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Wheat in the Ear

Chapter XXVII. — The Garnered Sheaves

page 365

Chapter XXVII.
The Garnered Sheaves.

David pressed on, his face stern in its determination, his dark eyes feverishly alive; he had stripped himself bare for Joan's sake; for her sake had thrown off all pretence. Everything was to build up afresh. But his thoughts would not go forward; like them, he stopped at last, and looked behind him. Far on the distant darkening horizon he saw Joan's lonely figure fighting through the wind, her dark cloak flapping like the sail of a small craft on a stormy sea. He gazed upwards at the wide expanse of black, and listened to the sound of thundering water. Every instinct within him urged him to hasten after that frail figure, struggling on so pathetically alone; but his iron will trampled upon his desire. He turned round sharply, and pressed on towards the station, not trusting himself to look back again. His train was not yet due, and he walked restlessly up and down the platform. The corrugated iron roof of the page 366 sheds and waiting-room rattled hideously; the crazy lamps flared and sputtered, and were blown out; the whole collection of buildings and officials seemed in a fair way of being swept pell-mell off the face of the earth.

“It'll be worse before it's better, you mark me,” said one man to another. “The hot winds of the last week have melted the mountain snows, and this wind will end in such a sou'-wester as never was. Then look out for a flood. Every mountain rivulet will be a torrent, and pour itself into the gorge. I shouldn't care to be near the hills on the Otira to-night!”

David stood still, an awful, sudden terror checked his breath.

“My God!” he gasped at last.

This new tangible danger to Joan, and the old folk he had deserted, struck him like a blow from a heavy fist. He grew dizzy under it. He must go back. Beside the safety of the inmates of his past home all other considerations seemed frivolous and worthless. He was turning to go when a slender, stooping figure stood in front of him.

“Ah!” said a hesitating voice, “I was not mistaken. I have met you, sir, at Otira Farm. I am Professor Stanton.” A smile of something that resembled pride lit up the pale features, as though page 367 the name had a new significance to himself. He held out his slender hand; but David avoided the hypocrisy of taking it by a sudden grab at his cap.

“A wild evening! A very wild evening,” proceeded the Professor mildly, at that moment almost lifted off his feet. “I have endeavoured to hire a vehicle to take me to the farm, but without success. No man will face the gale.”

“Better stay where you are,” broke in the speaker whose words had first arrested David's ears.

“Stay where I am?” reiterated the Professor, with haughty wonder.

“Safer!” said the other curtly.


“Much; there'll be the deuce of a flood before morning.”


“Why, on the plains, of course. The gorge is at the brink already.”

“Then I most certainly must go,” exclaimed Stanley Stanton, with excitement “I'll walk.”

Without further parley he turned abruptly and left the station.

To meet Joan's husband face to face in the flesh, in the moment when the thought of him was unbearable, sent David's blood back to his heart. Enough already had been crowded into the past twenty-four page 368 hours. He ground his teeth with helpless misery and rage. Let him go; let him be overtaken by the coming flood. He was at war with this man who had stolen his life's one treasure. The cries of longing, that he had forced back into his heart, broke out again; this man was going to Joan—while he—? He would go, too; there was a possibility of danger. He strode back to the open. A few swift strides, and he saw the Professor fighting his ineffectual way against the blast. The delicately-framed student was powerless here. David was soon beside him, drenched in a moment by the blinding rain-torrent that swept down upon them.

“A wild evening,” the Professor panted; “a blusterous wild evening.”

Again that note of happiness in his voice jarred on David's ear. He detected it through all the thunders of the storm. He made no answer, but, with almost a rough action, linked his supporting arm through Stanley Stanton's.

“We must get on,” he muttered.

Suppose that Joan had not yet reached shelter? This new fear gave him a giant's strength and fleetness of foot. The man struggling beside him dragged like a chain on the wheel. Again the impulse came to leave him behind, and again he choked it.

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The deepest bass of Nature's notes thundered and roared and rolled. Again and again the men were caught up like leaves and hurried forward. They divested themselves of their sodden coats and left them lying on the track; hands and face were beaten and smarting. Sometimes they were flung against a tree; at others they lay upon their faces to escape the violence of the wind. Neither spoke after the first hour; their voices were inaudible, the sound blown from their lips. More and more David felt his companion faltering, watched instinctively for each rallying, and found himself glad at each new spurt. The man had conquered the brute again; the bravery of his brother in misfortune, battling with a third of his (David's) physical force, against a foe so formidable as that night was to both, roused the lad's enthusiasm for pluck. If he had been alone, he might have been with the old folk by now. Midnight! great heavens! and he could not tell how far they had still to go. For a moment the cloud curtain parted, and the moon peeped out into the night like a woman's frightened face fixed on the storm, then disappeared. In that moment of light, the steely sheen of water could be seen. The frantic barking of a dog startled both men at once, sent their chilled blood bounding with thought of shelter; but, the next instant, David knew where they were—at the ex- page 370 treme boundary of the outlying sheep station. The dog was one of the boundary dogs, chained to its kennel. He called out encouragingly, and the frightened animal yelped its relief. David found the kennel, and let the poor brute loose. The dog whined and leaped to lick his deliverer's face, splashing about in the rising flood. The shepherd's hut was near; a dim light glowed from its tiny window. Half carrying his exhausted comrade, David made for the cheering light. The hut was empty; the shepherd was out with his sheep. But the fire on the hearth was not extinguished, and, with a sigh of relief, the young man got his burden to its warmth. Ah! thank God! here was a flask! He poured some of the spirit between Stanley Stanton's pallid lips, and watched their effect; then drank himself. The dog was crouching near, looking with dumb anguish into the strong human face. David noted that the Professor's stiff hand was clasped round a little volume. How had the fellow held on to it all these hours? These book-worms had queer ways. He drew the saturated book away, with a softening of eyes and mouth, that was almost a smile. It fell open at the title page:

