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Follow the Call

Chapter III — I Meet Alice Arnold

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Chapter III
I Meet Alice Arnold

Peter Watson may have arrived home once in his life, and made his wife milk the cows by herself while he slept off a drunken spree on the sofa, but if he ever did it was before my time. I can only say that I always found him to be as quiet and sober a man as any I ever knew, and his wife thinks there is nobody like him. Mrs. Watson was a plump, voluble woman of about forty-five, and mothered me up from the first day of our meeting.

I never went to visit the Watsons but what I had a cake, or a batch of scones, or something edible to take home with me.

“We know what you bachelors are,” Mrs. Watson would say. “You don't look after yourselves. Ah! Mr. Woodford, you should get married.”

All the ladies used to rub that into me the first year. My reply was generally a sickly grin, and perhaps some inane remark to the effect that “the girls wouldn't have me,” or “I couldn't afford to.” I was always inclined to be a little bit shy with womenfolk, and this kind of jollying along used to give me creeps down the back. I think they knew that, too; it gave zest to the hint, I expect. The day I met Alice Arnold at the Watson's house, if I'd only known there was a strange girl stopping there at the time, I most certainly wouldn't have paid my visit. Of course I'm different now, but in those days I was so shy that the very thought of meeting a girl I didn't know was enough to throw me into a fit of cold tremors. With men, and elderly ladies, I was quite at my ease; but put me near a pretty girl, and that was the end of me. I turned from a quiet, sensible chap (that was my opinion of myself) into a flustered, stammering fool. My mind would turn, to a blank, and if I did try and say something, it was a hundred to one that I made page 28 some ridiculous, idiotic slip of the tongue. To set a room full of people giggling is no comfort to a bashful man.

The Watsons had one child, a girl of about sixteen named Elsie, and a fine little thing. I was never shy with her, and we became fast friends from the first day of meeting. Mrs. Watson helped Peter with the cows, and a good deal of the outside work, such as feeding the calves and looking after the hens and ducks, while Elsie stopped indoors and attended to the house work.

On this particular day, Elsie and Miss Arnold were in another room when I arrived, and I got myself jambed in behind the table before they made their appearance. Extricating myself, in order to shake hands, I knocked a basketful of reels of cotton and things off the end of the table. I felt the blood tingling to the tips of my ears, but endeavoured to appear unconcerned and at my ease. I stooped to pick up the litter, and dashed my head against the head of the fair visitor, who had stooped at the same moment. If I wasn't at my ease before, that accident didn't improve me.

Alice Arnold was a plump, fair girl, of about twenty-two. As soon as I saw her, I decided that she was the most beautiful creature I had ever met. Her cheeks were full and dimpled, her nose small and straight, her chin firm, and her forehead high and broad. Soft, fair hair fluffed rebelliously over her temples, and long eyelashes (which she knew how to make the most use of) gave her a shy demureness of expression, when she modestly cast them down between peeps from her bright blue eyes.

A complexion of cream and white, relieved by constant flushes of colour as she conversed, added to her charm, and when I gazed into her eyes, on that first meeting, it seemed to me that I had never seen a sweeter, kinder face.

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And when she spoke! It was like listening to the clear and limpid notes of some distant flute, soft and low, yet clear and sweet. Plenty of other girls in this world have nice sweet voices, I suppose, but you couldn't convince me, even now, that they could compare with Alice. She spoke with a slight drawl, which gave an added effect. It made me think of her as a demure, old-fashioned little thing, and I put her on a pedestal and worshipped the moment I heard her speak.

I can't remember that I distinguished myself as a conversationalist at that first meeting. If I recollect, my collar gave me more trouble than anything else—it seemed to have suddenly shrunk into about two sizes too small for me.

