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   Chapter 3 UPLAND WATERS

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 14400

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


WHEN Alice woke next morning the cool upland air was flooding through the window, and a great dazzle of sunlight made the world glorious. She dressed and ran out to the lawn, then past the loch right to the very edge of the waste country. A high fragrance of heath and bog-myrtle was in the wind, and the mouth grew cool as after long draughts of spring water. Mists were crowding in the valleys, each bald mountain top shone like a jewel, and far aloft in the heavens were the white streamers of morn. Moorhens were plashing at the loch's edge, and one tall heron rose from his early meal. The world was astir with life: sounds of the plonk-plonk of rising trout and the endless twitter of woodland birds mingled with the far-away barking of dogs and the lowing of the full-uddered cows in the distant meadows. Abashed and enchanted, the girl listened. It was an elfin land where the old witch voices of hill and river were not silenced. With the wind in her hair she climbed the slope again to the garden ground, where she found a solemn-eyed collie sniffing the fragrant wind in his morning stroll.

Breakfast over, the forenoon hung heavy on her hands. It was Lady Manorwater's custom to let her guests sit idle in the morning and follow their own desire, but in the afternoon she would plan subtle and far-reaching schemes of enjoyment. It was a common saying that in her large good-nature she amused people regardless of their own expense. She would light-heartedly make town-bred folk walk twenty miles or bear the toil of infinite drives. But this was after lunch; before, her guests might do as they pleased. Lord Manorwater went off to see some tenant; Arthur, after vain efforts to decoy Alice into a fishing expedition, went down the stream in a canoe, because to his fool's head it seemed the riskiest means of passing the time at his disposal; Bertha and her sister were writing letters; the spectacled people had settled themselves below shady trees with voluminous papers and a pile of books. Alice alone was idle. She made futile expeditions to the library, and returned with an armful of volumes which she knew in her heart she would never open. She found the deepest and most comfortable chair and placed it in a shady place among beeches. But she could not stay there, and must needs wander restlessly about the gardens, plucking flowers and listlessly watching the gardeners at their work.

Lunch-time found this young woman in a slightly irritable frame of mind. The cause direct and indirect was Mr. Stocks, who had found her alone, and had saddled her with his company for the space of an hour and a half. His vein had been badinage of the serious and reproving kind, and the girl had been bored to distraction. But a misspent hour is soon forgotten, and the sight of her hostess's cheery face would have restored her to good humour had it not been for a thought which could not be exorcised. She knew of Lady Manorwater's reputation as an inveterate matchmaker, and in some subtle way the suspicion came to her that that goddess had marked herself as a quarry. She found herself next Mr. Stocks at meals, she had already listened to his eulogy from her hostess's own lips, and to her unquiet fancy it seemed as if the others stood back that they two might be together. Brought up in an atmosphere of commerce, she was perfectly aware that she was a desirable match for an embryo politician, and that sooner or later she would be mistress of many thousands. The thought was a barbed vexation. To Mr. Stocks she had been prepared to extend the tolerance of a happy aloofness; now she found that she was driven to dislike him with all the bitterness of unwelcome proximity.

The result of such thoughts was that after lunch she disregarded her hostess's preparations and set out for a long hill walk. Like all perfectly healthy people, much exercise was as welcome to her as food and sleep; ten miles were refreshing; fifteen miles in an afternoon an exaltation. She reached the moor beyond the policies, and, once past this rushy wilderness, came to the Avelin-side and a single plank bridge which she crossed lightly without a tremor. Then came the highway, and then a long planting of firs, and last of all the dip of a rushing stream pouring down from the hills in a lonely wooded hollow. The girl loved to explore, and here was a field ripe for adventure.

