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Wheat in the Ear

Chapter XX. — Honest Blunders

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Chapter XX.
Honest Blunders.

Gertrude Goodyear devoted herself to work again, energetically and exclusively. Labour had been her life-feast; but a dainty morsel had come her way. The women of New Zealand were fighting for the Franchise, and she made the common cause of her sex her own, and very specially.

The strength of her will carried her through months of unprecedented effort After her toilsome day at college, she prolonged her exertions through the evening, and frequently late into the night; presiding at meetings, organising committees, writing articles that influenced the thought of the hour.

Her standard was so high that her weaker sisters, with shorter reach, felt the magnetic touch of her strength, and the conviction that she, and such as she, only could obtain for them what they desired.

The crowd of feebler woman lean on such strong ones, admiring them ecstatically, looking to them in page 255 their sorrowful and terrible moments for succour and support Many women envied the talented Miss Goodyear her knowledge and power; few would have trodden her road to gain it.

Her voice cheered and gladdened the laggard and the feeble. No voice assuaged the ache and yearning of her heart in the loneliness of the silent house. While happy women discussed her lectures round domestic fires, she went quietly to bed, longing unceasingly and unwittingly for that other soul which should reflect her own.

“To be self-sufficient is to be strong.” she said. When sleep had unfastened the shackles of her will, her hand would search the vacant space beside her.

Yet, when she met Joan, her demeanour was unsympathetic. She did not touch her as of old. The caresses she had formerly indulged in were withheld. Once having assured herself that Joan could arrange her life without her, she made no attempt to regain the old ascendancy. The meetings between the two were of less frequency than Janet had supposed they would be. Their different views took them different ways. The woman's cause had not the significance to the younger that it had to the elder woman.

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Perfection for art's sake was Joan's aim; perfection for the uplifting of her sex was Miss Good-year's. Personal success as an isolated fact was little to her; it was Joan's all. At least she believed so at this time, and laboured to realise her belief—laboured frankly with the desire to make a name.

The Professor did not damp her ardour by any _ show of feeling. After that first ineffectual attempt to show his heart to his girl-wife, he was shy of demonstration. He did all that he could to help the young student in his home, listened to all she had to tell, bore her interruption of his private study with patience and forbearance, but made no demands—did not, in fact, appear to recognise that he had claims.

Some special work absorbed his leisure. In the pale hours of dawn he read from the MSS. upon his desk—a mournful, melodious measure—with a face of thoughtful gladness.

The assured position that Stanley Stanton gave her in his home quieted Joan's first apprehension. He had understood. An involuntary sense of gratitude for his consideration followed, and she strove to meet every emergency of her new position with a friendliness equal to his own.

“The privilege of daily association with you i page 257 inestimable,” she said to him one day, when she had gone to him with some darkness for his illumination.

“I may be right,” he answered humbly. “I am not sure; truth is inexhaustible. I have given you such help as lies within the limitation of my knowledge. Get beyond it if you can.”

She looked up at him, noting the grave and gentle sincerity of his face. His lack of egotism struck her as it never had before.

“I will help you to do that the moment I see farther myself,” he added, wondering at her look, and laying his hand gently upon her hair.

“If I have you to back me, I am content,” she said, with one of her ready impulses.

It was said with a flush and a sudden dimming of the bright eyes. Her husband leaned forward and regarded her attentively. Then, as though he recollected suddenly that he was venturing on prohibited ground, turned quietly and climbed the stairs to his study.

Once or twice Joan had ventured to pursue him thither. The first time she received a shock. In some new problem the Professor had forgotten their relationship; the man was buried in the student. In him the quality of concentration was so developed page 258 that, when specially interested, he had no personality.

Joan found him with haggard face and head bent over his desk, heavy volumes lying open on the | floor at his feet Quick-falling rain was beating in through the open window, the fire had burned to red-grey ashes, a cold draught was blowing on him but feeling was arrested.

Joan stood in the doorway for a moment, gazing at the pale apostle of closely ordered book-shelves. She noted his hunger-drawn face, the long, nervous fingers, hugging the volume in his hands. His absorption, his aloofness and deadness to the outer world, struck her with a sudden chill. Was it worth the loss of all else?—was it, after all? She crossed the room and laid her soft hand on his. He looked up with the expression of a sleep-walker; then flickers of disappointment clouded the dreamy eyes, as of thoughts disarranged before conclusion; then a gradual coming back, and a sigh.

