Follow the Call
Chapter XII — Deliverance
On recalling that dreadful time I can see now that I must have been mad—quite mad, and it's a marvel to me that none of my friends noticed it. I had calmly resolved to murder Clive, but on the last day I spent at home, before setting forth in search of him, I changed my plans.
I was sitting in the kitchen eyeing the patent hot water service affair I had installed as a surprise for Alice, when it struck me suddenly that I was going to do a very foolish thing. I was going to kill Clive—but why kill him? It wasn't his fault. He was just like me; it was only natural that he should fall in love with Alice. He couldn't help that. It wasn't Clive's fault. Whose fault was it, then? I had it! Alice's, of course. I would leave poor old Clive alone, and I would bury my knife in the false heart of that girl. Now I knew what I was going to do. I didn't worry myself about what was going to happen after that—I had an idea somehow that the death of Alice would be the end of the world. There was method in my madness, just the same, or I would never have thought of my cows.
That evening I dressed carefully, removing everything from my pockets, and then taking Alice's letter I wrapped it firmly about the blade of the knife. I was going to confront her with the letter first.
I placed the knife carefully in my breast pocket, with the handle down, then carefully buttoned up my coat. I was ready to start.
It was dusk when I left the farm, and I went along easily for some miles. There was no hurry. I would be there long before she retired for the night, and I would knock at the door and ask for an interview.page 137
The night proved dark and wild. “Just the night for my job,” I thought, with a grim satisfaction. I flew steadily along, leaving the miles behind me. My front light was out of order, and throwing but a dim light ahead, but it gave me no concern. I seemed to be just sitting there, eating up the distance, without any effort on my part at all. I wasn't actually conscious of steering, although I suppose I must have been directing the bike for all that or I could never have sailed along as I did.
At last I came to a long, winding, down grade, with a bridge at the bottom. A motor car, fitted with dazzling spot lights, was crossing the bridge. These lights recalled me to myself. They were fixed unwinkingly on me, as the car approached, and were so confusing in their intensity that I found a difficulty in keeping the road.
The closer we approached the more blinding became the glare, and at length I had to give up all attempts at seeing beneath the wheel, and steered to the left to escape collision. As I ran out of the radius of light, on passing, the darkness closed in like a black mantle, and I shook my head and winked hard two or three times. Just as I did this my bike ran into an obstacle on the side of the road and we came to grief.
I can remember every small detail of that spill. I flew through space, to land on my head with a sickening thud. The blow was enough to fell an ox, but it didn't knock me right out, all the same. I could feel a bump starting to grow on my head almost as soon as it happened, and I remember thinking: “Some cropper, this!”
I knew I was bound for New Plymouth; I knew it was a matter of importance; so I tried to get to my feet. The first move sent a pain through my chest like the poke of a red hot needle. My left leg was tangled up in the machine, and I could feel that it was broken. I felt myself going into a drowsy stupor. page 138 “This won't do—this won't do! Got to see Alice to-night!”
I made another ineffectual attempt to get to my feet. “Nice mess!” I thought. “Well, I'll have a little sleep—and then I'll be all right. Just five minutes, then I'll be ready again.”
I snuggled down into the gravelly road, as luxuriously as if it were a feather bed, and quietly went to sleep.
* * *
When I returned to consciousness again the first thing to greet my eye was a big spoon full of some white pap, hovering about in front of my face.
I was sitting propped up in a snow-white bed, and I could feel an arm about my neck and a hand under my chin.
A white sleeved arm was reaching over my shoulder and holding the spoon. I opened my mouth with surprise, and before I could say anything in popped the spoon and almost choked me.
“Here! Here! What's the game?” I demanded, as soon as I could get my breath for spluttering.
“Hullo! How are you?” said a pleasant voice that I had never heard before. The owner of the voice removed the food, and walked around to where I could see her.
“A nurse!” I ejaculated.
“Quite right!” she smiled. “I'm so pleased to see you back again.”
“Why, where have I been?” I asked. “What's happened, anyhow?”
“I'll tell you all about it to-morrow; now, you must rest and be still,” nurse replied.
I'd had experience of nurses before, when I was at the War, and I knew enough about them to know that when they use a certain tone there's only one thing to be done and that's obey. I did as I was ordered, and lay back in the bed thinking.page 139
One of my hands lay outside the counterpane, and I eyed it idly.
