About the Story ...
Two women in a farming community disagree over whether their sons should enlist.
The title is from Matthew 24 (otherwise known as the Olivet Discourse or the Little Apocalypse), in which Jesus discourses to the disciples about his tribulations that will pass before the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven:
‘Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.’ (Matthew 24:40-42, KJV).
The passage in which the verse appears emphasises that no man, only God, can predict the coming of these events, just as — the story makes clear — no one can predict whether their son will fall in battle or survive, or even whether remaining home will keep him safe.
Two little farms cuddled down into the green and the brown sod, with the warm blessing of a blue-sky-day pressing tenderly upon them.
Both farms possessed the same graceful appearance of well filled water tanks and the spreading squares of sun-ripened uncut hay. Both roofs were colored red and both front windows faced the rippling river line. They had been built in the same year by men who had been brothers by reason of their great courtesy to each other.
Later than this the male parents of both families had died with ridiculous similarity. George Baggs had caught a cold working a stack too long in a change of weather, but it was pneumonia that had carried John Weathers off his feet, through standing without a coat or hat, while saying he was over warm the day he attended his friend’s very wet funeral.
The farms progressed under the spartan methods of the two wives afterwards. Both the women followed the same outlines of the work set down formerly, and there was scarcely one thing done in the Baggs dominion, that was not immediately set going in that of the Weathers.
Year after year Mrs Baggs engaged two or three men regularly to put in time on her farm. The same laborers took turn in the Weathers’ allotment. If it was wheat in the five-acre paddock for Mrs Baggs it was wheat in the five-acre paddock for Mrs Weathers. If they “stacked for hay” two rows of stacks gloomed against the sunset along the same fence line, and they were separated by the little post and wire fence only as long as they remained there. If Mrs Baggs decided to change her fruit agent or her butcher, both of whom had to come from the nearest township with regular precision, Mrs Weathers felt that she must instantly change hers.
When children had been born, there had been a boy to Mrs Baggs and a girl to Mrs Weathers; secondly—a girl to Mrs Baggs and a fine strapping boy to Mrs Weathers. Progress in this way had continued for upwards of eight years, and the two houses could claim each, a girl, a boy, a second girl and another girl to Mrs Weathers; to Mrs Baggs, a boy, a girl and a second girl and two more girls. Nobody had ever accused either women of being dissatisfied in the matter of a girl over on the one side, and a girl less on the other; and there was the same motherly pride in her boy, to both in exactly the same proportions as there was in everything else that appeared healthy in the place.
The farms progressed steadily, and the families grew up. That is they grew up sufficiently to be of service in the daily routine of milking, ploughing, setting turnips, and assisting in harvesting. They were old enough for most things that had real purpose in them and they were young enough to be encouraged to rely on the mothers when it came to a decision about anything their parents wished to command. The boys were aged nineteen and seventeen and a quarter, the Baggs’ heir being of course the elder by the fact of his being born first and by no means that of his stature. Young Weathers was a foot taller and carried his years ahead of him. Baggs junior had never objected because he felt himself to be the elder. This had been decided in a punching match one Saturday afternoon, when Baggs had licked his mate. Weathers junior, however, got even another way. He became clandestinely engaged to young Baggs’ sister and this young woman’s only brother failed when he offered himself to Miss Weathers the same day.
In the matter of home duties both women consulted before they administered a lesson or a trial. If Mrs Baggs put Jenny on to the separating, Mary Weathers could be heard singing as she turned the handle and both girls nodded to each other as they carried out the skim.
Birthdays received the graceful courtesy of a party given according to sequence. If Jane Ellen Weathers had a white foam cake and a copy of “Little Women,” as a present, Kate Florence Nightingale Baggs was presented with a cloth bound edition of “Little Wives” and a two tier cake as white as the early frost, crusting a garden cabbage.
At any time Mrs Weathers became liable, as the years increased to assert herself in a purely original way as a means of creating a diversion but always with the same result. If she acted according to her own lights about the yearly subscription to the Sunday School, Mrs Baggs, with the slightest suspicion of annoyance, followed as closely in the matter of a shilling rise on previous years, as if she had thought about it first.
Likewise, if Mrs Baggs wished to alter the furniture of her “best room,” Mrs Weathers found time to give hers a thorough good spring clean and the hair sofa and “whatnot” would be put back into different corners.
Mrs Baggs was tremendously pleased always at any imitation of her individual methods of arrangements. Mrs Weathers added another word of thanks to her prayers at nights that her neighbor had seen fit to hand out the extra shilling to the church collector.
All things continued in this way, progressively and mutually arranged according to the preference showed by one woman or the other, who happened to think about it first. There had been no outward and visible signs of resentment in any way; though there were certain little moments to Mrs Baggs in which she felt inclined to put in an amendment, in precisely the same way as Mrs Weathers had felt she must query an act made by her neighbor which was established for both of them. But, neither the query nor the amendment were put forward. Until …
Baggs junior asked consent immediately and got an instantaneous refusal. The long limbed Weathers boy, coming to his parent the same day, received permission with his mother’s heart broken grief.
