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Wheat in the Ear

Chapter XXII. — With Open Eyes

page 287

Chapter XXII.
With Open Eyes.

Joan was shut in her great silent bed-chamber with blinds drawn to exclude the bright spring sunshine—and a sight she would not see. She suffered as she had fought her battles—silently. With tragic pathos she had returned to her home that morning, her unusual impulse of confidence thrown back upon herself, and had stated the fact simply, “Gertrude is dead”; then had withdrawn herself from all.

The windows of her room were open; intermittent sounds of marching feet floated in at intervals, but she did not move. She sat in the great chair by the bedside, where she had first sat in the Professor's house, her dull eyes fixed upon the little sun-glints that played hide-and-seek upon the carpet with every gentle movement of the curtains. One arm rested upon the elbow of the chair, the other was lifted to support the drooping head; the whole attitude expressed abandonment and pain, the haggard lines page 288 about the mouth and dark circles under the tired eyes revealing the concentrated sorrow of her thought.

Gertrude was dead! that was all she could clearly grasp. Her young soul was in the throes of its first loss and doubt, for Gertrude had died with an apparent uprooting of life-long convictions, in an hour of bewilderment and uncertainty; her pure ambitions had, to all seeming, failed. Was it physical only, that failure in the supreme hour of her life to realise joy? She had owned to utter weariness. She had effaced all personal aim, made no concessions to self; her eyes had discerned only the realities of the mind. Had she felt herself mistaken? An unutterable longing swept over the girl to cross to the cottage in her neighbourhood, enter the study, and find Gertrude sitting in her old chair at the desk. A little cry broke from her as she realised that no more would the strong, proud personality dominate the familiar body. Numberless incidents reproduced themselves in vivid pictures, ending always with the bowed golden head.

That was the end of it, and she should never know which Gertrude was right—the one who had lived, or the one who had died; the teaching or the recantation. Everything was chaos. Her old foundations had been removed, and in her lonely grief and page 289 perplexity, she felt her new sensations shifting sand beneath her feet.

Between her and the window a tall shadow intervened. She lifted her eyes and saw Stanley Stanton. His shoulders were very stooping to-day, his face pale, and his eyes testified to long vigils. He made a slight, deprecating movement with his long, slender hand, grown thin almost to transparency. Joan noted all this, while a portion of her brain was busy with other things. A sudden pity for the man moved her. If Gertrude's last thought was right, and not the impression only of a wearied hour in which she mistook bodily collapse for intellectual defeat, what a ghastly mistake she and this man had made!

She beckoned him with a slight motion of the hand.

“Yes, come,” she said wearily, as though trying to be fair, divining that he was abashed at the boldness of his own entrance.

A light illuminated the sad countenance; he stepped softly to where she sat, like one who trod holy ground. He glanced quickly round, as though noting the changes the room had undergone.

Near a white rug upon the hearth stood a writing-table with Gertrude's portrait framed in ivory; the page 290 pictured face wore its proudest smile. He turned his eyes slowly from the face that seemed to mock him to the young, living face pinched with human suffering. He knew very little of women and their ways. Joan's seclusion had disturbed him. He had missed her terribly; wondered, while sitting at his lonely table, making ineffectual attempts to eat, whether she was very miserable and wept much. He could not gauge exactly, he admitted, just what a woman's feelings might be in the circumstance. He had fallen back upon “In Memoriam,” and found that, beneath his intellectual understanding, a pang assailed him at the thought that perchance the girl in her room might be suffering something akin to the presentiment of the poet He almost gasped when he met the wide, pleading eyes.

“‘A hand that can be clasped no more—
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,’”

he murmured, beneath his breath.

“No,” answered Joan, who had caught only the last words, and mistook them for an inquiry; “I cannot sleep. I feel as though I could never sleep again, till I have found an answer.”

The weariness of her voice matched the weariness of her eyes. He perceived her grief contained an page 291 element outside the fact of death. His helplessness to plumb the situation tortured him; he could see a forlorn, slight, drooping figure in the great chair, but he had no intuition of how to aid. His face sharpened with anxiety; he stretched out his hand as he would have stretched it to rescue a trapped bird, drew it in, and waited for her to explain. A quiver flitted across Joan's face.

