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Follow the Call

Chapter XIV — Mr. Treadwell's Breath is Taken Away

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Chapter XIV
Mr. Treadwell's Breath is Taken Away

There was no sleep for me that night. The hours ticked away, and I tossed uneasily on my bed, thinking, wondering, worrying.

Why hadn't the Watsons told me? They must have known, because they were in constant communication with Alice. If I'd only been aware of the fact that Clive was no longer in the way I should have gone to see Alice long ago. Perhaps it was too late now. Perhaps some other fellow——

I turned from thoughts such as these to berate myself on the folly of still thinking of her. What did it matter, anyway, I tried to tell myself. The girl didn't care for me; her action in throwing me over showed that. Why should I worry over her any more. Besides, I had made my resolve. I had determined not to see her any more.

It was of no use. I tried to persuade myself that our parting was the best thing that could ever have happened to me. I reviewed all the different events that had happened since first I met the girl; her coldness, her casual treatment of me, her lack of sympathy; but I always came back to the same old ending. Always the charm of her silvery voice rang in my ear; the dimples and roses of her soft cheeks returned to my memory. I recalled the queer little demure smile, and the way her eyelashes seemed to throw a shadow over the sun's light, whenever she used them for veiling her bright eyes. The white flash of her teeth, the very method she had of doing her soft, fair hair—it all came back to me. And every graceful mannerism and gesture. Yes, I was just as mad about her as ever.

But I wasn't going to be a fool—I'd made up my mind about that. She didn't want me, and I was going to call on my pride and keep away from her. page 160 That was the big mistake I'd made before, I thought. I had lowered my pride to the very dust, cringing to her, and she had replied by assuming that I was devoid of the article, and treating me accordingly. But it wasn't going to occur again, once was enough of that in one lifetime.

And as for all this bosh about “true love,” it was all nonsense. There was no such thing. It was simply a virulent kind of a disease that got a man down, if he didn't watch himself, but if he fought against it, there was nothing in it. All he had to do was to guard his thoughts from admiring any one girl too much, and the disease hadn't a hope of getting hold. In future that's what I'd do. I'd jog quietly along, using common sense and judgment, until I'd completely forgotten Alice, and then I'd marry Elsie. I had decided.

Next morning I set about my work absent-mindedly. I endeavoured to follow out the line of reasoning laid down the night before, but the experiment was only a partial success. Alice's spirit seemed to haunt the whole place. If I went to stir the milk, her face seemed to look up at me from the shiny tin of the milk can; her voice kept time to the clatter of my milking-machine engine. She seemed to be saying: “Mark, Mark, Mark, I'm free! Mark, Mark, Mark, I'm free!” until I felt like stopping the engine and finishing the rest of the herd by hand. But never mind, she could call, but I wasn't going. Once was enough.

About this time I took to visiting the neighbours more frequently. I had to escape from my own thoughts somehow or other, or they would have sent me crazy.

I visited, but I was preoccupied and absent-minded, and it was not long before Mrs. Watson noticed the fact and commented on it.

“You don't seem yourself, Mark?” she said. “Is anything amiss?”

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I came out of my brown study with a jerk to find Elsie eyeing me seriously.

“No, no!” I replied hastily, “I expect I'm sleepy, that's all. Too much work.”

“There's something else wrong with you, besides that,” said Elsie. “You haven't been yourself for the last twice we've seen you. Oh, Mark, I hope——” she paused, and what she hoped I never learnt.

“Come on, I'll play you draughts,” she suggested.

I made a special effort and managed to keep my mind on the game. It was almost as fagging as violent study, but I could see that Miss Elsie was quietly taking note of me, and she had to be put off the track. Elsie was a regular sleuth hound, in that way. She could see through me in a way that was almost uncanny, and I didn't want any of them to start thinking that I was letting thoughts of Alice worry me again. I put up a good bluff, that evening, but I don't think Miss Elsie was deceived for a single minute.

Shortly after this I received another big surprise. This time Mr. Treadwell was the bearer of the news. Although not by any means the constant visitor he used to be, in the olden days, Tready still condescended to patronise me about once a week or so. I had got the old chap summed up about right, I think, when I looked upon him as a good-natured, foolish, poisonous old scandalmonger. Kind enough at heart, he could no more leave his friends' and neighbours' affairs alone, than he could resist eating his three square feeds a day. Both of them were necessary to his existence.

I was busy handling a young horse when the old gentleman put in his appearance, and I wasn't any too pleased to see him. His visit was ill-timed, from my point of view, because in handling young horses it is essential that the whole of one's attention should be given. He got a cool nod from me, and an intimation to stand clear, and then I resumed my work.