Young Baggs suffered from the scornful look served him for the first time by his mate who lived next door to him. Weathers junior was told by his friend that “an only son the support of his mother had no right to go.”
Later Mrs Baggs called, suffused with color. Indignant, but inclined to forgive the error her neighbor had made when she had rashly promised what she felt sure Mrs Weathers did not really mean.
An hour’s argument commenced for the first time in twenty years and, because it had long lain dormant, it became a menace, a thing to be dreaded, that rose, shook itself like an angry loose-lipped mongrel and went forth howling for blood.
The peace of a well conducted house hold was violated. The walls shook with the wind that came first of all. Mrs Baggs rushed upon her neighbor … then retreated; finally she became sarcastic and ended by dragging up the foundations of friendship that had been a system for years.
“Lucy Weathers,” she hurled forth the words as if the other woman did not know her own name. “It is the first time in twenty years you have taken upon yourself to act without my consent. You will be sorry for it … upon my word. Think you can force me to send my only son, the support of his old mother, to the war to be killed as they are killing them in thousands without thinking of family feelings or what’s to become of the country with no men to work it at all? You cannot make me send George any more than I’m going to let you push your John into the trouble as is more than enough for them as has had to go already … I raised the Sunday School subscription this year again … why? Because you set it that way; but you can’t make me suicide my only boy, the flower of the family … as is the daily bread of us all.”
Mrs Weathers cried a little then dried her eyes.
“I don’t wish to suicide anyone and least of all my dear John … but somehow Liz, it don't seem right for us to keep the boys when it's only our bit of farms to work and the nation calling for men to help thousands of other people with farms same as ourselves. Did you never read the paper about the Belgians? We might have been in Belgium … The boys would have to fight then quick and lively … It’s wrong not to let them go … Much as I hate to lose my boy even for the harvest this year. ... I jest couldn't bear the shame of having him stop at home.”
“Thinking that the glory and honor, Lucy, is going to put food into your mouths … can the girls keep up the work, the stacking … the carting of the hay?”
“We can hire labor the same as we did when they were little,” said Mrs Weathers. “There is no excuse for keeping them at home at a time when, p’raps, our whole future depends on it.”
“Future? Have you ever thought of our future till this thing came along? You have been mostly relying on me, Lucy Weathers, day in and day out. Didn’t your man rely on George Baggs from the time we both started here? Did he ever have one idea of his own worth calling business? Would you have been making anything of the place this day if it had not been for us. And here you go trying to make me send my only son out to the wars as has been brought about for God knows what reason … and for what purpose?”
“I’m not trying.” Lucy Weathers felt thoroughly disconcerted and she was not certain whether she had not begun a most heinous offence, little short of a crime.
“If you are not trying to make me send my George out to be shot I don’t know what else you are doing. You ought to know that by giving consent for John to go means that to be friends as we’ve always been, I’ve got to give George my consent too?”
“Lucy Weathers are you getting dull in years? Did I ever let you get over me first with ideas as high as this?”
“I wish you would not look it in that way, Liz,” Lucy was aching in spirit and fancying all sorts of things that were like weights on her head. “Perhaps it isn’t a high idea at all and only a very stupid one. We must not take it upon ourselves to say what the government is doing it all for. We as good subjects of the King had ought to go as bid.”
“Not without a fight for it I’m thinking. That is, a fight for ourselves first of all. I’m not saying, mind you, that if I had two boys I would not be proud to let one sign on and fight for his country, but when it’s only one … well, the job seems too big.”
“That’s right … the job is big enough for more than one I should say, but, Liz, don’t you think that our boys might make up with a dozen or so more from the district. George by himself might not be of much use certainly, but if he made up numbers, say with Clara Pett’s boy and that little widow’s son, who’s working the grocery … and a few more, there would be a regiment I should say.”
“George don’t go to make a regiment with any grocer's assistant or anybody else. I’ve made up my mind, Lucy.” She became calmer. “I've come here to let you have the word, and it’s this: John will be disappointed, no doubt, but you can tell him you’ve got other people to think of. You can’t have honor and glory as well as a family of girls.”
“But … I would never dream of disappointing my John. He’s passed the doctor and he’s to go to camp right away.”
Liz Baggs rose instantly.
“If he goes we fall out of friendship from the day. You can run your own farm and make as many muddles as you like, and you can raise the subscription once a month if you want to. I shan’t pay any more than I’ve already done.”
“The subscription don’t matter so much, Liz. I’ll keep it to two shillings if it will please you, but the boys must go … there is nothing to keep them.”
“I shall keep them as sure as you’re born. … Leastways, I’ll keep George to do his home duties, and it’s your own fault if you let John go out and he’s killed.”
“Two women shall be grinding in a field … The one shall be taken and the other left.”