“Answers will come,” she said, with simple candour, “and then I can go on. Meanwhile, I seem to have arrived at a dead wall”

Then, while he was trying to frame an answer, she broke out suddenly that, if they had been exaggerating, distorting the greatness of intellectual attainment, their soul dulled in ascetic stupefaction; if the natural was a law, life in its movement would overthrow, would cut the ground from beneath their feet.

“The thought is strange to me,” she finished; “it recurs and recurs, and I cannot answer it: but I must answer it out of my own heart. Oh!” she exclaimed, tapping the bed with a restless hand, “I have lain there such weary nights, wondering whether or not we have made a mistake, whether I was not too willing to come, and you too willing to take me into your home. I am not useful to you; I waste page 292 your time, your strength; yet I have not dared to accept the idea that we were wholly deceived.”

His pale face became still whiter; he removed his gaze. She admitted that married comradeship alone was not sufficient, yet it did not occur to her that he might, perchance, have a wanner feeling towards her; she took it for granted that he and romance were far apart She regarded him as a type—an equivalent of certain qualities, not as an individual. Half unconsciously, he turned Gertrude's picture where the intent eyes could not seem to watch him.

“And … if … you decide … that we—you—have made a mistake?” he asked gently, long pause between the words.

“I have not counted the after-cost; how could I, till I knew how it would affect you?”

She leaned towards him, her honest eyes upon him.

In what way “affect him” did she mean? he wondered. She would not shirk life beside him, perhaps; she was not scheming for escape and withdrawal from their bond; but how would she accept his love as a proffered substitute for her present loneliness?

Something in his eyes made her remove her gaze. She did not know it, but he was urged by an impulse page 293 almost irresistible to gather into his arms the weary girl and caress her with a man's caresses; but the habit of his reserve and delicacy was too strong. He could not force upon her a passion she so utterly ignored; a sense of honour held him back; also he feared to risk his present standing, the old path, the sweetness of her presence were too precious to be jeopardised. Were he to make known his sentiments, he might become repugnant to her. He contrasted the days before her coming with the present; found in his asceticism a pure joy of contemplation of the soft child-like thing, and revelled in the recollection that the voice which many loved echoed through his silent rooms. Thus much was his—all his.

He led her from the darkened room to the sunlight of his study, supporting her with his arm. The soft contact of her body thrilled him; pride in the right which permitted this familiarity brought a colour to his cheeks.

He flung wide open a western window, and let in the sweet air from the river.

Joan seated herself where she could inhale the fragrant odour of wild mint. Gentle, gurgling sounds proceeded from the stream, soothing as soft music; and gradually her overtaxed nerves relaxed, the lines about her mouth became effaced. How page 294 good this man was to her; he, who had the right to command, forebore even to persuade. Could these relations be maintained? In the variable conditions of daily living, would they always be of one accord? Clearly one thing was to be done—to keep faith with him; to keep him posted in those invading influences which threatened their relationship. There was a chance that their marriage had been right. But, supposing they had blundered, there could be no immediate consequences, no particular modifications of their present position. When she had answered herself definitely, she would give him her conclusions, and they would go on from that point, superior to the senses.

With surprised eyes she watched him making preparations for her tea. He waited upon her with almost Janet's thought and tenderness. He seemed to have forgotten everything except that she was in need of nourishment. If they might go on for ever without a crisis, there would, at least, be peace. Peace, at twenty years? No! cried an under-voice she tried to stifle; resignation was only subdued despair, an acceptation of defeat. But knowledge she must have—knowledge, with pain, perhaps—knowledge must be paid for. She could achieve nothing further till she had put her questions to the test. page 295 Whatever might be the answer, she would rise to this man's ideal; if she tried to shirk knowledge of living life, her accomplishment would be small. She was not a coward. Her next words had an effect that she had not calculated; she took it quite for granted that the Professor would view dispassionately the situation; that the truth would interest him; that the operation of understanding would be his only exercise.

“I have a vivid impression,” she began, “that there is a subtle bond of flesh, without which marriage is incomplete; that this bond cannot be wholly broken by an effort of will; that union of mind alone is not that union which makes husband and wife a part of one another.”

He was seated at his desk, that place which, of all others, he felt justified his existence; yet he met Joan's eyes with an uncertain gaze, as though wrestling with an unspoken thought. She went on with cruel directness like a child, who, just discovering a truth, presents it as new to one who has learned already all its pathos.

“If that instinctive longing for a particular presence is the accompaniment of that love which is the highest, as well as the lowest, order, a union such as ours becomes a mockery; for neither of us possesses page 296 for the other that peculiar sympathy which obliterates the consciousness of separate personality.”

