Wheat in the Ear
Chapter II. — Father and Mother
Father and Mother.
Otira Gorge Farm took its name from the stream upon whose banks it stood—a burn-like stream that tumbled helter-skelter from the mountains, and made much ado to clamber over rocky boulder, and force its way through fragrant fern, to reach the level land; here, with occasional rebellious swirl and eddy, it gradually quieted to a less impetuous flow, narrowing in parts to a steel-like blade that flashed between long grasses, then, with swift curve, grew opulent and broad, and—as though conscious of the dignity of its ministry to the thirsty plains—still.
The farm-house stood back from the stream, its grey whiteness thrown into relief by a dark patch of native bush at its rear. The house was of stone, with bulging windows, and porch massed with a late-flowering vine. Round three sides of the house was the orchard, despoiled of its late harvest, and a well-kept page 16 lawn spread beneath the fruit trees; outside extending to the encircling meadows bordered by the gorge, and beyond the gorge the far-reaching plains. The back of the house faced the bush and the mountain ridge. In the space between the veranda, which ran the length of the house, and the skirt of the forest, a small world intervened. Flower-gardens, kitchen-gardens, yards, dairies, butteries, hen-coops, and cow-sheds, with the combined effect of blazing autumn blossoms, yellow pumpkins and white-hearted cauliflowers, red tiles, brown-thatched roofs, glinting milk pans, and all the stir of the principalities and powers of the feathered tribes—ducks, fowls, geese, turkeys, flaunted their colours in the autumn sunlight, and each contributed its note to the symphony of the farm-yard, accompanied by the distant bleating of sheep, the lowing of kine, and the occasional bark of the watch-dog.
The great kitchen and the living-room of the house overlooked this scene of life from the windows beneath the veranda. The kitchen was spotless, and, in spite of an intimate knowledge of the strength of the muscles of Mercy, the handmaid, who ruled there, the boards and shining steel about the stove continued to be a marvel to the farmhands, page 17 who three times daily gathered round the tremendous table occupying the centre of the room. The roof was unceiled; great hams, flitches of bacon, and yellow pumpkins hung from the rafters; and from the large presses, which occupied the spaces on both sides of the fireplace, a faint aroma escaped, suggestive of dried apples and preserves. Over the mantelshelf the dish-covers flashed like breast-plates of steel, and the delf and china upon a huge dresser reflected a miniature kitchen wherever they caught the light. A tabby cat was snoozing before the fire with her fore-paws upon the fender, the only occupant of the room, for Mercy was upstairs “cleaning herself.”
The first impression upon one entering the living-room was that of snow-white and crimson, and the scent of lavender. The floor, like the kitchen, was uncarpeted, save for numerous sheep-skin rugs, which, bleached and combed, were spread luxuriously before the fire, under the handsome mahogany dining-table, and in every available spot. The ceiling was also white, and the wall-paper a deep crimson, which colour was reproduced in the upholstery of a wide, low couch and deep-seated chairs, and in the large feather pillows that page 18 made them luxurious. On one side of the room stood an American organ, facing it a sideboard that matched the table. The deep-silled window blazed with geraniums, and was curtained with crimson. The lavender that perfumed the apartment bulged from two large bronze bowls that stood on the mantelpiece, one on each side of the eight-day clock.
The room was redeemed from primness by the living picture of a woman, who sat on a low rocker upon the hearth-rug nursing a child. Janet Jefferies was essentially a fireside woman, and belonged to a race of faithful wives, affectionate mothers, and able managers. Her presence gave vital meaning to the details of the room.
Mother and child appeared to be both asleep, lulled by the stillness; but a closer look revealed the fact that the woman's downcast eyes rested in reverie upon the face of the babe at her breast.
The face of Janet Jefferies was not young, for it told the story of thirty-five years; not years of indolent inactivity, polite hypocrisy, and mock scepticism, but of energetic, hopeful activity, honest prejudice, undisguised love, and anxious faith. Work and apprehension had drawn a mark or two page 19 across the forehead, but hope and affection had kept her mouth soft and her drooping brown eyes bright. The delicacy of recent maternity had toned the natural ruddiness of her cheeks to a tender flush, and, as she sat in the fading light of the afternoon, the brooding gentleness of the Madonna look, with its yearning and hint of regret, as of some harboured thought of personal unworthiness, gave the woman more attractions than the rosy charm of girlhood had given her teens. Her hair was soft and abundant, silky and waving from the parting to the back of her head, where close, thick plaits held it in bondage. Her gown was of soft, grey woollen stuff, and a white muslin collar adorned her neck.
