Wheat in the Ear
Chapter XXIII. — Another Spring
A Dappled sky and a world of buttercups lulled Joan's irritability; the exquisite perfumes and breezes, the blossoming meadows and orchards propitiated.
David was absent. His absence recomposed her. She could regain the freedom of thought which reminiscence had held in bondage. The familiar scenes, re-visited without the figure which gave them undue meaning, would lose the disproportionateness that had perplexed her; the old relations would readjust themselves. That violent and passionate eruption was not normal, but an upheaval of numberless fiery elements of dissatisfaction, discontent. It was over. The green grass of contentment, the flowers of accomplishment would grow in the old crater; the place would mark her humiliation, teach her universal sympathy with, and understanding of, the follies of others. Henceforward a sedate comprehen- page 306 sion of life, a progressive mental development was secure to her.
She went out in the mystic dawn to see the milking, and smiled to remember how handsome David's head had appeared against the background of the animal he was milking. What an exceptional strength this boy had shown; his conservative ancestors had transmitted to him blood worth the having.
“Spring-time, the only pretty ring-time,”
sang the green corn blithely as she passed through it. But it pleased her to assume airs superior to nature; knowledge profounder. The barbarian in her had interpreted last spring; had weakened her. She was no longer hesitating and doubting; the new growths within her were not of passion. How glad the Professor would be.
Gertrude was dead; she could not escape that desolation; but Gertrude's work should not die.
Father was hale and happy. The success of his daughter had blotted out his sorrow at Gertrude's death. The same papers had contained an account of both.
“The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away, page 307 blessed be the name of the Lord!” he said, for his religion had not yet reached heroism; he had not been called upon to renounce. He would have preached a funeral sermon in the barn; but Joan interposed.
“You can't solve the problem,” she said, with what seemed to him almost indifference, “and criticisms irritate.”
He expressed his disappointment to Janet.
“If you can't dig deep enough to uproot a sorrow, you'd best let it be; raking the surface isn't any good; the trouble springs up again,” she said quietly. “Words, if you don't hit on the right one, is a poor Job's comforting sort of business. Stanley Stanton's in the right of it there; there's only one word that just suits each case.”
Father puffed at his pipe silently, and looked hard at Mother. She sewed placidly, but her hands shook a little.
“I wonder what word he'd place alongside of trouble,” he said presently.
“God,” she answered, “if he knows the meaning of soul.”
There was a grey look about Mother that troubled Joan; but Janet would have welcomed any sickness as enjoyment that brought tendence from her girl, page 308 and the dim horizon of her feebleness was illuminated by many rainbow lights. But her pleasure was only momentary; she seemed to labour under a fear that it would pass.
She watched her daughter with contemplative eyes; her unusual sweetness struck her pleasantly, no attention escaped her. Joan noted that she did not mention David's name; Father chafed at his delayed return. Every few days brought news of him; intended prolongation of his holiday.
“A queer idea in the spring-time,” grumbled Father, “with shearin' an' what not; I am astonished, I am.” “There's a deal of things beyond the mind of a man,” remarked Janet, without malice.
“If he wanted to make me feel the miss of him, he's hit the right nail on the head,” responded Father uneasily. “This place ‘as grown beyond my desire. We've prospered in the land, an' now we're growin' old, Mother, my dear, you an' me can't see too much of one another. We began side by side; let us end the same. An' the farm comes between.” There was a tender vibration in his voice. He went on boldly in his affirmation, nothing doubting that he expressed the thought of both. “We've nothing left to wish page 309 —except to see the old place kept green on the face of the earth.’
He drew himself up to his full height, and tossed I his grey hair off his brow.
“Joan will bring our grey hairs with honour to the grave. A Jefferies shines,” he added confidently; “our girl don't need to soil her hands; an' so, this yoke growin' heavy upon me, I purpose placin' it upon a younger back—of givin' David a share. When the old man dies, the young one will reign in his stead.”
So David was to live here after all. David and David's children to occupy the old home! She was to have her heart's desire after all—how differently! But she would have the boy, with his energies and care; she felt tremulous and shaken. She would have his arm to lean upon, though not a son's arm. She should never get at the bottom of the lad's heart, perhaps; but he would not go. His would be an abiding presence. If only David's children might have had Joan's eyes! But she supposed that, when it came to the point, she should dress them in the lavender-scented garments.
“What are you thinkin' of?” asked Father abruptly.
“I was thinking,” answered Janet, blushing like a page 310 girl, “of the nights I used to sew, and you read those baptism tracts.” And then she sighed.
Joan entered in time to hear the sigh. She went into the kitchen presently to question Mercy.
“She don't take the same interest in nothin',” answered Mercy, with a sour look at the daughter of her mistress; “but there she sits in the old rocker, a rockin' an' rockin' for all the world as though she'd got you a babby again. I believe in my own mind she wishes she had; or a babby o' yours,” she added unexpectedly, to Joan's confusion.
The woman saw the colour mount, and, vigorously larding the scrubbing brush with soap, dipped it viciously into the bucket beside her, swirling a few spots upon Joan's lilac gown, and then scrubbed savagely at the dresser.