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The colt was proving touchy about the head, and I was having a lot of trouble teaching him to take the halter and bit. Except for that he was as quiet as a sheep.

After watching me in silence for half a minute, Mr. Treadwell advanced a step, and said:

“When I was down the South Island, we used to do it like this. I'll show you.”

Before I could warn him to keep clear he had advanced a further step, and reached out to take the halter. The colt knew me, and accepted my handling of him with resignation, but Mr. Treadwell was a stranger, and to be treated as such, and kept at a distance.

Before either of us could tell what was going to happen, he had reared up indignantly and lunged at the impudent intruder with his hoofs.

Mr. Treadwell dodged nimbly, but not in time to wholly escape. One hoof caught him on the knee.

“Well, you are the limit!” I couldn't resist telling him. “Don't you know enough to keep clear of a young horse?”

For reply, the old chap hopped about and groaned, and doubled himself into knots, and made such a protracted fuss about it, that finally I let the colt loose and helped him into the house.

He had a nice big knee, sure enough. I hoped it might teach him not to interfere with another man's method of horse-breaking again, a serious breach of farming etiquette, as he was old enough to know, but I don't suppose it had any effect on him.

I heated some water on the fire, gave him the embrocation, and in between the groans and bemoanings, while he was dressing the injured member, he gave me the latest news.

I usually took no notice of Tready's news; hardly bothered to listen to it, in fact, but this time he hadn't said ten words before he had managed to make me sit up and look interested. He seemed surprised at page 163 the impression he had created, himself, and went on with increased gusto.

“Yes,” he commenced, “She's back, all right, Mark. Great, isn't it? Fancy that girl having the nerve to come back to Stratford again after all we know about her.”

“What girl?” I had answered, in a listless manner. Old Tready was always talking about some girl or other, and I never thought of Alice in connection with the words.

“What girl! D'you mean to say you don't know that Alice Arnold is back this way again?” he demanded, almost forgetting his sore knee in his astonishment.

That's where I commenced to get interested. After the first start, however, I took hold of myself, and only allowed a polite attention to appear in my face. That was quite enough to wind the old boy up; eagerness would have frightened him off, and I wanted to hear.

It wasn't often that he had my whole attention, and he made the best of it.

“Yes, she's back, all right. No shame in her, Mark. Any other girl would have made a point of keeping clear of this part of Taranaki, after the way she behaved to you, but not her. Our Bob was talking to her on Saturday, so there's no mistake about it. Bob says she's lost all her good looks, and seems to be getting thin on it. I can pick what it is, Mark——” he continued, in his most impressive manner, “She's seen her mistake, and she's come back here again to try and get hold of you once more, that's what it is. Ha! Ha! You would be a fool, after the way she let you down. But I knew it! I seen what it was going to be, right from the start. I told you, didn't I? She'd pick and she'd choose, and flirt and jilt, and be so very particular, until now she's got left. If she's page 164 ill, of course, that's the end of her. She'll lose all her good looks, and nobody will want her. I always said that girl wasn't sound.”

He seemed to gloat openly on the thought that his miserable guess was correct.

If Mr. Treadwell had only known how near he came to getting bundled out of my kitchen, sore knee and all, he might have sobered up his face a little. I restrained my rising temper with an effort, however, and said, as calmly as I could:

“Perhaps she has had a touch of the ‘flu’; it's about, just at present.”

“Flu! Not it! The girl's sickly; I said so two years ago.”

“Well, I hope not,” I replied. “Poor girl! She has no home like most other girls, and it will be hard luck for her if she becomes ill.”

“She'll crack up within the next twelve months,” prophesied the old chap, with finality. “I've seen her kind before. You know——” he went on, “you were lucky to get out of that, Mark. Only think, if you had married her! A sick woman on your hands, just as you were beginning to feel your feet and get ahead of things. Why, it would put a man back for years!”

He eyed me for confirmation of his remarks. I had been getting madder and madder, as he drivelled on and on, until I was nearly ready to burst with anger. As soon as he stopped, I started.

“Look here, Mr. Treadwell,” I commenced, “You might get satisfaction out of the fact that a poor, helpless girl is ill, but I don't, so you needn't talk at me like that. If you want to know,” I continued, “I think as much of Miss Arnold as I ever did, and I'd marry her to-morrow, if she'd have me.”

I got carried away, when I said that, because I wasn't so sure if I would or not, when I thought it over afterwards.

