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Follow the Call

Chapter VI — Alice Will Think It Over

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Chapter VI
Alice Will Think It Over

I suppose I was a moral coward, but I found it impossible to tell Alice how poorly my farming venture was faring. I was more in love with her than ever, and I am afraid, without being exactly a liar, I led her to believe that my prospects were fairly bright. I stilled the whisperings of my conscience by assuring myself that “so they were.”

In spite of our tendency to see things differently, I found I was getting a fairly good hearing. We had a heart to heart talk, the evening I drove her in to the pictures, and without actually being accepted by the lady, I came back brimming with hope. I was “on trial,” and it rested with me to so improve the opinion Alice held me in, as to get her to say “yes,” without any restrictions such as she at present imposed.

A couple of days after I had been elevated to the proud position of chief admirer to the lady of my heart, Peter Watson harvested his six acres of oats, and everybody in the locality turned up to help. I arrived on the scene bright and early. I had donned a white shirt, in lieu of my ordinary coloured working shirt, and wore my second best suit of clothes. Naturally enough my appearance created quite a sensation amongst all the other farmers. They were not in love, so of course it hadn't occurred to them to tog up anything specially; their ordinary working clothes seemed quite good enough to wear, as far as they were concerned.

I saw I was going to have an unpleasant day of it. Most of the men present, after having a smile and joke at my expense, were prepared to drop the subject, but Mr. Treadwell, Bob, and Alex, thought it far too fine a chance to let it slip by. They kept alluding to my “glad rags” every time the work of the field took them anywhere within hearing of me, and wondering in audible asides when the wedding was to take place.

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Jack Wilcox was the only other “trier,” and my appearance so far eclipsed his that he almost escaped notice. He had turned up in clean new denims and his best boots—that was as far as his imagination had taken him.

In a forlorn, hopeless, dogged sort of way old Jack was still pegging along paying his court to Alice. She took absolutely no notice of him; didn't even rank him in the list of the possibles, I believe, but Jack didn't seem to realise that. He used to drop in at the Watsons almost as often as I did, and sit about saying nothing, unless directly addressed. I wasn't at all worried about him, and Arty had slung in the mitt altogether, and didn't even bother to visit.

During the day I took a good deal of not altogether good natured chaff from the Treadwell boys, Bob in particular being very sarcastic. I can stand any amount of “fun,” provided I know there is no deliberate attempt at hurting the feelings, but when the fun is tinctured with malice and sting, I am inclined to become rusty about it.

At three in the afternoon the ladies of the house appeared on the scene with buckets of hot tea and baskets of cakes and scones. This was the best part of the day, the part I had been looking forward to. It was the reason I was wearing my second best suit of clothes, and a shirt with a soft collar attached. Alice was helping to carry the food.

The bombardment of bucolic wit I had been enduring all day had not been without its effect upon me. My face ached with trying to smile every time anyone remarked on my gala regalia; curse the white shirt; how I wished I hadn't put it on! My nerves were so frazzled by three o'clock that I began to feel an absolute hatred for one or two of the worst offenders.

In spite of all the joking, however, I sidled up and managed to get a seat on the grass alongside Elsie and Alice. The fun was fast and furious, but while I sat there I didn't mind. I knew that Elsie regarded page 69 it as crude and out of taste, and although Alice laughed with the rest I could sense that she also was inclined to think the joke a little overdone and long drawn out.

As is usual, in the hay field, the boys went in for a little mild skylarking. Alex Treadwell crept up behind Alice and almost buried her under a huge armful of straw, while at the same moment, Bob, who had been waiting his chance, dashed under the heap just as it was descending. There was a muffled shriek, and presently the two emerged again in a smother of seed and dust. It may have been my miserably suspicious nature, yet, by the way the flushes chased themselves across Miss Alice's face, I more than half suspected that Bob had snatched a kiss, while they scuffled under that heap of straw.

If he did, I don't blame him; it's only what I wanted to do, but didn't have the nerve. At the time, however, I could cheerfully have murdered him.

I waited for Alice to get her breath, expecting her to denounce him (how simple I was in those days!) but if he did kiss her, Alice evidently wasn't publishing the fact.

