Wheat in the Ear
Chapter XXIV. — Another Harvest
“The summer is over, the harvest is past, and my soul is not saved,” said Joan.
“Nor mine,” was David's answer.
They were leaning over the old field gate, their backs to the autumn sunset, facing the plains. Her voice was like mocking music, a half smile lingered about her lips. His tone, like his face, was sullen.
“Not saved does not mean lost; do you remember?”
“Aye, I remember.”
He withdrew his gaze from the plains, that were shimmering under the twilight rays, and, for a moment, let his eyes rest upon the face beside him. It was white, hard, mocking. She was garbed as on that other evening, in white; as on that other, also, they had come to watch the moon rise, and to be alone together, for the first time since his return. She had shrivelled him with her irony, made his love seem almost ridiculous in his own eyes, while she had page 322 played the domesticated Martha, ever busy about many things. This evening, to his astonishment, she had asked him to watch the harvest moon rise. But her face showed scant sympathy with the sentimentalist.
“I like consistency,” he remarked, apropos of nothing. His eyes and gestures were expressive of impatience. He had come back to his first thought of her; she was a coquette.
“I follow your thought,” she said easily, with the embryo of a smile. Then, with sudden and unexpected energy: “It is a lie! Since I can remember, life has been all perplexity; but I've never been a sham. That is why I asked you to meet me now. You said once, here in this spot, that you believed I loved you. You remember?”
There was no element of passion or pain discernible in her face or voice; she leaned upon her folded arms and looked straight before her.
Reproach, caressing, pain and pleasure trembled through his word.
“You also said,” she proceeded quietly, “that, if I loved you, love would claim me, and I should own it.”
“I remember.”page 323
“I denied that I should; I was mistaken. I do love you; I did then.”
Her brows were drawn together; there was no sign of agitation about her, except her pallor. He felt like a man who, in midsummer, suddenly experiences a chill. He mentally shivered, and drew the rags of his self-respect about him. He would have preferred open scorn to this calculating acknowledgment of love. He gradually became aware that Joan was speaking again.
“I perceived the truth late. The impression no longer depends upon my will; it overpowers it. It is just that I should own I was mistaken.”
“Two and two have always made four,” he observed coldly.
“To people who count,” she responded promptly.
“You were always a clever arithmetician,” he retorted.
“Yet it is pitifully unexciting to have nothing to carry over. Even numbers are so flat. Our sum total is four.”
“Four!” he assented.
“Truth for truth,” she went on; “I owed you that. It hasn't been an easy thing,”—a slight catch in her breath—“not easy to own to my mistake; but it is right—to you.”page 324
“Thank you,” he said, wondering, while he listened and spoke, when the moon would rise and silver the plains as on that other night, when he had conjured the vision of a woman defenceless against her love. At the crisis of her life, the woman measured her words; no passion, not even of regret, stirred their coldness. Her love was shrewd, logical, calculating, lifeless! She lived only in her art. Her realisation of passion was a mediumistic realisation. Œnone had an exponent, not a counterpart, in the girl who rested her folded arms quietly on the gate, and told him, in unconventional fashion, that, yes, her love was fact.
“Ah! there's the moon!” David cried involuntarily.
“‘The moon flies face to face with me,’”
she murmured, with the Professor's trick,
“‘Aye, look and say whatever you see,
O Mother, Mary Mother,
What rest to-night, between Hell and Heaven?’”
Her last words were a whispered, passionate appeal.
“I'll go,” she added wearily; “there's nothing else page 325 to see, and nothing left to say.” She bowed her head. “I did not think it possible that I could grow so tame. One who errs should acknowledge error.” She moistened her dry lips, and cleared the hoarseness from her throat. “Often at night in my dreams I shall live my humiliation over again—years hence—after years of faithful duty.”
She pushed the gate open and passed towards the plains. David followed her mechanically. She drew up her slight figure proudly.
“No,” she said haughtily. “I have nothing further to say; go to your horses, rule them. I wonder that you have dared to listen to a woman's sorrow in silence. I held aloof from you because I did not understand my own heart. I have humbled myself because I do. I crave your pardon for any pain I gave you then, or now. You were right, if that will help you. I was wrong. It is helpful at least to know the truth. Knowledge is the remedy for ignorance.”
A sudden heat warmed her veins; she stepped out briskly. The brightening night seemed conscious of her shame. She hung her head, like one convicted of wrong. Why should she feel this approbation—sympathy indispensable? Was it not enough that she had been honest after her own understanding of page 326 the word? Should she not be content that her intentions had been right?
“But you see, I cannot; I cannot, as you see!” she cried, addressing she knew not whom.
