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Follow the Call

Chapter XIII — —And Life Goes On!

Chapter XIII
—And Life Goes On!

So I had arrived home. Home! I entered the kitchen. A fire was blazing in the grate, and the kettle was singing on the hob. Some of the furniture I had bought had been unpacked from the crates and arranged about the room. The small table was covered with a white cloth and a place laid. A plate of scones page 148 and another of cakes was placed in the centre, and everything was spick and span and homely. I hardly recognised the place.

I went outside and looked around, but nobody was in sight. Inside again, I took stock afresh. There was a small parcel on the sideboard and a note. I opened the note, and read:

Dear Mark,

Welcome home. We thought you would like to be alone, so did not stop. The parcel is some of your mail. We did not send it to the hospital with your other letters, although it has been here months. Come to see us at once. Watson.

I turned the parcel over idly. It was an effort to feel enough interest in it to do even that. Then, I gave a sudden start. The address was in Alice's writing, and I tore at the string with nervous trembling fingers, and tipped out the contents.

Brooches, a small wristlet watch, and a ring. How the sight of them revived old memories! I had never thought of Alice's trinkets from the day on which I had received her letter, until they rolled on to the table as I emptied the box containing them.

It seemed a needless turning of the knife in the wound, and I groaned.

“I wish to heaven she'd kept them,” I thought.

Seeing those trinkets so unexpectedly was one of the worst minutes of the whole lot. Finally I pulled myself together, swept up the things, and stowed them away in the bottom of my trunk.

I made a tour of inspection all over the house. Rolls of new wallpaper stood about in each room, just as I had left them months before.

The furniture Alice and her aunt had bought for me littered the place up—with the exception of the few things in the kitchen that were unpacked—still in the boxes provided by the furniture dealers. What a home coming!

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I set my teeth, locked all the doors of the rooms containing furniture, so that I should not be tempted to keep going in and out, and prepared to face the music.

The fresh milking season had commenced, and presently Arty arrived to prepare things for milking. I put on my working clothes and made a start. Work was to be the reason of my existence for the future.

From that day on I buried myself in work. At first I had to hobble about, but my leg gradually got better, and before a month was over, I was, to all casual observers, the same Mark Woodford they had always known.

There was one vital difference, however. I refused to go out anywhere. Instead, I would sit, evening after evening, staring stupidly at the fire until bedtime. No fine castles in the air, as in the first year of farming, no dreams of success and untold wealth. Just staring at nothing. Then one day I conceived the idea of writing the history of my courtship of Alice, thinking it would enable me to analyse my state of mind, and determine where I had gone wrong. If it did me no other good, it would serve to pass away the long evenings. I bought some writing pads and made a start.

Although I preferred to stay at home, I found I was not to have all my own way in this respect. Every little while Peter Watson would put in an appearance at my house, and say:

“Time you paid us a visit, old man.” There was no taking “no” for an answer, with Peter. He always came along after milking, and would sit in the house until I had washed, shaved and dressed myself, and then escort me to his home in person.

“You must get about and keep in touch with people,” Mrs. Watson would tell me, almost impatiently. “Goodness! If I didn't send Peter along for you, you'd never come near us.”

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I had dispensed with Arty's help on the farm shortly after my return, preferring to handle the work by myself, so I usually made stress of work my excuse. But it wasn't stress of work, and Mrs. Watson had intuition enough to see it. It was simply a languid indifference to exert myself in any way other than my farm work. I was so lacking in interest in the things about me that I didn't care a scrap if I didn't speak to a human being from one week's end to another. In fact I preferred not to. When I did get to the Watsons I always managed to enjoy myself in a quiet, peaceful way, but that didn't spur me on to make an effort and go there oftener.

By this time my farm was in good running order, and I enjoyed the name of being a success, and a coming man in the district. People would point me out as a successful farmer, a long-headed man, a man who farmed scientifically. Older men listened to my opinions with deference, and were not above asking me for advice.

I derived no satisfaction from it. A short year before and I should have felt proud and flattered, but now it was all Dead Sea fruit to me; my only comfort lay in hard, long hours of toil and dreamless sleep. I kept my own counsel, for all that, and turned a placid, if not a smiling face, towards the world. I might be taking my love affair hard, but I was determined that none of my neighbours should see the fact.