“You have eaten nothing for twelve hours,” she said.

He rose wearily, and followed her. The first faint, unawakened instinct of motherhood stirred in her as she tended him; but, although she smiled, she remembered the sigh. Had he returned to his page 259 normal state of absolute absorption in his work? Had she made a mistake in supposing that his phase of objective interest would last? Had it passed? How difficult life was!

Twice again only did she venture into the Professor's sanctum uninvited. Upon one occasion she found him fast asleep in his chair; on the other, he was bending over some MSS. ecstatically. He flushed when she entered, and, with a nervous movement, pushed it aside. She caught the title in an unintentional glance; but it was not for months afterwards that it held any significance for her.

It was therefore with a shut-out sensation that she laboured for her first public appearance as an elocutionist. Instinctively she avoided breaking down the reserve set up between her husband and herself, lest, the barrier removed, awkward disclosures might ensue. She realised, with surprise, what a stranger he was to her; how little she knew of him outside his university life, and how easily she had adopted his idea that she could help him. Would this farce end in tragedy? Had she presumed lightly to set the great, silent laws of Nature at defiance? attempted to thrust them aside with weak, presumptive hands?

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A growing sense of failure and incompetence shook her former satisfaction. The pale face of the silent man in his study protested against her egotism; was it impossible for her to make happy one single soul?

She yearned towards Gertrude with a renewed yearning. Her self-effacement assumed a grander meaning, and in Joan's new-born sense of pain and realisation of her loneliness, she understood better Gertrude Goodyear's life, and gazed longingly many a night towards the red light in the porch of her so long-time home.

But, with the spring, all other thoughts were driven into the background by the fast approaching night of her first appearance. The thought of possible success encouraged her. To win public consideration might justify her in the eyes of her friend, and bring some honour to the name she had assumed; give a vindication to the world—the Professor's world—for his marriage with her. It would be now a greater joy to be approved and smiled upon than it would have been some months ago; for her motive was a broader one, although she was herself scarce conscious of it; she wanted triumph for the sake of others, as a justification of her existence. She began to feel that life would be a degradation if page 261 she could not say in effect to those who trusted her, “I have proved not altogether worthless.”

Gertrude had of late been more difficult and satirical than usual, taking no pains to hide that she thought Joan's individual striving during the hours of the crisis of a broader cause both futile and self-seeking. She had proudly and systematically pursued her arduous task, as though seeking to throw off a weight that crushed her. But there was a deep-set melancholy lurking in the eyes that flashed defiance; and, at the end of her struggle, she was listless, haggard, and impatient for the result in Parliament.

It was the afternoon of Joan's début. A few hours and it would be decided whether or not she was capable of winning a reputation that would bring her credit. A letter from home had informed her that father and mother could not be present, owing to Mother's ailing. The girl thought it curious she should be so disappointed; she felt painfully forsaken. Gertrude had expressed no intention of being present that night, so her mother and her foster-mother alike would be away.

She struggled with her sadness and disappointment ineffectually, and, acting on a sudden impulse, put on her hat and crossed the road to Girton page 262 College, resolved, if possible, to break down the barrier between herself and Gertrude; to storm the hostility or indifference that kept them apart.

When Joan quietly entered the old class-room, Miss Goodyear, who was standing at her desk, looked up, slightly started, but took no further notice of her. The hour of dismissal was at hand, and Joan, respecting the rule of silence, sat down noiselessly, watching, with fascinated eyes, the tall, proud figure in the sombre garb, and the exquisite white lace. There was a pathetic droop about the stately shoulders that appealed strangely to the girl; and when Miss Goodyear passed Into the sunlight streaming through a window, she observed that the lines of the shapely throat were less soft and rounded. While Joan watched her, a telegram was handed to Miss Goodyear. She took it, placed her hand upon her side with a rapid movement, her pale face growing paler still. Then, after a moment, she tore the envelope, and read her message. Joan had watched her breathlessly, feeling with a pang how wide the breach had grown between them. In the old days she would not have been there the outsider of the outsiders. Her heart beat quickly. Gertrude's face had undergone page 263 a transformation; anxiety was swept away by a flush of delight. She glowed, lifted her head, palpitated, grew wondrously young and beautiful. The eyes of a hundred girls were on her. A hush of suspense, magnetic, thrilled the room. Slowly Gertrude turned her head, her speaking eyes seeking the clear grey ones fixed upon her. It was the old search, the old outgoing for sympathy. A half-imperceptible movement of the hand towards her, and in a moment Joan was by her side, warmed and lightened, absorbed and vitalised.