Soon she grew flushed with the toil and the excitement; climbing the bed of the stream was no child's play, for ugly corners had to be passed, slippery rocks to be skirted, and many breakneck leaps to be effected. Her spirits rose as the spray from little falls brushed her face and the thick screen of the birches caught in her hair. When she reached a vantage-rock and looked down on the chain of pools and rapids by which she had come, a cry of delight broke from her lips. This was living, this was the zest of life! The upland wind cooled her brow; she washed her hands in a rocky pool and arranged her tangled tresses. What did she care for Mr. Stocks or any man? He was far down on the lowlands talking his pompous nonsense; she was on the hills with the sky above her and the breeze of heaven around her, free, sovereign, the queen of an airy land.

With fresh wonder she scrambled on till the trees began to grow sparser and an upland valley opened in view. Now the burn was quiet, running in long shining shallows and falling over little rocks into deep brown pools where the trout darted. On either side rose the gates of the valley-two craggy knolls each with a few trees on its face. Beyond was a green lawnlike place with a great confusion of blue mountains hemmed around its head. Here, if anywhere, primeval peace had found its dwelling, and Alice, her eyes bright with pleasure, sat on a green knoll, too rapt with the sight for word or movement.

Then very slowly, like an epicure lingering at a feast, she walked up the banks of the burn, now high above a trough of rock, now down in a green winding hollow. Suddenly she came on the spirits of the place in the shape of two boys down on their faces groping among the stones of a pool.

One was very small and tattered, one about sixteen; both were barefoot and both were wet and excited. "Tam, ye stot, ye've let the muckle yin aff again," groaned the smaller. "Oh, be canny, man! If we grip him it'll be the biggest trout that the laird will have in his basket." The elder boy, who was bearing the heat and burden of the work, could only groan "Heather!" at intervals. It seemed to be his one exclamation.

Now it happened that the two ragamuffins lifted their eyes and saw to their amazement a girl walking on the bank above them, a girl who smiled comrade-like on them and seemed in no way surprised. They propped themselves on their elbows and stared. "Heather!" they ejaculated in one breath. Then they, too, grinned broadly, for it was impossible to resist so good-humoured an intruder. She held her head high and walked like a queen, till a turn of the water hid her. "It's a wumman," gasped the smaller boy. "And she's terrible bonny," commented the more critical brother. Then the two fell again to the quest of the great

trout.

Meanwhile the girl pursued her way till she came to a fall where the bank needed warier climbing. As she reached the top a little flushed and panting, she became conscious that the upland valley was not without inhabitants. For, not six paces off, stood a man's figure, his back turned towards her, and his mind apparently set on mending a piece of tackle.

She stood for a moment hesitating. How could she pass without being seen? The man was blissfully unconscious of her presence, and as he worked he whistled Schubert's "Wohin," and whistled it very badly. Then he fell to apostrophizing his tackle, and then he grew irritable. "Somebody come and keep this thing taut," he cried. "Tam, Jock! where on earth are you?"

The thing in question was lying at Alice's feet in wavy coils.

"Jock, you fool, where are you?" cried the man, but he never looked round and went on biting and tying. Then an impulse took the girl and she picked up the line. "That's right," cried the man, "pull it as tight as you can," and Alice tugged heroically at the waterproof silk. She felt horribly nervous, and was conscious that she must look a very flushed and untidy young barbarian. Many times she wanted to drop it and run away, but the thought of the menaces against the absent Jock and of her swift discovery deterred her. When he was done with her help he might go on working and never look round. Then she would escape unnoticed down the burn.

But no such luck befell her. With a satisfied tug he pronounced the thing finished and wheeled round to regard his associates. "Now, you young wretches-" and the words froze on his lips, for in the place of two tatterdemalion boys he saw a young girl holding his line limply and smiling with much nervousness.

"Oh," he cried, and then became dumb and confused. He was shy and unhappy with women, save the few whom he had known from childhood. The girl was no better. She had blushed deeply, and was now minutely scanning the stones in the burn. Then she raised her eyes, met his, and the difficulty was solved by both falling into fits of deep laughter. She was the first to speak.

"I am so sorry I surprised you. I did not see you till I was close to you, and then you were abusing somebody so terribly that to stop such language I had to stop and help you. I saw Tam and Jock at a pool a long way down, so they couldn't hear you, you know."