Sometimes, especially after a visit to the Watsons, I would think of Alice's letter, and wonder how near the truth she had been, in suggesting that I might marry Elsie. I refused to consider the proposition under any circumstances, because, although no doubt, Elsie and I could hit it very well together, I was not in love with the girl. I could only offer affection and respectful devotion, and I still clung to my old fashioned theory that only love made marriage possible.

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The days dragged on, each one helping to lighten the load for me, and by the arrival of summer I had settled down to—if not forgetfulness—a fatalistic acceptance of things as they were. I began to see more of Elsie, and in a quiet way endeavoured to find out what she actually did think of me, but I got little help from that.

If Elsie had more than a friendly regard for me, she was taking all sorts of fine care that I didn't find it out until I had placed my own cards on the table.

People began to notice a difference in me—that I was livening up and beginning to take an interest in things and visit about again, and some of the ladies even commenced to chaff me about my empty house—full of furniture. I listened to their sallies in silence, and refused to be drawn into an expression of any sort, on the subject. It was still a sore one, with me, but I had no intention of letting them see that.

One lady, who thought she knew all about me, even went to the length of informing me that I hadn't really been upset, when Alice and I had parted.

“Now tell the truth, Mr. Woodford,” she said smilingly. “It was only hurt pride with you, wasn't it?”

“Pay your money and take your choice,” replied I, and she delightedly accepted that as confirmation of her opinion.

I was getting over it, nevertheless, or getting used to it, and I used to sit of an evening and wonder to myself how I had ever let a girl get me down to the extent that Alice had.

“Never again!” I used to think. “There isn't a girl alive worth a man's peace of mind for a single minute.” And I would fill my pipe, stoke up the fire, and sit there smoking and thinking, or else add a few more words to the story of the experience.

One day Mrs. Watson took it into her head to give me some motherly advice.

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“Why don't you bustle about, Mark, and hunt up some nice girl to be friends with. You haven't given in, have you?”

I looked at her with a slight smile, and made answer:

“Good idea! But don't growl if I take your advice and hang my hat up to Miss Elsie.”

“Elsie will please herself, my dear man,” answered Mrs. Watson. “Her affairs of the heart are nothing to do with me.”

“Not even if she accepted me?” I jested.

Mrs. Watson's face grew serious.

“Of course we should welcome you, if such a thing should happen,” she replied.

No help there. Mrs. Watson wasn't giving any information away. If I wanted Elsie I had to set to work in the usual way, and court her, and take my chance of winning or losing, like any other lover. I had been through that part of the business before, when I had courted Alice, and this time I felt I would like something definite to go on before starting. If I could only get a hint as to the state of the lady's affections, it would make things easier. In spite of Alice's hint, I didn't really think that Elsie cared for me, and that was really the only thing that made me consider the question at all.

I was in a quandary. I deliberated over the position, and determined that if I could get sufficient evidence to satisfy myself that Elsie loved me, then, and not till then, would I propose.

I argued to myself that we were so much in accord, in our manners and thoughts, that we were bound to be happy together. I would tell Elsie honestly that I didn't feel the same unreasoning, passionate love for her as I had felt for Alice, but in spite of that I had always felt in my inmost mind that she was the nicest girl I knew. She had always appealed to my common sense; Alice had appealed to my heart.

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Comparing the two girls, as I was able to do, by this time, I marvelled at my infatuation for Alice. Elsie was just as good looking, taking her face feature by feature, and certainly to me she had always been sweeter and nicer dispositioned, than her cousin had.

Added to that I could feel comfortable and at ease in her presence, whereas Alice had always given me the feeling that she was looking for something in me that wasn't there, and being disappointed about it.

To marry Elsie, however, I would have to sink all my old principles and ideals, and start afresh with a new stock of modern ideas about marriage. I would have to admit that marriage was a matter to be arranged by the brain, and not by the heart, as I had always believed. The simple belief that I had carried around with me for so long, that every soul has a kindred soul waiting for it somewhere in this world, and that when Providence is ready they will meet, if they only have faith and play the game in the meantime—that belief would have to go by the board. Perhaps it was really so; perhaps marriage was like almost everything else, a matter of business. I hated to believe it, just the same.