“Mighty queer thing, that!” I remarked to myself. “I never noticed before that I had such a girliegirlie hand as all that.” It was white and soft looking, with the veins all showing through.
“Never noticed that before——” I muttered, in bewilderment.
This was a hospital, that was a nurse. A suspicion that it wasn't my hand—that the hospital staff had carelessly left an odd hand lying about, took possession of me. I became alarmed.
“Too bad! Someone ought to be told about it!”
I moved the fingers in my own hand, and was relieved to see the fingers before me move in sympathy. It was my hand, after all.
After solving the mystery of the hand I felt better. I began to take stock of things about me. My left leg was in splints, or plaster of paris, my right arm bandaged up, and a swathe of bandages went across my right shoulder and around my chest. Slowly everything came back to me.
“This is the result of last night's silly foolishness,” I thought. “If I hadn't fallen off, God only knows what would have happened!” I felt no bitterness or heartache, only an immense relief that Providence had intervened and stopped me in my dreadful intention.
Calmly I reviewed the events of the past. Clive—Alice. What a miserable waster I had been! Of course the girl couldn't marry me, when she loved someone else; it would have been a crime. She was right, and I was wrong. Poor little Alice, she always was right; it was always my fault. I should have known that such a girl could never be for me.
While I was musing the matron of the hospital came in to see me.
“Are you all right now, do you think?” she asked.page 140
“Right as a pie,” I replied, “When can I get up?”
She laughed: “That's what we like to hear,” said she. “You havn't always been all right, though, have you?”
“Why?” I asked.
“You've been very ill,” she went on gently. “You've had brain fever.”
“Crumbs!” I ejaculated, in dismay. “Then how long have I been here?”
The matron told me all about it. I had been found lying at the side of the road, in a pool of blood, my broken leg still tangled up in the bike, almost a month before.
A piece of rata firewood that had probably fallen off a load some wood-carter was taking in to town to sell, had been the cause of my misfortune. On my arrival at the hospital examination had proved that my left leg was badly broken and my right forearm.
But what had surprised the doctor and matron most of all, when they set to work to patch me up, was the fact that buried in the muscles of my chest, was a very passable imitation of a stiletto.
Only for the fact that it had glanced upwards, and struck on the collarbone, I might never have lived to know of it.
“There was a letter crumpled up about the hilt of the weapon,” said the matron, eyeing me steadily, “and we were forced to read what we could of it because we could find no other papers on you to serve for identification purposes; we had to try and locate your relatives or friends, of course.”
“Then you know all about it?” said I, with a feeble attempt at levity.
“I think so,” replied the matron gravely. “You see, you were wandering at times, as well.”
“Oh, was I?” I exclaimed in dismay. “What did I say?”page 141
“You said a good deal more than you would like to hear repeated again,” the matron informed me. “Do you still feel like that, do you think?”
I saw at once that I had given the whole show away while I was delirious, and that it had the matron worried.
“Don't feel anxious,” I reassured her. “I can thank God for all this mangling. It's a direct judgment on me, matron, and I'd sooner be torn into little pieces than carry on with the idea I started off with that day. I'm a lucky man to be here at all, and I appreciate every wound and broken bone to the full. They've saved me from making a pretty average mess of things.”
“That's a good boy,” she smiled. “Now we'll just keep it to ourselves. I have destroyed the letter—it was all stained with blood, and I shall keep your knife for my private collection of curios. Will that be all right?”
“That'll do me,” I acquiesced. “I assure you I never want to see it again.”
On reading Alice's letter the only information the matron could get out of it was Alice's address, and the fact that my Christian name was Mark. She wrote to Alice at once, and Alice had wired through to Mrs. Watson and put her in touch with the hospital.
“Miss Arnold rings up to enquire about you every morning,” volunteered the matron. “She seems very distressed.”
I grunted: “Tell her she needn't bother any more; that I am quite all right,” said I.
“Oh, but is that necessary?” she enquired. I think the matron would have liked to see a reconciliation effected; but I knew that was out of the question.
“It's only sympathy,” I told her. “She's engaged to another man, and I don't want her sympathy. Sympathy from her would be the last straw.”