After tea was over, we played Five Hundred. Mrs. Watson and Elsie went partners against Miss Arnold and me. I would have felt much more at my ease if Peter had taken a hand in the game, but he sat by the fire and read his paper. Five Hundred was a new game to me, at the time, but that was no reason for all the idiotic mistakes I made. Half the time I was so flustered that I couldn't remember what was trumps, and the only chance I did get to shine I messed up. I had a good no trump hand, with a predominance of spades. Elsie went six hearts, then it came to me.

“Six no spades!” said I, in my best poker voice, and then looked around and wondered what all the tittering was about. They gave me a chance to recover, after they had got over their giggles, but I just sat there looking bewildered, so finally Alice drawled:

“Which do you mean, Mr. Woodford? Six ‘no trumps,’ or six ‘spades’?”

Of course when I saw what a fool I was making of myself I got more flustered than ever, and forgot Alice's name, when I tried to answer her.

She played a good keen game, but we never had an earthly chance, the silly way I carried on. After the game I apologised for being such a “dud” player, but page 30 she insisted on taking half the blame herself, which sent her up higher than ever in my estimation.

Ladies, in my experience, are not alway magnanimous about games, however sweet they may be in other things; in fact, a good loser is a rare occurrence among them.

Before I left for home that night, Alice Arnold had created such an impression on me that I was determined to see her again at any cost. Love at first sight had always seemed to me to be a most improbable sort of thing to happen. People had to know each other's good qualities before they could love genuinely; without that mutual summing up and approval, it was only attraction.

Attraction or love, however, it made no difference to me. I went home that night satisfied that I had met the most beautiful, the most glorious, the most heavenly creature in the world. I never dreamt of courting her—not at that time; she was far too much above a mere mortal man for him to even think of courtship and marriage. I only hoped she wouldn't put a veto on me and refuse to let me call at the house she honoured with her divine presence. Had she done so, I should have bowed humbly to her dictum and admitted the justice of it. Love! It's the greatest thing in the world. If anyone had told me, the day before, that I should ever go so cranky over a girl as I did over Alice Arnold, I should have laughed them to scorn. I'd seen other fellows in love, and had always had rather a contemptuous pity for them. That night I walked home on air, and heard a soft, drawly voice in every sigh of the night breeze. The spell was still on me next morning. I mooned about my milking shed like a man in a dream. Every now and then I would come to earth with a jolt to find the work held up, and myself staring dreamily into space, milk pail in one hand, milking stool in the other. Then I would pull myself together, and go at the work with a rush, only to catch myself dreaming again before many page 31 minutes had passed. I drove off to the factory that morning without tying my cans into the cart, and lost a can out the back before I noticed the omission. I was over at the Watsons that day to borrow a screwdriver, although I had one at home I had never used, and Mrs. Watson told me that Alice was to be there for a fortnight before going back to Hawera to her work. She was employed as a typiste to some business firm in that town.

“And I want you, young man,” Mrs. Watson said, smiling and shaking a finger at me, “to come along as often as you can while she is here, and give her a good time.”

That was all the encouragement that I wanted. I was over there every other evening after that. Other fellows heard the great news, that there was a good looking girl stopping at the Watsons for a fortnight, and I didn't have the running all on my own by any means. Stan Collins, Bob and Alex Treadwell, Jack and Arty Wilcox, took to calling on old Peter as well.

Alice divided her favours evenly. It was a toss up who was first favourite, and some of the cynical elderly men of the district even went to the trouble of running a little book on us, the competition was so keen. I think they had me at about six to one, with Stan and Bob first favourites.

It wasn't until long afterwards that I heard of the book, which was a good job, because I should probably have made a row over it. The idea of betting on the state of heart of a divine creature such as Miss Arnold would have been too much for me I know.

During that fortnight, I thought of Alice, not as a girl, but as an angel. Divine, unapproachable. I kept hanging about, it's true, but at the same time I marvelled at my own presumption. I knew what I was. I was a rough, uncouth, ignorant country bumpkin, and I felt thankful, in a humble way, if I got two words and a smile in a whole evening.