In a fit of moody sulks I filled my pipe and strolled away to look at the stack. He could kiss her if he wanted to, I didn't care. In fact I didn't even care about stopping to look on, I was so disinterested. I'd show her she couldn't make me jealous.

Mr. Treadwell was stack builder. He was already back on his job, walking around the stack examining it with a critical eye, and raking at it with a wooden hayrake. Stack building, with Tready, was one of the serious businesses of life; only very gifted men should attempt it.

“How does she look?” he inquired, on perceiving me.

I replied that I thought that the lee side was coming to a top slightly faster than the weather.

“Pshaw!” said Mr. Treadwell, snorting indignantly at the idea of my daring to express a direct page 70 criticism on his work. “It's easy seen you don't know much about stack building!”

He was quite right. I never pretended to a knowledge of the art, but it didn't improve my temper and general state of mind to be told so abruptly. I had merely repeated the opinion held by other men in the field. As he had asked me, I thought he really wanted to know the truth, so that he could take steps to rectify any faults of construction on resuming work. But evidently, instead of that, Mr. Treadwell had been fishing for a compliment.

Shortly after this Bob came rushing round the corner to me, accompanied by a couple of grinning companions. “Oh, here he is!” he exclaimed. “Just the man we're looking for, Mark!”

“Well, what is it?” said I shortly. From the expression on Bob's face, and the eager expectation shown by the other two young fellows, I knew that it was going to be one of his “jokes,” and I wasn't feeling in the mood for much more of that kind of baiting.

“Miss Arnold says, that if you're sure you won't mind, she thinks she'd like to go to the dance next Wednesday with me,” said Bob, as if delivering a message. “Only if you don't mind, of course. I'm to take the answer back at once,” he sniggered, “before the ladies take the tea things back to the house.”

Some more of the men had collected and a general titter went around. I know what I should have done. I should have laughed and made a joke of the thing, but I didn't. I looked at Bob, standing there with a smug, self satisfied smirk on his face, and I saw red. “You're to take your answer back to Miss Arnold at once are you?” said I, quietly. “Well, here it is, Bob, take this back, with my compliments.” With that I landed on the point of his nose with my right fist, and followed up immediately. It was no fight. It wouldn't have been so bad if it had been. Inside of ten seconds Bob was surrounded by his excited and page 71 angry father and brother, while some of the other men were holding on to me.

The fuss old Treadwell made of this little mix-up one would have thought that Bob was the only man in the world that had ever had his head punched. He wanted Peter Watson to send for the police at once, and when Peter only laughed at him, the Treadwell family left the field in a body, Bob flourishing a blood-stained handkerchief, while Alex guided his faltering footsteps.

How the business had come about in the first place was through Bob, who was in ignorance of the fact that I was to drive Alice to the dance, asking her if she would care to go with him.

Alice had replied: “Ask Mr. Woodford, he had arranged to take me to it. If you can get him to waive his claim, then come and ask me again.” Alice had considered that as good as a definite “no,” or if anything, even more positive, as it showed that she already had an escort. Bob had accepted it as such, but the temptation to continue the baiting all day had proved too much for him, and he had hunted me out to try his wit once more.

The dance in question was on the following evening, and instead of escorting Alice, or any other girl, to it, poor Bob was forced to lie low, until nature faded some of the colour out of his black eye and brought it back to normal again.

What with haymaking, listening to fools making merry at my expense all day, and finally quarrelling, I had had a pretty severe day of it, so that night after tea I did not go over to the Watsons, but went to bed instead. As a matter of fact I think I was afraid to go over. I tossed and turned for half the night, thinking of what a fool I had made of myself. Probably, I thought, the girl would refuse to go to the dance with me, after what had happened. Most likely she would snub me direct, and refuse to let me speak to her even. A cultured, finely strung girl like Alice page 72 Arnold was not going to overlook that sort of conduct.

The more I thought of it, the worse it seemed to be. What would she think of a man who couldn't even stand a little fun being poked at him without losing his temper? I tried to tell myself that Bob had asked for it, but that made it no better. Even if he had asked for it, he had never expected to get it. There was only one thing to be done, and that was to wait until Wednesday evening, call with the gig, and see how Alice behaved to me about it.