“The Rejected.
Dedicated to My Wife,
My Inspiration.”

page 371

The book fell from David's hands. He turned hastily to the hearth and threw an armful of dried gorse upon the smouldering embers. Instantly a merry blaze leaped up, and reddened the visage bending over it, and flushed the grey face on the hearth with youth and colour. The dog drew nearer, and licked David's hand, his shaggy coat steaming in the grateful warmth. Then he glanced at the prostrate form, whined beseechingly at the strong man, and wagged his tail.

“Right you are!” said David, and, kneeling, lifted his rival's head and poured more spirit between his lips.

“Joan!” murmured the half-unconscious man. Down went his head again with a bump; then David, with a contrite movement, slipped his hand between it and the floor. His haggard eyes rested upon the upturned face. How thin and worn it was! How noble the lofty brow! Had Joan and he had anything to do with the grey patches at his temples? Suppose that he also had suffered? “The Rejected!” God! the world was topsy-turvy.

Suddenly Stanley Stanton opened his eyes. For an instant the two men stared straight into each other's soul.

“How do you find yourself now, old man?” asked David chokingly.

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The Professor smiled.

“A little tired, I thank you; a little tired.”

He was feeling with his hand for something. David pushed the book to him, and saw the slender hand close on it. Presently he struggled to his feet.

“Had we not better proceed?” he asked.

David threw open the door.

“It is a sheet of water between here and the farm,” he said gruffly; “the flood is on us.”

He did not look in his companion's face.

“My wife!” he heard him breathe.

“The house will stand,” he said, clearing his throat; “it is high on the bank.”


He had expected that intonation. It was calm and strong. It meant, “Thank God! If Joan is safe, what matters all the rest?”

But was Joan in that house upon the rock? His secret dread made a coward of his heart. An almost irresistible impulse to tell this man all came over him; but it was Joan's secret; he could not betray Joan.

Presently the hissing water came swirling in at the door; the dog howled, and the fire was extinguished.

“We're caught,” said David, “like rats in a hole.”

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“Ah!” again ejaculated the Professor, with unruffled calmness.

David dragged him and the dog to the roof; and the moon, bursting through the clouds again, shone for a moment over a waste of water.

“Heaven pity the sheep,” cried David; and there was a moan in his voice that had never been there for himself. The dog huddled closer to him, shivering, as though he understood.

An hour passed in silence; then the Professor spoke.

“David Aubrey,” he said, “you are a young man, and life is precious to you … thought comes slowly to me … it has occurred to me that to-night you have jeopardised your life for mine. Once I … I imagined that you disliked me. I ask your pardon.”

Their hands met in the darkness.

“You were right; I hated you,” said David.

The storm still beat upon them; the hut swayed to the lashing water. After an instant's hesitation—

“I loved Joan!” he added.

“Loved Joan!” came an echo. But the Professor did not let go the hand he clasped. The merciful darkness hid their faces from each other.

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“Joan,” presently came the Professor's voice, quite quietly, “went home to test herself…. I beg to be excused for a seeming impertinence … but … it is probable … I shall not see Joan … to ask her personally. Would you … could you tell me her conclusion?”

“She had decided for—you!” said David.

Again the hut rocked, and the dog howled.

“Ah!” exclaimed the Professor, for the third time. “It was great of you both,” he added presently. “I had not expected, or hoped, or deserved it. I was taking her my book. It has won for me distinction. For that I came to thank her, and to return.”

It had been enough. Like Stevenson, he had lived “to contend for a word and the shade of a word.” He had won his crown.

The straining timbers shivered and swayed beneath them. David clutched at the man beside him—strove desperately to hold him; there was a wrench, a violent rocking, a splash—and David was alone.

… ….

Through the long, storm-beaten night the inhabitants of the farmhouse huddled together in the attic. Father and Mother and Joan strained their eyes from the east window, watching for the pale cold page 375 dawn, that broke at last over a watery waste of death and devastation. The rifled barns had yielded their hoarded grain; great bales of wool floated downward with the stream, a sullen frothing torrent that had been a gurgling rill; uprooted trees, broken fences, the roofs of the byres and hen-coops whirled past in the swift eddies; above the roar of the waters an occasional cry of terrified beast made itself audible; and Father, whose face was set hard and white, glanced occasionally at Joan with her arm about her Mother's waist, and made no complaint. But when he saw the dead sheep and cattle floating past, great tears rolled down his rugged cheeks for the innocent lives he had been powerless to save.

Mother clung closer to her girl; she also might have been out upon the plains.

“It is not possible; no! no! it is not possible,” cried Joan, in her fearful heart. “David could not have loitered.”

And while she spoke, David was clinging to the broken roof, one arm about a shivering dog; and Stanley Stanton, for whom she had not feared, was floating eastward, a smile upon his upturned, lifeless face.

With daylight, Father went out in the old boat, to see, perchance, what he might save. At noon, when page 376 the sun was high, the boat came back through purple and silver, the oars dripping diamond spray, and the little waves gurgling softly about the keel. Two men lay under his old grey overcoat, and a dog kept watch. One man was to awake to meet Joan's eyes; from the dead hands of the other she received a benediction.

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