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Follow the Call

Chapter X — Alice Leaves for New Plymouth

Chapter X
Alice Leaves for New Plymouth

Alice left to go back to work again, soon after the picnic and life settled down into the usual routine of plenty of work, and visits to see her twice or thrice a week.

I was occupied stumping a very rough piece of ground at the back of the farm about this time, and Clive and I were slogging away at it every spare hour we could get. We were busy digging around a particularly stubborn rata stump one day, when Clive straightened up suddenly and said: “It's no use, Mark! I'm fed up to the neck with this game.”

I looked at him. His usually good-humoured face was clouded with discontent, and his voice had a petulant ring in it I had not often heard.

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“Well, take a day off,” I suggested. “Perhaps you are a little off colour.”

“No, I'm quite fit,” declared Clive. “It isn't that. I've simply lost all interest in work. I want a change. I think——” he went on, “I had better go into town and try and get a man to take my place here for a time. Perhaps if I have a week or so off, I might settle down to it again.”

“Just please yourself, Clive,” I told him. “Only if you go, never mind about finding a man to take your place; I can manage until you return.”

I said that because it struck me, that if he did go, and someone came in his place, it was more than probable he wouldn't come back. He might feel it wouldn't be fair to the other man, if he returned, to oust him from the job.

“All right,” said Clive, “I'll pack up at midday, if that will suit you.”

“I wish you would change your mind, Clive,” I said. “But if you must go, go when it suits you the best. What do you think of doing?”

“Oh, I'll just go on a sort of kick round,” he replied vaguely.

“Well, you're a blooming chump!” I couldn't help telling him. “Just as you have a little money saved up, you want to go and blow it all in.”

“No, not me,” said Clive, “I don't intend to go throwing money about. All I want is a complete change for a while.”

In spite of this assertion I knew Clive well enough to be sure that once he started on that money nothing could stop him from burning the lot. I remonstrated further, but he showed signs of getting irritable and touchy—another strange thing with him—so I gave over and we worked away in silence until midday.

After lunch I gave Clive his cheque up to date and left him packing his swag, and when I got back to the house again at 4 o'clock, before going to muster the cows, he was gone, bag and baggage.

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It was a summary leave-taking, after being with me for so long, and I felt inclined to be hurt, but I felt more sorrow than pique. Poor old Clive! Evidently it was in his blood, and he had to obey the call. He had well over a £100 in the savings bank, and if he drew that out and splashed it, the chances were he would never have the heart to try again.

I milked my forty cows single-handed, after he was gone. It was not a difficult job, with milking machines. It simply meant that I took a little longer because I had to hang up a set of cups every now and then, when I found myself becoming bustled.

The autumn advanced. Clive didn't come back. I heard about him, although I didn't hear from him. He had taken work with some contractor, and used to put in eight hours a day standing up to his knees in some river, loading great boulders into drays. I knew that was gruelling work, even for the strongest man, but it was good money.

If Clive was doing that for a living, there was good reason to think that he hadn't spent his savings after all; evidently the possession of a certain amount had made him impatient to get more, and he was thinking of bigger money when he left me.

His queer way of going, and his failure to write after he had started elsewhere, showed that his leaving me was something more than just unrest. It seemed strange to me, and the more I pondered over it the more hurt I felt, because I had made almost a brother of Clive while he was with me. I remembered Alice's words at the picnic, that she “thought I was mistaken in Clive quite a bit.” Evidently her woman's intuition had sensed some fault in him that I hadn't been able to spot. However, it was no use worrying about it; Clive was gone, evidently for good, and why he was gone was no matter. The Watsons surprised me very considerably over the business. Evidently everybody that knew Clive and I had been aware that a split was imminent—except myself.

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“Clive Owens is not a bad man,” said Mrs. Watson, “But he is weak and shallow.”

“I always found him an awfully decent chap,” I protested.

“Ah, Mark!” returned she, shaking her head.

“He was no true friend of yours. He had fine principles, I've no doubt, that's why you took such a liking to him; but he couldn't live up to them. He hadn't enough moral stamina.”

“I won't have that, Mrs. Watson,” I declared warmly. “I was under no illusions about Clive. I knew he was weak in some things, but he was straight and manly in spite of his faults. I know this, I feel quite sure that Clive would never let a friend down. I don't say that he left me in a very friendly way, but that's only his careless, happy-go-lucky nature. I bet if anyone spoke to him about it, he would feel quite surprised if it was suggested that he left me at all strangely. He's always the same. When he went off to the War, I expect he hardly bothered to say goodbye to his people. It's his nature to be casual in such things.”