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Mr. Treadwell gasped and waved his hands wildly. He was so surprised that it fairly took his breath away. Words were beyond him.

What a strange mixture of a man he was. Even as he sat there I knew in my mind that if Alice were really down and out, he would offer her hospitality in his own home.

And then go about telling everyone he met how it was all her own fault, and why. He couldn't help himself. I knew he was going to leave my place and tell every neighbour for miles around that I was going to pick up with Alice again, and that I was a bit touched in the head with my troubles, and so on, but there was no way of stopping his tongue, short of cutting it out. I let him go.

The thought that perhaps Alice was in ill-health preyed on my mind continually. I knew the Treadwells, father and son, well enough to be aware that the story might be only an invention springing from their diseased minds, but on the other hand, it might be true. Perhaps if I went into town and saw the girl herself, it might ease my mind.

I shrank from the thought of meeting Alice, but the idea presented itself again and again. I had hoped never to see or hear of her again. In that way lay my only hope of peace, but if she was ill, I felt I ought to see her at least. Just possibly I might be able to help her in some way.

After milking, that night, I changed and called on the Watsons. We had never spoken of Alice since the day when Elsie had wanted to warn me about Clive, so they were surprised to hear me mention her name.

“Is it true that Miss Arnold is back in Stratford again?” I asked, as we were sitting before the front room fire, after tea. Elsie was out of the room at the time, and Peter and his wife looked across at each other.

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“She's back, all right,” Peter admitted, knocking out the ashes of his pipe on the hob as he spoke. “Yes, she's back, all right. Doesn't know her own mind for two minutes together, that girl doesn't. First she'll work here, and then she'll work there, and next it will be somewhere else.”

“I heard she was not well,” I remarked.

“Unwell! No blessed wonder, the way she gads about,” growled Peter. “If she'd stop at home a bit more, instead of going off to a dance or something every other night in the week, she'd be all right. Too much flying around, that's what's wrong with her. The next thing that's going to happen, is a breakdown, and then we'll have her on our hands here, if she isn't careful.”

I looked enquiringly at Mrs. Watson.

“She hasn't been well,” Mrs. Watson admitted, “But I don't think it's because she goes out too much. I think she fancies a change of air might help her—that's why she is back in Stratford. I hope it does do her good, poor girl. If it doesn't, we must get her out here for a change and rest, but I hope there will be no need for that, Mark.” She sighed. “We don't see much of her now, you know. We seem to have lost touch with her. Perhaps it was my fault. I couldn't approve of her actions, at times, and of course you know what Alice is. The slightest hint of disapproval and she is up in arms directly. She never could bear censure or criticism over anything.”

“I think I remember noticing that trait in her character,” I remarked.

Mrs. Watson laughed outright.

“Yes,” said she, “You had an illustration of what I mean, didn't you?”

“Several times,” said I cheerfully. “But she's growing older. Perhaps she's getting more sense.”

“Sense!” grunted old Peter. “She hasn't got any, Mark! Never did have—and she's getting worse!”

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I wondered what was wrong with the old chap; it wasn't often I heard Peter snapping as persistently as all that.

“Peter doesn't want her here,” explained Mrs. Watson, in reply to my look of surprise. “I don't, either,” she admitted. “But here she must come, just the same, if she has to leave her work and have a rest. She has my other sister in Hawera to go to, if she doesn't come here, but I know it will be hard for the Hawera people to keep her any length of time.”

“Poor old Alice!” I murmured, hardly conscious that I spoke aloud. “What a shame!”

“Surely you don't feel sorry for her?” said Mrs. Watson, in a startled voice. “Mark, you wouldn't—after the way she treated you?”

“Not him,” said Peter. “He doesn't care two straws about her. He wouldn't be discussing her if he did.”

I filled my pipe in silence. There was no answer, as far as I was concerned. I didn't know myself, how I felt about her, but I did know I was sorry for her. Without looking up, I could feel Mrs. Watson eyeing me in a puzzled way.

“I wonder—” she ventured, at length, “when our little Elsie is going to fall in love with someone?”

I kept silent. Without professing to be very bright, I could see through that question. Several times, at about that period, she had given me hints that she would be pleased if Elsie and I made a match of it.

I wished, with all my heart and soul, that it had been Elsie I had loved and wooed; it would have been a very different tale to tell; but it wasn't Elsie, it was Alice, and that was all about it.

“Plenty of time,” said Peter, when I failed to answer. “She's only a baby, yet.”

“She's nineteen,” pointed out Mrs. Watson. “I was being courted before I was that age.”

“Not by me, you weren't,” said Peter, sucking thoughtfully at his pipe.

