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   Chapter 8 MR. WRATISLAW’S ADVENT

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 15978

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


AS the three men went home in the dusk they talked of the day. Lewis had been in a bad humour, but the company of his friends exorcised the imp of irritation, and he felt only the mellow gloom of the evening and the sweet scents of the moor. In such weather he had a trick of walking with his head high and his nostrils wide, sniffing the air like the wild ass of the desert with which the metaphorical George had erstwhile compared him. That young man meanwhile was occupied with his own reflections. His good nature had been victimized, he had been made to fetch and carry continually, and the result was that he had scarcely spoken a word to Miss Wishart. His plans thus early foiled, nothing remained but to draw the more fortunate Arthur, so in a conspirator's aside he asked him his verdict. But Arthur refused to speak. "She is pretty and clever," he said, "and excellent company." And with this his lips were sealed, and his thoughts went off on his own concerns.

Lewis heard and smiled. The sun and wind of the hills beat in his pulses like wine. To have breathed all day the fragrance of heather and pines, to have gladdened the eye with an infinite distance and blue lines of mountain, was with this man to have drunk the cup of intoxicating youth. The cool gloaming did not chill; rather it was the high and solemn aftermath of the day's harvesting. The faces of gracious women seemed blent with the pageant of summer weather; kindly voices, simple joys-for a moment they seemed to him the major matters in life. So far it was pleasing fancy, but Alice soon entered to disturb with the disquieting glory of her hair. The family of the Haystouns had ever a knack of fine sentiment. Fantastic, unpractical, they were gluttons for the romantic, the recondite, and the dainty. But now had come a breath of strong wind which rent the meshes of a philandering fancy. A very new and strange feeling was beginning to make itself known. He had come to think of Alice with the hot pained affection which makes the high mountains of the world sink for the time to a species of mole-hillock. She danced through his dreams and usurped all the paths of his ambition. Formerly he had thought of himself-for the man was given to self-portraiture-as the adventurer, the scorner of the domestic; now he struggled to regain the old attitude, but he struggled in vain. The ways were blocked, a slim figure was ever in view, and lo! when he blotted it from his sight the world was dark and the roads blind. For a moment he had lost his bearings on the sea of life. As yet the discomfiture was sweet, his confusion was a joy; and it is the first trace of weakness which we have seen in the man that he accepted the unsatisfactory with composure.

At the door of Etterick it became apparent that something was astir. Wheel-marks were clear in the gravel, and the ancient butler had an air of ceremony. "Mr. Wratislaw has arrived, sir," he whispered to Lewis, whereat that young man's face shone.

"When? How? Where is he now?" he cried, and with a word to his companions he had crossed the hall, raced down a lengthy passage, and flung open the door of his sanctum. There, sure enough, were the broad shoulders of Wratislaw bending among the books.

"Lord bless me, Tommy, what extraordinary surprise visit is this? I thought you would be over your ears in work. We are tremendously pleased to see you."

The sharp blue eyes had been scanning the other's frank sunburnt face with an air of affectionate consideration. "I got off somehow or other, as I had to see you, old man, so I thought I would try this place first. What a fortressed wilderness you live in! I got out at Gledsmuir after travelling some dreary miles in a train which stopped at every farm, and then I had to wait an hour till the solitary dogcart of the inn returned. Hullo! you've got other visitors." And he stretched out a massive hand to Arthur and George.

The sight of him had lifted a load from these gentlemen's hearts. The old watchdog had come; the little terriers might now take holiday. The task of being Lewis's keeper did not by right belong to them; they were only amateurs acting in the absence of the properly qualified Wratislaw. Besides, it had been anxious work, for while each had sworn to himself aforetime to protect his friend from the wiles of Miss Wishart, both were now devoted slaves drawn at that young woman's chariot wheel. You will perceive that it is a delicate matter to wage war with a goddess, and a task unblest of Heaven.

Supper was brought, and the lamps lit in the cool old room, where, through the open window, they could still catch the glint of foam on the stream and the dark gloom of pines on the hill. They fell ravenously on the meal, for one man had eaten nothing since midday and the others were fresh from moorland air. Thereafter they pulled armchairs to a window, and lit the pipes of contentment. Wratislaw stretched his arms on the sill and looked out into the fragrant darkness.

"Any news, Tommy?" asked his host. "Things seem lively in the East."

"Very, but I am ill-informed. Did you lay no private lines of communication in your travels?"