Liz Baggs was reading on a wet Sunday afternoon, and she wiped her hot face as she turned the page over. Within her heart she was suffering. Things were not the same and the Sunday hour, when she read to her family, was more than she could manage today.
April 25th, the Great Landing at Gallipoli was over and the news was a month old. Names of casualties and killed were clamored for … she felt certain that young Weathers was among the lot.
A fly bothered her. She struck it away. Something else annoyed, she rose from her chair.
Right across the stubble of fields harvested, she could see the sun and shadows in writing as plain as in the Good Book. “Two women shall be grinding in a field … the one shall be taken …” Her neck was clammy, her hands feverish.
“Which one shall be taken. …?” It was so plain.
Pulling herself together, she walked over the long grass of her home paddocks and she slipped the rail of the dividing fence. It was many months since she had done so in the spirit that she now went.
“Lucy,” she said, standing there with the sun upon her face and the beads of anxiety dripping from her hair. “Lucy. … I’m sorry for you … you would not heed me. It’s the first time we ever disagreed.”
“Why are you sorry for me?” said Lucy, turning a bed of chrysanthemums with a fork.
“I’m sorry when I think of that landing at Anzac. John would be in it, I suppose.”
“We can’t say; they don’t tell us much. I’m trusting to God to bring him out safe.”
“Well, I thought I’d just come over and offer you my sympathy. It’s easy to give. I been reading in the Book.”
“What book should I be reading on the sabbath when you hoe up the garden same as ordinary days.”
“The garden can't be neglected, and it’s the only time I’ve got now — now that John’s had to go and do his duty —”
Mrs Baggs flushed, but stuck to her guns.
“We can’t say as it was his duty.”
A woman’s deep sorrowing eyes met hers.
“We can; least I can, ‘cos I feel it — same as I felt him to be a man — before he was born.”
Liz offered a little more consolation. “The Book says.” She hesitated. Lately she had got out of the way of offering help to her neighbor. She was a little afraid how it would be taken.
“Lucy, it was a strange thing the Book said today.”
“Anything about being glad and thankful — ‘Cos that’s what I’m feeling somehow.”
“Thankful!” — there was horror in the other’s face — “when the papers are printing lists daily of the men killed in that landing; poor Mrs Tubbs got her two sons shot.”
Lucy flushed in her turn; she had not meant that.
“I’m only thankful — I haven’t heard no bad — news.”
“Don’t crow till you’re sure it’s morning. That book said this: — Two women shall be grinding in a field; the one shall be taken and the other left …”
“Well?” The eyes that met hers were steady. The simple soul saw no cause to be afraid.
“You take it calmer than I did, Lucy. I thought maybe that that might mean one of our boys could be taken … same as two women grinding in a field. What else should it mean? Ain’t you touched, Lucy?”'
“Not — not sufficient to squeal out before I’m burnt.”
“But, two women grinding in a field stands for two men same as George and your John; the one shall be taken — it looks to me as if John would be the one to be taken — seeing he’s up against danger and — and George was with as I read the book.”
“Don’t, don’t! I couldn’t bear it. Don’t, Liz, for Jesus Christ’s sake.”
One day when the mailman was a little more facetious, Mrs Baggs caught sight of the satchel he carried his letters in. “You’ve got something there for Mrs Weathers; looks like Government papers by the print and the crest.”
“Communication from the war authorities, I expect — something about young John, you can bet. They usually let folks know anything like that beforehand. It don’t come out in the papers for days.”
A bolt shot off the breath from Liz Baggs’ heart as the mailman told her. She watched him go across the open ground.
“I’ll have to go around and do what I can for Lucy. She wants help, poor soul; and it’s a sad day, I am afraid.”
Like a weird wind striking against a chimney, making a howling, insistent refrain, she heard the words again quite clearly — “The one shall be taken … and the other … left.”
George Baggs was working with a team on the biggest hay stack, and she waved her hand in passing. He reciprocated and called to her, asking where she was going?
She replied that there was trouble in the house of her neighbor, and young Baggs just went on with the work. To her great annoyance, her sympathy was ill-timed. Lucy and one of the girls met her with a great and stirring piece of news.
“John’s coming home — wounded. He’s lost his left hand, and won’t be wanted any more. Isn’t it fine to think we can have him home again. Is George selling his hay? I can see he’s carting today.”
Liz breathed with unexpected fervor. She said a few words and went back home. John — with one hand shot away — was something to be thankful for, but why did those words still ring in her head.
“‘The one shall be taken’ — I’m run down surely. It means” — but she could not console herself as to what it meant.
There was a little crowd of farm laborers round the stack as she came past again. One of them came up to her, and as he spoke he removed his hat.
“Sorry, ma’am; but there’s been an accident. Young George, he stepped back a bit far — horses just under him started to get excited — cart run clean over his head.”
She beat her way forward. She screamed and cried aloud. She tried to tell him things with the poor maimed head close to her bosom; but nothing but the half-text came.