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Title: Seedtime and Harvest
Author: Arthur Gask
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1202391h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: June 2012
Date most recently updated: June 2012

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Seedtime and Harvest
by
Arthur Gask


Published in The Mail, Adelaide, S.A., Saturday 20 May, 1944.


The earth is ever a hard master, and the farm was one of that number in Australia, not very distant from a township and yet far enough away to make life lonely for those living in it. He had purposely come home late and night had well fallen when his boots clattered outside the lobby door. He was a big and rather coarse-looking man of 34.

Entering the kitchen he gave his wife a quick look and then turned away his eyes. "I'm late," he remarked carelessly. "I stopped to finish a bit of fencing." He pulled off his sodden boots. "The creek's high tonight and there's more rain coming."

His wife nodded understandingly, but made no comment. She was an unusually good-looking girl and more than 10 years her husband's junior. She had a good profile, a faultless complexion, and big, clear dark-blue eyes.

There was a suggestion of hardness, however, about her otherwise very pretty mouth. Her figure was supple and beautifully proportioned.

"Tea's ready," she said quietly, and they sat down to what was almost a silent meal. They were both of reserved dispositions and it was never their habit to talk much. They had been married six months, and he was quite aware she had never really had any affection for him, becoming his wife only on her parents' persuasion.

His farm was prosperous, and the bargain had been he would make them an allowance on her marrying him. So, after some considerable urging, she had done what would be best for them.

"You've knocked your knuckles," she said presently. "How did you come to hurt them?"

"Tightening a nut on the drill," he replied. "It's nothing much, just taken the skin off."

"But I must put some plaster on," she said. "They don't look nice, and you can't work with them like that."

She had been a nurse before their marriage, and the contents of a small cupboard in their bedroom provided for most emergencies.

The night was cold, and the meal finished and the washing-up over, they sat before the fire. He smoked meditatively and she read. Occasionally they exchanged a few words, but she never kept her eyes lifted very long from her book.

Presently he stretched himself and yawned. "I think I'll go to bed," he said. "The cold's made me feel sleepy," and he rose to his feet and looked at her interrogatively. "Coming?" he asked.

"Not yet," she replied. "I'll read a little longer."

He went alone into the bedroom and, to his surprise, because it was not his usual habit to do so, found himself dropping off to sleep almost at once. Then, to his amazement, the next thing of which he was conscious was seeing daylight through the window and hearing his wife laying the breakfast things in the adjoining room.

He had slept the whole night through without stirring. He looked at the impression of his wife's head on the pillow beside him, and wondered how it was she had managed to come to bed and also get up without waking him. But he was under no illusion that her carefulness had not been of set purpose.

"The devil," he frowned, as he jumped hurriedly out of bed, "but I couldn't have slept sounder if I'd been drugged."

* * *

SOME 40 years later the morning train pulled up at a little railway siding 300 and more miles from Sydney, and a middle-aged man in semi-clerical attire alighted. He was slight in build, with a thin, ascetic face, and his expression was mild and very gentle.

His eyes were of a peculiar light-blue forget-me-not color. His clothes were shiny and well worn, and he carried a small leather bag, equally as shabby. By calling he was a lay missionary, and for many years his work had lain among the lesser known Pacific islands.

A big, heavy framed man, with a weather-beaten face, and clad in rough working clothes was standing on the platform and he came forward at once. "Hullo, Peter," he exclaimed, as he held out a large and earth-grimed hand. "I should have recognised you anywhere."

"Hullo, Tom," returned the missionary, and the hand he gave was small and delicate in contrast with that of his brother's. "How's dad?"

"Crook," said Tom. He grinned, "Or he wouldn't have asked for you. Doctor says he may go any day now."

He led the way to a small, ramshackle dog cart with a very old pony between the shafts, and they both mounted and settled themselves down for the six-mile journey to the farm.

"How's mother?" asked the missionary, wincing at the fierce blow his brother had given to the pony.

"Always grumbling. The rheumatics have got her and she works too hard. We can't afford to pay for any help."

"Then, isn't the farm doing well?"

"No, the sand's drifted over all the best paddocks," and the big man whipped up the pony again with an oath which made the missionary wince for the second time.

The conversation languished and, as they drove along, the missionary's eyes roved sadly over the countryside. Every hill, creek, and paddock was familiar to him, and the memories were unhappy ones.

It was 20 years since he had left home, and for all that time he had not seen his parents. The eldest born, and always frail and delicate as a boy, and totally unfit for farm work, his father had never taken to him and, eventually, he had left home for Sydney to train as a school teacher.

Of a serious disposition, however, missionary work had appealed to him; and he had gone to the islands, living a life of hardship and privation, but with his heart and soul in his labors.

Some months previously his mother had written him his father was in very poor health, and that he must come at once if he wanted to see him before he died. With some difficulty, he had obtained a substitute and made the long journey with what speed he could.

