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   Chapter 2 LADY MANORWATER’S GUESTS

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 21704

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


WHEN the afternoon train from the south drew into Gledsmuir station, a girl who had been devouring the landscape for the last hour with eager eyes, rose nervously to prepare for exit. To Alice Wishart the country was a novel one, and the prospect before her an unexplored realm of guesses. The daughter of a great merchant, she had lived most of her days in the ugly environs of a city, save for such time as she had spent at the conventional schools. She had never travelled; the world of men and things was merely a name to her, and a girlhood, lonely and brightened chiefly by the companionship of books, had not given her self-confidence. She had casually met Lady Manorwater at some political meeting in her father's house, and the elder woman had taken a strong liking to the quiet, abstracted child. Then came an invitation to Glenavelin, accepted gladly yet with much fear and searching of heart. Now, as she looked out on the shining mountain land, she was full of delight that she was about to dwell in the heart of it. Something of pride, too, was present, that she was to be the guest of a great lady, and see something of a life which seemed infinitely remote to her provincial thoughts. But when her journey drew near its end she was foolishly nervous, and scanned the platform with anxious eye.

The sight of her hostess reassured her. Lady Manorwater was a small middle-aged woman, with a thin classical face, large colourless eyes, and untidy fair hair. She was very plainly dressed, and as she darted forward to greet the girl with entire frankness and kindness, Alice forgot her fears and kissed her heartily. A languid young woman was introduced as Miss Afflint, and in a few minutes the three were in the Glenavelin carriage with the wide glen opening in front.

"Oh, my dear, I hope you will enjoy your visit. We are quite a small party, for Jack says Glenavelin is far too small to entertain in. You are fond of the country, aren't you? And of course the place is very pretty. There is tennis and golf and fishing; but perhaps you don't like these things? We are not very well off for neighbours, but we are large enough in number to be sufficient to ourselves. Don't you think so, Bertha?" And Lady Manorwater smiled at the third member of the group.

Miss Afflint, a silent girl, smiled back and said nothing. She had been engaged in a secret study of Alice's face, and whenever the object of the study raised her eyes she found a pair of steady blue ones beaming on her. It was a little disconcerting, and Alice gazed out at the landscape with a fictitious curiosity.

They passed out of the Gled valley into the narrower strath of Avelin, and soon, leaving the meadows behind, went deep into the recesses of woods. At a narrow glen bridged by the road and bright with the spray of cascades and the fresh green of ferns, Alice cried out in delight, "Oh, I must come back here some day and sketch it. What a Paradise of a place!"

"Then you had better ask Lewie's permission." And Lady Manorwater laughed.

"Who is Lewie?" asked the girl, anticipating some gamekeeper or shepherd.

"Lewie is my nephew. He lives at Etterick, up at the head of the glen."

Miss Afflint spoke for the first time. "A very good man. You should know Lewie, Miss Wishart. I'm sure you would like him. He is a great traveller, you know, and has written a famous book. Lewis Haystoun is his full name."

"Why, I have read it," cried Alice. "You mean the book about Kashmir. But I thought the author was an old man."

"Lewie is not very old," said his aunt; "but I haven't seen him for years, so he may be decrepit by this time. He is coming home soon, he says, but he never writes. I know two of his friends who pay a Private Inquiry Office to send them news of him."

Alice laughed and became silent. What merry haphazard people were these she had fallen among! At home everything was docketed and ordered. Meals were immovable feasts, the hour for bed and the hour for rising were more regular than the sun's. Her father was full of proverbs on the virtue of regularity, and was wont to attribute every vice and misfortune to its absence. And yet here were men and women who got on very well without it. She did not wholly like it. The little doctrinaire in her revolted and she was pleased to be censorious.

"You are a very learned young woman, aren't you?" said Lady Manorwater, after a short silence. "I have heard wonderful stories about your learning. Then I hope you will talk to Mr. Stocks, for I am afraid he is shocked at Bertha's frivolity. He asked her if she was in favour of the Prisons Regulation Bill, and she was very rude."

"I only said," broke in Miss Afflint, "that owing to my lack of definite local knowledge I was not in a position to give an answer commensurate with the gravity of the subject." She spoke in a perfect imitation of the tone of a pompous man.

"Bertha, I do not approve of you," said Lady Manorwater. "I forbid you to mimic Mr. Stocks. He is very clever, and very much in earnest over everything. I don't wonder that a butterfly like you should laugh, but I hope Miss Wishart will be kind to him."

"I am afraid I am very ignorant," said Alice hastily, "and I am very useless. I never did any work of any sort in my life, and when I think of you I am ashamed."

