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Follow the Call

Chapter XVI — Heart's Desire

Chapter XVI
Heart's Desire

On Sunday I attired myself with special care, and went into town. I felt calm and steady. No matter what the answer was, I knew I would be able to face the thing out without any of the extremes of passionate feeling I had been subject to in our former meetings.

Alice was dressed in white and wore a small bunch of violets as her only touch of colour. Her white frock seemed to accentuate the alabaster transparency of her complexion, and a wave of tenderness went through me as I gazed on her fragile loveliness.

Whatever the outcome, I told myself, I mustn't fail to-day through my own fault.

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She gave me her hand and invited me into the sitting room of the house she was stopping at. It was a fine, sunny day, and I suggested that we go for a walk instead, and Alice said:

“Oh, yes! Let's go and sit in the park, it's lovely in there.”

We strolled around to the park gate almost in silence. Alice, I could see, was nervous and flurried, while I was carefully thinking out how I should open the conversation.

“Alice,” I commenced, when we had found a seat in a shady spot, “I've tried and tried, but it's no use. I can't forget you; I can't cease to love you; and I can't get back to peace of mind without you. I want you to reconsider your decision and give me another trial.”

“Mark!” she gasped. “You can't? You don't—”

Words seemed to fail her, and she gazed piteously at me with her lips parted.

I nodded. “Yes I can, and I do,” I assured her. I reached for her little hand and took it gently in mine.

“I'm more in love than ever, dear,” I said to her, “And only you can ever give me peace and hope. Think, Alice, before you turn me down. It means all the world to me.”

If my voice had cracked and played me false, in my first proposal to Alice, it stood by me this time. Then I had seen in her an angel, divine, unapproachable; this time, I spoke to a dear little, helpless girl. A girl I wanted to take into my arms and comfort and reassure, and guard and cherish for always.

She remained silent for a long time, after I had spoken, but I had no fear. I could feel the response of her soft fingers in mine, and I sat quietly waiting.

Presently she ventured, in a quiet little voice:

“You really, really, mean it, Mark?”

For answer I tilted her soft chin with my hand, and kissed her full on her warm, red lips.

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The park was drenched with the golden glow of the warm sunshine; in the near distance we could hear happy childish laughter from the playing greens; the singing of the birds, the soft sighing of the breeze in the trees—all were blotted out in that one glorious moment.

We came back to earth again to hear a tittery giggle. Three girls were strolling past, arm in arm. At any other time this would have embarrassed me very much, but now I only scowled at them.

“What does it matter?” said the usually so modest Miss Alice. “They only wish they were half as happy!”

We sat on, and found a sympathy in our companionship that had never been with us before. Words were not needed. There was a tender light in Alice's eyes that told me more than words could say.

“Mark,” she said, presently, “It was the fall off your bike that time that changed me. Oh, how dreadful I felt! I knew it was all my fault, and I knew I had exchanged the gold for the dross.”

“Never mind,” said I, “It has been a good thing for both of us, perhaps. It has taught us the value of true love, and it has disciplined us. Let's never allude to the past again. We'll look forward to the future instead.”

“I'm so glad everything is right, now,” Alice volunteered shyly, soon after. “It's such a relief in another way, too. I won't worry any more, and perhaps my silly nerves will get better, and not give me any more headaches and bad eyes.”

“We'll get married as soon as ever I get the house straightened up,” I announced. “You won't need to worry your little head over rows of figures, or hammer on that jolly old typewriter any more. You come out, and stop with your auntie until I get things all fixed up for you.”

“Oh, I couldn't do that!” exclaimed Alice, in distress.

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“Why not?” I wanted to know.

“Because—well, I don't think they would care to have me there,” replied Alice, hesitatingly.

“Nonsense!” was my reply. “I bet they'll all be jolly wild, if you don't come out to stop with them. You'll have to be married from their house, anyway.”

With a return of her old perversity, Alice absolutely refused to consider the idea.

I didn't let it worry me. I had found out how to handle my little lady, and I just kept coming back to the subject, and assuming each time that she had changed her mind and accepted my view.

When I returned home that afternoon we had made all our arrangements. The marriage was to be as soon as ever the necessary formalities would allow it, and as it was still in the busy part of the year, I was to take Alice straight to our home, and we promised ourselves a honeymoon later on when the cows would be dry.

I called on the Watsons at once to break the news to them. Mr. Stan was there, evidently following my advice. Elsie congratulated me on the happy ending.

“I knew all along that you hadn't forgotten her,” she assured me, with a shy little smile.

“I hope you will have just as good luck as me, little sister,” I told her, glancing at Stan as I spoke.

Elsie and I can understand each other in a way that is almost unbelievable. She didn't reply, but I knew my guess was going to be correct.

Poor old Stan didn't know, though. He was undergoing that peculiar process common to all men in love for the first time, of analysing his faults and failings, and comparing them with the virtues and wonderful good qualities of the adored one. It's a thankless task, and very discouraging, and I could see that the poor chap hadn't much hope of bridging the awful gap, but was just hanging on despairingly, hoping against hope.

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I could have given him a little comfort, I suppose, but I didn't. I thought it would be for the good of his soul if he went through the torture in the usual, time-honoured way.

