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The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 15108

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

It is painful to record it, but when the Glenavelin party arrived at noon of the next day it was only to find the house deserted. Lady Manorwater, accustomed to the vagaries of her nephew, led the guests over the place and found to her horror that it seemed undwelt in. The hall was in order, and the tart and rosy lairds of Etterick looked down from their Raeburn canvases on certain signs of habitation; but the drawing-rooms were dingy with coverings and all the large rooms were in the same tidy disarray. Then, wise from experience, she led the way to Lewis's sanctum, and found there a pretty luncheon-table and every token of men's presence. Soon the four tenants arrived, hot and breathless, from the hill, to find Bertha Afflint deep in rods and guns, Miss Wishart and Lady Manorwater ensconced in the great armchairs, and Mr. Stocks casting a critic's eye over the unruly bookshelves.

Wratislaw's presence at first cast a certain awe on the assembly. His name was so painfully familiar, so consistently abused, that it was hard to refrain from curiosity. Lady Manorwater, an ancient ally, greeted him effusively, and Alice cast shy glances at this strong man with the kind smile and awkward manners. The truth is that Wratislaw was acutely nervous. With Mr. Stocks alone was he at his ease. He shook his hand heartily, declared himself delighted to meet him again, and looked with such manifest favour on this opponent that the gentleman was cast into confusion.

"I must talk shop," cried Lady Manorwater when they were seated at table. "Lewie, have you heard the news that poor Sir Robert has retired? What a treasure of a cook you have, sir! The poor man is going to travel, as his health is bad; he wrote me this morning. Now who is to take his place? And I wish you'd get me the recipe for this tomato soup."

Lewis unravelled the tangled skein of his aunt's questions.

"I heard about Merkland last night from Wratislaw. I think, perhaps, I had better make a confession to everybody. I never intended to bother with party politics, at least not for a good many years, but some people want me to stand, so I have agreed. You will have a very weak opponent, Stocks, so I hope you will pardon my impertinence in trying the thing."

The candidate turned a little pale, but he smiled gallantly.

"I shall be glad to have so distinguished an opponent. But I thought that yesterday you would never have dreamed of the thing."

"No more I should; but Wratislaw talked to me seriously and I was persuaded."

Wratislaw tried to look guileless, failed signally, and detected a sudden unfavourable glance from Mr. Stocks in his direction.

"We must manage everything as pleasantly as possible. You have my aunt and my uncle and Arthur on your side, while I have George, who doesn't count in this show, and I hope Wratislaw. I'll give you a three days' start if you like in lieu of notice." And the young man laughed as if the matter were the simplest of jokes.

The laugh jarred very seriously on one listener. To Alice the morning had been full of vexations, for Mr. Stocks had again sought her company, and wearied her with a new manner of would-be gallantry which sat ill upon him. She had come to Etterick with a tenderness towards Lewis which was somewhat dispelled by his newly-disclosed political aims. It meant that the Glenavelin household, including herself, would be in a different camp for three dreary weeks, and that Mr. Stocks would claim more of her society than ever. With feminine inconsistency she visited her repugnance towards that gentleman on his innocent rival. But Mr. Lewis Haystoun's light-hearted manner of regarding the business struck the little Puritan deeper. Politics had always been a thing of the gravest import in her eyes, bound up with a man's duty and honour and religion, and lo! here was this Gallio who not only adorned a party she had been led to regard as reprobate, but treated the whole affair as a half-jocular business, on which one should not be serious. It was sheer weakness, her heart cried out, the weakness of the philanderer, the half-hearted. In her vexation her interest flew in sympathy to Mr. Stocks, and she viewed him for the occasion with favour.

"You are far too frivolous about it," she cried. "How can you fight if you are not in earnest, and how can you speak things you only half believe? I hate to think of men playing at politics." And she had set her little white teeth, and sat flushed and diffident, a Muse of Protest.

Lewis flushed in turn. He recognized with pain the fulfilment of his fears. He saw dismally how during the coming fight he would sink daily in the estimation of this small critic, while his opponent would as conspicuously rise. The prospect did not soothe him, and he turned to Bertha Afflint, who was watching the scene with curious eyes.

"It's very sad, Lewie," she said, "but you'll get no canvassers from Glenavelin. We have all been pledged to Mr. Stocks for the last week. Alice is a keen politician, and, I believe, has permanently unsettled Lord Manorwater's easy-going Liberalism. She believes in action; whereas, you know, he does not."

"We all believe in action nowadays," said Wratislaw. "I could wish at times for the revival of 'leisureliness' as a party catch-word."

And then there ensued a passage of light arms between the great man and Bertha which did not soothe Alice's vexation. She ignored the amiable George, seeing in him another of the half-hearted, and in a fine heat of virtue devoted herself to Mr. Stocks. That gentleman had been melancholy, but the favour of Miss Wishart made him relax his heavy brows and become communicative. He was flattered by her interest. She heard his reminiscences with a smile and his judgments with attention. Soon the whole table talked merrily, and two people alone were aware that breaches yawned under the unanimity.

