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Follow the Call

Chapter IV — I Am Unsuccessful in My Suit

Chapter IV
I Am Unsuccessful in My Suit

The Saturday before Alice left the Watsons, Mrs. Watson called me aside, and gave me some motherly advice.

“Mark,” she said, “you are a slow goose. Why don't you take Alice for a drive somewhere, before she goes away?”

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I had been feeling pretty much down in the dumps, and had got to the stage where I had no hope, but couldn't keep away. I expect I changed colour, when Mrs. Watson sprang that on me.

“I don't think Alice would care to go driving with me,” I replied. “I don't think I appeal to her as a companion.”

“Don't be silly,” returned the lady. “You ask her. You know, Mark, you mustn't expect a girl to jump into your arms,” she went on kindly. “Girls like to be courted. You try taking her by storm, instead of moping about looking as if you were afraid of her.”

I chuckled. “As a matter of fact,” said I, “You've just hit it. I am afraid of her.”

“Well, you must get over it,” said Mrs. Watson, laughing. “Try and remember that she is only a girl, after all, and brighten yourself up and shine in conversation. You'll never create an impression unless you talk to her.”

Talk to her! I didn't tell Mrs. Watson how the very sight of Alice put my heart in my throat. Apart from that, I had been going over my prospects and financial position, and had decided that, situated as I was, it wouldn't be playing the game to the girl, if I proposed to her. I had made up my mind to see as much as I could of her, during the remainder of her stay, and then try and forget her. Mrs. Watson's advice made me clean forget all these noble resolves, and the next thing I knew I was explaining to Alice what a lovely drive it was to Inglewood and back, and telling her she must do the trip before she left.

Alice listened with her lips parted and her eyes sparkling.

“Oh! I'd just love to go for a drive somewhere, before I go back to work,” she exclaimed delightedly.

Just shows you! I had approached the subject diffidently, quite expecting to be turned down coldly, and the girl actually jumped at the proposal. A man page 41 never knows where he is with a girl, and that's a fact. I kicked myself, mentally, when I thought how foolish and backward I had been. If I'd had any go in me at all, I might have taken her in to Stratford once or twice, to a dance or picture show. Never mind! I had Sunday, and I made a solemn resolution to shine my very brightest. I'd show her I was intelligent and entertaining.

Stan Collins excelled himself that Saturday evening. He sang a couple of songs, turned the music while Alice sang, and quoted replies to her questions in sloppy poetry. Every now and then he would deign to notice I was in the company, and address a remark or two to me in a kindly, sympathetic manner. It was quite obvious that he had ceased to regard me as a possible rival, and was being magnanimous. When I thought that I was to have Alice to myself for some hours, on the following day, I felt like laughing in Stan's face. If he'd only known about the drive arranged for the next day, he wouldn't have wasted half the sympathy on me that he did.

Until this last evening, Stan and I had been preserving a haughty truce towards each other, occasionally marred by snaps of temper, and sarcastic quips at one another. Sometimes the fair Alice had to use considerable tact, in pouring oil on the troubled waters, but she seemed used to the game, and didn't seem to mind a bit. In fact, I believe she enjoyed us best when we were on the verge of jealous quarrelling over her.

It's a queer thing, this jealousy. Now, if anyone had accused Stan or me of being jealous of one another, at that time, we would have scorned the imputation. We both thought we were playing the game, giving each other a fair field, and the only thing that puzzled the both of us was how such a sensible girl as Miss Arnold could possibly see anything to admire in the other.

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If Stan and I didn't like each other, at this time, we at least refrained from meanly running each other down; we did no small-minded backbiting, which is more than can be said of the Treadwell boys, when they were in the running. Some fellows believe that “All's fair in love and war,” but I never held with that. All isn't fair in war, no matter what people say; it's going to be a pretty ghastly kind of a mix up, the next great war, if the combatants take that for their motto.

On Sunday morning I ran my gig out of the shed and oiled the wheels. I had bought it at a clearing sale for £4, and it was not what you would call a model turnout, by any means. The spokes of the wheels were all loose, and rattled and creaked when they were in motion, and both shafts were sprung and tied up with a few yards of wire. To say the best I could for it, it was a dilapidated, rattletrap old conveyance, and I hoped Alice's city education would prevent her from spying out all the defects, because if she was going to prove a discerning person that way, I could see her refusing to ride in it.

My luck was in. Alice was so busy keeping her white frock off the splash-board, and spreading a rug on the seat to sit on, that she never had time to notice what sort of a conveyance it was, until we were well under way. Then she began taking her shocks in small doses.

First of all she noticed that one of the shafts was broken, and galvanised me into a state of nervous tremors with the horrified shriek she gave. After that she found everything—it was marvellous how a city girl could be so quick at seeing things—and we had a lovely half-hour or so before I got her calmed down. First she thought the wheels were working off the hubs; then it was the harness was tied up with string; even the poor old milk cart horse came in for a share—she said it wouldn't surprise her if the horse ran away and upset us, it would be just like me, if it did. page 43 At one place she demanded to be put down, so that she could walk home, but I was firm there, and refused to pull the horse in. I thought the drive was going to prove a frost, but by the time we had got to the Waipuku toll-gate Alice had recovered her nerve again, and began to gaze about and admire the scenery. Or rather, I admired the scenery, and she sat back with an injured expression and listened to me.

