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Follow the Call

Chapter VII — A Tormented Lover

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Chapter VII
A Tormented Lover

I didn't let any grass grow under my feet after Alice had told me that she would “think it over.” My first step was to purchase a second-hand Indian motor bike, on the instalment system, and I used to whizz through to Hawera every Sunday and see her.

We were formally engaged about two months after Alice returned to her work, and I had to borrow £20 from my brother Bill in New Plymouth, before I could come to light with the engagement ring.

By this time the second autumn was approaching, and although my cows were doing much better than they had done during the autumn of the first season, I still found myself pinched for money, and it required much stinting and headwork before I was able to pay for all my farm requirements out of the monthly milk cheques.

I was ploughing up old worn out pastures, in addition to the land I had stumped and cleared, and all this had to be put into crops and finally sown down again in good grasses. And this work required money, which had to be found somehow or other, if I ever intended to get ahead of things.

For my eighteen cows I had put in six acres of swede turnips and ten acres of oats for early spring feed the next year, and I confidently expected to do pretty well the following season.

Alice and I had agreed to a long engagement; that would allow me time to arrange about building a new house.

The house was my chief worry. I would have to improve the returns of the farm very considerably before any firm would advance me sufficient money on mortgage to build a house. However, I didn't despair. I had two years before me, and a lot of things could be done in two years, if a man was only in earnest enough.

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As soon as my engagement was a recognised fact, I had a quiet yarn with Mrs. Watson about it. I felt that she had helped me in my courtship quite a good deal, and I took the opportunity of telling her so and thanking her.

As Alice was an orphan, I regarded Mrs. Watson as her guardian, and said to her the things I should have considered it right and proper to say to Mrs. Arnold, had she been alive. I said I would make it my life work to keep Alice in comfort and happiness, but I didn't disguise from her the fact that I thought I was far too dull and common a type to be worthy of the girl.

“What nonsense!” replied Mrs. Watson. “If you ask me, Alice is a very lucky girl; far luckier than she deserves.”

Of course I knew she only said that to cheer me up and prevent me from thinking too lowly of myself.

I thought such a lot of Alice at this time that I really believe I regarded her as more than human. Whenever I thought of our engagement I marvelled; it seemed too good to be true, and every now and then I would be filled with unpleasant forebodings and feel that something was going to happen, or that I was going to wake up some fine morning and find it all a dream.

And every Sunday when I saw Alice I used to part from her with a restless unsatisfied feeling, as if she was keeping something back from me. We still had the same difficulty in talking together, and half the time our conversation was at cross purposes. I couldn't seem to follow out her thoughts, and she most decidedly wasn't in sympathy with mine most of the time. The reason, I think, was because I was half afraid of the girl.

If I could have followed my own inclination, I should have been quite content to sit still and just look at the girl, but of course Miss Alice wouldn't have put up with too much of that.

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I did learn something, however, about the gentle art of courtship. When in doubt, pay a compliment.

That was the one thing I could always score a hit with, when everything else failed. As soon as I learned this great truth, that a girl is always ready and eager to swallow a compliment, I began to brisk up. Perhaps I even overdid the thing, but if so, I was never taken to task about it.

I've noticed since, how sensible and level-headed girls all have the same little weakness. It doesn't matter how sensible and discerning they are, a tactful compliment neatly turned, fetches a smile every time. It seems to be feminine nature; they have to smile, even if they detest the man who compliments them. Then of course, as they've accepted the homage, they have to be civil in return.

I went out of my way and led the conversation into all sorts of queer byroads in order to work in my flights of sentiment and fancy, but in all my attempts, I never said anything to Alice that I didn't regard as strictly true. I didn't just make up nice things and throw them at her.

At first, shyness prevented me from saying half the nice things that came into my head, but I discovered that was no good. It was all very well to think these things, but I soon found out that Alice was no mind reader; I had to put them into words.

As our intimacy grew I got into the habit of saving up unusual thoughts that occurred to me while at home working, and then trying them on Alice on Sundays when I went to see her. But through it all there was an undercurrent of uneasiness in my heart.