"And I'm very much obliged to you. You held it far better than Tam or Jock would have done. But how did you get up here?"

"I climbed up the burn," said Alice simply, putting up a hand to confine a wandering tress. The young man saw a small, very simply dressed girl, with a flushed face and bright, deep eyes. The small white hat crowned a great tangle of wonderful reddish gold hair. She held herself with the grace which is born of natural health and no modish training; the strong hazel stick, the scratched shoes, and the wet fringes of her gown showed how she had spent the afternoon. The young man, having received an excellent education, thought of Dryads and Oreads.

Alice for her part saw a strong, well-knit being, with a brown, clean-shaven face, a straight nose, and a delicate, humorous mouth. He had large grey eyes, very keen, quizzical, and kindly. His raiment was disgraceful-an old knickerbocker suit with a ruinous Norfolk jacket, patched at the elbows and with leather at wrist and shoulder. Apparently he scorned the June sun, for he had no cap. His pockets seemed bursting with tackle, and a discarded basket lay on the ground. The whole figure pleased her, its rude health, simplicity, and disorder. The atrocious men who sometimes came to her father's house had been miracles of neatness, and Mr. Stocks was wont to robe his person in the most faultless of shooting suits.

A fugitive memory began to haunt the girl. She had met or heard of this man before. The valley was divided between Glenavelin and Etterick. He was not the Doctor, and he was not the minister. Might not he be that Lewie, the well-beloved, whose praises she had heard consistently sung since her arrival? It pleased her to think that she had been the first to meet the redoubtable young man.

To them there entered the two boys, the younger dangling a fish. "It is the big trout ye lost," he cried. "We guddled 'um. We wad has gotten 'um afore, but a wumman frichted 'um." Then turning unabashed to Alice, he said in accusing tones, "That's the wumman!"

The elder boy gently but firmly performed on his brother the operation known as "scragging." It was a subdued spirit which emerged from the fraternal embrace.

"Pit the fush in the basket, Tam," said he, "and syne gang away wide up the hill till I cry ye back." The tones implied that his younger brother was no fit company for two gentlemen and a lady.

"I won't spoil your fishing," said Alice, fearing fratricidal strife. "You are fishing up, so I had better go down the burn again." And with a dignified nod to the others she turned to go.

Jock sprang forward with a bound and proceeded to stone the small Tam up the hill. He coursed that young gentleman like a dog, bidding him "come near," or "gang wide," or "lie down there," to all of which the culprit, taking the sport in proper spirit, gaily responded.

"I think you had better not go down the burn," said the man reflectively. "You should keep the dry hillside. It is safer."

"Oh, I am not afraid," said the girl, laughing.

"But then I might want to fish down, and the trout are very shy there," said he, lying generously.

"Well, I won't then, but please tell me where Glenavelin is, for the stream-side is my only direction."

"You are staying there?" he asked with a pleased face. "We shall meet again, for I shall be over to-morrow. That fence on the hillside is their march, and if you follow it you will come to the footbridge on the Avelin. Many thanks for taking Jock's place and helping me."

He watched her for a second as she lightly jumped the burn and climbed the peaty slope. Then he turned to his fishing, and when Alice looked back from the vantage-ground of the hill shoulder she saw a figure bending intently below a great pool. She was no coquette, but she could not repress a tinge of irritation at so callous and self-absorbed a young man. Another would have been profuse in thanks and would have accompanied her to point out the road, or in some way or other would have declared his appreciation of her presence. He might have told her his name, and then there would have been a pleasant informal introduction, and they could have talked freely. If he came to Glenavelin to-morrow, she would have liked to appear as already an acquaintance of so popular a guest.

But such thoughts did not long hold their place. She was an honest young woman, and she readily confessed that fluent manners and the air of the cavaliere servente were things she did not love. Carelessness suited well with a frayed jacket and the companionship of a hill burn and two ragged boys. So, comforting her pride with proverbs, she returned to Glenavelin to find the place deserted save for dogs, and in their cheering presence read idly till dinner.

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