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Follow the Call

Chapter IX — A Picnic in the Bush

Chapter IX
A Picnic in the Bush

Mr. Treadwell said it was all very well, me showing off my flash house to a few silly women, but he bet I didn't bother to point out that it was situated in a hollow, and that the borer was in the lining.

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He predicted that when I got married, and Alice and I started house-keeping together, the first thing to happen would be a doctor's bill for pneumonia, because he was sure that Alice was weak in the chest, and that damp, sour house would kill her within a year.

As he seemed to know all our business, people took a good deal of notice of him. “You know——” he would say, “Where's Woodford going to raise the money for decent furniture? He can't do it! The man must be up to his eyes in debt as it is, with all the grass seed and top-dressing he's been buying lately. Anyone can see what his game is. He's going to buy up a lot of old, second-hand stuff—that's what he'll do. Sensible, too!” he would add, “Because if he did put new furniture in that house, the borer would have it ruined in no time.”

As a matter of fact I had thought of asking Alice if she would mind us economising with some secondhand stuff, but when I heard how old Tready had almost read my thoughts about it, I decided for all new. The borer he made so much of was in the lining of one room, which had evidently been finished off with sappy timber, but I tore all that out and replaced it with good sound stuff.

I left the repapering of the rooms until last of all, but I thought that while Alice was stopping at her aunt's would be a good chance to buy the furniture, as I wanted them to do the selecting.

With that idea in my mind I arranged to drive Mrs. Watson and Alice into town one day.

I had an order for £75 worth of furniture that I had applied for from the Repatriation Department, and with the £75 of my own that I was able to add to it, Mrs. Watson said was quite enough to buy sticks to start with. I gave it to her and said: “There you are, ladies, just go ahead, buy what you please, and leave me right out of it.”

“Aren't you coming in with us?” enquired Alice.

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“I'd sooner not,” I replied. “It will leave you more free to discuss things, I think, if I'm not with you. I'll keep out of the way until three o'clock, and then call around and take you both to afternoon tea.”

“Perhaps that will be the best way,” murmured Alice. “Only don't be cross if we choose things you don't like.”

“Don't you be a foolish little girl,” I told her. “Anything you like will just have to please me.”

That kind of rejoinder always pleased Alice, and she touched my face lightly with her finger tips, and said, in a low voice:

“Sometimes you seem quite a nice boy, Markus.” That, from Alice, was worth pages of compliments from other girls, and left me feeling pleased and conceited with myself for the rest of the day.

At 3.30 p.m. I met the ladies, and we went to the marble bar for refreshments. They had spent all the money except £30, which Mrs. Watson thought it might be wise to keep for a while, in case they had forgotten anything.

The purchases were to be packed up immediately, and I was to remove them from the shops and stow them at home. As our marriage was arranged for the last week in May, we hadn't very much longer to prepare, and both Alice and I were doing some quiet worrying over ways and means.

Alice had never managed to save any money all the time she had been working for herself, and the trousseau was her concern, whilst although I was doing fairly well on the farm, I was far from being a rich man, and the numerous expenses that kept cropping up were a sore tax on my resources.

Before Alice went back to Stratford, Mrs. Watson arranged a picnic in her honour. It was the last year Alice would be there as a single girl, she said, and she thought we ought to celebrate the occasion in some way or other.

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We organised all the people in the district, and went up to Mt. Egmont National Reserve. The Reserve is a dense forest, all around the foot of the mountain; much too wild and rough a place for picnicking, but at the edge of it there are some really lovely nooks, and sweet smelling valleys running out into the clear, and it was one of these little valleys we picked on to hold our party.

The site we chose was in the bend of a shallow, gravelly bottomed stream. The sun poured right down on to our strip of sandy river beach, but all we had to do for shade was move under the shelter of an overhanging bank of luxurious foliage close at our back. Five-finger, tu-tu, koromiko and gigi hung in tangled profusion all along the river-bank, and we could please ourselves as to whether we took a sun bath or found comfort in the shade. The place was simply ideal.

The party included both Treadwell boys, of course—they were never known to miss anything like that—Stan Collins, both the Wilcox's, Clive and myself; there were four or five other girls besides Alice and Elsie, and a host of small children with their parents.