“We have won,” said Miss Goodyear, in glad tones. “Girls, the women of New Zealand have won their Franchise. This is a message of congratulation from the Premier.”

Instantly there was a din of girlish voices. Gertrude's fingers closed tightly over Joan's hand. In her great hour she had forgotten smallness. Gladness made her eloquent She stood with Joan's hand in hers, and spoke her crowding thoughts in eager, impetuous voice, stirring placidity to passion, urging, and daring. Then when she had dismissed the girls, the enchantress softened; her face lost its triumphant smile. Still holding Joan's hand—

“Well?” she said, “you haven't asked me to your page 264 reading to-night” Her look was half-quizzical half-amused.

Remembrance brought a sudden glow into the girl's cheeks and a light into her eyes.

“Oh, Gertrude, will you come?” she exclaimed delightedly and humbly. “I came to ask you.” Her voice grew softer. “I wouldn't have missed this hour of your triumph, but I dare not urge you; I may fail—and you are tired, very tired.”

The glow had faded from the woman's face, and she had moved to the fireplace, in which a fire was smouldering. With rapid movements, half in fear of rebuff, Joan made up the fire, and drew Gertrude's chair to the hearth, The woman sat down, obeying the gentle touch of Joan's soft hands. She leaned her head hack upon the cushion and, through half-closed eyes, watched the girl's deft, noiseless movements. Joan noted the dark circles under the eyes and the pallor of the lips, but said no word. There was a little cupboard in a corner, where tea-cups and saucers and a tiny kettle were kept It was the business of but a few moments to make tea. She feared every instant that she might be forbidden; but Gertrude allowed the service, and Joan felt a new content in it; it was part of that new desire to serve that had of late surprised her.

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Tea over, Joan sat on a low stool on the opposite side of the hearth, and rested her elbows on her knees, her face supported on her hands. Miss Goodyear turned her eyes on Joan's.

“Well, Johnnie?”

It was the old manner and tone precisely. Joan's heart leaped.

“You are killing yourself,” the girl burst out impetuously. “And what will those women care?”

Miss Goodyear faintly smiled.

“Will they be grateful for the strength expended in their service? They will say, with audacious selfishness, that you were infatuated, intoxicated with an idea.”

Gertrude leaned her cheek upon her hand, and watched, with intent gaze, the girl's indignant face. Her lips relaxed in a half smile.

“Women are creators of the world's atmosphere, child. You wouldn't have me stagnate? I can't keep still. I must be moving. I sha'n't reach the shore of my desire, of course; who does? The secret of content is the will to be impersonal. If the waves of the ocean stood still because they could not each separately lave the shore, we should have a dead sea.”

Joan answered the smile. But it was with new page 266 vision that she looked—the vision of human interest Could nothing be done to save Gertrude Goodyear from her devastating passion of self-effacement? She looked with doubting eyes into those regarding her.

“Labour and duty and self-surrender, subordination, eternal repression! that is your creed, dear woman,” she cried, almost passionately. “And the end of this worship of duty, this blotting out of self? Forgetfulness, dear, if not scorn; the world dislikes virtue because of its reproach.”

Miss Goodyear gazed with more intentness. What made the child speak so bitterly? Had her hopes turned to ashes?

“Self-gratification is but a mockery. I ask work for you, and the special joy of seeing its result There is so much true, earnest, faithful work that seems barren of fruit”

She spoke with intense sadness. Joan left her stool, and seated herself on the rug at Gertrude's feet, leaning her arm lightly over the woman's knees. Gertrude's delicate fingers strayed to the girl's hair, parting it, re-parting it, touching it caressingly.

“In the unseen,” she said, after a pause, “all the accidents of the physical fade away. But love, the inspiring element of the divine, does not fade, nor page 267 cease to be; but, purified of the tingling blood, the panting breath, the quick heart-beats, the mighty force of tenderness lives for ever.”

She spoke dreamily, only half conscious that she spoke the words of another.