“Some folks,” she proceeded, after snorts that sounded like blaspheming, “go contrariwise from everybody's expectations!”
Splash went the brush into the bucket again. Joan stepped back, eyeing the woman as though to discover the cause of grievance.
“Once it were all for the young things that missus were carin'. A bit of a ducklin', a scrap of a chick, a wool-ball of a lamb, would keep her singin' to herself the day through. That's when she expected 'im.”page 311
“Him?” queried Joan, almost as humbly as she had approached this female Hercules in her childish days, for Mercy had noted the subdued mood and had not been slow to take advantage of it. She snorted more blasphemously than ever, and, catching the smile in the large grey eyes, sent more water off the brush.
“Your brother!” she said resentfully; “'im as was to ‘ave been born instead of you. You always were aggravatin’ an' unexpected! Excuse my sayin' of it, Miss Joan, but you cut in where your brother feared to tread.” She waved the brush dramatically, and glanced round the kitchen, gleaming and spotless as of old. “An' you've gone on bein' aggravatin' an' unexpected, if you'll further excuse me.”
Joan did not appear to find her talk embarrassing; took it, in fact, as a tonic. She measured the room with her eye, calculated first the distance that the water from the brush might travel, and placed herself a little beyond it, leaned over the back of a chair, and regarded Mercy seriously. She had associated the hard-lined, mahogany-complexioned woman so many years with home-made bread and preserves that she found this assertion of a consciousness outside the kitchen interesting. Mercy wrung the floor-cloth as though wringing the neck of an enemy; her sharp elbows grew purple with exertion.page 312
“Tell me in what way I have been most aggravating and unexpected?” asked Joan, as though she wanted to know. “Outside that first impertinence, I mean,” she added quietly.
“Well,” said Mercy slowly, “you never do the things one calculates on.”
Mercy seemed disinclined to carry the conversation further; she applied herself with renewed energy to her scrubbing, and left Joan still wondering.
“Was my mother disappointed that I was not a boy?” she asked presently.
Mercy could not say that this had been the case. She remembered her own poignant sense of isolation at the time.
“She'd got her baby,” she grunted grudgingly.
The woman's grumbled words left the impression that, in that fact, Janet Jefferies had found her heart's desire. She was a little sore at heart that her own personality had been quite outside this special mother-love. Any other child would have done as well. She was startled at the new thought it gave her about Gertrude. The affection she had received so easily had been hers exclusively.
“Was my father disappointed?” she asked, smiling a little.page 313
“He shifted his ideas off the boy on to you.”
This was a little involved, but Joan understood. He had loved his thought—his ambition. She had, at least in part, fulfilled his hope. She slipped her wedding-ring up and down her slender finger. Yes, she believed she had, in some measure, satisfied her father. It was a humbling thought, after taking oneself so very much for granted, how far one fell short of other people's ideals. One couldn't realise them all, of course, with any measure of consistency; ideas were perpetually clashing; but it was interesting to get outside one's own conception, and learn the views of others.
She folded her arms in a new fashion, and challenged Mercy, with a steady, slightly-frowning gaze.
“Were you sorry?”
“I was,” replied Mercy candidly. “A child wasn't wanted about the place at all. Think of all the worrit we'd a bin saved if you hadn't come!”
This view of the case had not occurred to Joan.
“But ‘avin’ come,” supplemented Mercy honestly, “I liked you none the worse for bein' a girl. It was your total disregard of your privileges that angered me. I was proud o' the sex in those days.”page 314
Joan unfolded her arms, and toyed with her ring again.
“In those days?” she emphasised.
Mercy wrung another imaginary neck, but avoided the searching eyes.
“Lord!” she exclaimed, “how you do catch one up. I said those days; I was young then! Am I to blame if the Almighty puts it into a woman to be cock sure He reached His highest point when He made her? It's in His wisdom, I don't doubt. If a female was deluded she'd wish she'd never been born. The Creator started it, man goes on with it, an' the children finishes it off!”
“How does the Creator delude a woman?”
“How?” retorted Mercy tartly, rubbing her nose with the back of the wet brush. “Why, it's plain enough. A young woman feels superior; that's what keeps her straight. ‘I'm a girl,’ she says, an' smiles to herself, an' thinks she ain't lonely when men are ‘avin’ a good time without 'er; ‘I'm pure an' innercent,’ she says, and wipes 'er eyes on the quiet. ‘I'm desperate good, an' man's desperate wicked; it takes the likes o' me to show the likes o' them a thing or two.’ That's firstly!”
Mercy drowned the musical voice with the brush. page 315 After a moment's vigorous labour, she jerked out between her efforts:
“The secondly—is—that a man deceives her. He backs up that notion the Almighty gave her about bein' good—an' tacks another on to it—for his sake.”
Joan looked away from the hard face, through the open door. The stir of the farm-yard caught her ear, the sunlit mountain peaks her eye.
“He makes her believe that life without ‘er is impossible,” supplemented Mercy.
“It isn't,” she grunted; “an' she finds it out sooner or later. Then comes ‘er thirdly,” proceeded the thin-lipped philosopher; “she deludes herself about the man's children then.”
