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   Chapter 5 A CONFERENCE OF THE POWERS

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 14264

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


IT was the sultriest of weather in London-days when the city lay in a fog of heat, when the paving cracked, and the brow was damp from the slightest movement and the mind of the stranger was tortured by the thought of airy downs and running rivers. The leaves in the Green Park were withered and dusty, the window-boxes in Mayfair had a tarnished look, and horse and man moved with unwilling languor. A tall young man in a grey frockcoat searched the street for shadow, and finding none entered the doorway of a club which promised coolness.

Mr. George Winterham removed his top-hat, had a good wash, and then sought the smoking room. Seen to better advantage, he was sufficiently good-looking, with an elegant if somewhat lanky frame, a cheerful countenance, and a great brown moustache which gave him the air military. But he was no soldier, being indeed that anomalous creature, the titular barrister, who shows his profession by rarely entering the chambers and by an ignorance of law more profound than Necessity's.

He found the shadiest corner of the smoking room and ordered the coolest drink he could think of. Then he smiled, for he saw advancing to him across the room another victim of the weather. This was a small, thin man, with a finely-shaped dark head and the most perfectly-fitting clothes. He had been deep in a review, but at the sight of the wearied giant in the corner he had forgotten his interest in the "Entomology of the Riviera." He looked something of the artist or the man of letters, but in truth he had no taint of Bohemianism about him, being a very respectable person and a rising politician. His name was Arthur Mordaunt, but because it was the fashion at the time for a certain class of people to address each other in monosyllables, his friends invariably knew him as "John."

He dropped into a chair and regarded his companion with half-closed eyes.

"Well, John. Dished, eh? Most infernal heat I ever endured! I can't stand it, you know. I'll have to go away."

"Think," said the other, "think that at this moment somewhere in the country there are great, cool, deep woods and lakes and waterfalls, and we might be sitting in flannels instead of being clothed in these garments of sin."

"Think," said George, "of nothing of the kind. Think of high upland glens and full brown rivers, and hillsides where there is always wind. Why do I tantalize myself and talk to a vexatious idiot like you?"

This young man had a deep voice, a most emphatic manner of speech, and a trick of cheerfully abusing his friends which they rather liked than otherwise.

"And why should I sit opposite six feet of foolishness which can give me no comfort? Whew! But I think I am getting cool at last. I have sworn to make use of my first half-hour of reasonable temperature and consequent clearness of mind to plan flight from this place."

"May I come with you, my pretty maid? I am hideously sick of July in town. I know Mabel will never forgive me, but I must risk it."

Mabel was the young man's sister, and the friendship between the two was a perpetual joke. As a small girl she had been wont to con eagerly her brother's cricketing achievements, for George had been a famous cricketer, and annually went crazy with excitement at the Eton and Harrow match. She exercised a maternal care over him, and he stood in wholesome fear of her and ordered his doings more or less at her judgment. Now she was married, but she still supervised her tall brother, and the victim made no secret of the yoke.

Suddenly Arthur jumped to his feet. "I say, what about Lewis Haystoun? He is home now, somewhere in Scotland. Have you heard a word about him?"

"He has never written," groaned George, but he took out a pocket-book and shook therefrom certain newspaper cuttings. "The people I employ sent me these about him to-day." And he laid them out on his knee.

The first of them was long, and consisted of a belated review of Mr. Haystoun's book. George, who never read such things, handed it to Arthur, who glanced over the lines and returned it. The second explained in correct journalese that the Manorwater family had returned to Glenavelin for the summer and autumn, and that Mr. Lewis Haystoun was expected at Etterick shortly. The third recorded the opening of a bazaar in the town of Gledsmuir which Mr. Haystoun had patronised, "looking," said the fatuous cutting, "very brown and distinguished after his experiences in the East."-"Whew!" said George. "Poor beggar, to have such stuff written about him!"-The fourth discussed the possible retirement of Sir Robert Merkland, the member for Gledsmuir, and his possible successor. Mr. Haystoun's name was mentioned, "though indeed," said the wiseacre, "that gentleman has never shown any decided leanings to practical politics. We understand that the seat will be contested in the Radical interest by Mr. Albert Stocks, the well-known writer and lecturer."