I was too loyal to Alice to attribute the lack of mutual telepathy to want of depth in her; I simply assumed that it was my fault.

I could feel that she did not respond, when I touched on serious subjects, and I supposed that it was because somehow or other I failed to strike the right note. As time went on, I hoped that Alice would page 86 learn to see beneath my rough exterior, and realise the depth of love and feeling of which I was capable. It always seemed to me that she accepted my vows of fidelity and love with reservations, and it became my ambition to remove those doubts from her mind.

As soon as the winter set in, and the cows were all dry, a fellow named Clive Owens came to me with a proposition.

I had hundreds of cords of good saleable firewood on the back of my farm. It was all in the form of tree trunks, and required to be sawn, split, and then carted, but to good men there was money in the business.

Clive suggested that he and I should go into partnership with it, and split wood all the winter for sale in town. The more I thought over the proposition the more it appealed to me; it would mean a hard winter, but then I thought of the money I would be able to make.

Clive Owens was a returned soldier like myself. He had done no good for himself since getting back to New Zealand, and was considered locally to be rather a rolling stone, as well as a bit of a waster. He liked company, and was often to be seen in town rolling about under the influence of liquor; the thing of all things that country people are down on.

I liked Clive. His boozing habits didn't worry me; he only went on the bust occasionally, and when he did have a spree it was his own money he was spending. Other people could raise their hands in horror if they liked; I much preferred poor old Clive to some of the young men that didn't drink, but instead, went in for being gay dogs and ladies' men. Clive had a free, jolly manner, and his character was written on his face for all to see. Happy-go-lucky, careless and good natured, he was one of those men doomed to go through life from the start—a failure.

His one thought, on receiving his pay, was to get away and spend it. He had tried navvying, working page 87 in the sawmills, driving a grocer's cart, stumping by contract, and goodness only knows what else, only to tire of each in its turn and drop it to look for something fresh.

In spite of shifting about so much, Clive was a good worker while he was on a job, so I accepted his offer about the wood, and he shifted his clothes and blankets into my house and knocked up a bush stretcher to sleep in. All through that winter he and I split and sawed firewood, until by the time it was necessary that I should knock off and attend to the farm work again, we had knocked up a very respectable cheque, averaging £1 a day each all through.

What surprised me most was the way Clive stuck to it, and I did my best to encourage him to turn over a new leaf, thinking that if he once started to save money it might be the making of him.

Just before the commencement of the approaching milking season I made a great change in my prospects and future outlook by buying another fifty acre farm next to my own.

The owner, an old Dane named Axel Johnsen, was in hospital, suffering from some chronic disease. There was no chance of his recovering sufficiently to be able to return and work the place himself, so he approached me to see if I would buy the place from him, lock, stock and barrel.

Axel's terms were so easy that I jumped at the offer. He didn't ask for any cash at all; all he wanted was to sell to a reliable man, so as to be sure of getting the interest every time it was due, and I took the place over just as it stood, with twenty cows, milking-machine, horses, and implements.

There was a good house on Axel's farm, and I think that influenced me more than anything. It meant that I could live there instead of having to worry about raising money to build on my own section.

The two farms combined were capable of “doing” forty cows, and I offered Clive the chance of stopping page 88 on with me for the season, as I knew I should require to hire a man to help me, whether he decided to accept the job or not.

Clive and I hit it very well together. We both had a queer kink of humour and could see the kind of joke that most other people couldn't understand after it was explained to them. In addition, I had found Clive to be a good honest worker, which counted for a good deal. If a man is honest in his work, you can usually depend on him in other things.

Clive wanted a week off before commencing work with me on the farm. I knew what it was. The big cheque he had earned wood-splitting was burning a hole in his pocket, and he wanted to get away and cut it out in his usual manner. I persuaded him to start a post office savings bank account, but he did it under protest. He seemed to think it a sheer waste of good money, pushing it over the post office counter in that manner.

Every Sunday, of course, I was away from home seeing my sweetheart, and Clive used to visit the people round about. Although Mr. Treadwell was treating me with the chilly disdain he reserved for people he didn't like, he took quite a fancy to Clive, and used to invite him along to dinner about every other Sunday or so.