Wednesday evening arrived. I tied my horse up to the fence at the roadside, and crept up the path to the house like a condemned man doing the last walk. I knocked at the door with such a will that I had to repeat it about four times, and each time I knocked I felt meaner and more of a criminal.

Then old Peter, with his usual tact, threw open the door and bawled: “Ha! Here's the man-killer!” I think he might have announced my arrival more modestly, myself, but it didn't matter, as it happened. I entered the room to find myself the centre of interest.

Elsie came and hung over the back of my chair admiringly, and whispered: “Good old Mark! It served him right!” while Mrs. Watson made me a drink of tea, and Alice graciously plied me with scones and cakes. I had arrived early, and had to wait at the house for half an hour before there was any need to get under way.

My reception amongst the ladies was a great relief to me; I had crept in half expecting to get snubbed all round, but instead of that they were making quite a hero of me. I felt I was prepared to deal with a dozen Bobs, one after another, to get such a hearing, but all the same I felt just the tiniest bit disappointed in Alice. It seemed hard to believe that such a sweet, tender-hearted angel could be anything else but deeply shocked and pained at such a vulgar, brutal thing as a brawl. However, she wasn't. Instead of it having that effect on her, she actually condoned the offence, page 73 and said it served Bob right, for daring to ask me, when he knew quite well that he was the last person in the world that she would go anywhere with.

When we arrived at the dance hall I tied my horse up in the horse paddock provided, and we then started in to enjoy ourselves. I was not a very skilful dancer, but there was a string orchestra playing that was lively enough to make a wooden man wish to get out and try.

I had the first dance with Miss Arnold, of course. She was dressed in a simple white frock, and looked so absolutely stunning that the other fellows mobbed her for dances as soon as I had escorted her back to the seat.

When a man takes a girl to a dance, around our way, he usually expects to have the first dance, supper waltz, and last dance. These are considered his by right, and if he wants any others in between, he has to arrange for them. I knew I wasn't a very good dancer, so seeing that Alice was getting plenty of partners, I resigned myself to the prospect of just having the three that were mine by right of bringing her, but I was too optimistic by far.

I did try for a waltz or so in between, but Alice was engaged every time, so finally I said: “All right, enjoy yourself, but remember to save the supper waltz, won't you?”

After speaking for the supper waltz, just in case the lady might forget (she shouldn't do, as it was mine by custom) I retired out into the hall porch, and smoked tranquilly until the time came for me to go in and claim the dance. As soon as it was announced, in I dashed, all eagerness, just in time to see Alice taking the arm of someone else. She saw me coming towards her and gave a queer little tantalising smile, then glided smoothly off to the music, as if there was no such person as Mark Woodford in all the world.

The partner she danced with took her in to supper, while I moped out in the porch and wondered what page 74 was the proper thing to do. I thought of going in and dragging the favoured gentleman out by the hair; of harnessing up the horse and leaving the fair Alice to walk home after the show was over; of—— Heaven only knows what awful plans crossed my mind, during that supper interval. Luckily, I had sense enough not to try any of them out, and instead brooded in corners until near the last dance. Then Miss Alice searched for me personally and gave me a good old wigging for hiding myself away all the evening. “I've been looking for you ever since supper,” said she, in an injured tone. “I wanted to tell you how it was I didn't dance the supper waltz with you. I found I had engaged myself in two places for it, and I knew you wouldn't mind saving me from an embarrassing position.”

Of course once I found I'd been useful to the girl I bucked up. It was rather nice of her to put it that way; I'd let her see that she could always depend upon me in cases like that. “Can I have the last dance?” I asked diffidently.

If I wanted to I could, certainly, but wouldn't it be better if I went out and harnessed up the horse and brought the gig around to the door of the hall, and then as soon as the dance was over Alice could come straight out and climb in, without any waiting in the cold?

I agreed that that was a very sensible suggestion and then sadly departed to put it into execution. By the time the last dance was over I had the conveyance on the road opposite the door of the hall. The night was pitch dark, and outside of the radius of my gig lamps I found it hard to see anything, but after waiting impatiently for a matter of perhaps ten minutes I managed to make out the forms of two people standing about a chain away. I wondered what was keeping Alice; perhaps she was waiting for me to go into the hall and escort her out.