Arriving at the farm, an old woman hobbled to the door. She was bent and frail and with a shrivelled, yellow skin. Hardship and unceasing toil had taken a dreadful toll of her, but it was obvious she had been anything but ill-looking once, for her profile was good and her eyes were a beautiful dark blue.

"Oh, Peter," she exclaimed querulously as the missionary bent down and kissed her, "how old you've grown!"

"But 20 years, mother!" he laughed. "What else could you expect?" His face sobered. "But how's dad?"

She shook her head. "A sick man. His heart's failing and he may go any day now. I expected you would come too late to see him."

"Oh, then I'll go straight in to him," said Peter.

"No, no," said his mother quickly, "he's asleep, and you mustn't wake him. Besides, I'm just going to dish up the dinner, and your brothers can't wait. They have their work to do."

Two other men tramped in noisily and shook hands heartily with the missionary. They were almost the facsimile of the one who had met him at the railway station, with the same red face, the same big bodies, and the same horny, earth-grimed hands. They were merry, jovial fellows, and looked full of life.

They all sat down to the meal. The missionary ate very little, but the other brothers ate hungrily consuming everything with great gusto. They seemed, too, in a tremendous hurry, as if they were all going to catch trains, washing down everything quickly with cup after cup of steaming, milkless tea.

When they talked it was only about crops and cows who were expecting calves and of a sow who would have to be killed because she was beginning to get short in her litters.

And the whole time they were regarding their brother with amused and covert smiles, kicking one another furtively under the table, as if he were something of a joke to them. The meal finished, they rushed off, and Peter was taken in to see his father, the mother leaving the two to have their talk together.

The old man's lips were very blue and he spoke faintly. "I wanted to see you, Peter," he said slowly, "because I've got something on my mind and I felt I must tell somebody." He paused a long moment. "Forty years ago I killed a man."

His son's mouth gaped. "But by accident, of course, dad!" he exclaimed quickly.

"No, no, on purpose," was the grim reply. "I had meant to kill him if ever I got the chance, for he was coming after your mother, and I knew he'd get her if I didn't.

"One afternoon I had a fight with him by the creek and stunned him with an axe. Then I threw him into the creek to drown. His body was carried into the river and never found."

"Oh, dad, dad, how could you?" exclaimed the missionary in great distress.

"He worked in a bank," went on the old man, "and had been your mother's sweetheart before I married her, and he used to come up here much more than I liked, for it made her cold towards me.

"Then, one afternoon, when he thought I'd be away, I caught him creeping up behind the trees in the big paddock. He tried to make out he'd come to ask me to lend him money, as he'd been robbing the bank and was going to be found out.

"That he'd robbed the bank was quite true, but it was your mother he was after then, and we had some words and I struck him down."

"My God, my God," exclaimed Peter, his voice choking, "and you've been keeping this dreadful secret for all these years!"

"But it hasn't worried me at all until lately," went on the old man, "and it doesn't worry me much now. I know I did right, for he would have ruined my home. Then, when he came no more, your mother altered towards me, and a year after he was dead you were born."

He spoke bitterly. "Still, he must have been always in her memory, because when you came I saw you had got his eyes. Yours are just the same light-blue color as his were. Your mother never dreamed that I've noticed it, but I have, and that's why I never took to you and was glad when you went away."

His voice grew fainter. "But go away now. I want to sleep. I'll have another talk with you later," and Peter went out and prayed that his father might be granted longer life to show true repentance for his sin.

That night after supper, when the old man was still sleeping and the other brothers were in bed, his mother said to Peter, "And, of course, dad only wanted to see you to confess that he'd killed Les Donelly."

Peter gasped. "Oh, mother, then did you know? Oh, what a terrible secret for you to have had to keep to yourself!"

She nodded spitefully. "Fiddlesticks, there was no such secret to keep! He didn't kill him, though for a punishment I've let him think so all these years.

"I was among the trees that afternoon and saw him throw Les in the creek, but I dragged Les out when he was swept beyond the bend, and he didn't die until three years later, when he was killed in the Boer War."

"And so he wasn't drowned after all," exclaimed the missionary in great relief.

The old woman laughed scoffingly. "No, not he, and I kept him hidden for three months in that old hut which used to be among the willows. No one ever learnt he was there, and I nursed him until he had got over the hurt your father had given him and I had scraped enough money from the housekeeping to give him to get safely away."

A wistful look came into her eyes. "He was a fine lad, but he was wanted by the police." She nodded again. "Well, as your father's broken his silence at last, I'll tell him everything tomorrow.

"Oh, yes, but I will, for I've never had any love for him, though he's made me bear him those three lumping sons," and the missionary went out and prayed now that the old man might die.

That night, in answer to Peter's prayer, the angel of death passed by, and the old man died without his wife having had speech with him again. In the morning, when the missionary was shaving, he sighed heavily, for, as he looked in the mirror, he thought his eyes were of a lighter blue than ever.


THE END

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