Clive had a natural tact, seldom found in such a harum-scarum fellow as he was, and during all the time he was with me I never heard him say anything likely to wound a person's finer feelings. If he ever had occasion to allude to my visits to Alice he did so in a matter of fact, natural manner, not considering the subject as calling for an exhibition of his wit, or anything like that.

Most young fellows, I notice, seem to be under the impression that a man courting is a natural butt for them to practise on. As soon as they find some unfortunate rushing off two or three times a week to visit some girl, the fun commences all around. Unless page 89 the poor chap is prepared to take a firm stand, and resent their cheap humour right from the start—with violence, if necessary—he is in for a bad spin. Clive was not like that. He could listen and smile at anyone being baited, but a natural delicacy, hard to account for in such a man, seemed to prevent him from joining in personally. For a long time, in his acquaintanceship with Mr. Treadwell, he used to listen to sly hints and allusions concerning me, which the old gentleman used to put out as feelers, but Clive never used to bite. And to his credit he never attempted to fan the flame of the squabble by repeating any of Tready's remarks to me. He just used to let the old boy ramble on, and take no notice of him.

But one day he got some news from the old scandal-monger that he thought I ought to hear, and he scared a year's growth out of him by remarking suddenly:

“I can hardly swallow that, Mr. Treadwell, but if it's true, I think old Mark ought to know about it; and if it ain't true, he ought to know all the more. I must tell him.”

“Don't say I told it you—don't say I told it you,” said Mr. Treadwell hastily.

“Well,” said Clive, with a grin, “I'll have to tell him where it comes from, won't I, or he might think it started from me.”

“Don't tell him at all,” said Mr. Treadwell, “Let him find out for himself; he'll find out soon enough.”

Clive gave me the news that evening, in spite of this sage advice. It was serious enough. The Treadwells had got into communication with someone down at Hawera that knew Alice and the aunt with whom she stopped, and the tale they were spreading so industriously was to the effect that Alice never wore her engagement ring during the week, and that some young fellow from out Manaia way was calling and taking her to the pictures twice every week.

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“You know, Mark—” apologised Clive, “none of my business, you know, only seems to me a fellow ought to be put wise to that sort of rotten rumour. Then he can take steps.”

I took steps, all right. I waylaid Mr. Treadwell and fairly raved at him, the very next morning. He looked down his nose sulkily, but didn't offer a word in self-defence, and that confirmed my suspicion that the yarn started with him. It wasn't the first of its kind he had launched. The man had a positive genius for that sort of thing. Usually I laughed at him, but this time it was serious; he had dared to cast a shadow on Alice's fair name. After promising what I'd do if I had any more of that sort of thing, I dismissed the matter from my mind. Of course I didn't believe it for a second. To doubt Alice was the very last thing that would have occurred to me.

A day went by. I don't suppose I should have thought another word about the business, only it was recalled to my mind again in a manner there was no ignoring, this time, by Mrs. Watson.

Alice boarded with an aunt, Mrs. Watson's sister, and Mrs. Watson got the news from her. It was true after all, that miserable rumour.

Mrs. Watson almost cried when she spoke to me about it.

“It isn't fair, Mark!” she said, “I won't let Alice do that sort of thing and not say anything. She has a good honourable boy, and she should treat him properly. When you see her, put your foot down firmly, even if it means breaking with her. If you don't you'll never be able to manage her afterwards. Now is the time to have an understanding, once for all.”

I couldn't reply. I was busy swallowing a lump in my throat as big as a duck's egg. Finally I managed to pull myself together, and said:

“I expect Alice has a good reason for anything she has done. I'll see her on Sunday, anyhow, and she'll be able to explain.” My heart was sick and page 91 heavy at the confirmation of the news from such a trustworthy quarter, but I refused to blame Alice in any way until I had heard what she had to say about it.

I went through to Hawera that Sunday, and we thrashed the thing out. Alice never attempted to deny the rumour. Instead of that she took up rather a peculiar attitude.

