Follow the Call
Chapter XI — I See Red
I See Red
As soon as I had milked my cows that evening I changed my clothes and went along to see the Watsons.
I thought perhaps they might have heard the rumour Stan had got hold of, and it would have been a comfort to me to talk the thing over with someone really page 125 friendly. They never mentioned Alice at all, and a sense of loyalty prevented me from broaching the subject first.
“It might seem as if I doubted her,” I thought, “And am trying to pump them.”
As a matter of fact, although the Watsons were as nice as ever they were, somehow they seemed constrained. Conversation was disjointed, and I could feel that there was something not quite as it ought to be.
I wondered if they had heard of my row with Stan Collins. Perhaps they had heard of it and disapproved. Thinking of that made me silent and uncomfortable.
The Watsons did have something on their minds, I found out afterwards, but it wasn't Stan. Elsie hovered about me the essence of unspoken sympathy. I could always depend on her. She seemed to be saying: “Never mind, Mark, I understand, even if mother and father don't.”
She wasn't thinking anything of the sort, really, it was just my imagination, because none of them had heard about Stan at the time. I tried to brisk up and be jolly and lively, but it was a dismal exhibition, so finally I said: “Well, I'll get away. I shall have a big day to-morrow, because I intend to bike through to New Plymouth between milkings.”
“Eh!” exclaimed old Peter, dropping the pipe out of his mouth on to the floor in his astonishment.
“Have you heard from Alice since she shifted up there?” asked Mrs. Watson.
“No,” said I, “but of course, that's nothing.” I went on apologetically, “Alice never was very good at letter writing.”
“If she doesn't like writing, she could quite easily spare a minute from her work and type one,” put in Elsie. “It wouldn't hurt her. Mark, I think you're a silly, you put up with too much from her. Oh, I know,” she tossed her head defiantly, “I'm talking page 126 high treason, but I don't care. Do you good to hear someone else's opinion.”
I had never heard little Elsie go off like that before. She seemed as bitter as if Alice had done her some personal injury.
“Elsie!” exclaimed her mother, warningly.
“Well, it's not fair!” said Elsie, still in the same bitter tone. “I don't care what you say, mother, Mark should know.”
“That'll do! That'll do!” put in Peter gruffly.
I felt very uncomfortable. I couldn't understand what was happening, but I could feel that there was dynamite in the air somewhere handy. Mrs. Watson stood with her hand up entreatingly, while Peter glared at Elsie and rustled his paper noisily. There didn't seem any need for all this excitement, even if Elsie was giving Alice “once round.”
“Never mind, old lady,” I said soothingly. “I can take a lot of cheek from you, can't I? Even if it is about Alice.”
She wilted into a chair, and Mrs. Watson seemed to give a sigh of relief.
“Here you are, Mark, take this cake home with you when you go,” she said, quite obviously changing the topic of conversation. “It will do for you to nibble at when you are too busy to cook.”
Everything seemed topsy-turvy with the whole family that evening. I couldn't understand what was happening half the time, I suppose because I was unsettled and worried myself, so as soon as I decently could I brought my visit to a close, and footed it back home. Elsie came to the door with me, as I was starting off, and whispered:
“Is it New Plymouth to-morrow, Mark?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, put your foot down!” She clasped my arm almost hysterically. “Mind what I'm telling you, Mark. Don't stand any nonsense, but put your foot down at once.”page 127
“Oh!” said I, pushing her away from me coldly. “So you've heard the rotten yarn, have you? Well, just listen to me, Miss, I don't believe it for one second! And you—— “I continued, “I'm disappointed in you, Elsie, after that. Surely you know your own cousin better than to believe such piffle as that about her? Why, I wouldn't believe such rotten tales about anyone—let alone a girl like Alice.”
“Go home! Go home!” returned Elsie. “Remember what I say, Mark—be firm.” She almost slammed the door in my face, and I turned soberly away.
I reflected, as I walked home, on the queer way Elsie and I were getting out of touch with each other. I supposed it was because she was growing up, and I still insisted on treating her as if she were a bit of a flapper. Great, the way she had flared up over nothing. She never used to have fits and starts like that. I dismissed her from my mind and started thinking about Alice.
