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   Chapter 7 THE MAKERS OF EMPIRE

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 9944

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


THE day before the events just recorded two men had entered the door of a certain London club and made their way to a remote little smoking-room on the first floor. It was not a handsome building, nor had it any particular outlook or position. It was a small, old-fashioned place in a side street, in style obviously of last century, and the fittings within were far from magnificent. Yet no club carried more distinction in its membership. Its hundred possible inmates were the cream of the higher professions, the chef and the cellar were things to wonder at, and the man who could write himself a member of the Rota Club had obtained one of the rare social honours which men confer on one another. Thither came all manner of people-the distinguished foreigner travelling incognito, and eager to talk with some Minister unofficially on matters of import, the diplomat on a secret errand, the traveller home for a brief season, the soldier, the thinker, the lawyer. It was a catholic assembly, but exclusive-very. Each man bore the stamp of competence on his face, and there was no cheap talk of the "well-informed" variety. When the members spoke seriously they spoke like experts; otherwise they were apt to joke very much like schoolboys let loose. The Right Hon. Mr. M-- was not above twitting Lord S-- with gunroom stories, and suffering in turn good-natured libel.

Of the two men lighting their pipes in the little room one was to the first glance a remarkable figure. About the middle height, with a square head and magnificent shoulders, he looked from the back not unlike some professional strong man. But his face betrayed him, for it was clearly the face of the intellectual worker, the man of character and mind. His jaw was massive and broad, saved from hardness only by a quaintly humorous mouth; he had, too, a pair of very sharp blue eyes looking from under shaggy eyebrows. His age was scarcely beyond thirty, but one would have put it ten years later, for there were lines on his brow and threads of grey in his hair. His companion was slim and, to a hasty glance, insignificant. He wore a peaked grey beard which lengthened his long, thin face, and he had a nervous trick of drumming always with his fingers on whatever piece of furniture was near. But if you looked closer and marked the high brow, the keen eyes, and the very resolute mouth, the thought of insignificance disappeared. He looked not unlike a fighting Yankee colonel who had had a Puritan upbringing, and the impression was aided by his simplicity in dress. He was, in fact, a very great man, the Foreign Secretary of the time, formerly known to fame as Lord Malham, and at the moment, by his father's death, Lord Beauregard, and, for his sins, an exile to the Upper House. His companion, whose name was Wratislaw, was a younger Member of Parliament who was credited with peculiar knowledge and insight on the matters which formed his lordship's province. They were close friends and allies of some years' standing, and colloquies between the two in this very place were not unknown to the club annals.

Lord Beauregard looked at his companion's anxious face. "Do you know the news?" he said.

"What news?" asked Wratislaw. "That your family position is changed, or that the dissolution will be a week earlier, or that Marka is busy again?"

"I mean the last. How did you know? Did you see the telegrams?"

"No, I saw it in the papers."

"Good Heavens!" said the great man. "Let me see the thing," and he snatched a newspaper cutting from Wratislaw's hand, returning it the next moment with a laugh. It ran thus: "Telegrams from the Punjab declare that an expedition, the personnel of which is not yet revealed, is about to start for the town of Bardur in N. Kashmir, to penetrate the wastes beyond the frontier. It is rumoured that the expedition has a semi-official character."

"That's our friend," said Wratislaw, putting the paper into his pocket.

Lord Beauregard wrinkled his brow and stared at the bowl of his pipe. "I see the motive clearly, but I am hanged if I understand why an evening paper should print it. Who in this country knows of the existence of Bardur?"

"Many people since Haystoun's book," said the other.

"I have just glanced at it. Is there anything important in it?"

"Nothing that we did not know before. But things are put in a fresh light. He covered ground himself of which we had only a second-hand account."

"And he talks of this Bardur?"

"A good deal. He is an expert in his way on the matter and uncommonly clever. He kept the best things out of the book, and it would be worth your while meeting him. Do you happen to know him?"

"No-o," said the great man doubtfully. "Oh, stop a moment. I have heard my young brother talk of somebody of the same name. Rather a figure at Oxford, wasn't he?"

Wratislaw nodded. "But to talk of Marka," he added.

"His mission is, of course, official, and he has abundant resource

s."

