Wheat in the Ear
Chapter XIX. — Adjustment
The silent house on the Avon received its new mistress without demonstration. The housekeeper who waited on the married pair gave no Indication that her master's new relationship was unexpected; her face was indicative neither of pleasure nor the reverse.
She replied quietly to his greeting, then turned to Joan, who stood hesitatingly near the door, and said:
“Perhaps you'd like to come to your room, ma'am,” and led the way across the flagged hall and up the stairs. On the landing she paused and turned to her master. “I lighted a fire in the dining-room, sir; the evening is a little chilly.”
She conveyed by a look that Joan was to follow her, and opened a door opposite to that from which a ruddy glow streamed invitingly.
The chill had struck on the girl's senses, she shivered slightly, and felt inclined to make for the page 243 glow, but followed, instead, whither the woman led, realising with a sort of shock that she had come home, that this house would be henceforth the theatre of her daily life. She had an impression, received from reading, that brides were welcomed home with pretty words. Not that it mattered, of course, except, perhaps, that it was a relief; she had been hearing pretty speeches all day. She dismissed the housekeeper with her little air of self-possession, and shut herself in the well-lighted room. It was spacious and lofty, furnished with old-fashioned, heavy sort of comfort; but carpets, brass, woodwork, curtains, all were new, painfully new.
Joan sat down in a deep-seated chair at the head of the four-posted bedstead, feeling very small and unimposing. It was the contrast to the colour and life and bustle of the farm that made this house seem so still; the quiet was sure to strike forcibly at first.
She rose and threw off her wraps, humming softly to herself while she brushed her hair. Midway in the performance, she suspended operations, and, brush in hand, gazed once more around her. What a strange, uninhabited feel the room had! No little graces or negligences to tell their story. Her hands shook a little at the reflection that this room had been page 244 specially prepared for her, that it was her own personality that would be stamped upon it It looked peculiarly inadaptable to her simple needs. What did one small person need with all this space?
She arranged the soft lace at the neck of her blue dress, and, without waiting for a guide, went in search of the dining-room, where the warm glow was; pushing open the half-open door, she looked round rather wistfully. A bright lire burned in the tiled grate, and flickered upon numerous pictures on the walls, faces of men and women who had distinguished themselves in literature, who had propounded or unravelled life's problems. She drew her breath with a little sigh, then moved round the walls to renew her acquaintance with old friends and to be introduced to strangers. Some of the eyes appeared to be watching her, as though their interest were centred upon the movements of a slight girl; others to be looking far away, with an expression that seemed to say that the ideal had won them from humanity; that what they worshipped, that was life! Some of the faces were alert, susceptible, hinting at swiftly following smiles and tears; others calm, instinct with strength; others passionate, remonstrating, despairing.page 245
She turned from the pictures to the hearth. A table, with covers for two, stood where the firelight flickered upon the silver and glass; two easy-chairs were drawn to the hearth.
She remembered again. They two—Professor Stanton and she—inseparable in interest henceforth, till death them should part!
She sat down in one of the chairs by the fire and looked into the glowing embers. Presently she found herself repeating a snatch of a nursery rhyme mother had taught her long ago:—
“Two little knives!
Two little forks!
Two little plates and spoons!”
“How ridiculous!” she exclaimed, with a faint smile, when she caught herself. She leant back, a look of dejection about the corners of her sweet mouth, the light of her brilliant eyes covered by their drooping lids. How silent it was! Not a sound of life came from any quarter of the house. Yes, it was restful! After all the excitement of the day, it was restful!
She roused herself, and, seeing a book upon a stand hard by, stretched out her hand for it. It opened at page 246 random. “To surrender what is most profound and mysterious in one's being and personality at any price less than that of absolute reciprocity is profanation.” she read. She returned the volume to its place, and gazed into the fire again, then round the room. How simple all its appointments were! There were traces of the student even here. No artificiality, no tawdry commonplaces; a distinct, yet austere, setting of a mind. Why was she so conscious that there were two persons to sit face to face day after day? She supposed the feeling would wear out after a time; both would be very busy; she expected they would scarcely meet, except at meals. She rose and went to the window. It overlooked the river, as did the Professor's study above. A glimpse of the stream was caught here and there among the trees, but everything else was indistinct Joan noted, with a little thrill, that, far away in the western sky, there was still a lingering light above the peaks.
She returned to her seat, and, resting her hands upon its arms, sat motionless. A feeling, not a sound, made her look up; she saw Stanley Stanton's face above her, his eyes gazing softly down. She sat up, then rose silently, and took her place at the table.page 247
The Professor presided with evident nervousness. It seemed to strike him for the first time that the girl opposite had physical necessities. He had sat out many meals with her without observing what she ate. If he ever noted what was placed before himself, the notice was accidental But he flushed sensitively now.
“Was the meal properly served?” his troubled face inquired.
Joan nodded a bright assurance; she had noted and understood his perturbation. Her friendliness calmed his anxiety.
At the first sign of his distress, her woman's tact came to the rescue. She chatted unreservedly; her eagerness to please him was almost pitiful. She was inwardly perplexed for entertaining subjects, and pained by her inability to keep his interest; the thought of his scholarship oppressed her. How could she know that he was under the spell of her personal witchery?—that he was pleased by the pale blue of her frock, and found his attention wandering from her talk to the light and shadow that chased alternately through her eyes?