Next morning I was out of bed before daybreak, and when the sun did rise it found me well under way with the day's work.
Since Clive had left me I had carried on the farm single-handed, partly to economise, in view of my approaching marriage, and partly because I didn't care about trying another man after Clive's peculiar way of leaving. His mysterious manner of leaving had hurt my feelings more than I cared to admit.
Being on my own, I had a heavy day ahead of me, because I had to run my milk down to the factory, wash up the milking machines, cans, etc., on my return, and do a lot of other necessary work before I could start off.
By 11 o'clock I had finished everything, and was free to depart. I wheeled my shaky old motor-bike out of the shed on to the road, and commenced the journey.
A glass of milk, and a slice of bread and butter had been all I had had, since daybreak, but I promised page 128 myself a good square meal in New Plymouth before starting on the return journey.
On my way I had to pass the post office in the village, and I deliberated as to whether I should stop and call for my letters, but decided against it as a waste of time. I have often wondered since if it would have made any difference had I done so, but I hardly think it would, as matters turned out.
I rattled and bumped along the main road at the best speed the bike was capable of, and arrived at New Plymouth at about half-past twelve. I had the address of the office where Alice was working, and hurried there at once, without waiting to eat first.
She had gone out to lunch, I found on enquiry, and I was forced to kick my heels on the pavement for half an hour before she came back.
At length I saw her hurrying along the street. As soon as she saw me standing there, waiting, she went as white as a sheet.
I noticed that most particularly, because Alice's face usually registered emotion by flushes of colour.
“What's up, ladybird?” I said, with a laugh. “One would almost think, to look at you, that you were scared of me.”
The colour came back slowly into her face, and she looked at me strangely. Not a word of welcome, not a smile! I knew there was something amiss, but I never dreamt it was going to be as bad as it turned out.
“Didn't you get my letter?” she asked, in a thin, trembly voice.
“Letter! What letter? I've been expecting a letter every day for the last fortnight,” I replied reproachfully.
Her relief was so obvious that it impressed me. Usually a most unobservant chap, my wits were sharp enough at this particular interview, because something was telling me all the time that things were not what they ought to be.page 129
“I want a few minutes conversation with you before you go into work,” I said. “It's important.”
She looked up sharply, with a flash, almost of fear, I couldn't help thinking. Silly girl! Why should she fear me?
“Hurry up,” she said, “I can only give you a few minutes. They are very particular about punctuality at this office.”
I wasted no words on preliminaries, after hearing that, but got right on to the subject that was worrying me, and asked her what she thought of it.
“According to a yarn Stan Collins has got hold of,” I said, “our engagement is broken off, and you are going with some other man.”
She laughed: “Perhaps it's true! Perhaps I am!” She looked at me with a funny, inquiring tilt of her head.
“Don't be silly!” I grunted. “What had I better do about it? Let it drop, or hunt up the originator and make the cur eat his dirty lies.”
“Suppose you find out that some woman is the originator?” replied Alice provokingly.
“Don't joke about it, Alice,” I implored her. “Can't you see how serious the thing is? Our marriage is to be in another few weeks, and we don't want that sort of tale about.”
“Oh, serious? Then you believe it?”
I almost swore. Was there ever such a tantalising little thing in all the world! I stamped on the pavement in my impatience, and Alice said:
“Go on, lose your temper. That's the way to find out all you want to know from a poor girl. But I'm afraid I can't stop to be further impressed. I must get in to my work.”
She darted for the door of the office, then turned on the step and eyed me seriously, almost pityingly, it seemed to me.page 130
“Good-bye, Mark. Go home and call for your mail, and my letter will explain all you want to know. Don't be angry with me, will you? I can't help it.”
With that she waved her hand at me and disappeared from view. It was a most unsatisfactory parting. I hadn't got the slightest satisfaction out of the interview, and all I had to keep up my sinking spirits, on the way home, was the thought of her letter. She promised that would explain everything.
I made a hasty meal before I set off for home, bought a big box of fancy chocolates, and posted them to Alice's address as a surprise, and then away I went.