"Oh, my dear child, please don't think me a paragon," cried her hostess in horror. "I am a creature of vague enthusiasms and I have the sense to know it. Sometimes I fancy I am a woman of business, and then I take up half a dozen things till Jack has to interfere to prevent financial ruin. I dabble in politics and I dabble in philanthropy; I write review articles which nobody reads, and I make speeches which are a horror to myself and a misery to my hearers. Only by the possession of a sense of humour am I saved from insignificance."

To Alice the speech was the breaking of idols. Competence, responsibility were words she had been taught to revere, and to hear them light-heartedly disavowed seemed an upturning of the foundation of things. You will perceive that her education had not included that valuable art, the appreciation of the flippant.

By this time the carriage was entering the gates of the park, and the thick wood cleared and revealed long vistas of short hill grass, rising and falling like moorland, and studded with solitary clumps of firs. Then a turn in the drive brought them once more into shadow, this time beneath a heath-clad knoll where beeches and hazels made a pleasant tangle. All this was new, not three years old; but soon they were in the ancient part of the policy which had surrounded the old house of Glenavelin. Here the grass was lusher, the trees antique oaks and beeches, and grey walls showed the boundary of an old pleasure-ground. Here in the soft sunlit afternoon sleep hung like a cloud, and the peace of centuries dwelt in the long avenues and golden pastures. Another turning and the house came in sight, at first glance a jumble of grey towers and ivied walls. Wings had been built to the original square keep, and even now it was not large, a mere moorland dwelling. But the whitewashed walls, the crow-step gables, and the quaint Scots baronial turrets gave it a perfection to the eye like a house in a dream. To Alice, accustomed to the vulgarity of suburban villas with Italian campaniles, a florid lodge a stone's throw from the house, darkened too with smoke and tawdry with paint, this old-world dwelling was a patch of wonderland. Her eyes drank in the beauty of the place-the great blue backs of hill beyond, the acres of sweet pasture, the primeval woods.

"Is this Glenavelin?" she cried. "Oh, what a place to live in!"

"Yes, it's very pretty, dear." And Lady Manorwater, who possessed half a dozen houses up and down the land, patted her guest's arm and looked with pleasure on the flushed girlish face.

* * *

Two hours later, Alice, having completed dressing, leaned out of her bedroom window to drink in the soft air of evening. She had not brought a maid, and had refused her hostess's offer to lend her her own on the ground that maids were a superfluity. It was her desire to be a very practical young person, a scorner of modes and trivialities, and yet she had taken unusual care with her toilet this evening, and had spent many minutes before the glass. Looking at herself carefully, a growing conviction began to be confirmed-that she was really rather pretty. She had reddish-brown hair and-a rare conjunction-dark eyes and eyebrows and a delicate colour. As a small girl she had lamented bitterly the fate that had not given her the orthodox beauty of the dark or fair maiden, and in her school days she had passed for plain. Now it began to dawn on her that she had beauty of a kind-the charm of strangeness; and her slim strong figure had the grace which a wholesome life alone can give. She was in high spirits, curious, interested, and generous. The people amused her, the place was a fairyland and outside the golden weather lay still and fragrant among the hills.

When she came down to the drawing-room she found the whole party assembled. A tall man with a brown beard and a slight stoop ceased to assault the handle of a firescreen and came over to greet her. He had only come back half an hour ago, he explained, and so had missed her arrival. The face attracted and soothed her. Abundant kindness lurked in the humorous brown eyes, and a queer pucker on the brow gave him the air of a benevolent despot. If this was Lord Manorwater, she had no further dread of the great ones of the earth. There were four other men, two of them mild, spectacled people, who had the air of students and a precise affected mode of talk, and one a boy cousin of whom no one took the slightest notice. The fourth was a striking figure, a man of about forty in appearance, tall and a little stout, with a rugged face which in some way suggested a picture of a prehistoric animal in an old natural history she had owned. The high cheek-bones, large nose, and slightly protruding eyes had an unfinished air about them, as if their owner had escaped prematurely from a mould. A quantity of bushy black hair-which he wore longer than most men-enhanced the dramatic air of his appearance. It was a face full of vigour and a kind of strength, shrewd, a little coarse, and solemn almost to the farcical. He was introduced in a rush of words by the hostess, but beyond the fact that it was a monosyllable, Alice did not catch his name.

Lord Manorwater took in Miss Afflint, and Alice fell to the dark man with the monosyllabic name. He had a way of bowing over his hand which slightly repelled the girl, who had no taste for elaborate manners. His first question, too, displeased her. He asked her if she was one of the Wisharts of so

me unpronounceable place.