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What amazed me was the off-hand, breezy, free and easy manner the two Treadwell boys adopted towards Miss Arnold. They were calling her Alice before I had got past the stuttering stage. I didn't like those boys much at any time, but while they were competing for the favours of Alice I disliked them intensely. Bob was the oldest, a short, thick-set fellow of about twenty-four. He had a sneery, superior way with him, and a most overwhelming conceit. You could snub Bob until all was blue, it took no effect; he was so sure of himself that he simply assumed you were joking, and came back at you with a witty attempt of his own. If anything, his brother Alex was worse. Alex Treadwell posed as a humorist. My first introduction to the type of humour he went in for was down at the butter factory one morning. Alex had to pass my farm on his way down the road with the Treadwell milk cart, and this particular morning he came down about half an hour after I had left home. As soon as he arrived at the factory he shouted to me, and said:

“I say, Mark, did you turn your cows in on your patch of green oats, this morning?”

“No,” replied I, looking alarmed.

“Well,” continued Alex, “you'd better hurry back home. They were all in on the oats as I came past.”

I hammered my horse all that three miles back, cursing my luck, and wondering if they would all be blown before I could turn them off, and when I got home the cows were all at the back of the farm and had never been near the oat paddock. That was a great joke. The Treadwell family laughed about it for years afterwards.

While Alice was in the vicinity, the Watsons were fairly overwhelmed with company; this in spite of the fact that it was the busiest time of the year. We used to collect together in the drawing room and almost come to blows over who should turn the music, if Alice sang. I got disqualified at that business, early page 33 in the game. Every time I went to turn the page, if I didn't drop it, or knock it askew, I turned it at the wrong time, and spoilt the piece. Then one day I managed to excel myself, and knocked a candle out of the socket into the player's lap, so after that it was decided that parlour tricks were not my forte. Alice was quite nice about it. Had she wished to, she could quite easily have ordered me out to instant execution; there were plenty of indignant, horrified young men there, who would only too willingly have disposed of me for ever, had she but said the word. Instead of being so cruel, she told me I could stand behind Stan Collins, if I liked, and watch him turn the music—he had the knack.

Stan and I used to be pretty fair friends until that fortnight, but seeing him every other evening for fourteen days sort of sickened me of him. It struck me he was too foppish, and I didn't like the rotten way he slicked his hair back either. Another thing I didn't like about Stan was a silly way he had of quoting poetry—unmanly, I called it.

I couldn't help seeing, before the end of the first week, that I was running last. In spite of all my efforts, I failed to improve, and no girl can take an interest in a tongue-tied idiot too backward to talk to her.

Then one evening Bob Treadwell put his arm around Alice's neck, while he was sitting next to her, playing cards, and the lady showed us a touch of temper. She surprised us all, especially Bob, but everyone agreed that it served him right, she had never given him any encouragement to be so familiar. Bob was terribly hurt about it, and went for his hat and went home. The rest of us suddenly became very, very cheerful, me especially, and the evening was a great success.

She would never have any cause to complain of me being too familiar with her, I thought, as I went home that night. Perhaps, when she pondered over page 34 the incident, she might compare my respectful worship of her with the free and easy attitude adopted towards her by the rest of the rivals.

After Bob had sampled the lady's temper, the Treadwell boys pulled out, and left the running to the Wilcox boys, Stan, and myself. I wasn't much afraid of Jack and Arty Wilcox—they were slow, dull chaps, more backward amongst the ladies than myself, even, but Stan had me worried.

About two days after Bob had decided that Alice was not worthy of him, I started to plough a newly stumped paddock on my farm, in order to sow swede turnips for the winter. Although I started on the farm knowing absolutely nothing about ploughing, by this time I had done a fair amount, and imagined myself to be an expert ploughman. The paddock was near the road, and I had worked for perhaps two hours at it, when what was my surprise to see Mr. Treadwell rushing across towards me as if something terrible was wrong.

“Mark! Mark!” he shouted, waving his hands. “This will never do—this will never do!”