Yes, she went to the pictures Tuesdays and Fridays, with a “friend.” Surely I didn't expect her to mope at home every evening, just because she had the misfortune to be engaged to me? If I was so much against her going out of an evening, for a little innocent enjoyment, why didn't I come through and take her myself? She was sure it made no difference to her who took her.

I said: “Of course, Alice, I don't expect you to remain cooped up inside every evening, only is it wise to go about with one man so much? Who is this ‘friend’? Is there any danger of his becoming more than a ‘friend’?”

“Suppose there is?” flashed Alice, defiantly. “It's all your fault! You leave me here, week in, week out, while you go about enjoying yourself.”

I sighed at that. My way of enjoying myself was by toiling from daylight until after dark, all day long, in order to get a home together worthy of her.

But I knew Alice too well to start an argument over her statement.

“Look here, little lady,” said I, “You know it isn't that I don't trust you. I think so much of you that I feel sure you will play the game; only, Alice, what about this other poor beggar? Is it fair to him? It isn't to be expected that he can keep from falling in love with you, if you go about with him. Perhaps he's in love already.”

“Pooh! What nonsense!” replied Alice. “It's simply a platonic friendship. I must have some amusement in this dull hole, or I'll die of sheer ennui, so page 92 Leslie and I do the pictures twice a week. Goodness! Such a fuss over a little thing!”

She took her engagement ring, and twirled it between finger and thumb: “Perhaps you would like to be released, Mr. Woodford?”

“Good God! Don't talk in that way, Alice!” I exclaimed.

“Well,” she returned, “It's the usual thing, isn't it. If you are not satisfied with my conduct I see no use in our keeping up the engagement.”

“I've told you—” I burst forth, “everything you do is right, as far as I'm concerned. Put the ring back on your finger, dear, I hate to see it off like that.”

“Perhaps I don't want to put it back?” said Alice, with a lift of her eyebrows.

It was just as I had always feared. Our first serious difference, and I was reduced to a state of pitiful dread, while Alice was coolly, calmly, weighing the thing out in her mind, and deliberating as to whether she would continue or sever the engagement.

I made an unconditional surrender, and as soon as I had done that Alice dropped her hard, aloof bearing and broke down at once.

“Oh, I'm such a wretch!” she exclaimed, her face crinkling with emotion. “Poor, poor, Mark!” We were conversing in the drawing room of her aunt's house, and I moved up close and took her little hand in mine.

“Don't blame yourself, Alice,” I said earnestly. To see her crying brought me right to my knees. “Of course I know it has been slow and lonely for you. My farm is paying all right, now. Suppose we get married this winter? Then you won't have to work miles away from me any more.”

Alice snuggled up close and leaned her head against my shoulder.

“And I'll get a situation in Stratford in the meantime,” said she. “I know I can, and then we can see each other oftener.”

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I heaved a sigh of relief at that. If Alice could contemplate so coolly moving to Stratford, she evidently wasn't very much enamoured with this Leslie.

I supported the suggestion with enthusiasm, and left Hawera that afternoon, a very much happier man than I had entered it.

But I wasn't satisfied. I was frightened to the depths of my soul. The day's conversation with Alice had shown me only too clearly, how small a hold I had on her fancy. It only needed some little thing to offend her, and I could see what was likely to happen. She would cast me adrift with as little compunction as she would throw away a faded flower.

In little country districts everybody's business is always everybody else's, and it wasn't long before all my neighbours were aware that Alice Arnold was working in Stratford. I still used to pay her my Sunday visit, but in addition to that I was able to slip into town once or twice during the week as well.

She really did exert herself to be nice to me at this period; I think she felt it was up to her to try and make up to me for the fright she had given me over Mr. Leslie. I don't think I ever had prouder moments than the occasions on which I was escorting little Alice about to different places. Just to see her tripping along lightly at my side used to fill me with a sense of wonder. Sad to say, my presence had quite an opposite effect upon her. There was hardly a visit I paid her, but she found fault with some portion of my wardrobe. Just to please, I turned myself into a perfect dude during those few months. It went against the grain, too, because if it hadn't been for Alice I'd sooner have died than have donned some of the styles she liked. Her glance of approval, however, paid for all the torture. If she liked coloured socks and loud ties, then they must be in taste, that was how I argued the matter, because she certainly knew how to dress in taste herself. Sometimes, as we were walking about the street of Stratford, other page 94 young men used to nod to her. She seemed to know quite a lot of them, considering the short time she had been in the town. Whenever I caught any of these nods I used to be overwhelmed with an awful, unreasoning jealousy. They say courting is the happiest time of a man's life, but it has its drawbacks, especially when the girl is as elusive and hard to please as Alice was.