Mercy laid down the brush, and folded her angular arms upon the damp dresser; her lustreless eyes turned where the bright grey were fixed on the snow peak in the west.
“An' children is disheartling,” she added, after a pause.
“Isn't there a fourthly to this pessimistic sketch of married womanhood?” asked Joan.
“Pessimistical? Pessimistical is a book word for what's true, I take it,” answered Mercy at her gruffest.page 316
“Yes, sometimes there's a fourthly; the woman gets somethin' of her first idea back—that, bein' a woman, the world couldn't get on very well without her after all; an' she tackles ‘er work agen, an' thinks she's ‘appy in the doin’ of it; or “—she gulped—” she dies. It takes some kind o' belief to keep a woman alive, married or single. ‘Ere, get out o' my way,” she added brusquely, rousing from her reverie, and plunging for the brush. “You're always askin' questions; always was, an' always will be, I expect. ‘Mercy,’ you asked me once, when you sat in your 'igh chair at the table eating your breakfast, ‘Mercy, how does the egg get inside the shell? an' what is it made of?’ ‘How should I know?’ I says. ‘Well,’ says you, ‘I shall know, an' I won't eat it till I do;’ and you didn't. But you never rightly enjoyed eggs afterwards. So, if you'll take my advice, Miss Joan, you'll eat the egg that Providence provides, an' ask no questions.”
Joan watched the stern-browed woman, with something of the half-fascination, half-awe, she had felt for her when a child. With all her narrow prejudices Mercy had a certain limited penetration, and threw lurid gleams of light upon a subject, here and there. Her views were very sombre. Had this hard-featured woman ever had any comeliness, Joan wondered.page 317
“Did you ever love a man, Mercy?” she asked, undaunted by her snubbing.
A dull red wave passed over the woman's face and spread from her brow to her sinewy neck, showing up pitilessly the unbecoming iron-grey hair, mercilessly revealing each line on forehead and cheek. But the lovely girl saw no occasion for mirth, perceived with new-born insight all the humbling consciousness that her plain sister suffered in her maidenhood. Before her faltered “Forgive me,” could be heard, Mercy had turned upon her with a rush of words. They fell unheeded; Joan did not resent the woman's bitterness; she caught a sentence here and there.
“An' if I ‘ad, one fool more in a world o' fools wouldn't be conspicuous…. An unloved old maid ain't disgracefuller than an unlovin' wife…. But if I'd ‘ad a mother—Lord!”
The tone left nothing to be said of her ancient jealousy and pain.
Joan drew nearer.
“What—what reason does my mother give for her diminished interest in young things?” she asked presently, in uncertain tones.
Mercy wiped her hot face with her apron. She page 318 looked sullen, but Joan's compelling eyes were fixed upon her earnestly.
“She said she'd found ‘um disappointin’, disheartlin' like; that you loved ‘um an' cared for ‘um, an' when they'd grown strong the first use they made of their legs an' wings was to desert you.”
Joan spent the rest of the day in the barn-yard and byres. She came back in the twilight, walking, in her old childlike fashion, with her arms behind her back.
“It is true, quite true, this tyranny of the young, quite true that each generation leaves the old behind; but then, it is also true that the young inherit this sublime self-sacrifice, and become in turn self-sacrificing.”
After that day she enticed Janet back into the poultry-yard and fields; and in a hundred different ways—while drawing attention to the habits and eccentricities of the mother-birds and mother-beasts—conveyed the idea that the mother mission was to train good fathers and mothers and so benefit the race.
The shadow passed from Janet's face. To have her maid fraternising with her in this homely fashion was unprecedented; her spirits rose with her self-respect; her bruised feeling passed; she was no page 319 longer humiliated before the world as one whose daughter had turned aside from her.
When mother and daughter were not idling together out of doors, they were having fun together indoors, for Joan declared that it was quite time she learned housekeeping, now that she had a house of her own.
Mercy's sharp tongue frequently interrupted the merry duet, with remonstrances about the way her stove and pastry table were “mulled up”; but Joan, inwardly shuddering, persevered with her pastry and soups. Mother ate beyond her need to prove her appreciation, and strutted about from store-room to larder till she was ready to drop; mentally she was whole.
Joan watched the faint pink deepen in the dear, sweet face, and the soft brown eyes grow young; but when she was alone, her own smile faded, a nervous depression took the brightness from the peaceful landscape.
“Sweet lovers love the spring,”
the larks carolled; and she was half-tortured, half glad, that she had been left alone to struggle to her feet.
One evening in late summer, Mother and Joan page 320 were strolling back from the plains. The elder leaned upon the younger woman, her serene face smiling, her withered fingers clinging to the girl's rounded arm.
The sun had dropped behind the mountains, and the intense stillness of a country twilight reigned. As they neared the stile, Mother withdrew her eyes from Joan's face, and, with a start of surprise, exclaimed, in delighted tones:
“Why, here's David!”
Every pulse in the girl's body thrilled. Her cultivated indifference was swept aside by the leaping of her heart.