“Just what I'm trying to tell you,” said Mrs. Watson, calmly. “He has no stability or depth of character. He's pleasant, amusing, enthusiastic in work and play until he tires of it, but there's nothing lasting or solid about him, Mark.”

I couldn't agree with Mrs. Watson. In spite of Clive's obvious failings, I felt he deserved better than that.

Shortly after this Alice gave me a very unpleasant surprise. It was now approaching near to our wedding day, so my consternation can quite easily be imagined when she calmly informed me one day that she had arranged to leave Stratford, and start work with a new firm in the town of New Plymouth.

“Leave Stratford!” I gasped. “Surely you don't mean that, Alice? Why, our marriage is to take place in another two months.”

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“But I do mean it,” replied Alice calmly. “I want the next two months quite free, Mark, and when I get to New Plymouth, you are not to come up and see me more than once a fortnight”

This was a strange decision to hear, a short two months before our wedding! It left me feeling cold and frightened. I stared at her in dismay.

“You needn't look so dumbfounded,” she almost snapped. “I have a perfect right to please myself—yet.”

“But I want you here,” I replied. “I want you here to choose the wallpaper of our house and to consult you about everything. You can't mean it, Alice? Your presence is necessary here for the next two months to help me arrange things.” I felt out of my depth, and helpless and confused.

“I don't care about that kind of thing,” I heard Alice saying. “You can get Auntie Watson to pick things for you, if you can't trust your own taste; she knows the things that I care for.”

I pulled myself together with a violent effort, and faced the situation. If I ever intended to make a stand, this was the place.

“I won't have it, Alice! I want you here, and it's your place to stop here. What's the use of taking another situation for six or seven weeks? Up to the present I've given in to you in everything, but this is different. This isn't playing the game.”

“It is playing the game,” returned Alice defiantly. “I'm not Mrs. Woodford yet, and until I am, I intend to be my own mistress. Time enough for you to act the master when we are married, and anyway,” she added, “It's too late for you to try and alter the arrangement now. I've already given notice here, and I leave for New Plymouth to-morrow, and start in my new place on Tuesday. I have lodgings taken and everything.”

I argued and stormed, but it was useless. Alice showed me that her mind was made up, and if I didn't page 120 like the new arrangement I could lump it; she was going, and she didn't care two straws what I thought of her conduct in the matter.

My hands were tied to a certain extent by the rooted conviction present in my mind that Alice didn't really love me as a girl should love the man she intended to marry. This knowledge had been my stumbling block all through the piece. I knew, only too well, what was going to happen if I gave her offence. She was quite capable of breaking off the engagement, of handing me back my ring, and the very thought of such a terrible possibility was enough at all times to make me cave in and accept her will.

Alice, I think, regarded me as a sheet anchor. She respected me as a sound, solid sort of a fellow; the homage I tendered her was flattering to her vanity, and as she had never met anyone to call into life her own dormant love, she simply accepted me as being “as good as anyone else.”

It wasn't a very pleasant thought to contemplate, but that's exactly how the land lay, and, while doing my very best all the time to strangle such thoughts, I knew in my heart all along that they were true.

Of course I gave in. I had no option. I might have put my foot down and delivered an ultimatum, I suppose, but what good would that have done? Alice intended to go, with or without permission from me, and a decided stand on my part would only have resulted in a direct break, with its consequent despair and heart-break on my side. And Alice would have parted from me with the settled conviction in her mind that it was all my fault, and that I was an unreasonable, obstinate, bad-tempered man.

As soon as I ceased to protest against her strange decision and reconciled myself to the inevitable, my fiancee became sweet and affectionate again. She was certainly a determined little lady, when her mind was made up. One hint of opposition, and her red lips would set in a firm line, and her soft, dimpled chin page 121 would jut out defiantly. Her head would go up, and her bright eyes would begin to sparkle dangerously—I knew all the danger signals, and when to seek cover.

In fact, side-stepping her little bursts of temper, and eating humble pie until I got her pacified again, that's chiefly how I'd managed to gain the position in her affections that I had. She knew very well that few other men would have been as patient and forbearing; a man had to be very much in love to keep up that sort of thing, and of course, realising that must have had some influence on her. Anyone less in love than I was would have been out of the running long before, because no normal, sensible man could have put up with the torture.

That's an admission that I wasn't a normal, sensible man, and as far as concerned Alice, I admit it. I wasn't; I was bewitched, hypnotised. Nothing she could do or say had the slightest effect on my feelings for her. She was Alice, the one and only girl, the queen of them all, and that settled all arguments. Other girls might be silly and shallow, and heartless flirts, but not my Alice.

If the working of my subconscious mind did once or twice fail me, and register a fault against her in my brain, I conscientiously worked out a plausible theory to account for such a strange happening.