I still used to drop in on the Watsons every little while. Elsie Watson was growing into a fine woman.

“Just think, Mark,” she said to me, one day, “we are quite old friends. Why, when you came here first I had hardly left school, and now I'm eighteen.

“You don't seem eighteen to me,” I laughed. “Just a bit of a kid.”

“Oh yes, of course!” said Elsie. “You can't see anyone at all except your wonderful Alice; that we all know.”

There seemed a tinge of bitterness in her words, and I glanced at her in surprise. It was strange to hear sweet, gentle little Elsie Watson saying anything in that tone, and especially about her cousin Alice.

“What's up, little sister?” said I, “Don't you feel up to the mark to-day?”

Little sister was the pet name I had given to Elsie long before. She was such a sympathetic little thing that I was always sure of a kindly reception from her if I felt moody or downhearted. She seemed to be able to tell how I felt by some sort of instinct, but on this occasion she rather surprised me. Instead of making some smiling answer, as she usually did, when I addressed her in that way she flushed up angrily, and said:

“Mark, sometimes I think you're quite a fool!” and then flounced out of the room, almost in tears.

I couldn't think what was wrong. In all our almost three years of pally friendship, Elsie had never before given evidence of being a girl of moods. Had it been Alice, I should have known exactly what to page 95 do. I should have assumed that with my usual lack of good taste, I had managed to offend in some way, and the cure for that was always the same. If I looked miserable and unhappy enough Alice always relented and forgave me in the end.

Elsie was different. I had never bothered to try and talk up to Elsie, or pick my words; we were always such good friends that speech didn't matter at all; if I didn't feel like talking I wasn't expected to.

After Elsie had flounced out of the room in what looked to me uncommonly like a burst of temper, I sat silent and confounded. A minute passed, and she failed to return and explain herself, so I went out to find her and see what was wrong.

Mrs. Watson was in the kitchen, rolling out a batch of scones, when I arrived there, but no sign of her daughter.

“I can't think what I must have said to offend Elsie,” said I, in consternation. “She rushed away almost in tears.”

Mrs. Watson put down her rolling pin and sighed deeply.

“Girls are strange creatures, Mark,” she said. “You never will be able to understand them, so just take no notice of her. My little girl is growing up, and I suppose she has whims and fancies that we don't know anything about. It doesn't take much to upset us sometimes,” she concluded, with a laugh.

I felt she was just saying that to relieve my mind, because her voice had a sad note in it that belied the laugh at the end of her words.

“By Jove!” exclaimed I, with a flash of inspiration. “Perhaps she's in love? If so, that accounts for everything. I know enough about that to know that it excuses any sort of temperamental turn.”

“If she is,” replied Mrs. Watson, “she is keeping it to herself.”

“There's nobody about here half good enough for Elsie,” I declared warmly.

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I left for home soon after this, without having seen my little friend again, and the thought of what had occurred worried me until my next visit.

“How did I tread on your toes last time I was here?” I asked, on meeting her again.

“Don't be silly, old Mark!” she returned. “You didn't tread on them. I suppose I got out of bed on the wrong side. You mustn't imagine you are the only person in the world subject to fits and starts of temper,” she ended playfully.

“Now, now!” said I, “Don't rub it in. I know I am supposed to have a fair share of it, that's if you listen to Mr. Treadwell on the subject—but you are not subject to such a failing, I'm sure. I haven't known you for three years to be in doubt of that.”

Elsie refused any further explanation, however, and we changed the subject after that, and commenced to discuss plans for the entertainment of Alice on her next holidays at the farm. The time was drawing nigh again, and we intended to give her as royal a time of it as was possible, on her arrival.