As soon as my neighbours knew that I was over the brain fever and getting right again, they all came page 142 along in turns to see me. None of them knew exactly what had happened; they just supposed that I was going up to New Plymouth to try and get Alice to reconsider her decision, when the accident occurred. They were all genuinely sorry for me; even Mr. Treadwell and Bob came along.
“You know, Mark,” volunteered old Tready, sitting on the side of my bed while he spoke. “I picked what would happen. I knew she'd do that. I knew she was that sort ever since our Bob turned her down.”
I let the old chap ramble on unheeded. What was the use of hurting his feelings by telling him that I didn't like to hear that sort of talk about Alice. He meant it well and thought he was being sympathetic and entertaining.
I smiled to myself as I thought of how his eyes would pop out of his head, and how his tongue would wag, if he only knew the truth. That was a secret between the matron, the nurse, and myself.
Elsie and Mrs. Watson came together. Elsie gave a distressed gasp, as soon as she saw me.
“Don't look so awfully tragic,” said I, “It's mostly bandages you see.”
“Mark, I'm so sorry!” she said.
I knew what she was referring to; it wasn't so much my smashed-up condition. None of the others could see beyond my bandages, but trust little Elsie to put her finger on the real hurt. It was the wreck of all my hopes, the ghastly disillusionment, that Elsie felt sorry for. What are a few broken bones and wounds, compared to the toppling down of a man's dearest ideals?
Although by this time I could look back on the past without bitterness, yet I was still far from being normal and contented. I felt afraid of the future. It loomed ahead, ugly and threatening, and sometimes I doubted my ability to carry on; it seemed too lonely and meaningless; just a dreary blank, from year to year. I was afraid of it, but I knew it had to be faced. page 143 Sooner or later I had to take up the threads of my life again and see what sort of a mend I could make. I had to play the game out, however much it went against me, but I felt there was no hurry. I could postpone contemplation of my future plans until I was discharged from the hospital. As much as I could, I kept my mind occupied with the trivial happenings about me, but sometimes I would sink into black fits of despair, and wish the knife had made a proper job of the business.
During all this time I heard nothing about Alice or Clive. The Watsons carefully refrained from mentioning either of them. One thing I did ponder on. Every sentence in Alice's letter of dismissal was burnt into my brain as though by a red hot iron. I could have pictured that sheet of paper in my mind's eye, and then read it backward from memory. It was the comments regarding Elsie that I pondered on so much. All through my spell of convalescence these words kept crossing my mind:
“You could marry Elsie if you wished to, I am sure she cares for you.”
I didn't think so, not for a minute, and further, I hoped most earnestly that Alice was mistaken. What a pity if she did. Poor little kid!
No, Elsie regarded me just as I did her. We were firm, platonic friends. I wasn't in love with her, that was certain, all my love had been given to Alice. And although Alice had spurned the gift, that made no difference, I still loved her as much as ever. I knew that, and never attempted to disguise it from myself, although of course I never mentioned her name to anyone else. I wouldn't even admit to myself that I had been ill-treated, or that Alice had behaved harshly to me. She had to do what she had done, in the manner she had done it, because no other method would have got rid of me. I was like the man that couldn't take a hint, I had to be slung out neck and crop, and it was all my own fault, from start to finish.page 144
Mrs. Watson gave me all the news of the place, when she made her visit. Arty was still running my farm for me, and everything was in good order. The cows were being dried off for the winter, and he was occupying his spare time doing up fences and cleaning out drains.
Stan Collins was coming to see me on the following week.
“He told us all about you,” she laughed, shaking a finger at me.
I flushed and looked foolish.
“You needn't look so sheepish and ashamed,” Mrs. Watson continued. “Stan admits on reflection, that it was the only course you could have adopted. He says he only got what he deserved, for being so tactless and thoughtless.”
I thought a lot of old Stan, after that. It isn't everyone that would admit as much, under the circumstances, and, anyway, was he so much to blame? He didn't know I was in ignorance of his news when he blurted it out. Really, when I look back on the business, it seems to me that Stan had called that day to offer me sympathy. It was certainly a bit tactless of him, however, to congratulate a man on being jilted just a few weeks before the wedding.
When the Watsons said good-bye, Elsie took my hand and whispered:
“Don't be downhearted, old boy, will you?”
“Not if I can dodge it, old lady,” I assured her.
I remembered Alice's letter, and gazed earnestly into her eyes. They were humid with unshed tears, and her lip was quivering.
