Follow the Call
Chapter XV — Nil Desperandum
I kept to my word and made no attempt to see Alice, only going to the town at all when business demanded it. Then one Saturday afternoon I was forced to make a trip unexpectedly, in order to meet a brother of mine who had wired asking me to meet him.
I was strolling down to the town station, a few minutes before the New Plymouth train was due, when I heard light, tripping steps behind me, and a voice that I knew, only too well, said:
“Hullo, lame man. Aren't you going to speak to me?”
It was Alice. I turned around and stammered out some incoherent reply.
“Just the same old Mark!” she laughed. “Is your foot sore?”
“No, I always limp,” I replied. “I fell off the bike and hurt my leg, some time ago, and it has left me with a slight limp.”
“Oh, Mark!” she almost sobbed, “It was all through me, and the very first time I meet you again, I am laughing at it.”
“Don't be so silly,” I returned. “How could it be through you? It was just an accident, careless riding on my part.”
Alice looked prettier than ever. Her face was a shade thinner than the year before, and her skin had a delicate, transparent look, different from the vigorous glow of my time, but even more wonderfully beautiful I thought.
“I've been a frightful little beast to you, Mark, but you have forgiven me, haven't you?” she said, with an entreating look.
“There's nothing to forgive, Alice,” I returned slowly. “It was mostly my fault I expect. I've long ago realised that if I hadn't been so persistent in page 172 forcing my attention upon you, it wouldn't have happened.”
She eyed me in a wistful, puzzled way and said:
“Then we are friends again?”
“I've never been anything else,” I replied, smiling.
Alice seemed at a loss, and for the first time in our acquaintanceship I felt at ease in her company and master of the situation.
“Then why haven't you been to see me since I came back this way?” she asked suddenly.
“Why should I?” I returned. “You showed me plainly enough that you didn't care for me; it's my place now to keep away and not annoy you further.
Alice stamped her foot, in the petulant style I knew so well, and the colour flooded to her cheeks in the old way.
“Ordinary civility should have been excuse for one call,” she said.
“Well, it wasn't,” I replied calmly. “I know you well enough, Alice, to be quite sure that if I paid an unwelcome visit to you, you would be quite capable of snubbing me to my face. I wasn't prepared to risk it. I've had all I want of that sort of treatment from you.” I said the last words quietly, and Alice gave a queer little sob in her throat.
“Mark, I wouldn't!”
“Well, you mightn't have, of course,” I admitted. “But it was too much of a gamble for me. Just be a bit reasonable, Alice. Have I any reason to call on you? Why should I? What earthly good could it be for either of us? Have you given me any reason to suppose that a visit from me would be welcome to you?”
“Now you are being cruel,” she returned, in a low voice. “I always gave you credit for a kind heart, Mark, but your words now are mean.”
“Mean or not mean,” said I determinedly, “I would have been a blithering idiot to have called on you without an invitation. Dash it! Can't you see page 173 that for yourself? If I did a thing like that, and you happened to resent it, as is very possible, I should turn myself into a regular laughing stock. If it got about, I should be the joke of the year.”
She flared up indignantly: “Oh! Why, pray?”
“Well, you will have it, Alice, I can see,” said I. “How could I go and call on the girl that jilted me for someone else, just a week or two before the wedding? Doesn't common sense tell you that the thing's impossible? I've still got some rags of pride left, you know, in spite of my cropper. What you suggest is impossible.”
“It's not impossible,” snapped Alice. “You say you have forgiven me? Why don't you show it?”
“Forgiving and forgetting are two very different things,” I returned soberly.
“I've still got a house full of furniture, and carpets, and rolls of wallpaper, all going mildewed and mouldy, to remind me of things, and while I recognise, as I said before, that it was chiefly my own fault, that doesn't help me to forget.”
Alice fell back a pace and put her hands to her face. The train whistled, entering the station, and with a “See you later,” I dashed away to find my brother.
It was my first visit from Bill. He had been in business on his own, in New Plymouth, but had sold out and was taking a holiday. Although I had borrowed £20 from him on first becoming engaged to Alice, I had not told him what the money was for, and he knew nothing at all about my love affair. I knew he would comment on all the furniture and stuff in the house, on his arrival, and began to wonder to myself how I should explain its presence there. Finally I decided to tell him the bare facts of the position, and let him fill in the details to suit his own imagination.page 174
Alice had disappeared from view, on our reaching the street. I felt I wanted to hunt her up, and tell her how sorry I was, if I'd said anything to hurt her feelings, and explain that I didn't mean anything, and that it was all a mistake and cringe and apologise for being on the earth, in the old servile manner, but I overcame the feeling, and instead, Bill and I went into the Club Hotel and had a “spot.”