I nerved myself to sound Elsie, and see what she thought of the question. I put the matter before her as fairly as I could.

“Look here, Elsie,” I commenced, “I've got a problem in human hearts and passions that I want to hear the answer on.”

“Tell me,” said Elsie, “I've made a study of that kind of problem.”

“Very well,” I continued. “If a man respected a girl very highly, as a matter of fact, knew there was no one quite like her or as nice as her, would he be justified in proposing marriage, if he didn't actually love the girl?”

While I was speaking, Elsie had glanced up once, quickly, from the sewing she was doing, and had then dropped her eyes again to her work. Before I was page 154 half through I could feel that she knew I was alluding to myself, and on my pausing, there was a long silence.

Not disquieting, but sympathetic and understanding. I knew that Elsie was giving all her mind to the answer, and it allowed me time to compose my thoughts also.

Presently she answered slowly, still without looking at me:

“I think I understand, Mark. It wouldn't do. You see, it isn't fair to the girl; she expects love, first of all. It might happen if she accepted the offer of marriage that the man would learn to love her, but then again, what a tragedy if instead of that he fell in love with someone else.”

We were silent again for a long time, after she had concluded speaking.

Then I said: “I don't think that would happen, old lady.”

“I advise the man to wait a year,” Elsie went on, in a quiet, steady voice, “and perhaps things will be all different by then.”

“Right oh!” said I. Then, with an attempt at jocularity: “I'll tell the poor gentleman what the lady seer says.”

That settled the question for a time, at any rate, and I think that if anything, I was relieved. I would never have thought of marrying Elsie had it not been for the clause in Alice's letter, and now it struck me that perhaps Alice was wrong.

“I'm glad I've settled that,” I thought. “In a year's time someone else might come along and win Elsie's whole heart, and if that does happen no one will be sincerer in their good wishes than myself. And if it doesn't happen, and Elsie seems to like me, I'll try again, and we'll make a match of it and laugh at love.”

On New Year's Eve I went into town. I had no particular reason, except that all the country folk liked to drift into the town on that day. Sometimes page 155 I liked to get in a crowd and just drift about. It seemed to do me good to ramble aimlessly about and mix with people for an hour or two.

In town I was strolling slowly up the street, taking notice of the crowds of womenfolk, and thinking of nothing in particular, when suddenly I rounded a chattering group on the pavement, to find myself face to face with Clive Owens.

The shock of recognition was mutual. Clive shrunk back, and I could see that if possible he intended to avoid me, so I put out my hand heartily, and said: “Hullo, Clive! How are you?”

We shook hands and I led him off the pavement on to the road, so that we could talk without being pushed and shoved about by the thronging pedestrians.

“How's everything?” I enquired. “I've often wondered how you were getting on. Why didn't you write?”

Long ago I had forgiven Clive for his share in my disastrous love affair. It was simply “fate,” and Clive could no more have helped himself than I could.

That's how I argued it out to myself, anyhow. I was mistaken I think, just the same. I based my reasoning on the supposition that Clive had fallen as hopelessly in love with the girl as I had myself, and that excused his conduct. A man in that frame of mind, I thought, especially a weak man, such as I knew Clive to be, was simply not responsible for his actions. He might have been more open, of course, but I had myself to blame for that, as much as anything. Alice and he were both aware that I was inclined to be hasty, and possibly they had acted as they had done to avoid a scene.

Clive was fidgety and uneasy, during our conversation, but my friendly and easy attitude towards him, soon thawed out his reserve.

“Yes,” he said, “I've wandered about since I left you, Mark. I'm out at Whangamomona at present, bush whacking. Terrible country. Almost standing page 156 on end. A couple of us came in to the town to celebrate the New Year.”

“I suppose you have a fair swag of wealth saved up by now,” I suggested.

Clive laughed. “Me?” said he. “Not a solitary stiver! If I'd stuck to you, Mark, I should be worth something by now, but a fellow never knows when he's well off. Leaving you was my downfall. I've never been able to save a cent since I cut out the roll I made while with you.”