When she was treating me most off-hand, I explained her conduct to myself by thinking it was done to test my patience. If she left me out in the cold while she engaged in some outrageous flirtation with someone else, it was done to prove to me that she had accepted me, not because I was the only pebble on the beach, oh no! but because she approved of me at bottom.

A flash of temper I learned to interpret as only a proper spirit for a girl to have, and when she sulked (which I regret to say did happen once or twice) it was because she was hurt and disillusioned, and I page 122 lost no time in trying to show her, by little attentions and increased homage, how mistaken she was.

That was Alice at the time she left Stratford for New Plymouth. And as for myself, events all through point to how very much under her little thumb I was. I used to sit of an evening and think of the chivalrous knights of olden times, and wish I could go out and challenge someone to mortal combat in her name. I only had one real opportunity in that way, and poor old Stan Collins was the victim.

Stan and I were very good friends, and he often used to drop in on me and spend an evening yarning and smoking. During these visits Alice's name was seldom mentioned. Stan was aware that I never encouraged any remarks or comments of any description, where she was concerned, and that is why his opening remarks this particular day took me so much by surprise.

It was about two weeks after Alice's departure for New Plymouth. I had adhered to her orders, and had not been up to see her, and she had not written to me. That gave me no uneasiness, however; Alice was a poor correspondent at the best of times.

Stan opened the ball by remarking breezily:

“So it's all off between you and Alice Arnold, Mark? Whew! What a pity you bought all that furniture! I thought you'd sling in your hand, old boy, before you tied her up. What an escape! Allow me to offer you my sincere congratulations.”

He reached for my hand and shook it effusively while I stood there paralysed with surprise.

“By Jove, man! You've had a narrow escape! They tell me she has another mug on a string already.”

* * *

I don't quite know exactly what happened after that, although Stan has informed me since that it was a pretty good “go” while it lasted. When I came to page 123 earth again I found myself putting an old boot under his head, and sousing him with cold water. As soon as he had sufficiently recovered he decided to leave. He got as far as the door, turned and regarded me as I sat with my head bowed down on my hands, and delivered himself thus:

“A man ought to cut out visiting you, Woodford — you're a bally lunatic!”

He left me to my thoughts, and went away frothing with righteous indignation.

I found food for reflection in what he had said before the interruption. Of course it was utter rot! I was quite sure of that. More of old Tready's underhand back-biting, I expected. Funny, how some people must always be spreading nasty reports about. It was just the same when the girl was at Hawera, they couldn't leave her alone there. I decided to go up to New Plymouth at once, and warn Alice about the lies that were being bandied about.

Country gossips are about the most virulent in the world. Either the life in the country broadens and mellows their outlook on life, or it has the contrary effect, and they run to narrow-mindedness, and mean, spiteful ways. I suppose there is so little outside their work, except their neighbours, that they can find an interest in, that once they start occupying their spare time in picking people to pieces, the fault just grows and grows on them. Certainly quite good-hearted people have this failing, which shows that they don't realise themselves how much the thing has become a habit.

The Watsons and Treadwells were two opposing types. If the Watsons couldn't say anything in favour of a person, they usually said nothing at all, whereas Mr. Treadwell could say something against any person in the district that he'd ever seen—or heard of. It was marvellous where he got his information from. He could relate with gusto scandal about prominent people that had occurred twenty years before. The page 124 things about harmless, respectable settlers that old Tready knew and retailed, were a revelation. It's a wonder the old chap didn't end up in jail, or die a violent death, I often thought. It wasn't just an odd case he got hold of now and then; he was always primed. Hunting up unpleasant facts seemed to be a kind of disease with him. He boggled at nothing, either; the more unsavoury the particulars, the more he gloated. He had not left me alone, of course, but as he had always managed to shoot wide of the mark, muttering darkly about “sailing near the wind,” and “bankruptcy,” I hadn't allowed his tittle-tattle to worry me. I knew there was not much danger of my failing, I was making too steady progress for that, so I didn't begrudge him his little enjoyment.

But this was a different thing! This was Alice! This had to be enquired into. I would see Alice, and if I found the miserable tales had started with Mr. Treadwell, there was going to be a bitter reckoning for the old gentleman. I'd teach him to try and blacken the character of a helpless, defenceless girl.

Just fancy anyone being so utterly imbecile as to imagine that I had broken off the engagement with a girl like Alice—yet that's what Stan's words seemed to have inferred. What a fool I was; if I'd only kept my temper and pumped the man, I might have got at the bottom of the whole business, and now there wouldn't be a soul for miles around who'd say a word to me about it.