All the big girls expressed a longing for Prince of Wales plume ferns, so it was decided to make up an expedition into the bush and search for them. Of course cavaliers volunteered as escort immediately. I fell in alongside Alice in a natural manner; if there was to be any escorting of ladies I knew where my duty lay, but that didn't suit the lady at all.

“Oh, no! Mr. Mark!” said she, “As this picnic is in my honour, your place to-day is to stop here and boil the kettles for the afternoon tea.”

I was disappointed, but I saw that she was right, and dropped back dejectedly. I had found out long ago that when there were other men about, it was no use paying Alice too much attention. She seemed to regard it as my duty and privilege to stand aside and allow her elbow room for fresh conquests. As she usually had someone fluttering about, getting their page 108 wings singed, and none of them so far had managed to oust me from my position, I was getting casehardened.

I comforted myself with the reflection that she was having her final fling, before settling down to staid married life, and although I didn't like it, I bit on the bullet and held my peace.

With respect to her mandate that I should remain behind to act as camp cook, I quite agreed with the principle of it; someone had to do the work, and as I was the person chiefly interested in seeing that Alice's picnic was a success, it was up to me to do my share towards making it so. I watched the laughing party of young people disappear into the shade of the forest, and then turned to my task.

A quantity of driftwood had been heaped up on the bank, washed there by the mountain flood rains, and I collected some of this and started a fire. Once the fire was going properly I found some stakes, sharpened the ends of them with a knife, and drove them crosswise into the earth at each side of the fire to make a hanger for the kettle.

The married ladies had spread out rugs on the sand above the water line, and had the food all carefully covered up. They were busy unpacking cups and plates, and chattering gossip, while most of the youngsters were away down the creek paddling in the shallow water.

I went along to enquire what I should use to boil the water in, and noticed Elsie Watson carving her name on a tawa tree close by.

“Why, El!” I exclaimed, “How is this? Why aren't you away with the rest gathering plume ferns?”

“I didn't want to go, that's why,” replied Elsie.

“That's bad,” said I, “And not a gay cavalier in the mob had the sense to stop behind! I'll have to tell those young men about this when they return.”

“Pooh! I should just like to have seen them dare to try!” replied Elsie, with a toss of her head. “They page 109 wouldn't have stopped long. Stan! Treadwells! Clive! Why, those two quiet Wilcox boys are nicer than any of them. They don't give themselves airs at least.”

“Well, why don't you give poor old Arty some encouragement, and help the poor fellow?” I enquired. “I'm sure he's smitten with you; I noticed his great big goo-goo eyes following you around the whole evening at the last dance.”

“Arty?” she laughed. “My word, Mark, you must think a lot of your little friend, if you can consider marrying her off to Arty.”

“I'm only joking, my dear,” I returned. “Come along, help me boil this jolly old pot. The afternoon won't be wasted after all now I have you to talk to.”

Elsie sat down on a log close by, while I stoked up the fire and hung the pot of water over it by means of a length of fencing wire. Then I sat down beside her and we had a long comfortable talk together.

Elsie Watson was about the only girl I knew that I could enjoy talking to. I had known her for so long that in my mind I still regarded her as rather a child. Talking to Alice was a distinct effort; it's a wonder I didn't strain my intellect sometimes, thinking out interesting conversation for her. With Elsie it was different. I knew where I was all the time. She didn't expect me to jump through conversational hoops; we just exchanged thoughts and expressed them as they came into our minds. If I used slang she took no notice, whereas Alice was death on that sort of thing.

“When you are married, I suppose we won't be really, truly friends any more?” said Elsie.

“Why not?” said I, in some surprise.

“Oh, well! It's hard to explain, but I know we won't be,” replied Elsie, eyeing me with a serious expression. “Platonic friendships always fall to the ground after one of the friends get married.”

“I don't see that at all!” I remonstrated. “I bet I come along to see my little sister, just the same.”

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“I know you'll come along, Mark, but it won't be the same as before.”

That was all I could get out of Elsie. She refused to give any reason for her belief, but simply took refuge in the statement that “It wouldn't be the same.”

