Wheat in the Ear
Chapter XXV. — Between Hell and Heaven
Between Hell and Heaven.
The sky was whitening in the east when David's rapid footsteps crunched the gravel path.
“The darkest hour's before the dawn!” the woman murmured to herself, as she raised her haggard eyes to the brightening line in the sky that made the background to the man's approach.
His appearance was well-favoured. Mercy knew the look in his face; his carriage and whole demeanour told of mastery. She stepped out of the shadow of the woodbine and stood face to face with him, the dawn emphasising every unloveliness of feature and expression. David stared blankly at her. It was as though hard ungracious fact had suddenly confronted his rose-tinted dreams.
“David Aubrey, are you gentleman or scoundrel?” she asked gruffly, her searching gaze trying to pierce the twilight dimness and read his very soul. Was it the effect of the changing light, she wondered, or page 332 did a dozen different traces of emotion pass over his face? Her brows were drawn together tightly, her hard mouth down at the corners.
“I hope—I am a gentleman,” he said at last deliberately, removing his hat.
His eyes challenged hers. She drew her breath with a gasp of relief, and, unfolding her arms, lifted her snowy apron and wiped great beads of sweat, that meant suspense, from off her forehead, Her whole body relaxed with the relaxation of her mental strain.
“Ah! for that, thank God!” she said, in a low tone, her dull eyes seeking the rays then traversing the sky.
Her manner and appearance both were tragic. Something in the face, something almost terrible in its earnestness, startled the man fresh from dreams. He had a sense of sudden awakening, a presentiment of coming loss.
“Lad!” continued Mercy, bringing her glance once more straight to his, “you must go—at once. There ain't no time to be lost dilly-dallyin'. It's a question of life or death; life to the honour, an' the peace o' this house”—she waved her arm with a movement almost dramatic towards the shrouded windows—“or death. They're all fools page 333 after their kind, master an' missus, the Professor an' her,—trustin', ignorant, unworldly fools! If's for you to be wise. The fields an' the beasts, the peaceful ‘ome an' the friendship—you must leave 'em all, David Aubrey; or trouble 'ull come, sooner or later; an' it ain't deserved by any inside these doors. You'll ‘ave to go; there ain't no other way o' savin' your soul. You can't be calmly ‘appy no more, for the smile an' enchantment of a woman is upon you, the smile an' enchantment o' Joan.”
Mercy, delivering her message of righteousness, was a grim image of truth; yet for once, though she did not know it, she had spiritualised the occasion. There was something startling in her unexpected entrance upon the scene. David had been losing the thread; she gave him his cue. But one cannot be a saviour without sacrifice. Mercy was tolling the passing-bell to her own delight. The man who had put her in touch with youth would never understand that; she herself scarcely comprehended.
“Lad,” she resumed, restraining a desire to place her hand upon his shoulder, “since the day you first come to Otira Farm, you've been strength an' comfort to it. Men an' women an' the cattle in the fields feel you strong. I've felt it—an' I'm strong myself,” she added, with a sudden thrill of pride. page 334 “There ain't no sort of dignity in haphazardness. Some folk drop on their feet, when they 'appen on the right; others scramble to ‘um; others walk of their determined will—”
“I'll walk!” he interrupted, with a half-amused smile; “metaphorically and actually.”
“Soon?” she queried.
He turned his back to her and looked eastward. When he looked back, his face was set in its most determined lines.
“Before sunset,” he said brusquely.
He stood quite still for a long time, not hearing or seeing Mercy leave him. He was neither artist nor poet; he had not the subtle analysis and emotion that weave round suffering a glamour, and invest it with intangible utility or gain, Nature's compensation to the artist temperament, thus enabling your poet-soul to suffer more and more, often without despair. It was loss—bitter, horrible loss to him. Mercy had taxed him with his passion, with its callous selfishness, and he accepted his rebuke with resignation. He stood staring blankly at the reddening mists, and the fantastic clouds took on the shape of trees, roofs and a gilded spire. With a throb at the heart, he thought of the old English page 335 village and the vicarage, where his father was, and his mother had been.