“I know nothing of ultimate development,” she added, waking up; “but I know there is no failure in the higher law that governs life.”

They sat on in silence, each following her own thoughts. Joan was disturbed by the look of Gertrude's face; its mingled strength and delicacy interested her in a new way. In her own expanding mood, she was startled at the silent austerity with which this woman bore her suffering; for it was easy to see that the energetic mind had taxed the physical health. Joan felt sore and discomfited.

“You must let yourself be cared for a little. You can afford to be idle, now that your victory is won,” said Joan impulsively, caressing the slender fingers that dallied with her hair. “Shall we go away, as we used to in the old times?”

“You and I together?”

Miss Goodyear's voice was dreamy. Joan knew that the proposal was not unpleasant to her, but did not press the matter. She plunged desperately into another subject, moving her position so that she page 268 faced her friend, her head thrown back upon the supporting knee. She raised her eyes, and her young face looked eager.

“We have not been accustomed to talk of these things. Sentiment, I know, lacks dignity in your eyes. But, dear, don't you think that it has power with some temperaments to spur them to performance?” Then, in a hurried whisper, “I do not ask for idle curiosity; your experience would guide me. Were you always so self-poised? Was there never a time when another influenced you?”

Some powerful emotion contracted the woman's face; her first impulse was one of angry astonishment that Joan had thus ventured to attack her. It was the second time she had presumed. Then as she searched the speaking face upon her knee, she felt instinctively that no idle curiosity had prompted her. Should she quench this new-born impulse to seek and impart confidence; nip in the bud the first tender shoots of what she had failed to bring forth in all the past Might they not meet on a new footing—the footing of a common humanity, where they had failed to meet intellectually? The unusual excitement of the girl's face sprang from no idle curiosity. She was feeling her way to greater revelation of herself.

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Gertrude removed her eyes, the stiffness passed from her manner. It was almost incomprehensible to herself that, instead of repelling, she replied:

“I was weak once. The man could not gauge me, nor I him. We had different standards.”

She spoke quietly and dispassionately. Joan removed her eyes. She could not watch the lowering of that proud head. The slender fingers played with % the soft hair again.

“I could not go down to him.” Miss Goodyear's voice proceeded presently; the tones were a little husky. “He said that he would come to me. I waited—but he did not come; he turned off into a different path.”

Joan turned her head farther away. So Gertrude Goodyear's ideas had not been wholly gleaned from book. “He turned off into a different path.” She made the statement simply, but how pregnant it was. This was why she had so assiduously endeavoured to turn the eyes of her girls away from “lovers waiting in the future years.” If she had but known, might she not have found the courage to lay bare her own difficulties.

Gertrude had sunk into a quiet sleep. Joan, fearful lest her movements might disturb her, covered the sleeper with a light rug, then crept away. The after- page 270 noon shadows were lengthening, and the woman's face, seen in the fading light, seemed strangely wan. Joan looked earnestly, taking her fill of sad impressions while she gazed. With much reluctance she at last turned away; it was time to prepare for her own eventful hour. At the doorway she paused, came slowly back, and, kneeling down, softly kissed the hanging, nerveless hand. Joan's eyes were big with tears.

The woman slept till the last of the light had faded, then wakened as unexpectedly as she had fallen asleep. The warmth of the rug about her contributed a sense of comfort. She did not stir for a moment, then she gently put out her hand.

“Joan,” she said softly, and then a little louder, “Joan!”

No answer breaking the silence:

“Ah! I remember now,” she said.

She sat for a short time, then stood up.

“How dark it is. I did not think it possible that I could be so tired. To-night, too—the night of my victory and Joan's.”

She crossed the hall silently in the dark, and went into the cottage through her private door. Very slowly, but smiling at intervals, she dressed herself in the rich purple gown she had worn at Joan's wed- page 271 ding, adorned at the wrists and neck with her costliest lace. She looked at herself in the glass attentively. The proud, pale face, with crown of golden hair, seemed not ungrateful to her; she moved the locks from off her forehead.

“Fading!” she told the eyes that watched from the mirror, and smiled again at her own vanity.

“I might as well be wholly foolish while I'm about it,” she added to herself; and, unlocking a cabinet, took out a glittering ring, and put it upon her finger.

She held it for a moment where the light flashed upon the diamonds; then, wrapping a cloak about her, she went out.