Now Elsie is one of the tenderest little things in the world, and yet it was absolutely heartrending to see the way she kept that poor beggar grilling on the rack of suspense. Which just confirms a theory I've had for some time, that before a nice girl will show a man that she returns his love, she has to prove to her own satisfaction first, that he loves her well enough to suffer the tortures of the damned for her. When she's really convinced of that she puts in the rest of her life expiating her heartless treatment of the courting days, by waiting on her victim hand and foot for the rest of her days.

Mrs. Watson wrote to Alice that same evening, begging her to leave town at once and stop with them until the wedding.

Alice gave in when she got that letter, and left Stratford at once.

Every body helped me for the next month. A working bee came along and trimmed all the garden hedges, and gave me a hand to paper all the rooms. Arty Wilcox volunteered to run the farm for a week, thus allowing us to consider the question of a honeymoon, after all.

Alice and I still squabbled and argued when I went to see her at her aunt's, but now I didn't mind it. I rather enjoyed her little tempers, as a matter of fact. Instead of talking “up” to her, or rather trying to talk up to her as I used to do, in fear and trembling half the time lest I should say the wrong thing, I simply talked at her. She wasn't something supernatural any more; she was my girl. It answered much better than the old way, and if she argued too much with me, I wasn't above bullying her a bit, either.

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Mr. Treadwell said I was a fool. I would live to rue my mad folly. If I'd followed his advice (although I don't ever remember him giving it) I should marry Elsie, and let Alice go.

He picked us to lead a cat and dog existence, and prophesied that about five years would see us separated; or else Alice would be dead, and I ruined for life with hospital and doctor's expenses.

I don't know to this day, if I could have married Elsie or not. If she did have a secret regard for me at any time, other than just platonic friendship, she kept it well hidden. Somehow, I don't think she would have married me, although there is no doubt that at one time I seriously considered the possibility. If I ever did have any chance with her, I lost it for ever when I started to worry again about Alice after her return to Stratford.

Had I followed the reasoning of my brain alone, Elsie is the girl I should have tried to win, but I followed a higher call than that. I followed the one great call, that comes to every man sooner or later in his life; the call that stirs a man to his very soul, and awakes all that is best in his nature. The call of true love. And to the girl who inspired me with such a great passion I freely gave all that was worth while in my make-up. All the tenderness, reverence, and affection, of which my heart was capable, I tendered to Alice. To-morrow is my wedding day, and only time can tell whether I was right or not, but I am not afraid. I have clung to my ideals, and I am not afraid to face the future. I look forward to it; it will vindicate what I have always believed. In the face of the reasoning of friends and onlookers I have followed the dictates of my own heart, and I pin my faith on the ultimate issue in the certainty that a great love is God's finest gift, and not to be lightly put aside or over-ruled.

* * *

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The other day I came into the house unexpectedly, and found Alice seated in the drawing room, surrounded by dusty papers. She had been crying; the first time since our marriage, so I took fright at once.

“What's wrong, sweetheart?” I said, rushing over to her.

“Mark,” she replied, “I found this story of yours up on a top shelf in your workshop. I simply couldn't help crying over it.”

“Shouldn't go prying about amongst my things,” said I. “But if that's all that's wrong, we'll soon fix that. I'll burn the silly rubbish.” I swooped the paper up into my arms, and walked towards the open fireplace.

In an instant Alice had jumped to her feet, in that impetuous way she has, and was between me and the fire.

“You dare, Mark Woodford! If you burn that story I'll never forgive you as long as I live.”

“Well,” said I, “I only wrote it in the first place to pass the long evenings away, and if it makes you cry, I don't intend to have it littering up this establishment, I assure you. All the writings in the world are not worth a single tear from my little wife.”

“Foolish boy!” replied Alice. “I cried for pleasure, to find you loved me so much. No——” she continued. “I intend to have the names altered in this story, and then we'll send it to some publisher in New Zealand. Then, when it's in book form, I'm going to have a copy of it placed in a prominent place in every room in the house.

“Why every room?” I asked.

“Because then, whenever I feel snappy, or discontented, or snobbish, I'm going to rush straight to the nearest book and dip in.”

“What good will that do?” I enquired stupidly.

“Don't you see?” pointed out Alice. “There's a personal rebuke for me in every page of that story. page 187 I won't need to hunt for special places. There's some-thing to chastise my spirits and make me feel meek and humble and mean in every page.”

“I don't want you to feel meek and humble and mean,” I returned. “And as for there being a rebuke to you in every page, I'm sure I never put it there. I never expected anyone else but myself would ever read it, but all through I think I showed that you were never to blame in the things that happened.”

“That's the rebuke,” replied Alice calmly. “Go on, don't argue with me about it. You know I always know about these things better than you.”

She pushed me outside the door, laughingly, and I returned to my work.

That night I waded through the stuff again, from beginning to end. I wanted to find out where that rebuke came in and why the yarn should make her cry.

Alice is hard to understand at times, even yet. I couldn't find anything to hurt her feelings from start to finish, but I know this, if it is published, and copies of it kept all over our house, it's going to be a standing rebuke to me.

About six different quarrels, two fights, and a meditated murder, and all over a simple business like courting a girl—a thing most young men call “pleasure.” I know who's going to feel rebuked.

But perhaps the publishers won't accept it.

* * *

“And perhaps they will, my darling modest old husband.