The week Bill put in with me effectually kept my mind off the subject. I gave him a whimsical account of the reason the house was only half furnished, and he thought it would be a good plan if I unpacked everything, finished repapering the rooms and laying the oilcloths, and engaged a married couple to help me run the farm. It was a jolly good suggestion, too. I had an idea I might give it a trial the next season. It was hardly worth bothering about for the remainder of the present year.
Sometimes I felt sorry I had left Alice at the station in such an abrupt manner; more often I was pleased about it. It showed that I was not the helpless slave I had been in other days. Then, I could never have spoken to her, or rushed away in that casual way; now, I felt no compunction about it. Evidently I was clear of the spell.
Clear of it or not, I found I still kept thinking of her. She was paler and thinner, of that there was no doubt. Was it only imagination, or was she also quieter and less imperious. I hoped she wasn't really unwell. Perhaps a chap ought to go and see her, after all. No! The Watsons were keeping an eye on her, and what could I do, anyway?
For one thing, it wasn't any of my business, and if I commenced to pry around trying to find out things, I should probably hurt the feelings of all concerned. The Watsons wouldn't like it, and it was almost sure that any attempt on my part to find out Alice's position, financially or otherwise, would be page 175 resented deeply by that proud little person herself. Things just had to jog along and sort themselves out in the usual manner.
Alice told the Watsons that she had seen me, and they were openly relieved, I could see, to think that we had met and got it over.
“I'm so glad you have got over your attachment for Alice,” Mrs. Watson informed me. “It would never have done; you can see that for yourself, now, can't you?”
I could see it, but I wasn't satisfied, just the same. Why should Fate deal out the kind of blow that had been dealt to me? Surely, in the scheme of things, there was a proper reason for a genuine, all consuming passion. I couldn't help adoring Alice. I didn't try to fall in love with her. It commenced with our first meeting, and in spite of all our differences, all her efforts to choke me off, here I was still, as crazy about her as ever.
Had a man to go directly against his own finer feelings, and rely simply on his common sense, in order to live his life out properly? If I did that, and relied solely on the verdict of my brain, I should put Alice out of my heart forever, and never even bother to think of her.
But would I be right? Why was the love of her given to me, if my right and proper course lay in forgetting her? I had never singled her out and said: “This is a nice girl; I'll fall in love with her,” or anything of the sort.
As a matter of fact, I didn't want to meet any girl and fall in love, at the time I had fallen for Alice's charms. My farm was at that time yielding such poor returns, and I had such a miserable little shack to live in, that I had sensibly decided not to think of marriage until I had worked up the place and made it profitable. At the most optimistic calculation, that meant two to three years of hard work and stinting on my part.page 176
And then I had looked into that girl's face, and listened to her soft, drawly voice, and that was the end of me. And here I was, three years later, still under the thrall, and only keeping the fact to myself because it was up to me as a man to do so. If Alice so much as waggled her little finger at me I knew what was going to happen. If she was ill, and would only let me help her, I would cheerfully have pawned the farm and everything else I had in order to be of service to her, and I would have done it proudly, cheerfully, and never once looked back or begrudged a single penny of it.
Then one day things took a new turn. I was talking with Stan Collins, and it was something he said that gave me the great idea. Stan knew my attitude when Alice's name cropped up in conversation, and was always careful to speak of her with tact and moderation.
“It's a pity about poor little Alice,” he said to me.
“What's a pity?” I wished to know.
“About this nerve trouble she has. I hear that the doctors advise her to take a six months' rest, and not do a single tap of work of any sort. And by right she ought to cut out office work for good.”
That was the first time I had actually heard what the trouble was. I had supposed it to be merely a general run down of health.
“Wonder what she'll do?” I murmured.
“Blest if I know,” said Stan. “She's a plucky little thing, a man has to admit that. Says she's going to keep on working as long as she can, until she has a fair amount saved up, and then take a long holiday with the money, and see what that does. She won't come out here and stop with her aunt, did you know that?”
I was surprised. “I wonder why?”
“Well, I could give you old Tready's reason,” said Stan, cautiously. He gave a quiet grin, and looked expectantly at me, and I laughed in return.page 177
Go ahead, spit it out,” I invited him.
“Well, the old chap reckons the reason she refuses to come out and stop with the Watsons, is because she thinks you are sweet on Elsie, and she's jealous Of course, I don't believe it myself,” he added.
“It's a damned lie!” I roared. “I'll wring that old fool's neck some of these days if he doesn't leave me alone.”
“I thought it wasn't true,” said Stan complacently. “I can generally pick that sort of thing a mile off. Matter of fact, I've got a lot of time for Elsie, myself,” he admitted. “Jolly fine girl!”
