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Wheat in the Ear

Chapter VI. — Under the Plough

page 64

Chapter VI.
Under the Plough.

Joan respected the man who had conquered her—and kept him up to the mark.

“Not so fast, my good girl; Rome wasn't built in a day!” he remonstrated, as she galloped through the information at his command. He desired that his testimony should be honest, and was frequently seen under the shadow of a hayrick studying a dictionary; a pocket encyclopedia bulged from his coat while he rode round his boundaries. He was heard reciting Wordsworth, with his eye on the threshing-machine. The vowels exercised his soul; he felt the “h's” heavy on his conscience.

Once started, Joan took to the higher education of women, “like a duck to water,” Janet declared. But Joan found Father out before long, as he himself suspected, suggesting the “h” in a matter-of-fact way, and substituting “ing” for “ink.”

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At the end of the week Joan's manner was slightly patronising; but Sunday counteracted any degenerate tendency—for on Sunday Father preached.

Father, pursuing his idea of training the young idea, determined upon a Sunday service in the barn. This barn was “an upper chamber,” reached from the farm-yard by an awkward flight of wooden steps. It was a long, cool building, redolent of wheat and chaff, sacks of which made comfortable pews. The dairies were near, and in summer, scents of clover and new milk wafted through the open door; and Father had frequent telling illustrations to his sermons.

Standing at his desk—constructed from packing cases—in black cloth and white linen, his massive head thrown back, his bronzed, rugged face glowing with enthusiasm, he might have roused spiritual energy in a larger and more callous band than the farm men and women who made his flock. He had the orator's art, though not the scholar's knowledge. He knew by instinct just how to touch the matter in hand, and, with the poet's gift, raised it on high for contemplation. He was unaffectedly in earnest. Prosaic at each new start, but gaining refreshment as he went, his eloquence became elastic, and stretched farther and higher than he knew.

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Janet listened with one eye on the poultry and the young person who had usurped the place of the second John the Baptist, and sat during these meetings on a flour-barrel, looking capable of every sweet and heavenly emotion. Her eyes wandered during prayers, but the moment Father's discourse commenced, her attention was arrested; and as stiffness slipped away from the preacher, she kept him company—intellectual company. When he made a point, her cheeks would flush and her eyes brighten. Once when he wanted a word, she called it out to him unconsciously. On Sunday she gave herself to the sensuous pleasure of Father's oratory; on Monday she read the Scriptures, critically, filling in all Father's situations, book in hand reverting to his illustrations.

It was Janet who discovered the truth.

“I would like that she loved us more,” she whispered to herself, “an' admire words less.”

Mother was jealous of the books, and strove to interest Joan in the kitchen. But she turned gently from Mother and the sewing, and scornfully from Mercy and the dairy, converting the attic into picture-gallery and study. Every old newspaper page 67 stored there, and Father's books, were read indiscriminately.

The attic ran from east to west of the house, a window at each end. The east window gave an extensive view of the sheep plains. From it Joan watched the sun rise from the unknown world; the west saw it set behind mysterious mountains.

Mercy secretly gloated that Mother and child “were not what you'd call wrapped up in one another.”

“It all comes with discontentment with the ways o' Providence,” she told the cat.

The child had her inspired moments in the attic. Exempt from the common need of childhood—companionship and sympathy—she determined the form and method of her day under dominion of an idea or her own. She liked words; they afforded her an inexplicable pleasure. She rolled the “r's” off her tongue instinctively, and with much confidence as she read—always aloud, although there were none to hear her, save herself; to miss the sound of the language would be a loss.

In the open air she caught the spirit of the poets, and read glint of sunlight and grey of twilight into a line, and caught the tinkle and rush of water. On page 68 winter evenings, to cajole Father from the harmonium, she read aloud, and, if Mother's tears refused to flow, and Father stared hard into space, she knew there was something wrong with the reading, and tried it over again in the attic.

“Joan Jefferies must go to Girton,” announced Father, in Joan's twelfth year.

For the first time in her life Janet disliked Tom.

“What do we want with a Girton girl at a farm?” she asked him. “What we want is a homely person who knows how to make pies and look after the linen. A house an' a husband an' a baby gives a woman more instruction than all the books in the world. And there ain't no Girton nearer than Christchurch,” proceeded Janet—“more than a day's journey by coach; an' what will the maid do so far from home? I've heard of them Girton women! They've a deal of knowledge about the bowels of the earth, but are surprised if heavy pastry gives a child the stomach-ache. What does a bonny lass need to know about the orbit of the stars, so long as she can regulate the course of her own household?”

“Don't you take on, my dear,” said Tom. “Joan Jefferies is a gentleman. She'll do us credit. Whatever her hand findeth to do she'll do it manfully.”

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“I don't believe you've got over the notion that she's a boy,” retorted Janet. “She's a woman child, dear, an' sooner or later she'll discover to which half o' creation she belongs. I'd have been proud of a man child, if he'd been a he; but bein' a she I'd take shame of it. It's all the fault of that blessed christening.”