She replied briefly that she did not know. Her grandfathers on both sides had been farmers.

The gentleman bowed with the smiling unconcern of one to whom pedigree is a matter of course.

"I have heard often of your father," he said. "He is one of the local supports of the party to which I have the honour to belong. He represents one great section of our retainers, our host another. I am glad to see such friendship between the two." And he smiled elaborately from Alice to Lord Manorwater.

Alice was uncomfortable. She felt she must be sitting beside some very great man, and she was tortured by vain efforts to remember the monosyllable which had stood for his name. She did not like his voice, and, great man or not, she resented the obvious patronage. He spoke with a touch of the drawl which is currently supposed to belong only to the half-educated classes of England.

She turned to the boy who sat on the other side of her. The young gentleman-his name was Arthur and, apparently, nothing else-was only too ready to talk. He proceeded to explain, compendiously, his doings of the past week, to which the girl listened politely. Then anxiety got the upper hand, and she asked in a whisper, a propos of nothing in particular, the name of her left-hand neighbour.

"They call him Stocks," said the boy, delighted at the tone of confidence, and was going on to sketch the character of the gentleman in question when Alice cut him short.

"Will you take me to fish some day?" she asked.

"Any day," gasped the hilarious Arthur. "I'm ready, and I'll tell you what, I know the very burn-" and he babbled on happily till he saw that Miss Wishart had ceased to listen. It was the first time a pretty girl had shown herself desirous of his company, and he was intoxicated with the thought.

But Alice felt that she was in some way bound to make the most of Mr. Stocks, and she set herself heroically to the task. She had never heard of him, but then she was not well versed in the minutiae of things political, and he clearly was a politician. Doubtless to her father his name was a household word. So she spoke to him of Glenavelin and its beauties.

He asked her if she had seen Royston Castle, the residence of his friend the Duke of Sanctamund. When he had stayed there he had been much impressed-

Then she spoke wildly of anything, of books and pictures and people and politics. She found him well-informed, clever, and dogmatic. The culminating point was reached when she embarked on a stray remark concerning certain events then happening in India.

He contradicted her with a lofty politeness.

She quoted a book on Kashmir.

He laughed the authority to scorn. "Lewis Haystoun?" he asked. "What can he know about such things? A wandering dilettante, the worst type of the pseudo-culture of our universities. He must see all things through the spectacles of his upbringing."

Fortunately he spoke in a low voice, but Lord Manorwater caught the name.

"You are talking about Lewie," he said; and then to the table at large, "do you know that Lewie is home? I saw him to-day."

Bertha Afflint clapped her hands. "Oh, splendid! When is he coming over? I shall drive to Etterick to-morrow. No-bother! I can't go to-morrow, I shall go on Wednesday."

Lady Manorwater opened mild eyes of surprise. "Why didn't the boy write?" And the young Arthur indulged in sundry exclamations, "Oh, ripping, I say! What? A clinking good chap, my cousin Lewie!"

"Who is this Lewis the well-beloved?" said Mr. Stocks. "I was talking about a very different person-Lewis Haystoun, the author of a foolish book on Kashmir."

"Don't you like it?" said Lord Manorwater, pleasantly. "Well, it's the same man. He is my nephew, Lewie Haystoun. He lives at Etterick, four miles up the glen. You will see him over here to-morrow or the day after."

Mr. Stocks coughed loudly to cover his discomfiture. Alice could not repress a little smile of triumph, but she was forbearing and for the rest of dinner exerted herself to appease her adversary, listening to his talk with an air of deference which he found entrancing.

Meanwhile it was plain that Lord Manorwater was not quite at ease with his company. Usually a man of brusque and hearty address, he showed his discomfort by an air of laborious politeness. He was patronized for a brief minute by Mr. Stocks, who set him right on some matter of agricultural reform. Happening to be a specialist on the subject and an enthusiastic farmer from his earliest days, he took the rebuke with proper meekness. The spectacled people were talking earnestly with his wife. Arthur was absorbed in his dinner and furtive glances at his left-hand neighbour. There remained Bertha Afflint, whom he had hitherto admired with fear. To talk with her was exhausting to frail mortality, and he had avoided the pleasure except in moments of boisterous bodily and mental health. Now she was his one resource, and the unfortunate man, rashly entering into a contest of wit, found himself badly worsted by her ready tongue. He declared that she was worse than her mother, at which the unabashed young woman replied that the superiority of parents was the last retort of the vanquished. He registered an inward vow that Miss Afflint should be used on the morrow as a weapon to quell Mr. Stocks.