"They were too short. I picked up a lot of out-of-the-way hints, but as I am not a diplomatist I cannot use them. I think I have already made you a present of most. By the by, I see from the papers that an official expedition is going north from Bardur. What idiot invented that?"

Wratislaw pulled his head in and sat back in his chair. "You are sure you don't happen to know?"

"Sure. But it is just the sort of canard which the gentry on the other side of the frontier would invent to keep things quiet. Who are the Englishmen at Bardur now?"

The elder man looked shrewdly at the younger, who was carelessly pulling a flower to pieces. "There's Logan, whom you know, and Thwaite and Gribton."

"Good men all, but slow in the uptake. Logan is a jewel. He gave me the best three days' shooting I ever dreamed of, and he has more stories in his head than George. But if matters got into a tangle I would rather not be in his company. Thwaite is a gentlemanlike sort of fellow, but dull-very, while Gribton is the ordinary shrewd commercial man, very cautious and rather timid."

"Did you ever happen to hear of a man called Marka? He might call himself Constantine Marka, or Arthur Marker, or the Baron Mark-whatever happened to suit him."

Lewis puzzled for a little. "Yes, of course I did. By George! I should think so. It was a chap of that name who had gone north the week before I arrived. They said he would never be heard of again. He seemed a reckless sort of fool."

"You didn't see him?"

"No. But why?"

"Simply that you came within a week of meeting one of the cleverest men living, a cheerful being whom the Foreign Office is more interested in than any one else in the world. If you should hear again of Constantine Marka, Marker, or Mark, please note it down."

"You mean that he is the author of the canard," said Lewis, with sharp eyes, taking up a newspaper.

"Yes, and many more. This graceful person will complicate things for me, for I am to represent the Office in the Commons if we get back with a decent majority."

Lewis held out a cordial hand. "I congratulate you, Tommy. Now beginneth the end, and may I be spared to see!"

"I hope you may, and it's on this I want to talk to you. Merkland has resigned; it will be in the papers to-morrow. I got it kept out till I could see you!"

"Yes?" said Lewis, with quickening interest.

"And we want you to take his place. I spoke to him, and he is enthusiastic on the matter. I wired to the Conservative Club at Gledsmuir, and it seems you are their most cherished possibility. The leaders of the party are more than willing, so it only remains for you to consent, my dear boy."

"I-don't-think-I-can," said the possibility slowly. "You see, only to-day I told that man Stocks that Merkland would not resi

gn, and that I was sick of party politics and would not interfere with his chances. The poor beggar is desperately keen, and if I stood now he would think me disingenuous."

"But there is no reason why he should not know the truth. You can tell him that you only heard about Merkland to-night, and that you act only in deference to strong external pressure."

"In that case he would think me a fool. I have a bad enough reputation for lack of seriousness in these matters already. The man is not very particular, and there is nothing to hinder him from blazoning it up and down the place that I changed my mind in ten minutes on a friend's recommendation. I should get a very complete licking."

"Do you mind, Lewie, if I advise you to take it seriously? It is really not a case for little scruples about reputation. There are rocks ahead of me, and I want a man like you in the House more than I could make you understand. You say you hate party politics, and I am with you, but there is no reason why you should not use them as a crutch to better work. You are in your way an expert, and that is what we will need above all things in the next few years. Of course, if you feel yourself bound by a promise not to oppose Stocks, then I have nothing more to say; but, unless the man is a lunatic, he will admit the justice of your case."

"You mean that you really want me, Tommy?" said the young man, in great doubt. "I hate the idea of fighting Stocks, and I shall most certainly be beaten."

"That is on the knees of the gods, and as for the rest I take the responsibility. I shall speak to Stocks myself. It will be a sharp fight, but I see no reason why you should not win. After all, it is your own countryside, and you are a better man than your opponent."

"You are the serpent who has broken up this peaceful home. I shall be miserable for a month, and the house will be divided against itself. Arthur has promised to help Stocks, while the Manorwaters, root and branch, are pledged to support him."

"I'll do my best, Lewie, for old acquaintance' sake. It had to come sooner or later, you know, and it is as well that you should seize the favourable moment. Now let us drop the subject for to-night. I want to enjoy myself."

And he rose, stretched his great arms, and wandered about the room.

