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Follow the Call

Chapter VIII — Alice Inspects the House

Chapter VIII
Alice Inspects the House

With Clive Owens to help me on the farm, and milking machines to lighten the work, I found I was getting well ahead of things. Clive was a treasure. We were so well fitted to pull together that our very failings seemed to be more of a help than otherwise. For instance, my impatient and hustling disposition was counteracted to a certain extent by the fact that easygoing Clive was on hand to laugh at me whenever I tried to do too much, while slow-going Clive was forced, by my bustling example, to keep up some semblance of speed. Not that Clive was lazy by any means, but he was a very deliberate, thorough worker; too page 97 thorough, for farm work, where a certain amount of speed is essential if the work is ever to be done on time.

In all the things that really mattered, such as personal conduct and points of honour, we seemed to see practically eye to eye, and we never jarred on one another's nerves as some people do.

As yet, Clive hadn't seen Alice, and I was anxiously waiting a chance to introduce them, because he had agreed to stop on for another year. I wanted them to like each other, as Alice and I were to be married as soon as the winter arrived, and it would be awkward if they failed to hit it together. Also, I was proud of my fiancee, proud of my friend Clive, and I felt sure my judgment was all right in both cases, and that they would both think so.

As soon as ever Alice arrived for her holiday, Clive and I went to call. That fortnight was one of the happiest I had ever spent. Alice approved of my friend at once and set my mind completely at rest on that score. What pleased me more than anything was the amusement she derived from his conversation.

When it came to humour Clive and I were practically a pair; the same jokes always amused us, although perhaps I had a more subtle appreciation than he. If Alice could laugh with him, I knew very well she could laugh with me, and I explained her peculiar conduct in always seeming to miss the point, whenever I made a joke, by concluding that she did it for disciplinary reasons. She had to keep me down a little bit, otherwise I might be getting above myself with swelled head. In a lover girls prefer humility and worship, rather than undue familiarity, and too much laughing and joking spoils the romance of the thing. So I thought, but now I know better than that.

Girls like being kissed and hugged and squeezed, with plenty of laughter and jollity mixed with the treatment, that's the conclusion I've arrived at, and the fellow who goes in for this blind worshipping page 98 business has got to look out, or he'll get left in the end. They like it for a while, it flatters their vanity to be taken for an angel, but it soon grows tame.

As Alice hadn't yet seen the house she was to live in, we decided to make up a party and hold a house inspection. Mrs. Watson, Elsie, and Alice were to call on the following afternoon and go over the place. I thought it a good chance for them to suggest any improvements I might effect before furnishing and repapering.

The house itself was a six-roomed bungalow, with two brick chimneys, and was rather a nice place. Axel Johnsen had been a handy man with carpenters' tools, and had kept the place in good repair, as well as making sundry improvements on the original plan. From the front, he had continued the veranda all around the sunny side of the house, having doors opening out on it from the dining room and drawing room.

The grounds were nicely fenced in with live hedges, and all the paths leading to the front gate, wood shed, and garden, were of concrete. This, for the country, was a real luxury.

There was a small orchard on one side, and a piece of grassed down lawn large enough for a tennis court on the other. Of course Clive and I didn't bother trying to keep the place tidy, and everything about it looked wild and run to seed, but all the same it was a place that could be kept nice, and would well repay any interest taken in it.

“This will be your kingdom, Alice,” said I, indicating a wilderness of flowers and weeds.

“Me! Goodness!” declared Alice. “I couldn't be bothered with trying to garden; I detest that kind of work.” She moved on impatiently, and commenced to give Clive instructions as to how he should behave when visitors came to the house. Clive was in the kitchen, laughing at us from out the window.

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“Ladies and gentlemen—” commenced he. “Behold in me the grand master of ceremonies. Pray step inside, and I will escort you over the precincts in person.” He threw open the door with a flourish: “Enter the Vice-Regal compartments! Anything you see that you think you'd like, slip into your pockets. If it's too heavy, come back with a waggon later on.”

Clive showed them over the house. I had no furniture of any description, having postponed buying until I could get Alice to consent to select it herself. That didn't affect Clive, however.