When Alice escaped to the drawing-room she found Bertha and her sister-a younger and ruddier copy-busy with the letters which had arrived by the evening post. Lady Manorwater, who reserved her correspondence for the late hours, seized upon the girl and carried her off to sit by the great French windows from which lawn and park sloped down to the moorland loch. She chattered pleasantly about many things, and then innocently and abruptly asked her if she had not found her companion at table amusing.

Alice, unaccustomed to fiction, gave a hesitating "Yes," at which her hostess looked pleased. "He is very clever, you know," she said, "and has been very useful to me on many occasions."

Alice asked his occupation.

"Oh, he has done many things. He has been very brave and quite the maker of his own fortunes. He educated himself, and then I think he edited some Nonconformist paper. Then he went into politics, and became a Churchman. Some old man took a liking to him and left him his money, and that was the condition. So I believe he is pretty well off now and is waiting for a seat. He has been nursing this constituency, and since the election comes off in a month or two, we asked him down here to stay. He has also written a lot of things and he is somebody's private secretary." And Lady Manorwater relapsed into vagueness.

The girl listened without special interest, save that she modified her verdict on Mr. Stocks, and allowed, some degree of respect for him to find place in her heart. The fighter in life always appealed to her, whatever the result of his struggle.

Then Lady Manorwater proceeded to hymn his excellences in an indeterminate, artificial manner, till the men came into the room, and conversation became general. Lord Manorwater made his way to Alice, thereby defeating Mr. Stocks, who tended in the same direction. "Come outside and see things, Miss Wishart," he said. "It's a shame to miss a Glenavelin evening if it's fine. We must appreciate our rarities."

And Alice gladly followed him into the still air of dusk which made hill and tree seem incredibly distant and the far waters of the lake merge with the moorland in one shimmering golden haze. In the rhododendron thickets sparse blooms still remained, and all along by the stream-side stood stately lines of yellow iris above the white water-ranunculus. The girl was sensitive to moods of season and weather, and she had almost laughed at the incongruity of the two of them in modern clothes in this fit setting for an old tale. Dickon of Glenavelin, the sworn foe of the Lord of Etterick, on such nights as this had ridden up the water with his bands to affront the quiet moonlight. And now his descendant was pointing out dim shapes in the park which he said were prize cattle.

"Whew! what a weariness is civilization!" said the man, with comical eyes. "We have been making talk with difficulty all the evening which serves no purpose in the world. Upon my word, my kyloes have the best of the bargain. And in a month or so there will be the election and I shall have to go and rave-there is no other word for it, Miss Wishart-rave on behalf of some fool or other, and talk Radicalism which would make your friend Dickon turn in his grave, and be in earnest for weeks when I know in the bottom of my heart that I am a humbug and care for none of these things. How lightly politics and such matters sit on us all!"

"But you know you are talking nonsense," said the serious Alice. "After all, these things are the most important, for they mean duty and courage and-and-all that sort of thing."

"Right, little woman," said he, smiling; "that is what Stocks tells me twice a day, but, somehow, reproof comes better from you. Dear me! it's a sad thing that a middle-aged legislator should be reproved by a very little girl. Come and see the herons. The young birds will be everywhere just now."

For an hour in the moonlight they went a-sightseeing, and came back very cool and fresh to the open drawing-room window. As they approached they caught an echo of a loud, bland voice saying, "We must remember our moral responsibilities, my dear Lady Manorwater. Now, for instance-"

And a strange thing happened. For the first time in her life Miss Alice Wishart felt that the use of loud and solemn words could jar upon her feelings. She set it down resignedly to the evil influence of her companion.

In the calm of her bedroom Alice reviewed her recent hours. She admitted to herself that she would enjoy her visit. A healthy and active young woman, the mere prospect of an open-air life gave her pleasure. Also she liked the people. Mentally she epitomized each of the inmates of the house. Lady Manorwater was all she had pictured her-a dear, whimsical, untidy creature, with odd shreds of cleverness and a heart of gold. She liked the boy Arthur, and the spectacled people seemed harmless. Bertha she was prepared to adore, for behind the languor and wit she saw a very kindly and capable young woman fashioned after her own heart. But of all she liked Lord Manorwater best. She knew that he had a great reputation, that he was said to be incessantly laborious, and she had expected some one of her father's type, prim, angular, and elderly. Instead she found a boyish person whom she could scold, and with women reproof is the first stone in the foundation of friendship. On Mr. Stocks she generously reserved her judgment, fearing the fate of the hasty.

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