“I suppose it's in one's blood,” he murmured; then turned from the picture painted in the sky to one on earth.
Joan was standing where Mercy had last stood. The woman had embodied grey, colourless, stern, matter-of-fact, pulseless sacrifice: Joan, flooded by the crimson light now bursting through the yellow mist, was a radiant impersonation of warm, throbbing girlhood, of youthful life and love. Smilingly she held out her little hands to him. There was a new look of misery, strange to her, upon his rugged face.
“Dearest,” he breathed.
She saw the strong mouth tremble; he dropped her hands, and they turned together towards the stream. The smell of sweet earth and dew was fragrant on the air; the glistening autumn leaves glinted in many coloured ambers; the drowsy sounds of middle-aged birds came from the bush clumps; but, for all its sweetness, the atmosphere was heavy—laden with reminiscences and languorous regret.
For the moment, there was no world to the two who stepped forward over the damp leaf-carpet to the gorge, except that unreal spot; no time except page 336 that drowsy hour. Heroism was out of place. The savage vehemence of passion overpowered David's strength. Joan scrutinised him curiously; she thought he lashed his anger against her, mistaking his emotion; his long-drawn respirations hurt her; she felt that each one caused her own chest a strain.
When they came to the spot at which Father long ago had insisted upon discipline, while she gathered flowers, David leaned with his back against a tree, and looked away from her to the mountainous west, his arms tightly folded. She had not deceived him of set purpose; she had deceived herself as well. She took a little step towards him.
“Well?” she asked, looking up at the pained, young face, with questioning on her own.
“Not well!” he answered hoarsely. “My God! what can I say or do? I am so helpless.”
She held out one hand to him sideways, and stood looking with him where their sun would set that night. His despair seized her; the hopelessness of his voice presented their position in a different aspect. She dropped the hand that gripped her fingers, and sat down upon a boulder at the margin of the stream. Presently her face fell between her hands, and her great eyes watched the wimpling, flashing water.page 337
“There is nothing to say or do—except love,” she answered.
In the quiet that followed, the murmuring of the gorges among the hills was audible. Scarce a leaf stirred, the atmosphere grew more oppressive every moment. The new day, like a promise unfulfilled, was clouding over. David turned his eyes, with the instinct of the farmer, and gazed at the heavy, copper-coloured bank of cloud that was creeping slowly over the sky.
“There'll be a storm before night!” he said.
“Perhaps!” she replied indifferently. As yet the thought of night had no interest for her. “You are not happy,” she faltered. “I have spoilt everything for you; I was too dull to understand. I was not deceiving you. Perhaps it would have been better, now that I do understand, to have said nothing. But you were in the right, you see, when you said that, if I loved you, love would claim me from all the world.”
He laughed a little roughly. She was torn between her remorse and that strange, new happiness which, in spite of everything, had made life so well worth living that she could not stay in bed this morning. She wished that accent of pain would leave his voice.page 338
“You are not happy!” she reiterated regretfully.
“Happy? when I must leave you!”
She lifted her eyes, then, with a startled look to his face. What she saw there sent the bright colour from her own; cheeks and lips were grey when she looked back at the stream. In the moment that followed she heard every undertone in Nature—the sad sighing in the heavy-eared autumn grasses, the little moan of the breeze where branches were bare, the plaintive thrill of birds whose nests were empty. How old this stern necessity made life. She had been trained to put aside sentiment and illusion; to will with the law. The austerity of Miss Goodyear's creed had nipped her fresh emotions in the hour of blossom. Poor Miss Goodyear, poor Professor! She understood now how rigid their martyrdom to the law of life had made them. She, who had felt such strange exultation an hour ago, had seen the world through rose-colour, seemed suddenly cold and old. But through her shaken sensations came the emergence of hard fact, she had learned to accept the truth.
“You must go,” she said.
She was conscious of the harshness of the decree; but his side of the question appealed to her. Something of cynicism entered his impulsive thought; he page 339 lacked the finer educational instinct to reason from both sides of a subject.
Joan's despair was not visible upon her face; the grey eyes watched the play of light upon the water.