“This, ladies and gentlemen——” said he, with an airy wave of his hand, “Is the kitchenette. Note the up-to-date arrangement of aluminium ware——” and he drew their attention to the two cut down kerosene tins we used for boiling potatoes and meat.

“And what's this?” demanded Elsie, lifting a dirty (very dirty) cloth off the corner of the box we used as a table.

“Oh, that——” said Clive, hardly giving it a glance. “In here, arranged upon this shelf, ladies, is the preservatory.” He pointed to a two pound tin of cheap jam and half a bottle of pickles.

“Never mind your preservatory,” interrupted Mrs. Watson. “What do you two bachelors use this filthy rag for?” Elsie lifted it by a corner as the question was put and shook it before Clive's unseeing eyes.

“Yes,” continued Clive, quite unabashed, “having seen all there is of interest here, we will now proceed to the drawing room, and inspect the old Chippendale and stained oak.”

“No we won't!” said Elsie determinedly. “As you are doing the honours of the mansion, Mr. Clive, you will please explain everything as you go along. What duty is this horrid rag used for?”

Clive eyed the rag as if he'd never seen it in his life before, took a deep breath, and said affably: “Certainly! I quite agree with you, Miss Watson. I think you speak very sensibly. As Mark said to me only page 100 this morning, in fact, he was most careful to impress it upon me, everything of interest had to be dwelt upon; so if you will all kindly turn to the right, and one pace forward, march! I will have exquisite pleasure in pointing out to you the plum tree in the orchard with the plum on it.” He paused for breath.

“Why!” shrieked Alice, “I do believe they use that horrid rag as a dish cloth!”

A silence; then Clive said, in a chastened voice: “Well, now you know, I hope you're all satisfied.”

It's a wonder you don't both catch fever!” marvelled Mrs. Watson. “Put it outside, dear—and then wash your hands.”

When Elsie returned, drying her hands on her pocket handkerchief—after refusing the doubtful looking towel I offered her—Clive took heart and commenced again.

“The guests will adjourn to the drawing room,” he announced pompously. “Madam, kindly take my arm——” and he proffered Alice his ridiculously kinked out elbow, Alice hooked on with a giggle, and they sailed importantly through the door, into the big central living room. It was a litter of dust, sacks, old newspapers and rubbish generally, but according to Clive it represented sixteenth century decoration, and the solitary benzine case there was a genuine King Louis armchair, size 9.

Mrs. Watson entered the room after them, lifting her skirts and stepping gingerly, and Elsie pressed up to me and squeezed my hand. That meant sympathy, from little Elsie, and I looked at her in surprise. I had been enjoying the nonsense hugely, and yet, there was she, with tears in her eyes.

“What's wrong, old lady?”

“Nothing, Mark.”

“Yes there is,” said I, “I do believe you feel sorry for me, because I live in such a wild place, you tender-hearted little goose.”

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“You may as well think that as anything else, I suppose,” was her unsatisfactory reply. I gazed at her in absolute amazement. Elsie was keeping me guessing in quite a lot of ways, just at that time.

“Never mind,” I said, “It won't be long now, before all this is changed. Another few months, and Alice and I will be married and then you'll see a difference.”

Elsie puzzled me even more, with her reply.

“Mark,” she said, “I've told you before, and I'm beginning to believe what I say; I believe you are the simplest man in the world.”

That was a nice bombshell to drop on a fellow without warning! After that I didn't try to understand her any more, and we rejoined the others. I felt a bit piqued. I didn't profess to be a know-all, but I didn't consider myself so simple as all that came to.

“Whatever do you use this thing for?” enquired Mrs. Watson, as I entered the room.

“That!” replied I, “That's a broom. We sweep up with that—when it needs it.”

The ladies glanced around disdainfully. “I suppose it will need it in another year or so?” said Elsie sweetly.

“Well, you see,” I explained, “we don't live in this room much, and it seems a pity to keep on sweeping out a room when nobody comes into it. Seems like waste of work.”

“Yes, but you could brush out the kitchen occasionally; that wouldn't overtax your strengths,” reproached Alice.

“Here, come off that!” exclaimed Clive indignantly. “I swept out the kitchen myself, only last night. In purpose for this visit, as a matter of fact.”