“What won't do?” said I, stopping the horses, and sitting on the handle of the plough. The breathless way he had dashed across to me had me feeling quite nervous. I felt that something terrible must be wrong.

“What won't do!” repeated Mr. Treadwell, waving his hand at the land I had already ploughed. “Why, this—this ploughing. I knew what was wrong before ever I set foot in the paddock; I could pick it from the road.”

“What's wrong with it?” enquired I. “I thought I was making a very good job of it, considering the fact that it's newly stumped land and full of roots.”

I felt a bit aggrieved. Of course I appreciated Mr. Treadwell's fatherly interest in me, but at the same time it flashed through my mind that in some things he was just a shade too particular. He was page 35 in the habit of nosing about my place regularly twice a week, and commenting on the work I was doing. I don't remember that I ever did anything to suit him; it was always done the wrong way, according to Tready.

“Yes,” he went on, shaking his head sagely, “I seen what was wrong, before ever I set my foot in the paddock, Mark. You haven't got your skeith set properly. Give her more land, man, give her more land, and then notice the different work she'll make. Next time you start ploughing, come over and tell me, and I'll set your plough for you before you open up.”

He took my spanner, while speaking, and altered the skeith. But it wasn't about that he'd really come over for, I found, because his next words had nothing to do with ploughing.

“You know, Mark,” he commenced, in a confidential tone, “that girl down at the Watsons is the limit. She didn't ought to be allowed to carry on the way she's doing. What do you say?”

I pricked up my ears at this, and forgot the ploughing for a while.

“Yes,” he went on. “The way she's leading on all them silly young fellers is a fair caution. I can't understand what they're all thinking of—can you?”

He spoke to me as if under the impression that I wasn't one of the “silly young fellers” alluded to, but I knew he knew different from that. As I didn't answer, he continued: “You know, Mark, she's nothing but a flirt. Up here on a holiday, and making fools of all the softies in the district. You can't tell me she hasn't got a boy down Hawera way.”

When Mr. Treadwell sprung that guess on me, my heart went dot and carry one, but I bit my lip in silence. I'd never thought of that, and the idea wasn't pleasant.

“Ha! Ha!” went on Mr. Treadwell. “Our Bob put her in her place. She tried to lead him on, too but he soon showed her.”

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I smiled to myself at that, because I remembered Bob hanging his head and looking sheepish and sulky, while Alice called him a great, uncouth, country bumpkin, and advised him to study manners, and learn to behave himself like a gentleman—even if he wasn't one.

Until Mr. Treadwell commenced to sneer at my divinity, I had always had rather a regard for him. I'll admit he was a nuisance, at times; his curiosity caused me inconvenience now and then, because no man cares to have all his business enquired into. Some of the old man's point blank questions took a lot of side-stepping, but I had always tolerated him because I thought it showed that at heart he was good natured, and wanted to help with advice. He was always the first on hand, of all the neighbours, with sound, practical advice, and I felt grateful for the undoubted interest he took in me. But after listening to his tirade against Miss Arnold, Mr. Treadwell lost ground in my opinion that he never recovered again. A twinge of doubt entered my mind; was he the disinterested, magnanimous person I had always imagined him to be? I took a good look at him. Strange how I had never noticed before what a sly, shifty eye he had!

“You know,” he mumbled on, “you've kicked about the world a good deal, Mark, so I expect you've seen her sort before. Must have a man hanging about, so she can make a fool of him.” He paused, then went on reflectively: “I blame the Watsons as much as I do her. Can't understand what Peter is thinking of, to allow such carryings on in his house. It wouldn't do in my house, I know that. Of course,” he added, “It's Mrs. Peter is to blame. She encourages the girl—it's just the sort of trick that woman delights in. She asks all the ninnies in the countryside along, to make fools of themselves, and I bet that as soon as you all get out the door again, they talk you over and make fun of you. (He had forgotten he commenced by assuming that I was not one of the page 37 “fools.”) Matter of fact,” he went on, “we know they do. Only the other day the girl was taking you off at the pianner, in front of Bob and Alex. When Bob came home he made us all roar with laughing, showing us how she done it.”

