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Wheat in the Ear

Chapter XXI. — Awakening

page 272

Chapter XXI.

The concert hall was crowded with a well-dressed company; the concert preceding Joan's reading was over. Upon entering, Gertrude surveyed the audience leisurely, and seeing an unoccupied chair near the door, sat down unnoticed. She soon became aware that the audience was unusually excited, talking over something in eager, though lowered tones; the women were radiant, the men mostly listening with amused or scornful smiles. Of course it was the social question of the hour they were discussing. The woman in the back seat looked on as an outsider. She had run away from fight to-night; the public stir affected her little; a new peacefulness lulled the old eagerness. A faint smile hovered about her lips as she watched a little group in front of her—a bearded and bronzed celebrity, a young girl with serene brow, and a placidly smiling mother, all apparently interested in the one subject.

Gertrude was incapable of jealousy, or she might page 273 have felt a pang at the quick forgetfulness of the subject that had cost her years of thought and months of passionate zeal; for Joan now rivalled her.

Miss Goodyear's heart fluttered with that of the crowd when the girl stood upon the platform. The audience greeted her with absolute silence; then heads and shoulders moved to get a better view of her, opera-glasses were levelled, and someone whispered audibly:

“Oh, you dear!”

She stood in pale composure, garbed in unrelieved white, the soft empire folds of her gown clinging to her graceful figure. Her arms were bare; in her folded hands she held an ivory-bound volume of Tennyson. The attitude was eloquently familiar to the watching woman. A hundred recollections of it swept across her; the steady gaze of the brilliant eyes, and the trick of pushing the clustering curls from them. But there was an expression in the youthful face she did not know. She had caught a flash of it this afternoon—a look of suppressed passion that should not be at twenty years.

It went to Miss Goodyear's heart. What was the child, her brain-child, longing for? What was page 274 beyond her reach? Had she had anything to do with diverting her from her best good?

A slight stir distracted Miss Goodyear's thoughts. A young man of rather commanding figure had pushed his way from the door along by the wall. He was dressed in a light grey tweed suit, and it occurred to Miss Goodyear that she had seen him before. There was a stubbornness in the face she seemed to recognise. He had met with a rebuff at the door, perhaps, and had fought his way in.

He took no notice of the crowd about him, but stood leaning with his back against the wall, his arms folded across his chest. He was smiling half satirically, half sadly.

Gertrude started. She remembered him now. She had seen him at the harvest home. Her eyes went back to Joan. Her face looked like the face of one who sees a vision; yearning recollection was stamped upon it; her lips were slightly parted in a smile.

“‘There lies a vale in Ida, lovelier
Than all the valleys of Ionian hills.
The swimming vapour slopes athwart the glen,
Puts forth an arm, and creeps from pine to pine,
And loiters, slowly drawn. On either hand
The lawns and meadow-ledges, midway down,
page 275 Hang rich in flowers; and far below them roars
The long brook falling thro’ the clov'n ravine,
In cataract after cataract to the sea.’”

Joan had all eyes, arrested every ear. Her face glowed as if in recollection; her voice thrilled with an undertone of suppressed pain. Was it art—entirely art? The audience waited.

“‘The noonday quiet holds the hill;
The grasshopper is silent in the grass;
The lizard, with his shadow on the stone,
Rests like a shadow the, the winds are dead.
The purple flowel droop; the golden bee
Is lily cradled,’”

the liquid voice went on. Lips smiled, heads nodded. They saw the picture perfectly, the “Mournful Œnone, wandering forlorn”; then they were thrilled, arrested, hurt by the cry:

“‘I alone awake.
My eyes are full of tears,
My heart of love;
My heart is breaking,’”

There was a rustling stillness. The sobbing whisper crept to the remotest corner of the hall. Gertrude glanced involuntarily at the young man by the wall. The cynical smile had left his lips; page 276 he was very pale. But from that moment Miss Goodyear forgot who was around her. The beautiful young creature on the platform was to her, as to the breathless crowd, the forsaken love of Paris. Only once the woman's face betrayed a consciousness not wholly born of the emotion of the hour.

“‘I will not die alone, for fiery thoughts
Do shape themselves within me.’”

Her lips quivered. She closed her eyes and leaned back; then, opening them again, she turned them on the girl she had loved with more than a mother's love, looking anxiously like one who sought an answer to some momentous question. What she saw thrilled her.

“‘I dimly see
My far-off, doubtful purpose, as a mother
Conjectures of the features of her child
Ere it is born.’”