“Do you feel very, very happy, Mark?” she enquired, changing the subject.

“I'll be glad when it's all settled,” I replied. “I'm happy, and yet I'm not, if you can get my meaning. I feel nervous and unsettled. Sometimes, even now, I have a horrible feeling, like a bad dream, that seems to warn me that something is going to happen and come between us. I know it's all rot—nerves, I suppose, but it keeps me worried.”

“You should go with her, when she goes off as she has to-day,” said Elsie quietly.

“It's not that, Elsie. Alice likes me to give her a little freedom, and my regard for her wouldn't be up to much, if I felt I had to follow her about every time she went anywhere.”

“Y-yes,” admitted Elsie, doubtfully. “I suppose your way of looking at the thing is the right way.”

“Now, look here, young lady,” said I, “Just put yourself in Alice's place. If you were engaged, and your adored one kept following you about jealously, as if he were afraid to trust you out of his sight, what would you do?”

“I wouldn't get engaged to such a suspicious pig,” declared Elsie emphatically.

“Good answer!” said I approvingly. “Neither would Alice! And that's the reason,” I concluded, “that I give her such an absolutely free hand. She loves and respects me sufficiently to take the most important step in life with me, and if she has enough confidence in me to do that, I have enough confidence in her to trust her.”

I paused, then went on. “Love without trust, is a pretty poor thing—and even if she does indulge in an idle flirtation or so, what does it matter?”

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I tried to think in my heart that it didn't matter, but Elsie's quick glance of surprised disapproval spurred me on to further explanations and excuses.

“You know, Elsie,” I went on, “Alice is different from you. She must have a certain amount of gaiety and life; it's her nature, whereas you are such a placid little puss, that a good book and a quiet nook, are more to you than a hundred gallant swains.”

“Yes,” said Elsie. “But if I had one gallant swain—the right one, he would be more to me than all the books or anything else in the world.”

She glanced straight at me, with her brown eyes wistfully serious, then flushed deeply, and turned quickly away.

“By Jove, Elsie!” I exclaimed, “I believe you! And it will be a lucky man that captures your heart; he'll have a prize I hope he'll have sense enough to appreciate. Of all the girls I know, I don't think there's any of them can approach you for real genuine depth.”

“Not even the wonderful Alice?” asked Elsie with a smile.

“Oh, she's different!” answered I. “To tell you the truth, old lady, I never think of weighing Alice in the scales with anyone. I just consider her as perfect, and think that criticism or comparison would be disloyal to her.”

“You're a silly old Don Quixote,” chided Elsie. “Here come the girls!”

The fern seekers had split into couples, and I think I sighed a sigh of relief when I found that Alice and Clive were together. I always felt comfortable and contented in my mind when they were amusing each other, because Clive was such a good chap.

With Stan or the Treadwells it was quite on the cards that they would snatch a kiss from a girl, engaged or otherwise, if they saw half an opening. Some fellows seem to have the idea that it's the proper and manly course to take, and that not to kiss a girl, if they saw an opportunity, would be almost a crime. page 112 I suppose idle kissing doesn't hurt, but it has always seemed a cheapening sort of pastime to me. With Clive for her companion I felt that Alice had not been subject to that kind of insult, because I knew his views. They were the same as mine, that only love justified a man in offering to kiss a girl, and that to offer such an attention without love was both cowardly and low. Clive had his faults, but “trifling” had never been counted as one of them.

When all the party had arrived at the base, we inspected the prizes. None of the searchers had found Prince of Wales ferns. They grow on the slopes above the reserve bush, and it was too dangerous to try and force a way through to that altitude, on account of the dense undergrowth and lack of proper tracks. Kidney and maidenhair ferns were to be found in abundance, and everyone had been satisfied to collect them.

Alice came and sat beside me during our picnic meal, and we stirred our tea with the same spoon and squabbled over the last scone.

It was a glorious day, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. The whole countryside seemed to be humming with insect and bird life. The youngsters soon finished eating, and went back to paddle in the cool, shallow stream, chasing the dozens of mountain trout about and occasionally catching an odd one. The young men skylarked about, while the girls giggled and chattered with them.