“It seems impossible for me to live another day,” he burst out passionately, stung almost beyond endurance by what he mistook for her passivity. “Only the necessity of our position will sustain me. It is not possible for me to see you day after day, unless I can claim you wholly. The situation would become unendurable. You do not know the heaving volcano beneath my calm. I am drifting away from honour—from duty. Ah, well! I shall not cry out again. I am a hound to do so now. I am ready to meet the silent years, but not to drift into a current that will harm you, dear. Neither time nor space could part us now—if I so-willed. But I do not will. Johnnie,” he pleaded, drawing her hand from her face, “tell me, sweet, that I am not a coward to go.”
“I think,” she said, “that all your conventions cry ‘crucify him!’”
She was making it desperately hard. She scrutinised him curiously, evidently trying to put herself in his place, and to realise his obligations.
“I was not mistaken in my estimate of your loyalty,” she pronounced presently, to his great relief. page 340 “It is of little consequence what I feel beside what I know. You know how my heart will hunger for your dear company. Last night I thought it possible that we could remain friends; but I was mistaken. Better be mistaken in my own thought than in you. I shall be lonely; but you will suffer no diminution in my estimate of your character.”
How critically she judged the situation. But he yearned for a moment of abandonment. He bowed his head upon her knees. God forbid that he should cloud those truthful eyes. Her fingers strayed caressingly to his hair.
“You are strong,” she murmured proudly.
“Strong!” he groaned. “I will become all you hope for me,” he muttered, “when I get through the fierce ardour of this furnace. I will exorcise my devil.”
“Covetousness; I covet you. And I am not a Philip; I am not content to be loved a little after Enoch, even though your Enoch only stands for—There! pardon me! my head is heavy with unspoken thought, as my hands are heavy with my powerlessness. It is best that I should go. I could not be content till I had rivalled your conscience and understanding. I am compelled to see that I come a page 341 little after Enoch? mind? soul—something? Your calmness tortures me. Joan, Joan, good-bye, beloved, level-headed, baby-hearted, snow-souled Joan, your name is sweet to me! A royal woman—a little woman! Somewhere, some day, we shall meet again, princess. Let me hold you in my arms a moment—so. Look in my eyes. I have left so much unsaid in the days we were together—but remember that I will live and conquer.”
His voice broke; he let her go from his embrace.
“The storm has battered me a little,” he said apologetically. “You have your art; I have nothing else in the world but you. I would have worshipped you always—but we part to-day.”
He turned away and strode quickly towards the house. Joan sat quite still where he had left her, her head upon her hands. When at last she staggered up, her limbs felt heavy and stiff, cramped, like her mind.
She tried to harden her heart, to possess herself serenely, and answered Mother's searching looks at breakfast and Father's loud-voiced protests sanely.
“Going?” the man said, almost in tears. “Hurried decision!” He'd never heard the like, couldn't understand it. It was flying from Providence, throwing away a career! Confound these sudden changes of page 342 weather! they made his eyes smart. Felt as though the heavens would fall, he did. What with the heaviness in the air, and the unexpected news, all the grit was taken out of him. Did Mother hear the gorges in the mountains and the cry of the birds? There'd be a storm before night.
Mother heard nothing. She was packing David's trunks, packing them with exquisite care and skill. It was a task her fingers performed with instinctive pleasure, the while her tears dropped fast upon the spotless linen. But although she wept, she did not say, “Stay.” The son of her affection was to leave her; but she asked no question. She reproved Father once for his noise, with a peremptory “Hush up!” She felt his commonplaces out of season.
And Tom Jefferies, astounded that anyone could belittle the chance of a partnership in Otira Gorge Farm, discovered that he had a pressing duty in an opposite direction, and, after a hasty mid-day meal, went off.
David refused to be driven to the station. Let his luggage be sent after him; he would walk, first taking a farewell survey of the farm. He held Mother's hands in a tight, strong clasp.
“God bless you, lad,” she said tremulously, trying not to look all she felt.page 343
Mercy busied herself in the kitchen, her gentleness a thing of the past, her irritability and sarcasm overstepping her last remnant of good manners.