A few moments more, and there was a lull, followed by a storm of applause and a shower of bouquets. Joan stood smilingly among the flowers, bowing her thanks. Presently she stooped, and, lifting a spray of yellow gorse that had fallen at her feet, fastened it at her breast.

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The young man from Otira Farm passed out before Miss Goodyear could get to him; she was almost startled at his look of suffering. With scant courtesy, he elbowed his way through the excited crowd, as though he dreaded that someone might detain him. When Gertrude gained the street, he had disappeared.

She went home, as she had come, alone. She was in no mood for company, and, with scarce less dexterity than the young man had shown, dodged the crowd about the doors; then, leaving the city, turned to a river path, following its circuitous leading till she reached the hospital suspension bridge. On this she leaned, her back to the city, and gazed across the gardens to the lighted windows of the hospital.

“The world is beginning again,” she said. “A new influx of life runs through the whole creation. Man alone expends himself in a single effort.”

She was startled to receive a reply.

“You can't be sure. But, even supposing that it is so, is it nothing to have added to the general harmony of things?”

It was the Professor's voice, but it was a live voice, trembling with some new emotion. It gave the woman a shock—a mental shock—rallied her drooping spirit. In a flash, she realised how the old fire page 278 had died in her, when the new spark in this man more than surprised her.

“Each wave rises to its crest once,” said Stanley Stanton meaningly.

Gertrude turned her back to the refuge of the maimed and dying, and met the glance of the eyes that once it had been so difficult to bring from vision-gazing.

The man stood upright; he was there in that moment; all else might have been a smoke-wreath.

“Thank you for the reminder,” she replied slowly, not able to comprehend how it was that it was she who was dreaming, and that this dreamer was awake.

They turned towards the oak avenue, where, long ago, they had walked and talked, when it was Stanley Stanton who faltered and despaired, and Gertrude Goodyear who sounded the bugle-call. His mind was travelling the same way evidently, for he said, as though she had accused him:

“I was wrong. I limited man's achievement; there is no limit until the end; for what man knows the hour, the experience that may quicken his soul?”

Gertrude did not speak. Had not she been the one that last time to say:

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“‘Ah! but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?’”

They had entered the avenue; the brown buds of the oaks had scarcely burst into leaf, and the late rising moon had flooded its light through the interlaced branches. In the cloistered quiet the petulant fret of the city lost its meaning.

She slackened her pace, and the man fitted his steps to hers.

“The relegation of life to past or future is sin,” she said, like one who repeats a lesson with mind far away. “Now is the accepted time.”

“I sinned,” he answered promptly. “Some people are born dead; some die before they reach maturity; others never die at all. I died in hopelessness before I had arrived at manhood … and was resurrected.”


He meant, of course, that Joan called him from the tomb. And yet his voice was not the voice of an exultant lover. She tried to force back her grudge against him, to judge him dispassionately, Had he come to her in the hour of Joan's triumph, the hour that witnessed the girl's supreme play upon the senses of her kind, to deluge her with his overwhelming satisfaction that his, and not the page 280 woman's instincts had been right about the girl?

She regarded him attentively. His face showed signs of nervous strain and excitement; there was something almost forlorn about him. She drew nearer to his side, and rested her hand upon his arm.

“I am a little tired,” she explained, almost apologetically.

He bowed, and the arm she rested on was braced to her support. What change had come over the man of forgetfulness?

“I saw you in the hall,” he said, finding that she did not speak. “I tried to reach you afterwards; I wanted to congratulate you; but you appeared to desire solitude, and I followed at a distance. We have met rarely of late. I have something to tell you.”

It was coming, then, the man's exultation; the glorying of passion over a woman's devotedness? He had spoken hesitatingly, abruptly. Now for a lover's rhapsody.

“I have written … a poem … which … I permitted to pass my own imperfect criticism. It was published in London to-day.”

He spoke quite humbly; but he was trembling.

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Miss Goodyear's hand tightened on his arm. She leaned forward, and scrutinised his face. He looked down upon her anxiously.

“I wanted you to know. Later you shall judge me!”

“Does Joan know?”


He looked almost startled and more dazed than he had yet to-night.

“No,” he added hurriedly; “Joan must not know … until … I am proved right”

The hand upon his arm pressed heavier. Joan, who lived with him side by side, not know? Was their union but an appearance, a nothing? She was puzzled. She wanted to know what this man meant by his resurrection from deadness and materiality. What voice had called him from his speechless tomb? She must have asked him, in her determination to know, for he answered:


“Pain?” she echoed. “Not happiness, not love?”

“Pain,” he reiterated, “the forerunner of birth. But what woman, having brought forth a living child, grudges her pangs? and does a worker mourn his labour in the day of his accomplishment? The page 282 world judges by the completed image…. Perhaps God … prizes the embryo.”