Stanley Stanton's face was an enigma. How could he tell this girl that what she but now perceived had tortured him with tragic certainty for months? But neither he nor she was to blame; that knowledge had come late—too late, he feared, to save her suffering.

“It is very hard for you,” he said, bending over his desk, “that your peace should be disrupted by such doubts.” Then hurriedly drumming with his fingers upon the blotting-pad. “It is possible our conceptions have been warped. I persuaded you … honestly. If I could liberate you to-day … I would. You could then … choose. I believe,” he added slowly, “that I should again forfeit all else for … your friendship. The gain is mine; you have inspired me, and I cannot make you happy; it is not my privilege. The debt is on my side; command me, and I will pay it.”

His cold, steady tones broke into a note of passionate beseeching; and from his eyes there flashed a look that was almost of revolt.

“All my desire is to pay … my debt.”

“Ah!” Joan exclaimed; “don't you see—that is my meaning? We two are not one flesh; we are page 297 conscious of traffic—commerce, give and take; call it what you will!”

She stabbed him to the heart, not only by what she said, but by what she implied.

He bowed his face upon his hands. She rose suddenly, and went over to him, the tears she had not shed since Gertrude died welling up into her eyes.

“Shall I go home—for the sake of both?” she asked.

He made no answer.

“There is something I want to know—in the interest of both,” she faltered. “I am sorry to hurt you—Stanley.”

“Don't!” he murmured brokenly.

“But, if you will—let me go—for a time. Trust me. If I return, I shall come of my own free will,” she pleaded.


He lifted his head with a smile of anticipation; ineffable love was in his eyes.

“Do trust me,” she besought, moving nearer, and placing her hand upon his breast, as she knelt down before him. “I want to try and find out whether what frightens me is a phantom or a reality. Let me follow it, and face it.”

page 298

“Can't we face it together?”

“No!” she answered; and he echoed the word despairingly:


“I must know,” she went on hurriedly, looking at him with truthful, pleading eyes, “whether what I was trained to believe illusion is illusion—or fact. I couldn't go on in uncertainty; it would cripple me, ruin all chance of satisfaction. How futile, how needless, to close one's eyes to fact; to pursue a fool's errand to the last, and not be quite sure at any time, not even at the very end, that one was in the right. If my talk seems wild and pointless to you—be patient. I will tell you my conclusions later. We have been trained to accept the truth…. If the truth makes havoc—I am not afraid of the responsibilities, if you are not.”

All the stolid calm of the student forsook him at these words. The man took alarm. These incoherent utterances had some very real meaning to the girl, who pleaded as though for life.

“What do you mean?” he demanded, with austere severity.

A sudden remorselessness, born of fear and jealousy, swept all gentler considerations from him. The girl, palpitating at his feet, with her sweet lips page 299 and clinging hands, was his. His eyes dilated; the animal dominated the poet in him for the first time in his life. The clasp of his hands tightened upon her wrists.

“You shall not go,” he said; “I want you.”

For an instant Joan looked at him, then rose, her proudest and coldest expression accompanying her words:

“As you will.”

Spontaneity was frozen. She did not take refuge in pleadings or reproaches; she ceased instantly to supplicate. Her grey eyes no longer besought through a film of tears; they grew dull; she turned away.

“Good-night,” she said coldly.

Through the coldness there vibrated a tone that implied that she had bowed to his decree from a sense of duty. It implied also that she would make no outcry, but that commands imperilled his position. Her back had straightened, the upturned face hardened, but there was a melancholy, almost a forlornness beneath the surface stiffness that cried out loudly to the man. His face flushed; she fascinated while she puzzled him. He drew her back from the doorway.

“In the name of God,” he burst out hoarsely, page 300 “don't thrust me from you. If I may not receive your thoughts, feel with you, don't altogether thrust me from you.”

Then he forbore. He dropped her hand, his own fell to his side. He bowed his head, and quivered in every nerve.

The girl was startled, and watched him breath-lessly. What strange phase was this?

When he lifted his head he was deadly pale; his eyes had the dumb, stricken look of a beaten dog.

“I beg your pardon,” he said quietly.

There was a perceptible drawing up of the whole figure; he opened the door, and waved towards it, with a slight gesture.

“This house is ours. Go or come, my wife, as you will,” he said, with almost majesty.