I called and got the letter as I passed the post office in our township, but I was late, so postponed reading it until I reached home. On arrival I put off reading the letter again until after I had milked the herd and finished up the day's work. I thought it would be nice to reserve it as a treat for after tea, when I could take my time and linger over it in comfort. About half-past seven, I suppose, I got inside again, and then lit the fire and laid the table for my evening meal. All through the meal I gloated on the unopened letter, turning it over and speculating on its contents. No! I wouldn't open it until I had washed the dishes and was comfortable for the evening.
At last I had everything finished up to my satisfaction. The table was cleared, the food put away in the cupboard, and a fresh log of wood blazing in the grate. Now for Alice's letter! I took it up tenderly, and slit open the envelope.
She said her letter would explain everything. It did. It explained everything with a vengeance. She hadn't made any mistake about that:—
I am sorry I am going to hurt you, but you will soon forget me. This is to say that I have found out that I cannot love you, and it is better for us to page 131 part. You will think I am a horrid little thing, I know, but that will help you to not mind. Someone is sure to tell you the truth, so I will. It is that Clive and I are engaged. When I tell you that we have been in love ever since we first met, you will understand that nothing can alter my decision. Please do not try and see me, as it will be quite useless, and only painful to us both. You know it is all your fault. Why didn't you make me love you—you seemed always to be afraid of me. I don't bite, you know. I am sending back your presents by registered post and I hope you will meet some other girl in place of me. You could marry Elsie if you liked, I am sure she cares for you, and would make a far better wife for you than I could have done. I am sorry, Mark, but both Clive and I fought against it at first, and I am sure you would not care to hold me to my word when you know that my heart is elsewhere. It was only at that picnic at the mountain that we really knew we loved one another. We have had an understanding ever since then, so you see this is final. Don't try to see me. Good-bye. Alice.
* * *
When little things happen to upset us, we ramp and rave, and kick things about, but when the big troubles come along we don't do that. It might be a relief if we could. We just slump down under the weight of our misery and remain silent.
I stared at Alice's letter. I think I laughed. What a joke! Then I turned it over carefully, and looked for the postscript that would explain it. Nothing!
Slowly I went through it again. “Dear Mark, I am sorry I am going to hurt you, but you will soon forget me——” What a funny thing for Alice to say! She must know me better than that! But of course it wasn't written seriously. And Clive! My page 132 mate—my pal, the man I had made almost a brother of. Clive wouldn't do a trick like that! Ah! I had it. The explanation was still in the envelope; I had failed to extract it when I drew out the letter. I pounced on the envelope, and carefully turned it inside out.
Then I hunted about the floor, putting my little lamp down on a chair, so as to show more light. Evidently the note had fluttered away unnoticed. I wouldn't, I couldn't, believe the truth.
After a while I stopped hunting, and sat down to consider. Clive Owens engaged to Alice. Ever since the picnic. Stray sentences from out the letter chased themselves confusedly through my brain. It was quite impossible for me to think clearly, but I didn't feel hurt or despairing, that was to come later. I simply refused to believe the thing; I couldn't realise it; it had me stunned.
After a while I went to bed and slept like a top. In the morning I got up as usual and went about the work of milking the cows in a dazed, stupid walking dream. I did all the work, carefully, conscientiously, although I didn't know I was doing it at the time. I couldn't seem to think properly, most of the time, but just had odd flashes of thought, between spells of dull ache. I knew something terrible had happened to me, but my mind was too apathetic to try and recall what it was. But the occasional intervals of connected, lucid thought, were agony unspeakable.
My mind kept returning to the events of that bush picnic. Clive and Alice had had an understanding ever since then. I recalled her words, that “Perhaps I was mistaken in Clive.” When I had chided her, and said I thought she liked him, she had replied: “And so I do like him.” Oh, what a fool I'd been! What a blind, mad fool! She couldn't have been so hopelessly in love with him at that time, or she would never have told me that. She had tried to warn me, and I had been too blind and thickheaded to understand. page 133 Little words from Elsie and her mother, little signs, they all came back to me; hints to watch Clive; and I had been too foolish and trusting to understand.