Clive alone sat silent and preoccupied. I wondered if he still felt like going off on a mad spree, or if he was fighting the idea.

“Come, and we will stow your ferns away in the gig,” I said to Alice, as soon as everyone had finished eating. She followed me obediently, and as soon as we were out of earshot I said:

“Has Clive mentioned anything to you about going off on a holiday, Alice?”

Alice started, and turned a deep red.

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“No! Why should you ask me? Why should he tell me?” she asked in a flurried manner.

“I hoped perhaps he had,” I replied. “I can see he likes you, and he might tell you before he would me. But if he hasn't—he hasn't.” I paused for a moment, then thought I would take Alice into my confidence. “To tell you the honest truth, Alice,” I continued, “I'm worried about old Clive. He's got something on his mind. He and I are such good pals that I can tell at a glance when anything's wrong with him. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to see him kick over the traces pretty soon—you know he used to be a wild sort of fellow before he came to work with me.”

“Pooh! I suppose he isn't feeling very well,” said Alice. “Are you such great friends?” she asked, curiously.

“The best in the world,” replied I. “I don't ever remember taking such a fancy to a man before. I'd do anything for Clive, and I think he would for me, too.”

“But if he leaves you? That won't be very nice of him, will it?” asked Alice.

“Clive isn't like me,” I said slowly. “He's good at heart, but he has such a thoughtless nature that he won't think of that. But he'll never leave me in the lurch,” I added. “I'm sure of that much. When he does decide to go he'll give me a week's notice, at the least, and that will enable me to get a man to take his place. But perhaps he won't go,” I added hopefully. “Perhaps I'm only worrying myself for nothing, but I'm nervous about him. He's stopped with me longer than anywhere, since he came back from the War, and I'd hate to see him break out now, just as he has some money saved up.”

“Yes, but because he leaves you is not to say that he intends to spend all his money,” pointed out Alice. “Mark, I think you are mistaken in Clive, quite a good bit. He isn't the weak person you think him—and he page 114 isn't the friend you think him, either.” She made the statement slowly, deliberately, with her eyes fixed on something ahead.

I glanced at her and noticed the colour flooding to her cheeks and neck.

“Why, Alice!” I exclaimed, “I thought you liked him? That belief has given me very great pleasure, this holiday of yours.”

“Yes, I do like him,” admitted Alice, in a low voice. “So don't say I haven't told you—but I can see he has faults.”

She looked up at me, still flushed, and laughed: “That's enough serious talk; tell me how I look.”

“You look like the morning sunrise reflected on Egmont's snow, when you blush like that,” I assured her.

“Yes, go on.”

“And your eyes are brighter than the dew glistening on fresh grown grass,” I continued.

She made a little move: “All right—it will have to do for my eyes. What next?”

“Your voice is as sweet and clear as the notes of yonder tui, your figure as graceful, your back as straight, as yonder stately pine. You carry your head with the poise and dignity of yonder cabbage tree-top——”

“Oh, do I? How dare you liken my head to a cabbage-top?”

That was Alice all over! As soon as I was strung up to be really eloquent, something like that was bound to happen to squash me.

It wasn't the slightest use trying to point out to her how gracefully that cabbage tree top bowed and swayed in the breeze. No! I had called her cabbage head, and no explanations or excuses were allowed.

She flounced back to the party, with me following up concernedly, and making humble and unavailing apologies to the back of her proud little head—and my reign was over for that day.

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I didn't let it worry me unduly, however. I was getting about used to that sort of treatment, and knew it would all be forgotten by the next time we met.

The ladies were packing up the crockery and things ready for the home going when we arrived, and I went to help Mrs. Watson with her plates and baskets.

“Have you and Alice quarrelled?” she said to me on noticing that Alice didn't come to help.

“Oh, nothing much!” I replied. “She objected to one of my flowers of speech, that's all”

“Only that?” she said, smiling. “What was it, Mark?”

“I likened the poise of her head to the swaying top of a cabbage tree,” I replied, with a grin. “And she accused me of calling her cabbage head.”

Mrs. Watson almost spluttered: “My goodness!” she exclaimed, “That's just like Miss Alice! I pity you, young man, when you do get married.”