Just as I had reached the limit of my patience, and was climbing out of the gig to tie the horse up and page 75 investigate, the two people I had before noticed moved in my direction, and I discovered that one of them was Alice—the other was the gentleman who had taken her in to supper earlier in the evening. Alice hoped I hadn't been kept waiting long! The gentleman with her said a lingering good-bye, and then she condescended to climb into the gig and I drove her home. It had been a grand dance, a glorious dance: she had enjoyed every minute of it. Why was I so silent! Hadn't I had a good time?

“Good time!” said I bitterly, and then words failed me.

I glanced at Alice. She was eyeing me with her chin set at a determined angle. “Well?” said she. “Go on!”

“Go on, what?” I replied.

“Say what you're thinking of me,” said Alice “Tell me how badly I've behaved to you to-night.”

“If you realise that you haven't played quite fair with me,” I returned, “that's sufficient. I see no reason to chew it over now. It's done, let's forget it.”

“Mr. Woodford,” said Alice, “you are too—too—I don't know how to put it!”

“Too slow and stupid for words,” I finished for her. “I know that, Alice. I can't help it. I'd be different for you if I knew how. I don't blame you for not wanting to dance with me because I know quite well how dull and clumsy I always am in a ballroom.”

“It isn't that at all,” replied Alice. “I'm a selfish little beast. I simply love to get good partners, at a dance, but that isn't the reason I behaved so meanly to-night.” Her voice quivered: “I believe it was just to see how much you would stand from me—I don't know why I did it! I only know that I behaved horribly to you, and I'm sorry.”

“Never mind, old lady,” I replied. “You can wipe your boots on me if you wish to. Don't go feeling bad about it.”

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“Oh, you—you!” exclaimed Alice with exasperation. “You won't understand! Why don't you get angry? Why don't you scold me?”

I looked at the girl in surprise. “I can't get angry with you Alice,” I replied gently. “I haven't any right to. It was quite right of you to dance where you liked. I took you to the dance to see you enjoy yourself and I'm glad you did. I want you to know, Alice,” I continued earnestly, “that whatever you do, however you treat me, in the future, I shall always believe in you sufficiently to know that you are in the right. That's how I feel about you. I don't think it possible for such a fine, sweet-natured girl as you are, to treat me badly, unless the fault in the first place is my own. As for being offended because you preferred to dance with good dancers, well, if I allowed myself to be that, I should be a poor speciman of a lover. I consider myself the luckiest fellow on earth to be allowed to take you to the dance; that's honour enough without you making a martyr of yourself all the evening as well.”

“Mark, you don't know much about girls!” said Alice, changing the subject suddenly.

It was the first time she had ever called me “Mark,” and I noticed it. I said “No, I had never courted anyone before,” and Alice laughed, and advised me to be more lively and cheery and talkative.

It may have been quite good advice, but I failed to see how I was going to follow it, especially the being more lively and cheery part, if my loved one intended to treat me to any more such soul-searing experiences as I had gone through that night. For in spite of my telling Alice that it didn't matter, and making light of it, her neglect had wounded me very much. Why didn't I get angry! Why didn't I scold her? I knew why! I had a pretty good reason for not riding any high horse. Although I was so much in love myself, it didn't require much grey matter to figure out the fact that Alice was as yet perfectly heartwhole and page 77 fancy free. I only had to offend her once, and I knew what was going to happen. I was going to be packed off about my business, without so much as a chance of explaining myself or eating humble pie. The very thought of such a terrible thing happening was enough to bring me to heel. If we did have a difference and part, it was not Alice that was going to do the suffering. She would go away and promptly forget me, or worse still, remember me with an amused smile, while I would go home and eat my heart out. My last year's experience had given me a taste of what that sort of thing was like, and I didn't want to repeat the dose. In fact, by this time I was so much in love that I was prepared to put up with any treatment at all, provided I was allowed to hang on and hope.

What most fellows would have done, after that dance, would have been to drop the girl and try somewhere else, but I was built differently. I just had to keep on keeping on, and Miss Alice knew it.