To all appearance he had forgotten the very existence of things political. Arthur, who had a contest to face shortly, was eager for advice and the odds and ends of information which defend the joints in a candidate's harness, but the well-informed man disdained to help. He tested the guns, gave his verdict on rods, and ranged through a cabinet of sporting requisites. Then he fell on his host's books, and for an hour the three were content to listen to him. It was rarely that Wratislaw fell into such moods, but when the chance came it was not to be lightly disregarded. A laborious youth had given him great stores of scholarship, and Lewis's books were a curious if chaotic collection. On the fly-leaf of a little duodecimo was an inscription from the author of Waverley, who had often made Etterick his hunting-ground. A Dunbar had Hawthornden's autograph, and a set of tall classic folios bore the handwriting of George Buchanan. Lord Kames, Hume, and a score of others had dedicated works to lairds of Etterick, and the Haystouns themselves had deigned at times to court the Muse. Lewis's own special books-college prizes, a few modern authors, some well-thumbed poets, and a row in half a dozen languages on some matters of diplomatic interest-were crowded into a little oak bookcase which had once graced his college rooms. Thither Wratislaw ultimately turned, dipping, browsing, reading a score of lines.

"What a nice taste you have in arrangement!" he cried. "Scott, Tolstoi, Meredith, an odd volume of a Saga library, an odd volume of the Corpus Boreale, some Irish reprints, Stevenson's poems, Virgil and the Pilgrim's Progress, and a French Gazetteer of Mountains wedged above them. And then an odd Badminton volume, French Memoires, a Dante, a Homer, and a badly printed German text of Schopenhauer! Three different copies of Rabelais, a De Thou, a Horace, and-bless my soul!-about twenty books of fairy tales! Lewie, you must have a mind like a lumber-room."

"I pillaged books from the big library as I wanted them," said the young man humbly. "Do you know, Tommy, to talk quite seriously, I get more erratic every day? Knocking about the world and living alone make me a queer slave of whims. I am straying too far from the normal. I wish to goodness you would take me and drive me back to the ways of common sense."

"Meaning-?

"That I am getting cranky and diffident. I am beginning to get nervous about people's opinion and sensitive to my own eccentricity. It is a sad case for a man who never used to care a straw for a soul on earth."

"Lewie, attend to me," said Wratislaw, with mock gravity. "You have not by any chance been falling in love?"

The accused blushed like a girl, and lied withal like a trooper, to the delight of the un-Christian George.

"Well, then, my dear fellow, there is hope for you yet. If a man once gets sentimental, he desires to be normal above all things, for he has a crazy intuition that it is the normal which women really like, being themselves but a hair's-breadth from the commonplace. I suppose it is only another of the immortal errors with which mankind hedges itself about."

"You think it an error?" said Lewis, with such an air of relief that George began to laugh and Wratislaw looked comically suspicious.

"Why the tone of joy, Lewie?"

"I wanted your opinion," said the perjured young man. "I thought of writing a book. But that is not the thing I was talking about. I want to be normal, aggressively normal, to court the suffrages of Gledsmuir. Do you know Stocks?"

"Surely."

"An excellent person, but I never heard him utter a word above a child's capacity. He can talk the most shrieking platitudes as if he had found at last the one and only truth. And people are impressed."

Wratislaw pulled down his eyebrows and proceeded to defend a Scottish constituency against the libel of gullibility. But Lewis was not listening. He did not think of the impression made on the voting powers, but on one small girl who clamorously impeded all his thoughts. She was, he knew, an enthusiast for the finer sentiments of life, and of these Mr. Stocks had long ago claimed a monopoly. He felt bitterly jealous-the jealousy of the innocent man to whom woman is an unaccountable creature, whose habits and likings must be curiously studied. He was dimly conscious of lacking the stage attributes of a lover. He could not pose as a mirror of all virtues, a fanatic for the True and the Good. Somehow or other he had acquired an air of self-seeking egotism, unscrupulousness, which he felt miserably must make him unlovely in certain eyes. Nor would the contest he was entering upon improve this fancied reputation of his. He would have to say hard, unfeeling things against what all the world would applaud as generous sentiment.

When the others had gone yawning to bed, he returned and sat at the window for a little, smoking hard and puzzling out the knots which confronted him. He had a dismal anticipation of failure. Not defeat-that was a little matter; but an abject show of incompetence. His feelings pulled him hither and thither. He could not utter moral platitudes to checkmate his opponent's rhetoric, for, after all, he was honest; nor could he fill the part of the cold critic of hazy sentiment; gladly though he would have done it, he feared the reproach in girlish eyes. This good man was on the horns of a dilemma. Love and habit, a generous passion and a keen intellect dragged him alternately to their side, and as a second sign of weakness the unwilling scribe has to record that his conclusion as he went to bed was to let things drift-to take his chance.

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