He wrung both her hands, and left her opposite her own door.

Her maid received her, and handed her a pile of telegrams. She took them, smiling.

“Congratulations,” she said. “Go to bed I shall want nothing till breakfast”

She gathered up her telegrams without opening them, and went into the schoolroom. The bright moonlight flooded the apartment; she crossed the floor, and took her old seat at the desk.

It was here that she had conceived many ideas, suffered many disappointments, fought many battles, achieved some success.

Her head went down upon her folded arms across her desk. A physical faintness partly overpowered her.

“Oh, I am tired!” she said, and then she lifted up her heavy head.

It was here—here in this spot—she had first heard Joan read, the girl who, to-night, had outshone every woman in Christchurch; who had dazzled, bewitched, and fascinated every separate soul in that vast audience. She leaned forward, her eyes fixed upon the moonlit patch where the child Joan had stood.

page 283

“Dear!” she murmured, addressing the vision of her mind. “My dear—my little one,”

Her head went down again, and the silver moonbeams touched it caressingly.

Had her love, her efforts for the child been one of the embryos dear to God? Was there anything at all in those conceptions of her youth that had never seen life? Perhaps and perhaps not To-night it didn't seem to matter either way. Her thought went back to Joan.

“What hurts you, child? What is it that you want?” She stretched out her arms; they closed on nothingness; she sighed and drew them in.

Perhaps she had led astray her brain-child. Surely she had not been wholly wrong? Suppose, after all, that renunciation was not progression; that union was liberty? Could she unlearn? The stern victory of to-night seemed cold, grey, thankless after the brilliant hour she had just witnessed. Did this perpetual search lead anywhere? She put out her hand and felt the pile of unopened letters; it meant that many weak women would have their burdens lightened. She smiled. It was good, it was—she reiterated—to feel the ache of burdens not one's own. This was the crest of her wave; she had lifted a weight from some not strong.

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“Oh, God!” she prayed, “it is all that I could do—fight”

She spoke in the past tense, and noticed, a moment afterwards, with her old habit of analysis, that she had done so, But she let it stand unconnected, and lay with her head low in her place of authority. She had striven to conquer natural affection; had natural affection conquered her?

After a time she took up a pencil and wrote for several minutes; it glided quickly over the paper. At last it stopped.

“‘I dimly see my far-off doubtful purpose,” broke from her lips. “I have stumbled to attain it,” she added brokenly; “but I see—and I—will—reach it-She had lifted the proud head once more, with its old imperious carriage. Presently it sank upon her arm again, and, for an hour, she lay quite still Then she felt for her ring.

“Frank,” she faltered brokenly, murmuring a name unknown among her friends. A long time after, she called out quite loudly, “Joan! Joan Jefferies!M and then she lay quite still.

… ….

“I will go to her,” said Joan at daybreak, when she rose from her great bed after restless, sleepless page 285 tossings. “I well tell her everything from the beginning, and ask her what I ought to do.”

She dressed and fastened the sweet prickly gorse spray in her belt, and let herself quietly out.

The sun was just coming up from the under world; it was too early to awaken Gertrude yet. She started at a brisk pace along the river; the air was fragrant with the wafted breath of spring, instinct with life. A promise of joy thrilled her young blood.

Gertrude was wise; she would ask Gertrude. She knew her early habits, and was not surprised to find the schoolroom door unlocked. There was Gertrude. Joan paused at the threshold at sight of the tumbled purple silk, the cloak fallen upon the floor, and the bowed golden head, upon which the morning sunlight shone. With a gasp, she went swiftly forward.

“Sleeping?” she just whispered, a strange fear contracting her heart. She went slowly down upon her knees and touched the bowed head. “Wake up, dear, the sun has risen.”

But Gertrude knew that.

Joan glanced at the unopened messages, saw in a flash the pencil fallen from the stiff ringers, and traced the written words:

“To-night I am feeling that heavy oppression of page 286 atmosphere which weights me, and robs me of the physical force necessary to push through my deferred tasks—push through! for I have lost the vigour of mind that generated enthusiasm in all circumstances, sufficient to over-ride the drag of body. I do my work now—not work! One is spontaneous, the other conscious effort Much has been said to the effect that battle brings the best forces of character into play; but combat may be too prolonged, strength exhausted. It is then that help from outside is of value, absolutely necessary for individual recovery; or may not help be death?

“In striving after self-sufficiency, I have overlooked the natural diminution of power. After maturity comes decline, and, could I remodel my plan, it is possible that I should—admit life's side-currents—”