“Don't be a fool, Els,” I said gruffly. “I'll be up and about, as well as ever again, in another week or two. And anyhow, this has been a jolly good holiday; I'm enjoying it.”
“I know! I know!” she said. “Good-bye, Mark.”
After they were gone I lay in silence and went over events. I was lucky indeed to have friends like page 145 the Watsons. It made up for a good deal, and restored my faith in human nature. And all the other neighbours—they were all fine people, I couldn't help thinking.
I had got into the habit of thinking of Mr. Treadwell as a man without a redeeming virtue, and yet the very first time I found myself sick and in trouble, he had sunk all his animosity and offered me genuine sympathy and friendship.
Sick bed reflection is good for the soul, in more ways than one. It gives a man a chance to think properly; he has plenty of time for the operation, whereas in active life he is rushing about too busy to meditate on anything.
I knew all the faults of my neighbours; it was left for me to be in trouble and sickness before I had time to notice their good qualities.
When Stan Collins came to see me, we had a good laugh together. He entered the ward with a huge grin.
“I've come to clean you up,” he stated, “and get a bit of my own back.”
I chuckled: “Sorry, old chap,” said I, “It's jolly decent of you to come near me, after the rotten way I behaved.”
“Pooh! My fault, Mark. My fault entirely. It was one of those cases of a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread. I got what I was asking for, anyhow.” He sniggered afresh, at the recollection, then continued: “Matter of fact, Mark, I ought to have known better. 'Tisn't as if I didn't know how you'd be feeling at the time, either, because much the same sort of turnout occurred to me once. I went half crazy for a week or two. A fellow soon gets over it though, that's one consolation.”
I smiled grimly to myself. If Stan could get over his love affair as easily as his words implied, he was making a big mistake if he thought it was the same kind of experience as I had just been through. I page 146 didn't bother to enlighten him, however. My future plan of action was already mapped out, and it was a good chance for me to commence living up to it. I had resolved to bury my disappointment from the world and show a smiling face. I had always had rather a contempt for the man who couldn't take his medicine smiling, and I determined that nobody should have the opportunity of pointing the finger of scorn at me on that score.
It's one thing to wear your heart on your sleeve when courting a girl; it's quite a different thing to wear it there after she has definitely rejected you.
In the first instance it's due to the girl to show her and the world what you think of her. In the second case your conduct only incites an amused pity from the onlookers, and in all probability annoys and irritates the girl. I suppose she feels she is in a measure responsible for your ridiculous behaviour, and she wishes you wouldn't.
While I was slowly progressing towards recovery, expenses were steadily creeping up. Apart from the hospital and doctor's bill, I was paying Arty Wilcox £2 10s. a week for running my farm for me. It was a severe drain on my finances, but that didn't worry me, because as the marriage was a wash-out, there was no further need for me to be thrifty.
The time passed quickly enough, and a few weeks after my recovery from the brain fever saw me hobbling about on crutches. The arm, and the wound in the chest, were not much trouble, but my broken leg was a different proposition, and kept me there for a fair time.
At length, however, I was passed as fit to leave for my home. I viewed the move with considerable dread. At the hospital I had company all the time; at home I was going to be all alone.
It was arranged that a taxi cab should call for me as that would be more comfortable for me than riding in a gig, and when the day for my departure arrived page 147 I said good-bye to my kind hospital friends and set off for home.
I could hardly realise that I was actually going back to the farm again. It seemed to me that aeons of time had elapsed, since last I had seen it. All my life, before the period spent in hospital, seemed to be a kind of indistinct dream. Sometimes I almost wondered if it had really happened. Then I would think of Alice. It had happened all right.
What a difference now, I thought, to the day when I had first arrived on the place. What a comparison! Then, I had been a carefree, light-hearted, happy young fellow, brim full of ambition and go. Now, I reflected, what was I? Crippled up, disheartened, disillusioned; I felt old—old and hopeless.
The taxi drew up at my front gate, and I climbed out and hobbled off with the aid of my crutch.
I entered the front garden. Everything about the place looked different in my eyes. Dreary and squalid; no wonder the girl had baulked at coming to live at such a show as this! Strange, how different it had all appeared, when Alice and I were engaged. Then, it had not looked dreary and squalid.
“Well, well! Buck up, old chap, and face the music,” I said to myself, and felt my way along the garden path to the house.