Except for the sex of the child, all things had eventuated as she and “Father” had desired. Tom was no longer merely lover and husband. After his first profound joy and thankfulness, Father's next sensation was that he had been trifled with. He, like Janet, had confidently expected a son; thus their ideas were doomed to readjustment. Father did this slowly, with laboured thought, for “His name shall be called John” he had decided; his career had been sketched, even to detail; he was to be a second John the Baptist, brilliant in the page 20 public eye, and unwearied by manual labour. Tom himself had been denied much learning; but, with the intelligent appreciation of the scholar, he had devised great attainments for his son. With this ideal in view, every time Tom Jefferies rode back from the township, the leather bag bulged with biographies obtained from Christchurch, the distant “City of the plains.” These he had read to Janet while she had stitched.
Janet, unlike the man, did not feel that fate had robbed her when it had denied her a modern John the Baptist; the first cry of the girl had drowned all sense of loss. She mentally counted the linen sheets she would give her daughter at her wedding.
A stir in the kitchen announced the fact that Mercy had come downstairs. Presently she appeared in the living-room with her mistress's tea. She was a tall, gaunt woman of twenty-five, with the muscles of Hercules and a mahogany complexion. Her chief characteristics were unmitigated scorn for the opposite sex and devotion to her own; her accomplishments, cooking and scrubbing; her reputation, a bitter tongue; and her religion, honesty.
Allusions to the expected “he” had hardened her heart. She wondered at her mistress. “The master” page 21 she could tolerate; he might have been worse; but what a comfortable, happily dispositioned couple, who had lived fifteen years together with very little to distress them, wanted with a boy about the house, she failed to see. He'd be a daily vexation, she knew; his boot-nails would ruin the floors; he'd steal the jam and grow to idleness, and spend his father's substance in riotous living, and overwhelm his mother with affliction. The shadow of coming disaster had cleared from Mercy's brow at the magic word girl; her temper perceptibly softened, and, although she did not speak her thought, it was clear that her respect for her mistress had increased.
Mercy deposited the tray at Janet's hand, then speedily departed in fear lest she should be requested to hold the child, which she feared to break. In her haste she precipitated herself against her master, who was entering the room. He had made no noise in his entry, because he had left his boots in the lobby—the place of the child was holy ground; he just learnt to step softly in reverence for her sleep. He came forward in his grey worsted stockings, and stood six feet upon the hearth-rug, looking down upon his woman-kind with much satisfaction. In his shaggy greatcoat, he had the look of a great sheep-dog, page 22 and brought in with him a whiff of frosty freshness and scent of tussock-grass. He wrinkled his brows as with a mental effort to take the correct measurement of the situation, then put forth a strong roughened hand and touched Janet's hair.
“Well, Mother!” he said, in a hearty voice, as though there was no doubt about it.
“Well, Father,” she replied, “you've got back. You've done for to-day? Go and get your supper, then come and tell me all about it. You've registered her Joan?”
The roughly-carved, bronzed face of the man lit up good-humouredly. He made no movement supper-ward, but drew himself straight where he stood, and, in the tone of one bestowing a benediction, made reply:
“Joan—Joan Jefferies, daughter of Tom and Janet Jefferies, of Otira Gorge Farm, Otira Gorge, province of Canterbury, New Zealand.”
Janet hummed softly in contentment:
“‘Heigh, ho! daisies and buttercups,
Fair yellow daffodils, stately and tall!
When the wind wakes how they rock in the grasses,
And dance with the cuckoo-buds, slender and small.
Here's two bonny boys, and here's mother's own lasses
Eager to gather them all.’”
“Joan,” reiterated Father, as though the bestowal of the name upon Janet's baby must for ever add new dignity to the memory of the woman who made it famous. “Joan of Arc—Joan Jefferies! the name of a noble heroine”—he pronounced it heroine—“fearless in danger; lamb-like in gentleness.”
“‘Heigh, ho! daisies and buttercups,
Mother shall thread them a daisy chain:
Sing them a song of the pretty hedge-sparrow—’”
“A woman,” broke in Father's voice, his face flushed with enthusiasm, “who trusted God and did the right; who renounced self, and—”
“‘That loved her brown little ones, loved them full fain. Sing, “Heart, thou art wide, though the house be but narrow”—
Sing once and sing it again.’”
Tom went to the kitchen and left Janet to her rocking. Later the man returned to the room, his feet in carpet slippers of a gorgeous hue. His wife noted the slippers, but made no comment; she knew why they were worn. Tom carried the leather bag in his hand. He sat down opposite to Janet, and unfastened it, and drew forth a rattle, page 24 an india-rubber doll, a skipping-rope, and a Bible.
Janet watched him. It was the first time the old bag had not produced a present for herself. She held the child a little closer. But she suffered only for a moment; the next she congratulated herself upon being a most fortunate woman.
“‘Heigh ho! daisies and buttercups,
Fair yellow daffodils, stately and tall;
A sunshiny world full of laughter and leisure,
And fresh hearts unconscious of sorrow and thrall;
Send down on their pleasure smiles passing its measure,
God that is over us all.’”