He listened till he heard her close the door of her room, and then, with rapid footsteps, went down the stairs; catching his hat from a peg in the hall, with quick movements, unlike his own, rushed out into the cool evening air. Serenity, calm encompassed him. The stately colleges reared their heads with solid grandeur against the pale grey sky; the Avon flowed serenely on, stedfast of purpose, towards the sea. The man's steps grew quieter as he followed its course and retraced his way to the avenue of oaks.

page 301

He glanced involuntarily towards the porch of Girton Cottage. No red light gleamed from among the evergreens. Yet she had not passed; she was not wholly dead; she walked with him there as she had walked before, her life speaking to him. He was reproved by memory; reproved out of his own mouth. What had he said only a few nights before? that one prize, one success in life, was victory, worth all that it might cost. If he had spoken truth then, that truth remained. Nothing had changed, except—

“I love her!” he said, uncovering his head. “I love her as a man loves.” He stopped as he breathed the words, as though tasting the bitter and the sweet of them. Then he lifted his head proudly. “I love her,” he reiterated. “What then?”

He hesitated in his step, stooped again, retraced his way slowly, with his eyes upon the ground. He had loved her all along, but had not known it. He knew now—what then?

She was his. She would not struggle, if he made demands. She would become his creature. She was too proud to disobey. He bent in spirit towards her, touched her with gentle hands, dallied with her sweetness. She would give herself to him if he asked, and the bond, once signed between them, page 302 would seal her his for ever. He knew her rectitude. If she left him to test her love—

“I want you, dear,” he cried; and, when the clocks had chimed the midnight hour, he went back home.

The solitary house was deadly still, the hall light still burned. He extinguished it, and went with hushed footsteps up the stairs. At the first landing he faltered, paused, looked at his wife's door, then proceeded to his own apartments. His wife's! he emphasised the words. He took his shoes off and crept close. All was still within. Yet, what was that? a sob, a muffled moan? The uncertainty made his heart leap, then stand still. Had he deceived himself, or was the girl, his law-given captive, crying in her prison? He softly turned the handle of the door.

“If I must, I must,” came in smothered gasps; “and if I must, I will.”

He drew the door to quickly. A spasm passed over his face; great beads of moisture, wrung from the pain of his compelled compassion, stood out upon his forehead. All his being was concentrated in the unconscious effort to hear what she said. He pushed the door ajar again. Heavy sobs smote on his ears like blows. In an instant he was beside the bed, feeling for Joan's hands and kissing them.

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“Hush!” he whispered; “you break my heart. Hush! sweet, there is no must.” He put his arms about her shoulders timidly, and drew her head to his breast. “Rest, child, rest. I have been a coward —clumsy—to blame I No, no, dear heart; there is no must.

She was sobbing bitterly; all the pent-up sorrow of the past weeks found vent. He trembled with awe and penitence; a woman's tears were sacred to him. “Be quiet,” he said at last, burying his face in her hair; “I can't bear it.”

She ceased her sobbing by degrees; and lying still against his breast in unconscious unrestraint, she tried him almost past endurance. The sweet perfume of her body, her milk-like breath intoxicated him. He gave himself to her in that hour wholly, for in the struggle she was conqueror. He strove for speech.

“Dearest, I am yours. I yield my life to you. I owe you thanks—thanks. If so be that I have won—one laurel—at your feet—your feet, I lay it down. My love … the pain of love inspired me. I spoke harshly to you; forgive me. Come what may I shall have had my day. I have lived in the presence of inspiration—enjoyed a loan of good. Go, dear, if page 304 you will … return, if possible. Whatever you do, I thank God that I have known you. I love you … love you.”

Her regular breathing told that she had fallen asleep. He stifled the smart of her complete unconsciousness of his suffering. But she had given him liberty and breadth, the happiness and heaven of expression; and should he stifle and cramp her? He had reached a point that rendered him unable to abuse. He looked at the face upon the pillow, made visible by the moonlight, all its grief unveiled by sleep. Never to tire of gentleness, to grow sympathetic, human, tender, that was his hope. To trample out the ignoble desire of to-day, to see her calmly happy beside him bearing his name—this would be enough. Let him enjoy what was his, without ungrateful grudgings; acknowledge his enrichment, even in bitterest pain. He had been dead, lost in the technicalities of life; and now that birth had come, should he cry out because it hurt?