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“You! You don't imagine, my dear man, that you were the only suitor I ever had, surely?” remarked Mrs. Watson, with some spirit. “That's you men all over! You get your eye on some girl, and you imagine all you have to do is bide your own time and speak to suit yourself. Then, when the girl gets tired of waiting—and someone else comes along——”

“As I did,” chuckled Peter, losing his thoughtful look in a grin.

“You feel grieved because you get left,” concluded Mrs. Watson.

All that was for me, I knew, but what could I do? Elsie wouldn't marry me until I could confess to loving her, and as I couldn't do that without telling a lie, there the matter rested. My reason told me that Elsie was as nearly perfect a girl as I could wish to meet; my heart admitted thoughts of no girl other than Alice.

What a strange thing this love is, when a man thinks it over. Why should I be so hopelessly in love with Alice Arnold? A girl who didn't care for me and who I felt had only promised to marry me in the first place against her own better judgment. In the light of reason, Alice was the type of girl that I should have most carefully avoided. We got on one another's nerves, there was no gainsaying the fact, although I had refused to face it, in the first instance.

Although I excused her every thoughtless action, and found ways and means of explaining them away. yet deep in my heart I disapproved of the deeds I excused. In any other girl I should have had no difficulty in summing them up as cruel and heartless. Whenever my thoughts ran off in that direction, in thinking of Alice, I pulled myself up guiltily and felt ashamed.

And I always got back to this: Alice was Alice, different from all the rest. A girl with a face like hers couldn't be cruel and heartless. It was just that she had a highly strung nature; that she was too sensitive; page 169 that she had such lofty ideals that at times common clay such as I was, depressed and stifled her, and made her hit out for more freedom. Goodness knows how many excuses I framed to account for her conduct. Those are only a few of them. I would think of her fair sweet face, broad, high forehead; her pure, gentle eyes, that seemed to look out on the world so trustingly and modestly; I would picture her smiling or serious, conjure up in my imagination her clear fluty voice, and heigh ho! Common sense could nag away at my consciousness, but it was no use; looks won, every time.

“Don't go rushing into town to see her, now,” admonished Mrs. Watson, as I was taking my leave that evening. “She's quite all right, and if she does get ill, and unable to work, we intend to look after her.”

“I shall avoid her for all I'm worth,” I replied. “I see no good in meeting her, if it can be helped. It will only make both of us uncomfortable. It won't be my fault if I ever see her again, although,” I added, “when I come to think of it, there's no earthly reason that I know of why we shouldn't meet again.”

“N-no,” admitted Mrs. Watson doubtfully. “Only it might embarrass her. She would probably feel ashamed to face you.”

“She needn't feel that,” I protested hastily. “Alice has absolutely no cause whatever to feel that way. She did perfectly right. It was no use her tying herself to a man that she couldn't care for.”

“But she might have discovered the fact a little sooner,” remarked Mrs. Watson drily. “There! Go on! I know you won't hear a word against her. Elsie calls you Don Quixote, and she is just about right.”

“Oh, but it isn't that way at all,” I tried to explain. “It was just an unfortunate occurrence that happened through us not knowing our minds properly.”

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“You mean through Alice not knowing her own mind properly,” suggested Mrs. Watson. “All right, I won't say any more, only take my advice, Mark—” she grasped my arm as she spoke. “You know we are your friends; take my advice, leave Alice severely alone. She isn't worth your worry. There, it's my own niece I'm speaking about, too, but I mean every word of it.”

I went home thinking of Mrs. Watson's last words. They were pretty severe, and I wondered what Alice had done to her to make her so outspoken. I didn't believe them, of course, and finally explained them away to my satisfaction by thinking that Mrs. Watson thought she was doing me a good turn by frightening me off. Probably she saw—what I was beginning to think myself—that Alice and I could never be happy together. Our temperaments were too unequal. Even so, it was strange to get such straight speaking from her. Well, it didn't affect me I thought. I had decided long ago to forget, and her words were wasted, as far as concerned me, because I had resolved to keep away long before I'd heard them.

I prided myself on the bold face I was showing to the world. People were beginning to forget that I had ever had a girl. If it wasn't for those dusty rooms full of piled up furniture the whole thing might have been a dream. I should run that stuff into the auction mart, and let it go for what it would fetch. I was a fool. Why hadn't I done it long ago?

But I knew, even as I made the suggestion to myself, that that furniture would not be touched. Alice had picked that stuff, and to sell it would have been sacrilege. I wasn't forgetting as quickly as I wished to.