"You know everybody, John. Who's the fellow?" George asked.

"Oh, a very able man indeed, one of the best speakers we have. I should like to see a fight between him and Lewie: they would not get on with each other. This Stocks is a sort of living embodiment of the irritable Radical conscience, a very good thing in its way, but not quite in Lewie's style."

The fifth cutting mentioned the presence of Mr. Haystoun at three garden-parties, and hinted the possibility of a mistress soon to be at Etterick.

George lay back in his chair gasping. "I never thought it would come to this. I always thought Lewie the least impressionable of men. I wonder what sort of woman he has fallen in love with. But it may not be true."

"We'll pray that it isn't true. But I was never quite sure of him. You know there was always an odd romantic strain in the man. The ordinary smart, pretty girl, who adorns the end of a dinner-table and makes an admirable mistress of a house, he would never think twice about. But for all his sanity Lewie has many cranks, and a woman might get him on that side."

"Don't talk of it. I can picture the horrid reality. He will marry some thin-lipped creature who will back him in all his madness, and his friends will have to bid him a reluctant farewell. Or, worse still, there are scores of gushing, sentimental girls who might capture him. I wish old Wratislaw were here to ask him what he thinks, for he knows Lewie better than any of us. Is he a member here?"

"Oh yes, he is a member, but I don't think he comes much. You people are too frivolous for him."

"Well, that is all the good done by subscribing to a news-cutting agency for news of one's friends. I feel as low as ditch water. There is that idiot who goes off to the ends of the earth for three years, and when he comes back his friends get no good of him for the confounded women." George echoed the ancient complaint which is doubtless old as David and Jonathan.

Then these two desolated young men, in view of their friend's defection, were full of sad memories, much as relations after a funeral hymn the acts of the deceased.

George lit a cigar and smoked it savagely

. "So that is the end of Lewis! And to think I knew the fool at school and college and couldn't make a better job of him than this! Do you remember, John, how we used to call him 'Vaulting Ambition,' because he won the high jump and was a cocky beggar in general?"

"And do you remember when he got his First, and they wanted him to stand for a fellowship, but he was keen to get out of England and travel? Do you remember that last night at Heston, when he told us all he was going to do, and took a bet with Wratislaw about it?"

It is probable that this sad elegy would have continued for hours, had not a servant approached with letters, which he distributed, two to Arthur Mordaunt and one to Mr. Winterham. A close observer might have seen that two of the envelopes were identical. Arthur slipped one into his pocket, but tore open the other and read.

"It's from Lewie," he cried. "He wants me down there next week at Etterick. He says he is all alone and crazy to see old friends again."

"Mine's the same!" said George, after puzzling out Mr. Haystoun's by no means legible writing. "I say, John, of course we'll go. It's the very chance we were wishing for."

Then he added with a cheerful face, "I begin to think better of human nature. Here were we abusing the poor man as a defaulter, and ten minutes after he heaps coals of fire on our heads. There can't be much truth in what that newspaper says, or he wouldn't want his friends down to spoil sport."

"I wonder what he'll be like? Wratislaw saw him in town, but only for a little, and he notices nothing. He's rather famous now, you know, and we may expect to find him very dignified and wise. He'll be able to teach us most things, and we'll have to listen with proper humility."

"I'll give you fifty to one he's nothing of the kind," said George. "He has his faults like us all, but they don't run in that line. No, no, Lewie will be modest enough. He may have the pride of Lucifer at heart, but he would never show it. His fault is just this infernal modesty, which makes him shirk fighting some blatant ass or publishing his merits to the world."