In a way, that drive marks a milestone in my life, and I shall never forget it. It was a glorious summer day, Taranaki at its very best, not too warm for comfort, but fresh and sweet. Good old Mount Egmont stood up against the sky with a dazzling sparkle of snow for a cap; a cap streaked with black, where the snow in the gullies had melted and left the rock bare. All about the bush, at the foot of the mountain, little spirals of smoke were curling up, where settlers were burning off timber, preparing their land for the plough.

White ribbons of metal roads snaked in and out amongst clumps of bush and scrub, and lost themselves in the blue of the reserve, at the foot, and the whole picture was splashed with blobs of green and brown and yellow, where new patches of turnips were showing up, and hay and grain were ripening.

Personally I don't make any pretentions to being of an artistic turn of mind, but the beauty of the scene impressed me, just the same. In the little woody glens and creek-beds locusts were holding forth, with their queer chirrup, while up above us the skylarks were running an opposition orchestra, not to mention the contributions of thrushes and blackbirds, yellow hammers, starlings, and an occasional tui. There is something about animal and bird life that always appealed to me, and when I am not too busy working I often spend time studying their habits and trying to understand them.

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I got my first big shock that morning when I turned to Alice, expecting her to be in raptures over the scene. As near as I've ever been to doing such a thing, I gushed, that morning. It made me feel thankful I was alive, and filled me with all sorts of queer, unusual thoughts—like trying to live a better life, to be worthy of such a country, and so on.

I tried to explain some of these solemn ideas to Alice, and that's where I got the big shock. I expected that a cultured, dainty young lady would take a natural interest in the beauties of nature, but it seems it has to be born in one.

Alice was a girl I was completely mad about. In my mind I had endowed her with every womanly virtue. She looked the very last thing in sweetness and sympathetic understanding, and yet, when I went to explain some of the thoughts the scene had inspired she simply couldn't understand me. She just gazed at me in blank amazement for a while, and then cut me short by saying:

Oh, bother scenery and birds! How can they affect anyone? Let's talk about something interesting. What sort of a town is Inglewood? Do they have dances there?”

I came back to earth with a nasty bump, but I didn't blame Alice in my mind for not understanding. I just felt myself to be a stupid fool, not even competent to keep a girl amused. Instead of finding out what topics interested her, and talking about them, I had to go rambling off on the beauties of nature. It wasn't as if it was a common failing of mine, either; it was a topic I very seldom touched. No! Instead of studying the taste of the girl, I had to go and pick out the very subject, out of all the things I might have talked of, that bored the girl stiff! I had to start off on nature, and get sloppy about it.

I pulled myself together, and we talked tango and jazz, and fancy dancing generally, and Alice brightened page 45 up wonderfully, and gave me some nice peeps from under those long eyelashes of hers.

Dancing, and that sort of thing, didn't appeal to me much, but I waded in valiantly and did my best. I was out of my depth most of the time, but I bluffed the thing through, and what I didn't know about the subject I made guesses at. It wasn't going to be my fault if Alice didn't come to the conclusion in the end that I was an intelligent, interesting young man.

At Inglewood I put the horse up for an hour and we had luncheon. I tried to be cheerful and bright, but somehow I felt disheartened. In spite of all my trying I had not got in touch with the real Alice. We had both been talking down to each other—both aware that we were not in harmony. It was like two people trying to play the same piece of music in different keys. Alice and I were both aware that our music was discord, but instead of stopping and trying to get in tune we kept hammering away, making up in noise what we lacked in harmony. We pretended it was fine, but at heart neither of us was satisfied.

I sighed, as we sat at our meal, and Alice smiled mischievously, and said: “A penny for your thoughts, Mr. Woodford?”

“You might call me Mark,” I suggested, “and you can have my thoughts for nothing.” I thought I would try and sound the deeps again, so I continued: “Look here, Alice, suppose a fellow loved a certain girl, and was as poor as a church mouse, what ought he to do?” I looked at her earnestly.

“Do?” returned she, briskly. “Make some money of course, and then marry the girl.”

“Thanks,” said I. “How easy! What a splendid, simple, solution!”

Alice's words might have sounded encouraging, but the flippancy of their utterance left me more hopelessly discouraged than ever. A blind man could have told that she was not applying the position to ourselves. Her answer, however, guided my thought into page 46 a new channel, and I resolved to explain my position to her, during the drive back, and see what she had to say about it when she knew all the circumstances.

Once in the gig again, and homeward bound, I commenced. I don't profess to be a romantic sort of fellow, I leave that kind of thing severely alone, as a rule, and stick to hard practical facts, but no man can live by himself for months without indulging in dreams now and again. In telling Alice my position, I gave her the facts, and mixed some of the dreams up with them..