With a face as demurely innocent as a wee child's, that girl could devise the most ingenious and harrowing tortures. While pretending to talk to someone else, she could contrive to have me grilling on the rack, and the more I winced and wriggled under the ordeal, the more she would continue to rub in the acid. If I ventured to protest ever so little, afterwards, she would say: “Goodness, how you do take things to yourself! Why, I wasn't even talking to you at the time I said that.”

Then I would close up like a book, and wonder why providence had created me with such a suspicious, touchy mind. But sometimes Alice would be visited with momentary fits of remorse, and on these occasions she used to give herself away. These fits were not very frequent, but whenever they came over her she used to start calling herself names. Even then her remorse was more to be feared than not. She always started off very well, generally by alluding to herself page 78 as a mean little cat, a selfish beast, or something similar, but after that was got over she usually turned around and had a hit at me. Why didn't I stop her? Why didn't I tell her, when I saw her going beyond what was fair and right. What on earth was the use of a man that hadn't the sense to stick up for himself? It only encouraged people to slight him.

That used to be my cue. As soon as Alice got to the pertinent question part of her remorse, I had to dash in and argue before she worked herself up into a state of indignant anger about me. If I just let her run on (I tried it once) she asked question after question, each one a little more personal and accusing, until at the end she proved it was all my fault, and had me so scared and dejected, that all I could do was salaam and beg pardon.

The best way, if she started on that stunt, was to head her off with an argument. I got pretty handy at that. I found, very early in our intercourse, that by a judicious system of contradiction I could sometimes so work things as to get my own way. Providing Miss Alice thought she was going the opposite to me she was satisfied. I don't remember ever meeting such a girl for arguing as she was. It didn't matter a button what it was about: the main thing seemed to be to keep me from feeling conceited. I had to be taught that I didn't know everything.

Sometimes I used to give in, just to have peace and quiet, but that was no good either. If I did that I was accused of having no mind. I've seen Alice box the compass two or three times in a really exciting argument, and then turn round and accuse me of being as changeable and shifty as a weather-cock. There was nothing slow or tame about courting Alice Arnold.

During Alice's fortnight at Watsons I think I proposed on an average of once every two days. Every time I popped the question I received an unsatisfactory answer. I used to go through all sorts of mental gymnastics, trying to work out plans for seeing her page 79 alone. None of my plans ever turned out to be the slightest use, but there was no need for me to have worried. It was wonderful (to me) the way Alice and I used to be left alone in the drawing room together. I don't suppose Alice thought it so wonderful, although she used to look so very innocent about it, and I'm quite sure Mrs. Watson and Elsie didn't think there was anything miraculous about it. In those days, however, I didn't know a great deal about the privileges allowed to lovers, and thought our little tete-a-tetes were solely due to a succession of wonderful accidents. First poor old Peter would have to go out and see that the pigs had not broken out of their solid concrete-yarded pig pen; then Mrs. Watson and Elsie would fade from the room murmuring some vague excuse about “seeing if the bread is all right,” and then I would seize the golden opportunity and propose.

In my experience, if there is one position more unbearable than any other, in love making, it is this being kept on tenterhooks. If a man is accepted, he is happy—or he ought to be. If he is refused definitely he knows the worst, and can act accordingly. But this hovering between, one day half delirious with joy, because of an extra sweet smile, the next day down in the depths of despair, because the lady has lost a hair comb or a brooch, or has had a tiff with someone in the house just before you arrived—that is the pace that kills.

Right up to the last day of Alice's stay I was kept in this suspense, and on the morning that she was to leave I arranged to drive her down to the station in the gig. I thought it would be a good chance to make a final determined try. All the way down the road she chattered gaily herself, not allowing me to get a word in edgeways. I tried to butt in once or twice, but I could see that she had no intention of allowing me to speak, so in the end I let her babble on, promising myself that I would force some kind of an answer page 80 out of her when we arrived upon the station platform.

On the station platform luck was against me. A couple of girls, evidently going by the same train, came smiling up to Alice and commenced talking to her.

I had a box of chocolates and a magazine I had thought to buy, in readiness for this leave-taking. I thought Alice might like them on the journey down, and I wished those girls would go away. I couldn't produce my little offering while they were there; I was quite awkward and tongue-tied enough without them for an audience.