Arthur looked curiously at his companion. Mr. Winterham was loved of his friends as the best of good fellows, but to the staid and rising politician he was not a person for serious talk. Hence, when he found him saying very plainly what had for long been a suspicion of his own, he was willing to credit him with a new acuteness.

"You know I've always backed Lewie to romp home some day," went on the young man. "He has got it in him to do most things, if he doesn't jib and bolt altogether."

"I don't see why you should talk of your friends as if they were racehorses or prize dogs."

"Well, there's a lot of truth in the metaphor. You know yourself what a mess of it he might make. Say some good woman got hold of him-some good woman, for we will put aside the horrible suggestion of the adventuress. I suppose he'd be what you call a 'good husband.' He would become a magistrate and a patron of local agricultural societies and flower shows. And eveybody would talk about him as a great success in life; but we-you and I and Tommy-who know him better, would feel that it was all a ghastly failure."

Mr. Lewis Haystoun's character erred in its simplicity, for it was at the mercy of every friend for comment.

"What makes you dread the women so?" asked Arthur with a smile.

"I don't dread 'em. They are all that's good, and a great deal better than most men. But then, you know, if you get a man really first-class he's so much better than all but the very best women that you've got to look after him. To ordinary beggars like myself it doesn't matter a straw, but I won't have Lewie throwing himself away."

"Then is the ancient race of the Haystouns to disappear from the earth?"

"Oh, there are women fit for him, sure enough, but you won't find them at every garden party. Why, to find the proper woman would be the making of the man, and I should never have another doubt about him. But I am afraid. He's a deal too kindly and good-natured, and he'd marry a girl to-morrow merely to please her. And then some day quite casually he would come across the woman who was meant by Providence for him, and there would be the devil to pay and the ruin of one good man. I don't mean that he'd make a fool of himself or anything of that sort, for he's not a cad; but in the middle of his pleasant domesticity he would get a glimpse of what he might have been, and those glimpses are not forgotten."

"Why, George, you are getting dithyrambic," said Arthur, still smiling, but with a new vague respect in his heart.

"For you cannot harness the wind or tie-tie the bonds of the wild ass," said George, with an air of quotation. "At any rate, we're going to look after him. He is a good chap and I've got to see him through."

For Mr. Winterham, who was very much like other men, whose language was free, and who respected few things indeed in the world, had unfailing tenderness for two beings-his sister and his friend.

The two young men rose, yawned, and strolled out into the hall. They scanned carelessly the telegram boards. Arthur pointed a finger to a message typed in a corner.

"That will make a good deal of difference to Wratislaw."

George read: "The death is announced, at his residence in Hampshire, of Earl Beauregard. His lordship had reached the age of eighty-five, and had been long in weak health. He is succeeded by his son the Right Hon. Lord Malham, the present Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs."

"It means that if Wratislaw's party get back with a majority after August, and if Wratislaw gets the under-secretaryship as most people expect, then, with his chief in the Lords, he will be rather an important figure in the Commons."

"And I suppose his work will be pretty lively," said George. He had been reading some of the other telegrams, which were, as a rule, hysterical messages by way of foreign capitals, telling of Russian preparations in the East.

"Oh, lively, yes. But I've confidence in Tommy. I wish the Fate which decides men's politics had sent him to our side. He knows more about the thing than any one else, and he knows his own mind, which is rare enough. But it's too hot for serious talk. I suppose my seat is safe enough in August, but I don't relish the prospect of a three weeks' fight. Wratislaw, lucky man, will not be opposed. I suppose he'll come up and help Lewis to make hay of Stock's chances. It's a confounded shame. I shall go and talk for him."

On the steps of the club both men halted, and looked up and down the sultry white street. The bills of the evening papers were plastered in a row on the pavement, and the glaring pink and green still further increased the dazzle. After the cool darkness within each shaded his eyes and blinked.

"This settles it," said George. "I shall wire to Lewie to-night."

"And I," said the other; "and to-morrow evening we'll be in that cool green Paradise of a glen. Think of it! Meantime I shall grill through another evening in the House, and pair."

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