“Oh, did he!” I snapped. I'll admit that hurt, but Tready hadn't done with me yet. He still had pleasing news to impart.

“She came along the road for a walk on Sunday afternoon,” he continued gloatingly, “and when they came opposite your shack they had a great old laugh. Said she'd like to see herself living in a hovel like that!”

“Oh! Did she?” gasped I. “And who the blazes were they? Who was with her, anyhow?” Mr. Treadwell sniggered. If there's one thing that's against all nature, in my opinion, it's an old man that giggles—he's the last thing on earth. Old Tready saw humour in the situation, somewhere or other, although I couldn't follow the joke.

“Bob and Alex were with her,” he volunteered, when he had straightened out his face. I'd just about had enough of the old gentleman by then, but he went calmly on: “You know, Mark, it isn't as if she didn't know any better. She's naturally flighty, that's what is wrong with her. I said so as soon as ever I heard my boys talking about her. I warned them. What you young chaps want to do now—” he went on, impressively, “is give her a miss. Keep right away from her. Don't go near her at all, for the rest of her stay, and that will hurt more than anything. Don't you think so, yourself?” He stopped, in an enquiring attitude, to get my answer, and I had it ready for him. He had hurt my feelings more than once, during his conversation, but what really upset me was that such a common old man should dare to criticise an angel like Miss Arnold. His remarks struck me as almost profane.

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“You miserable old back-biting blackguard!” I stormed. “What you want to do is get off my farm, and get off quick, before I put you off, and if I hear of you sneering about that girl again—you or your sons, either, I'll come along and thrash the whole bunch of you. Come on, hop it!”

I made a move in his direction, and he fell over the plough handle, in his haste to step back. I never saw a more injured looking old man in my life.

I suppose it was a bit of a shock to him. He had been so used to dropping in on me and criticising, pulling to pieces, and fault-finding, that he had got into the habit of considering me as his own property. My burst of temper must have been in the nature of a revelation to him. I know it was, because he told all the neighbours about it, and pictured me as akin to the snake that bit the hand that fed it. “And after all I've done for that man—” he would end up “Swore at me! Swore at me something shocking!”

Of course old Tready was bound to make the most of it, but as it happened I hadn't used bad language to him. After meeting Alice, I had made several good resolutions, and endeavouring not to indulge in bad language was one of them. It's a queer sort of returned soldier that can't swear, and I'm not trying to say that I couldn't do my share, on occasion, but I didn't swear that time.

After the old gentleman had hurried away, I continued with my work, but my heart was not in it. I kept chewing over the spicy bits of Tready's information. No wonder she laughed at my house! I had never been dissatisfied with it before: it had always appealed to me as rather a cosy little place, for a bach, but when I did start picking faults in it, the revulsion of feeling against it was pretty complete.

I went through every stage of dark despair that afternoon. I thought of the miserable returns I was taking off the place, just to think of the house made page 39 me shiver, and I asked myself, how could I, honourably and fairly, court a girl, when all that I had to offer was not a decent living for one.

It was a black look-out, to say the best of it. The milking season was far enough advanced for me to make a pretty fair guess as to what kind of returns I was going to clear on the year's work. After paying for seed and manure for cropping, and other items necessary for the running of a farm, I was going to be lucky if I came out with a £100 clear, to live on. I could manage on that with ease, but I shuddered at the bare notion of asking such a glorious creature as Alice to manage on such a sum.

I thought of that girl as other people might think of a princess. She should be surrounded with every luxury that money could buy, with servants to wait on her, and rolls of wealth at her command. The very best of everything was not half good enough for her. Now, of course, I see what a silly juggins I was. If she was half the girl I really thought her, she would have been only too proud to buckle in, with the man she loved, and help him to carve his way from poverty to affluence. But I never looked at the question in that light. Probably, had I taken her more for granted, instead of making such a divinity of her, I might have got on better.