They had no intention of going away; one would have thought that Alice was their long lost sister, the fuss they were making of her. She, as usual, had quite forgotten me. I might as well have been miles away, for all the notice she was taking of me. I stood at the side of those three chattering, gushing young ladies, and I don't believe the other two so much as realised that I knew Alice. I did my best. I looked as bright as I could, kept up an appearance of interest in their silly conversation, and cut in once or twice with a judiciously timed laugh. It was no good! Time was drawing near. I got fidgety. I hopped impatiently around to the near side so that Alice could see me, shifted my parcel about ostentatiously, blew my nose, looked at my watch, and went through one or two more little antics. Then the train whistled at the road crossing, just before the entrance to the station, and I became desperate.

I pushed myself in alongside of Alice, thus drawing the attention of the trio to the fact that I was a flesh and blood human man, and not the station hitching post, which they seemed to think, judging by the way they were ignoring my presence, and Jessie Keightly, one of the girls, smiled, and said: “Why, Mr. Woodford, what brings you here so early in the day?”

I looked at Alice. She was working off that modest, detached expression she saved for special times, looking down her nose from under her long page 81 eyelashes. If she had only given me half a glance, or said something, it would have been a help.

The train rattled and roared past us, coming slowly to a standstill, and the three girls prepared to jump aboard. I knew it was now or never, if I intended to make my parting gift. I held the parcel out awkwardly, and stammered: “I—— I—— These are to eat on the train.”

In my agitation I pushed the offering almost under Jessie's nose, and after starting back in surprise, she smiled a mischievous little smile, reached out her hand and said: “Er—thank you, Mr. Woodford, how kind of you!”

Well, that did it! If ever a man felt a fool, I did. Alice laughed outright, and I turned and bolted off the platform.

As soon as I was out of range of the battery of their eyes, my nerve returned somewhat, and mustering all my courage I dashed back again. The girls were aboard the train, which was just beginning to get into motion. Something had to be done, and quickly, if I meant Alice to have that parcel. I popped my head in at the window of their carriage, and was relieved to see that the gift was in her lap.

“Ah!” said I, “you got it all right! I meant it for you, Alice.”

“Pooh! Didn't we know it?” scoffed the third girl. I didn't know her, but she was evidently a good sort. The train gathered speed.

“What about my answer, Alice?” I demanded, walking alongside the moving carriage.

“What answer?” replied Alice innocently. The other girls were all ears, I could see that, but it couldn't be helped. Now or never was the time.

“The answer to my question ‘Will you marry me’?” I shouted, beginning to run.

“Look out, you'll be getting killed!” cried Alice in alarm. Then, as I still clung desperately to the window: “Yes—no—I'll think it over. Good-bye.”

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With that I let go of the carriage window, and the station master buttonholed me and began to discuss the railway rules and regulations in a loud voice. I did'nt mind him. I ate such humble pie that he decided to let me go with a caution, and as soon as he had walked around the corner out of my sight, I forgot him.

Whenever I think of that day I feel proud of myself. Considering I'm supposed to be a shy sort of fellow, I fancy that day takes a lot of beating. It isn't everyone can say they popped the question in front of a railway carriage full of gaping passengers. And look at all the other inconveniences I had to surmount!

The world seemed a jolly good old place as I drove home that day. An extra special sun seemed to be shining, instead of the dull old chap that usually officiated, and the fields and trees all about had a glossy, vital tint, brighter and fresher than I'd ever noticed before. Everything looked so nice that I felt I wanted to loiter on the road and admire, but then it suddenly struck me that if I wanted to win Alice I had to hustle about and make some money. Day dreaming was all very well, but after all what did “yes—no—I'll think it over” mean? It meant that if I could prove that I could keep her in comfort, she might marry me some of these days. It didn't mean that she was bound in any way; it didn't mean that she admitted any love for me; it only meant that if no one else came along in the meantime and snapped her up, while I was carving out a home for her, she'd condescend to consider marrying me.

B-rrr! Crack! “Gid-ap, Bloss!” I hit my lumbering old milk cart horse a whallop, to dispel the gloomy thoughts conjured up, and we rattled back to the farm.

“Work!” That was to be the war-cry.