At the conclusion of the meal, Joan rose, and hesitated what next to do. Seeing her uncertainty, page 248 the Professor remembered, with an agony of shame, that he had forgotten a drawing-room for her.
“I have grown barbaric,” he apologised, “and sacrificed the amenities of life to the habits of the recluse. Until I have prepared a room for the occupation of a lady, … will you … share … my study?”
He paused between each few words, as though reluctant either to wound her susceptibilities or to admit an outsider into his holy of holies.
“This will do!” said Joan easily; and they went back to the chairs by the fire.
The woman, while she cleared the table, cast curious and surreptitious glances at them; but neither seemed to be conscious of her presence. The slight noise of the door closing behind her roused Stanley Stanton from his abstraction.
“I beg your pardon for my obsession,” he said, rising while he spoke, and leaning his arm upon the mantel-shelf.
Joan noted, with surprise, that his shoulders were more bent than she had supposed, and that the hair about his temples was thin. She was sensible of a something to which she could not give utterance page 249 springing up within her—a callous sort of criticism.
“I want to say something to you, … dear,” said the man, with an almost apologetic tone for the use of the term of endearment; “and I find my habit of reserve hard to break. It is a difficulty I must cope with and overcome.” After a moment's hesitation, he went on, looking directly into Joan's eyes, “I … long to break away from my chain of thought … to merge myself in human interests.”
He looked at the girl pleadingly, but she did not help him; she sat with her hands folded listlessly in her lap, and gazed into the fire, having withdrawn her glance suddenly from his.
“I find it difficult to express exactly what I mean —no new difficulty; to give utterance precisely to my thought is impossible. But my wish is to bid you welcome; to thank you for your entrance into my house; to—to ask your forbearance, … acceptance … of my service.”
Joan's downcast eyelids and drooping mouth were trembling. He came forward a step; she looked up suddenly.
“Thank you,” she said, a little hurriedly. “We both find the position strange, naturally.”page 250
“—Naturally!” he echoed, with a grateful sense that she was coming to the rescue. His face lightened; she had a rare gift of understanding!
Her foot touched his accidentally; she drew it in.
“Somewhat painfully constrained,” she added, and looked for acquiescence.
“I feel as though I had lost my way, don't you know!” she said, with a faint, pathetic smile; “but one's feelings work round to new situations by degrees.”
The Professor's face had lost its bright expression while Joan was stumbling through this sentence. At its conclusion the disappointment lightened somewhat.
“By degrees. Naturally. I see your position!”
Joan nodded several times thoughtfully, with her head upon one side. The outlook was clearing; it was pleasant to discuss matters. It made everything more friendly and everyday like.
“We have approached our present standpoint from different quarters,” she continued cheerfully; “but our views are fundamentally the same!”
“—Fundamentally the same!”page 251
“Mutual help, that was our Intention; reciprocity of intellectual interest.”
But Stanley Stanton's face had a strange, startled look upon it, that roused Joan's wonder.
“You believed that my presence would prove helpful,” she suggested anxiously, tapping the arm of the chair with her open palm, as though the action helped his memory. “You found your thoughts wandered to me, distracting you from your work. I need the tonic of your mind; I was losing stamina. The benefit was unequal. You are a scholar. I prize the gift of your companionship; but my only chance of intellectual attainment is through contact with intellectuality; and the life of the brain is the only life.”
“—The only life!”
It sounded more like a query than a reiteration.
Joan nodded, smiling up at him.
“I was so near making a false start,” she added, with a little burst of confidence. “I was deteriorating, preferring to follow the direction of animal impulse. The country is dangerous; it exercises all sorts of spells. The light, and scent, and sound produce a sort of exaltation; they carry one away with a feeling of delight in mere existence. page 252 I need not enter into particulars, but I began to dread mental obliteration; the dominion of ideas seemed nowhere; your coming saved me!”
“Yes,” she answered, with a deep breath; “reminded me of what you and Gertrude have lived eloquently—that the limits of emotion are too narrow to fill the space that life demands.”
She rose, and held out her tiny hand, appealingly, it seemed to him.
He watched her movements with painful intent-ness. Was she rejecting him?
“Good-night,” she said gently.
His throat contracted. His breath came spasmodically. There was a moment's fear in her eyesf as she watched the struggle in his face. It was brief. He took the outstretched hand, held it for a moment, then let her pass.
She turned at the doorway, and smiled reassuringly.
He gazed after her with a sort of stupefaction. When the door closed, he went back to his old position on the hearth-rug, leaning as before, looking down upon the empty chair she had just occupied. His face lit up the while he gazed, an indescribable page 253 gentleness illuminating it as though he saw the girl-woman, with her curly head resting against the dark-tinted leather.
“I marvel at the difference her presence makes. … A perpetual giving forth. And she is such a little thing…. Such tiny hands!”
He turned abruptly, and strode hastily from the room, and to his study above.
Joan heard his footsteps ascend the stairs, and the closing of a door. She turned on her white pillows restlessly.
“It is quite true,” she said out loud, as if in protest. “I do honour him!”
The Professor lighted the reading-lamp upon his desk, and sat down before it. The light under the green shade made his pale face of a ghastly hue. He stretched out his hand, and drew a volume towards him, and presently was in communication with its thoughts. He lifted his head once, and listened. All was quiet, appallingly quiet. His head went down again, his eyes pursued the printed page. Hours passed; the slight rustle of the regularly turned leaves marked the student's labours. With the dawn he looked up with the expression of one who had found a new conception.