"So much I gathered," said Wratislaw. "But his designs?

"He knows the tribes in the North better than any living man, but without a base at hand he is comparatively harmless. The devil in the thing is that we do not know how close that base may be. Fifty thousand men may be massed within fifty miles, and we are in ignorance."

"It is the lack of a secret service," said the other. "Had we that, there are a hundred young men who would have risked their necks there and kept us abreast of our enemies. As it is, we have to wait till news comes by some roundabout channel, while that cheerful being, Marka, keeps the public easy by news of hypothetical private expeditious."

"And meantime there is that thousand-mile piece of desert of which we know nothing, and where our friends may be playing pranks as they please. Well, well, we must wait on developments. It is the last refuge of the ill-informed. What about the dissolution? You are safe, I suppose?"

Wratislaw nodded.

"I have been asked my forecast fifty times to-day, and I steadily refuse to speak. But I may as well give it to you. We shall come back with a majority of from fifty to eighty, and you, my dear fellow, will not be forgotten."

"You mean the Under-Secretaryship," said the other. "Well, I don't mind it."

"I should think not. Why, you will get that chance your friends have hoped so long for, and then it is only a matter of time till you climb the last steps. You are a youngish man for a Minister, for all your elderly manners."

Wratislaw smiled the pleased smile of the man who hears kind words from one whom he admires. "It won't be a bed of roses, you know. I am very unpopular, and I have the grace to know it."

The elder man looked on the younger with an air of kindly wisdom. "Your pride may have a fall, my dear fellow. You are young and confident, I am old and humble. Some day you will be glad to hope that you are not without this despised popularity."

Wratislaw looked grave. "God forbid that I should despise it. When it comes my way I shall think that my work is done, and rest in peace. But you and I are not the sort of people who can court it with comfort. We are old sticks and very full of angles, but it would be a pity to rub them off if the shape were to be spoiled."

Lord Beauregard nodded. "Tell me more about your friend Haystoun."

Wratislaw's face relaxed, and he became communicative.

"He is a Scots laird, rather well off, and, as I have said, uncommonly clever. He lives at a place called Etterick in the Gled valley."

"I saw Merkland to-day, and he spoke his farewell to politics. The Whips told me about it yesterday."

"Merkland! But he always raised that scare!"

"He is serious this time. He has sold his town house."

"Then that settles it. Lewis shall stand in his place."

"Good," said the great man. "We want experts. He would strengthen your feeble hands and confirm your tottering knees, Tommy."

"If he gets in; but he will have a fight for it. Our dear friend Albert Stocks has been nursing the seat, and the Manorwaters and scores of Lewie's friends will help him. That young man has a knack of confining his affections to members of the opposite party."

"What was Merkland's majority? Two-fifty or something like that?"

"There or about. But he was an old and well-liked country laird, whereas Lewie is a very young gentleman with nothing to his credit except an Oxford reputation and a book of travels, neither of which will appeal to the Gledsmuir weavers."

"But he is popular?"

"Where he is known-adored. But his name does not carry confidence to those who do not know the man, for his family were weak-kneed gentry."

"Yes, I knew his father. Able, but crotchety and impossible! Tommy, this young man must get the seat, for we cannot afford to throw away a single chance. You say he knows the place," and he jerked his head to indicate that East to which his thoughts were ever turning. "Some time in the next two years there will be the devil's own mess in that happy land. Then your troubles will begin, my friend, and I can wish nothing better for you than the support of some man in the Commons who knows that Bardur is not quite so pastoral as Hampshire. He may relieve you of some of the popular odium you are courting, and at the worst he can be sent out."

Wratislaw whistled long and low. "I think not," he said. "He is too good to throw away. But he must get in, and as there is nothing in the world for me to do I shall go up to Etterick tomorrow and talk to him. He will do as I tell him, and we can put our back into the fight. Besides, I want to see Stocks again. That man is the joy of my heart!"

"Lucky beggar!" said the Minister. "Oh, go by all means and enjoy yourself, while I swelter here for another three weeks over meaningless telegrams enlivened by the idiot diplomatist. Good-bye and good luck, and bring the young man to a sense of his own value."

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