David believed she was untrue; she had fallen for ever in his eyes; she suffered a ghastly fear, too, that after this episode was dead, it would haunt her consciousness for ever. Whatever happened, she would not again see David Aubrey. She would go back to Stanley Stanton, and find peace there. She would tell him all the miserable tale; perhaps he would not understand it, but she would tell him.
She had walked a long way, when her own name sounded pantingly in her ears.
Her heart leaped; the old joy billowed over her again. The wound he had inflicted ceased to hurt.
“Joan, I am a brute; forgive me. Come back, come back, dear. I have followed you for an hour. Where are you going?”
He spoke in broken words, with his hand upon her arm. She put up her hand to push the hair from her face. It was wet with the humiliation of her flesh.
“I was going home,” she answered absently.
The words stirred him more than would have any shrieking. There was such hopeless resignation in page 327 them. He took her cold, passive hand, and turned her about.
“I have tried,” she said, “but I can put nothing right. I have emptied my heart of my old pride, sought to give back what was given to me.”
The tears were streaming down her cheeks. The arm on which she rested trembled.
“Will you please not cry?” he blurted out.
“You have not known the dreadful pain of a woman!” she went on, apparently not conscious that he had spoken, “who has been taught to expunge all feeling, and discovers, too late, that she is not a machine to be regulated scientifically.”
“Will you please not cry?” he said again.
And then the dam of self-control broke down, and passion forced its way. Did she think him a man of iron? It was enough that he had worn an iron mask. Did she know—had she any conception—how he loved her? He had gone away, remained away to escape the sight of her! That night in the concert hall had tried his strength. Every man had his limitation. He could not bear to see her, and not cry out; could not think of her without desiring her. Did she not know, could she not guess, what it had been to him to stand beside her to-night, and hear from her lips that she had loved him all along—but knew page 328 it too late? Her warm breath fanned his cheek as she raised her face, and a sweet sound, almost of laughter, broke from her lips.
He bent his head, and searched her almost sternly. Then he took her face between his hands, and turned it to the moonlight.
“Child,” he asked her, almost fearfully, “are you glad?”
“Very glad,” she answered, with shining eyes. “Can't you see why? It was piteous for me to think I had been wrong. You do not know how clearly will stand out, amid surrounding dimness, the reflection: David did love me; I did love David; there is love. You will go one way and I another; there will be no more perplexity; love is love! I have had doubts and shames that there is no need to speak of; it is like the confusion of one's brain before one grasps the fact. First I was bent one way and then another. I know now.”
She leaned against his shoulder with an upward look, too rich for utterance.
“There is no more need to speak of it,” she said again, after a pause. “We have great knowledge, have we not?”
His coarser egotism was reproved. Her nobler instincts checked him; she held out to him no page 329 brutal licence; her voice of purity and justice appealed to his humanity. She gave weight to the claims of conscience. Love was holy in her eyes; let him not cheapen it. He aspired to rank alongside of her in thought, to escape the tyranny of flesh. And the thraldom of her beauty was upon him. Should he drag her headlong with him into an abyss of darkness? sweet darkness, perhaps, but darkness all the same. No, never. The exhausted girl was sheltered by his arm; although the voice that spoke of the happiness of their love was but a phantom voice to him; what was liberty to her was his death-sentence. She halted at the porch, looked up at him irresolutely, then lifted her arms and drew his face to hers.
The door stood ajar, and, in the hall, Joan came face to face with Mercy, gaunt, pale, stern-eyed. She stood like one struck dumb with wonder. Her attitude struck a chill to the palpitating girl.
“Is anything wrong?” Joan asked, with shrinking.
“Not so wrong but, please God, it may be mended,” she said sternly. “Get away to your bed, and don't waken your mother; let her sleep while she can.”
Mercy had always cherished a secret animosity towards her, the girl reflected; she supposed she page 330 was vexed that she had not returned to supper. She hastened to her room beneath the eaves, in which she had spent rainy days and sunny days of childhood. Her nerves were strained to their full extent; she could not sleep; an indescribable sense of exultation kept her wide-eyed. Her full joy was inaccessible; but a sweet sense of possession cheered her, nevertheless. Love was love; love was hers. It did not occur to her to apply the knowledge to her environment; only the spirit voice of her love now spoke. Till the last few months her knowledge of life had been scientific; her actions had been based upon the arguments of reason; her imagination was now fired by her new perception; as yet her senses were subservient to principles.
But the man, striding over the plains, fought with his weakening forces of resistance, his blood exulting; while Mercy, grim-faced and white with fear, sat in the porch awaiting his return, her sinewy arms folded tightly across her chest.