“Go in and win, old fellow,” I advised him.
“Me? She wouldn't look at such a deadly fool as me!” Stan answered, with just too forced a laugh I thought.
It struck me I recognised the signs. Evidently poor old Stan had caught a touch of the disease. It had all the hall marks, as far as it went, of a genuine case, too, and I felt I was competent, under the circumstances, to form an opinion.
According to my humble judgment he had just reached the stage where it seemed to him that the object of his fancy wore wings, and if he didn't wear cloven hoofs and a tail, himself, it wasn't because he didn't deserve to.
A little friendly encouragement does a lot of good, at that place, so I decided to help him. I liked Stan. He was a clean, straight-forward chap, sober and steady, and with enough brains to enable him to hold his own with most people.
“Don't be a chump,” I told him. “If you like the girl, go for your life. Do as I did when I went courting. Make a blithering ass of yourself in front of people. Keep pushing yourself forward, and on her notice, on all possible and impossible occasions, and don't take any notice of snubs, or anything else. If any rivals appear on the scene, use physical violence page 178 on 'em, and scare 'em off; you've got to do that,” I explained, “to prove you're really in earnest.”
Stan looked glum. “I won't have to crack you, that's one consolation,” he remarked, after thinking my advice over.
“No,” said I, “You can take it from me, Stan, if you do make a hit with Miss Elsie, I'll be the first man to come along and wish you good luck.”
I wished Stan every success, because I could see that my affections were permanently fixed, and I could see that without offering Elsie the real thing, I had about as much chance of marrying her as the man in the moon had. I didn't want to, anyhow. I had got past the “seek consolation” stage, and all I wanted to do was to follow out my destiny and see where it took me to.
About this time I began to feel hopeful and expectant. I didn't quite know what I hoped for, or expected to happen, only the idea took possession of me that sometime in the future there was going to be a change. Something big was going to happen. All that life required of me was that I should keep on and play the game, and sometime or other I would reap the reward. I gave up trying to tear Alice's image from my heart. If I was fated to love her, I thought, why should I kick against the pricks. Instead of that, why not exert myself once more and prove my regard by helping her. But that was the rub! How could I help her? She was a proud little thing, I knew that. Stan's words proved it as well. I thought I knew why she had refused to accept the hospitality of her relations; it was because she knew in her heart that they didn't really want her there. It would be charity, and Miss Alice wasn't having any.
What could I do?
Then suddenly the great idea came to me. The way to help Alice out of all her troubles. If only she would marry me!page 179
“Pshaw!” I muttered to myself, “What a fool I am!”
It was not a bit of good. The thought kept on coming back, do what I might to banish it. Gradually I added to it. If I asked Alice again, I would have to keep from her any suspicion that I knew how she was situated. If she suspected that there was the faintest tinge of sympathy mixed with my regard, her independence would assert itself, and I would have my attempt for nothing.
Even if I convinced her that my love was just as great as formerly, and that I worshipped the very ground she trod on, it was a question whether I should succeed or not. All the odds were against me. She had thrown me over once, and it was hardly likely she would feel any different about it now. Without knowing very much about the whims and vagaries of the fair sex, I knew enough to be sure that once they have formed and expressed their opinion on any man, they are mighty hard to change.
It was hardly likely that Alice would care enough about me to consider the renewal of our engagement. Nil desperandum! I could only find out by trying.
“I won't be any the worse off,” I thought. “even if she does say ‘no,’ and perhaps my offer may have the effect of bucking up her spirits a bit.” Surely the knowledge that she inspired such a constant regard as mine, must be of some help to her, even if it only gratified her vanity, and I hoped Alice would feel and appreciate it more than just that way.
As soon as I had arrived at my decision I wrote to Alice, asking if I could call and see her on Sunday afternoon, as I had something of importance to communicate.
I put in some solid thinking, while composing that letter. In it's way, it was a work of art. I didn't want her to guess what I intended to say, and yet I had to make the letter sufficiently vague and interesting to arouse her curiosity, without letting the cat out of the bag.page 180
It served the purpose, anyhow. Alice wrote back a gracious reply, saying that she would be home all Sunday, and only too pleased to see me if I cared to call.
I had none of the trembling trepidation that used to assail me on former occasions when I courted the girl. Even the thought of downright failure left me undismayed. I had travelled the whole gamut of sensations, in my dealings with her, and now I had arrived at a state of quiet determination. I would do my best, and if I failed, well, that was in the hands of Providence. At least I would have done all that lay in my power to help the girl I professed to love better than life itself. If it meant a further humbling of my pride, so be it! A man's love was not worth much if he let thoughts of pride influence him.
No need for me to worry. A man could only do his best.
In this frame of mind I prepared for Sunday.