“Oh! You spent that?” said I. I felt puzzled. If the man was engaged to be married, that seemed a mighty queer method of preparing for the happy day. I decided to ask him straight out.

“So you have no savings, Clive? How does Alice take that?”

“Alice!” he snorted. “I haven't seen Alice for months and months, and what's more——” savagely, “I don't want to see her, either. You had a lucky let off there, Mark. She'd have got you, if she hadn't fixed her eye on me.”

Umn-n! I felt like knocking him down, but saw that he meant no offence, so kept quiet. It was news, anyhow, and I didn't intend to let him go until I'd heard more.

“What happened, Clive? Tell us all about it?” I said, in as casual a manner as I could.

“Well,” commenced Clive, “When she went up to New Plymouth that time, to—to—”

“To get rid of me,” I helped him.

“When she went there, I got a job at a factory close handy. Even then I could see that we weren't going to hit it together for very long, because she was too blessed selfish and one sided for words, Mark. We had a row about every time I went to see her, and it got that way at the finish that I made up my mind to chuck the whole thing and let her go her own gait. Before I did that——” Clive continued, chuckling at the recollection, “Alice got in first and handed me the lemon herself.”

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“Doesn't seem to be worrying you much,” I remarked.

“Worry!” exclaimed Clive, with feeling. “D'you know this, Mark, I was just as relieved and pleased about it, as you were yourself.”

I didn't undeceive him about how I had felt. For the first time in my life I was allowing a man to belittle a girl I liked, in order to pump news from him. I could go over his words later on and sift the wheat from the chaff.

New Year's Day in Stratford was usually the occasion of rowdy celebration amongst all the boys of the place. This year was no exception to the rule. As Clive stopped speaking a bloodthirsty crew calling themselves the Bomb Brigade, and armed with saltpetre bombs, ran into a posse of Sheriff's men, armed with cap pistols, and a desperate engagement ensued. The first bomb exploded under Clive's feet, and he jumped as if shot, and uttered an involuntary curse.

“Blast the boys! They oughtn't to be allowed in the streets.”

I glanced at him more closely. His face was rough with a three days' beard, his eyes bloodshot, and his hands shaky.

He bore all the signs of having just come off a lively jag.

“How long have you been in town, Clive?” I asked him.

“Since Christmas Eve,” he returned. “Came in to bust the cheque. Broke now. Out again tomorrow.”

Poor old Clive! He hadn't improved since the days when he was working for me, and saving up to get money enough to start farming on his own.

“It might amuse you, the way Alice turned me off,” he went on, quite evidently assuming that we were brothers in good fortune, in having escaped from her meshes. “It was when you were in hospital that time. I went to see her, and she turned on me like page 158 a wild cat. Said it was all my fault that you were smashed up, and that if you died, I'd be a murderer. A murderer! Me!” went on Clive, with growing indignation. “Dash it all, Mark! I didn't even know you were hurt until she told me about it.” He paused, and spat thoughtfully at the gutter.

“What happened then?” said I.

“Then? What could happen? I wasn't going to stand that from her. That tore it, as far as I was concerned, you can bet. I got wild with her, and we had a h—l of a row. She finished up by saying: ‘Go! Go! And I hope I never see your face again!’ and she hasn't!” ended Clive, with emphasis.

That was news to me. All sorts of wild ideas chased themselves through my head. What did it mean? Why did she dismiss Clive so summarily? Evidently she couldn't have been in love with him, after all. It was a queer business from start to finish.

As soon as I had ascertained to my own satisfaction that Clive had no more news to impart, I dropped him abruptly, much to his surprise, wheeled my bike out on to the road, and started for home.

I wanted to think; the crowd of people which had but a few minutes before amused and interested me, now only irritated and oppressed. I got home somehow, but it wasn't my fault; I don't know to this day how I accomplished it, and by the time I had arrived at my gate, I had thrashed out my problem and come to my decision.

Alice was free, there was no doubt of that, but she had left me of her own free will, and it was up to me as a man, as a gentleman, not to pester her with further attentions.

It was a mighty resolve, but I made it.