped from him; there was an inner upheaval. Could appreciation of talent move so far?

It was Rossetti's “Blessed Damozel” that she read; and she transported them from the crudities of Otira Farm to infinite space, where

“The curled moon
Was like a little feather
Fluttering far down the gulf.”

They heard the voice like that

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“The stars
Had when they sang together,”

and saw the girl leaning in longing over the bar of heaven, pining for her earth-bound lover, with her star-crowned hair that was “yellow like ripe corn,” gleaming down her back.

Had she chosen this theme with definite purpose, Miss Goodyear wondered, to hint that love controlled all forces?

“‘I wish that he were come to me,
For he will come,’ she said.
… …
We two will lie in the shadow of
That living mystic tree.
… …
And I myself will teach to him
The songs I sing here.”

It was the broken, yearning voice of the man, and not Joan's they heard, then, aspiring to reach the woman's height, yet fearful of rejection:

“‘Alas! we two, we two, thou sayest.
Yea, one thou wast with me
That once of old. But shall God lift
To endless unity
The soul whose likeness to thy soul
Was but its love for thee?’”

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David's eyes were fixed upon hers now. It was accredited to the girl's artistic sense that, piteously, and with infinite pathos, she proceeded “We two,” and, in subdued ecstasy, followed the re-united lovers in their hand-in-hand journey to a region of purity,

“‘Not once abashed or weak.’”

The revulsion of feeling was almost painful when her hearers realised with the Damozel that her ecstatic joy was anticipatory, that she was still lonely, in spiritual remoteness awaiting her beloved.

“‘And then she cast her arms along
The golden barriers,
And laid her face between her hands
And wept. (I heard her tears.)’”

“—I heard her tears!” the Professor's soft voice affirmed after the passionate cry.

“Oh, dear!” said Mother presently, furtively wiping her eyes; “she were only a woman after all, an' couldn't make herself at home, even in Paradise, without her man.”

A loud snort from the doorway expressed Mercy's sentiments.

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Almost with her last words, Joan passed from the room. Miss Goodyear's eyes followed her with a curious and troubled glance. The child had been equal to the occasion—had played her part well, and knit their divorced feelings by her old fascinating spell, bewildering with her eloquence and inspiration. For a moment she paused, then passed after her. Joan was in the garden, and, hearing footsteps, turned breathlessly.

“You!” she exclaimed, and there was something in her voice of disappointed expectation.

The woman caught the inflection, and her momentary impulse of softness passed.

“I am afraid,” she said, with a great effort, “that I seem unsympathetic. I cannot reach your level; I am about the most unfitting person possible to masquerade at a wedding. I cannot command the enthusiasm expected. Upon the present occasion I am baffled. I regarded the Professor as absorbed in his professional pursuits, and find it difficult to readjust my conception of him. This betrayal of his highest … hurts.”

There was a long silence; the slender, white figure walked beside the tall, dark-robed woman, scarcely less stately in carriage than she.

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“I have wondered sometimes lately,” said Joan gently, “whether love”—she hesitated over the word—“might not be the highest; wished, if so, that I might represent it to at least one life.”

She spoke with unusual shyness, but with quiet pride. A burning flush suffused her face at the last halting words, but it was not visible in the moonlight.

“I don't understand you, quite,” answered Miss Goodyear. “Indulgence in sentiment is a shillyshallying business; resistance to emotion is the only avoidance of suffering. The moment reason yields to impulse, the man or the woman creates a limitation, and becomes enfeebled by a division of force.”

“It has sometimes occurred to me,” responded Joan, with hesitation, as one not sure of her ground, “that much of our æstheticism and intellectuality is in reality only drapery that hides the real man.”

“Our lives are testimony that we do not agree,” responded Gertrude, without passion.

“There was another silent pacing upon the lawn. The woman's face was as still as though carved from stone; but Joan had lost some of her nervousness.

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“Was there never a time when this common lot, this heritage of woman, seemed possible to you?”

It was a bold question. Joan trembled at her own temerity. She bent forward with an apologetic glance, but the woman's face was turned away. The answer for which she waited did not come. Instead, she spoke again herself.

“Forgive me; I have disappointed you—that I know. There is a smallness in me somewhere that hurts. I shall grow large only through that feeling and experience you dread so much for me. Let it come; a withdrawal would be a voluntary death in life. I must go on to meet it. One day I shall live wholly to weal or woe. When I have found the secret sources of my own being, I can track those of others. You have taught me a trick of analysis, Gertrude, that I cannot overcome. I find myself dissecting every inch of my own body and brain, and every inch of, say, yours among others. Has anybody loved me really, I wonder?”

Gertrude started, and turned her head quickly.

“You have all had so many diverse plans concerning me,” she proceeded, answering Gertrude's page 225 look. “Am I wholly to blame that I have failed to carry them all through?”

“Have I blamed?”

“You have loved me less!” answered the girl simply.

“This sort of thing is weak!” said the woman; “don't let it betray you into regret. Your alienations, if you have any, are of your own making. You seem, willing just now to barter all tangible good for something intangible. You have gone too far to retract; but I think I might have saved you had I been your mother.”

They bade each other good-night, and Joan walked slowly towards the house. She came back presently.

“Mother did try,” she said, with frank honesty. “She had nothing to gain either—and I think she loves me. I have hurt her always, and she is always my friend. I think it right to say so.”

Miss Goodyear stood quite still for a long time.

“An extraordinary climax,” she said at last, and went back to the house.