I commenced with the farm. I laid great stress on the fact that at present it wasn't paying, because I wanted to be quite honest. Perhaps I over-emphasised that part of the business. Then I went on and wove some of my dreams into the story. I told her how I intended to work and plan and manage so that in a few years I would have one of the most model farms in New Zealand. I spoke of farming, describing it as a noble pursuit; wresting a living from the soil, working with nature for results; out in the open air, using the rain and sun as agents. I explained it all as fluently as I was able. I compared a farmer, producing right from the earth itself, and using the elements as his agents, with a man in business in a city, who had to make his living by acting as middleman, or else taking advantage of the wants or foolishness of his fellow men.

One used nature for making money, the other used men. The little of romantic thought I had allowed myself always ran in that vein.

“Don't you think farming intelligently, an uplifting calling for a man?” I ended.

“Good gracious! Don't ask me!” exclaimed Alice. “What can I possibly know about it? I always understood that farming made people dull and stupid. I'm sorry your farm isn't paying very well,” she added kindly. “Why don't you leave it, and get employment in some town; I'm sure it would be a pleasanter life page 47 for you, especially if you are not making any money where you are.”

I suppose I was a fool to have told her that—out of all my remarks, it's the only thing she managed to register in her brain. The rest was as nothing. I believe she was under the impression the whole time that I was just babbling on, uttering airy nonsense for her entertainment.

I couldn't propose marriage to the girl without first letting her know exactly how I stood, and that was the only reason I had mentioned my financial troubles at all. If she wished to consider the offer, it was only fair to her to know what she had to expect. With other people I had purposely been rather close about my finances. I paid my way every month, and what I had in the bank was nobody's business. Alice was Alice, the girl I wanted to marry, so of course it was up to me to tell her.

Well, I'd told her. And even then I had the nerve to propose to her, before we got home. Of course I was turned down, that was a foregone conclusion. I don't expect I'd have had a dog's chance if I'd been rolling in money, but after telling her that I had none, what a hope I had!

When a man pops the question, according to the best authorities on the subject, he is supposed to speak in a tense, impassioned voice. My voice let me down badly, that's all I can say. It cracked in the middle, just as I got to the place where it ought to have sounded deep and solemn, and then it went on strike altogether, and left me gibbering in a whisper.

I had the same sort of thing happen to me once before. My horse mistook me for a bot-fly, one hot day, and nipped a piece out of me before discovering the mistake, and when I went to expostulate, all I could do was to dance about and gibber—so I suppose it's a sign of deep emotion with me.

Anyhow, it amused Alice, that was one consolation, although I failed to see it at the time, and I could page 48 hardly blame her for saying “No.” What girl could fall in love with a silly juggins that couldn't even control the muscles of his own throat?

By the time we arrived at Watson's farm we had everything sorted out, and our future relationship to each other fixed. Alice liked me, but she hated country life. She didn't love me; she didn't wish to marry for years. She hoped to marry a town man, when she did marry, but he would have to be wealthy; she hated the thought of poverty, and nothing would ever induce her to marry a poor man, even if she fell in love with him. She intended to enjoy her youth, before she tied herself to anyone.

All that was pretty definite; the only consolation I could see in it was the fact that she hadn't promised to love me as a sister. She was so busy enjoying the proposal that I suppose that escaped her, because she didn't even express sorrow for me. In fact, when I went over the whole conversation afterwards, it seemed to me that Alice's chief expression, during that proposal, was a kind of demure, satisfied, complacency.

I suppose she was fairly used to that sort of experience, and was comparing my style and expression with that of other poor unfortunates she had put through their paces, at different times, but if she didn't waste any feeling over the business I felt enough for the two of us. I felt sick at heart and hopeless, and at the back of my mind there was a miserable conviction, a conviction that I tried not to think of, and yet there it was, nagging away like an aching tooth, and continually twinging itself on my notice. And that rotten conviction hurt more than all the rest put together.

Alice, the girl I had idealised, put on a pedestal and worshipped, regarded as a being about one remove from an angel—she had disappointed me. I don't mean because she had turned me down. I had all along half expected that to happen, but it was the way she had done it. My ideal Alice could never have page 49 done it as she did. My ideal Alice could never have laughed at a man's pain, no matter how ridiculous he seemed, and when Miss Arnold had laughed at my proposal she had done more than show me how hopeless was my suit, she had shattered cherished ideals of mine.

I went home to my humble bach, after dropping Alice at the Watson's gate, and that night I moped in front of the fire, too miserable for words. I had always been one of these smart, knowing fellows. Whenever I saw a man miserable and down, through some unfortunate love affair, I had always felt inclined to give him a piece of my mind, for making such a fool of himself. It seemed ridiculous, to me, to see a man moping just because some chit of a girl had fooled him. If I knew the circumstances, and was friendly with the man, I used to be there with cheap, breezy advice. “More fish in the sea,” and all that sort of rot.

I had the pleasure of trying some of my stale old platitudes on myself, and I found them very cold comfort, too. How I suffered, how I moped, that night! And I had known the object of my affections two short weeks! I'm surprised at myself even yet.