Why, everybody in the district must have seen the way things were going—all except me. So that was why Clive was so restless and discontented! That was why he was in such an anxious flurry to get away! No wonder!
I strolled restlessly into my front rooms. They were full of our furniture, Alice's and mine. No, not Alice's any more, mine alone. I wondered what I should do with it all. Ah! I knew. Axe!
I started off to the wood heap to get the axe, but stopped before I got there. What was the use? Smashing up the furniture wouldn't bring Alice back to me.
In the afternoon I took the big knife that I used for skinning dead cows and calves, and set to work grinding it on the grindstone. I don't think I had any connected idea, when I started, of what I intended it for; I just started grinding it down.
Then suddenly the idea came. It was just the sort of knife that would look well buried up to the hilt in Clive Owen's body. Now I knew what I wanted it for. But before I could do that, it would have to have a sharp point on it.
I worked away at the knife, grinding the back to an edge as well as bringing it to a point, and while I worked I matured my plans. He would never betray another friend after I had done with him.
About half-past two old Peter Watson came stumping along the concrete path towards me, and I carefully hid my knife under a sack and went towards him. I invited him into the house, and we sat talking for a while. Mrs. Watson was anxious to hear how I was taking the blow, and had sent Peter along to find out.
“Got back all right?” said Peter, his question referring to my New Plymouth trip.page 134
“Yes, made good time, too,” I replied cheerfully.
“See Alice?” he grunted.
He shuffled his feet uncomfortably, and eyed me in a puzzled way.
“Damn queer things, wimmen,” he volunteered at length. “You never know what they're going to do next.”
“I think you're about right there, Mr. Watson,” I replied, with a laugh. “They take understanding.”
Peter dropped the subject, and we talked about the Home market, the price of butter fat, politics, anything that came up, but I could see that he was uneasy. He went home at last, and told Mrs. Watson and Elsie that I was taking it as cool as a cucumber, and that he was blest if he didn't think that I was relieved about it.
Elsie told me afterwards that Alice had written to them telling of her intention to break the engagement. That accounted for their strange manner on my last visit—they knew, and I didn't, and they hadn't the heart to break the news to me.
“It would only have meant,” Mrs. Watson explained to me, “that you would have left our place in anger, and perhaps have said things that you would have been sorry about afterwards. We couldn't tell you, Mark, it was too terrible. And you wouldn't have believed us, would you?”
No, I certainly never should have believed them, so it was quite right of them not to tell me.
As soon as Peter had gone I set to work on the knife again, and kept at it until cow time. There was no mistake about it now. I knew what I wanted it for. It was for Owens. Owens, the false friend! The man who had stolen my Alice's heart away from me.
Next morning I finished the edge of my dagger, for such it had become under my hands, and got out my oilstone to give it the final polish up. I still refused to page 135 think of Alice, but one thing stood out amidst all the chaos of incoherent ideas and flashes of thought that burned through my brain, and that was Clive's face.
I began to lay my plans. As coolly and quietly as if I were making arrangements for a day off, I went down to interview Arty Wilcox. I was going away to find Clive, but I had to get a man to run my farm in my absence, before I could go. I remember thinking that it would be cruel to leave the cows with no one to milk them.
Arty lived at home with his people, but used to make his pocket money by working about the district at odd jobs. I knew he would be glad to come because work was scarce at the time.
“I've had a wire, Arty,” I lied to him, “and am called away on very important business. What about running my farm for me until I come back?”
“Good enough!” said Arty. “I'm clean out of work of any sort. How long will it be for?”
“I don't know when I shall be back,” I replied.
“Stop until you see or hear further.”
“Which way are you heading, Mark?” enquired Arty curiously.
Everyone knew that Alice had jilted me, by this time. Perhaps he thought I was going through to see her. I must stop that.
“I'm going through to Palmerston North,” I replied. “It's very important.”
I made all the necessary arrangements for leaving the place in order, even down to filling in a cheque and leaving it on the table for Arty to find, then gave the bike a thorough overhaul preparatory to commencing the journey.