“That's exactly what it looks like!” countered Alice. “Come on, auntie, let's get outside. I'm sure there must be fleas, and all sorts of crawly insects in this awful place.” Trust Miss Alice to put the damper page 102 on the fun, if she thought I was having too much of a good time!

I had been eagerly looking forward to this visit from her, and picturing in my mind how we would go around the place together and examine the wallpaper, and decide on what brand of carpets we'd have, and all that sort of thing. Instead of that, instead of examining her future home, she might have been looking over some new kind of dog kennel at the Stratford Show, for all the real interest she displayed.

After a cursory inspection of our hard case looking crockery, as they went back through the kitchen, the ladies refused my tentative offer of afternoon tea and took their departure.

It was getting on in the afternoon, so I went off to muster up the cows for the evening milking. On thinking over the events of the afternoon I felt more satisfied. Of course it was silly of me to expect Alice to “gush” over the place. Her natural modesty would prevent her from making suggestions, or in any way trying to influence me concerning the house, while in the presence of third persons.

I told myself I expected too much, and it served me right when Alice gave me set backs. She had to do it, to keep her independence of thought. If I had my way, I argued, I would have the poor girl transformed into a mere shadow of myself, without a single thought or impulse of her own. I fear I dwelt on that possibility a little too long, in my meditations; really there was no reason for worrying; up to then Alice hadn't shown much sign of bowing down to my superior will-power.

As we stripped out our last shed of cows that evening, Clive suddenly surprised me by remarking: “Mark, do you know this, I believe I'll have to break out in a good old woolly spree, pretty soon. I can feel all the signs coming over me. Perhaps a real killing whisky headache might disperse them.”

“What's up?” said I.

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“I don't know. I've got a discontented, restless feeling,” returned Clive. “I've felt it coming on for some days. It isn't the first time I've had it, so don't be surprised if I break out. I've had a good spell here, but once I get the craving properly, I just have to obey the call.”

“Don't be a blooming fool!” was my unsympathetic rejoinder. “Fight against it. Don't go and spoil everything, after being on the water waggon for so long.”

“I've been fighting against it all my life, off and on,” said Clive, “but I always lose.”

Clive had been practically a teetotaller for the eight or nine months he had been with me, and had saved up a good lump of money. It was the first time in his life he had ever enjoyed the dignity of possessing a banking account, and once started he had grown enthusiastic. His intention was to keep adding to the nest egg until he had sufficient in hand as a deposit on a farm, and then he thought to begin farming on his own.

I was feeling rather proud of him, and took a good deal of the credit to myself. It would be more than a pity, I thought, to see him relapse.

He said no more at the time, but his words had made me sit up and take notice. Certainly he was not his usual carefree, happy self. His thoughts were wandering half the time, and his efforts to cover up his absence of mind were enough to make a cat laugh. For the next two or three days this was increasingly noticeable. He would make the porridge in the morning, and forget to put the salt in it, and stir his tea aimlessly for minutes at a time without adding the sugar. There was no doubt that Clive was not himself; evidently the wild strain he inherited from a shiftless and drunken father, was not to be conquered without a fight.

If it hadn't been that I knew nobody he was soft on I should have said the man was in love; all the page 104 indications pointed that way, but evidently that was not the trouble.

Clive came of a worthless stock; his father a shiftless drunkard, his brothers a wild and rowdy crew. Always recognised as the best of the family, he had enjoyed a somewhat unenviable name himself, and his long spell in my employment had surprised a good many people. I hoped he wasn't going to break out again, after being steady for so long. I knew the call was almost irresistible, when it came upon him, and I felt I could hardly blame him, if he did break out in a wild jag for a day or so, but I was afraid. If it was only to be a few days spree, not much harm could result, but Clive on the war-path, with over a hundred pounds in the bank—where was it going to end? Probably by his coming to his senses after the last of the money was spent.

To a man like Clive that would be the last straw. Disgusted and filled with the sense of his own failure, he would pack up his swag and depart to where he was not known. And the knowledge that in a week of drunken folly he had squandered the hard-earned savings of eight months, would in all likelihood discourage him from ever attempting to save again.

I saw it coming. It was a pity, a great pity, but there was nothing to do but let things take their course. I couldn't chain the man up until the craving had left his system; I wished with all my heart I could.

And after all, it might be only a false alarm.