Archness was not in Alice's nature, and still less was coquetry. When Lewis after lunch begged to be allowed to show her his dwelling she did not blush and simper, she showed no pretty reluctance, no graceful displeasure. She thanked him, but coldly, and the two climbed the ridge above the lake, whence the whole glen may be seen winding beneath. It was still, hot July weather, and the far hills seemed to blink and shimmer in the haze; but at their feet was always coolness in the blue depth of the loch, the heath-fringed shores, the dark pines, and the cold whinstone crags.

"You don't relish the prospect of the next month?" she asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. "After all, it is only a month, and it will all be over before the shooting begins."

"I cannot understand you," she cried suddenly and impatiently. "People call you ambitious, and yet you have to be driven by force to the simplest move in the game, and all the while you are thinking and talking as if a day's sport were of far greater importance."

"And it really vexes you-Alice?" he said, with penitent eyes.

She drew swiftly away and turned her face, so that the man might not see the vexation and joy struggling for mastery.

"Of course it is none of my business, but surely it is a pity." And the little doctrinaire walked with head erect to the edge of the slope and studied intently the distant hills.

The man was half amused, half pained, but his evil star was in the ascendant. Had he known it, he would have been plain and natural, for at no time had the girl ever been so near to him. Instead, he made some laughing remark, which sounded har

shly flippant in her ears. She looked at him reproachfully; it was cruel to treat her seriousness with scorn; and then, seeing Lady Manorwater and the others on the lawn below, she asked him with studied carelessness to take her back. Lewis obeyed meekly, cursing in his heart his unhappy trick of an easy humour. If his virtues were to go far to rob him of what he most cared for, it looked black indeed for the unfortunate young man.

Meantime Wratislaw and Mr. Stocks had drawn together by the attraction of opposites. A change had come over the latter, and momentarily eclipsed his dignity. For the man was not without tact, and he felt that the attitude of high-priest of all the virtues would not suit in the presence of one whose favourite task it was to laugh his so-called virtues to scorn. Such, at least to begin with, was his honourable intention. But the subtle Wratislaw drew him from his retirement and skilfully elicited his coy principles. It was a cruel performance-a shameless one, had there been any spectator. The one would lay down a fine generous line of policy; the other would beg for a fact in confirmation. The one would haltingly detail some facts; the other would promptly convince him of their falsity. Eventually the victim grew angry and a little frightened. The real Mr. Stocks was a man of business, not above making a deal with an opponent; and for a little the real Mr. Stocks emerged from his shell.

"You won't speak much in the coming fight, will you? You see, you are rather heavy metal for a beginner like myself," he said, with commercial frankness.

"No, my dear Stocks, to set your mind at rest, I won't. Lewis wants to be knocked about a little, and he wants the fight to brace him. I'll leave him to fight his own battles, and wish good luck to the better man. Also, I won't come to your meetings and ask awkward questions."

Mr. Stocks bore malice only to his inferiors, and respected his betters when he was not on a platform. He thanked Wratislaw with great heartiness, and when Lady Manorwater found the two they were beaming on each other like the most ancient friends.

"Has anybody seen Lewie?" she was asking. "He is the most scandalous host in the world. We can't find boats or canoes and we can't find him. Oh, here is the truant!" And the renegade host was seen in the wake of Alice descending from the ridge.

Something in the attitude of the two struck the lady with suspicion. Was it possible that she had been blind, and that her nephew was about to confuse her cherished schemes? This innocent woman, who went through the world as not being of it, had fancied that already Alice had fallen in with her plans. She had seemed to court Mr. Stocks's company, while he most certainly sought eagerly for hers. But Lewis, if he entered the lists, would be a perplexing combatant, and Lady Manorwater called her gods to witness that it should not be. Many motives decided her against it. She hated that a scheme of her own once made should be checkmated, though it were by her dearest friend. More than all, her pride was in arms. Lewis was a dazzling figure; he should make a great match; money and pretty looks and parvenu blood were not enough for his high mightiness.

So it came about that, when they had explored the house, circumnavigated the loch, and had tea on a lawn of heather, she informed her party that she must get out at Haystounslacks, for she wished to see the farmer, and asked Bertha to keep her company. The young woman agreed readily, with the result that Alice and Mr. Stocks were left sole occupants of the carriage for the better half of the way. The man was only too willing to seize the chance thus divinely given him. His irritation at Lewis's projects had been tempered by Alice's kindness at lunch and Wratislaw's unlooked-for complaisance. Things looked rosy for him; far off, as on the horizon of his hopes, he saw a seat in Parliament and a fair and amply dowered wife.

But Miss Wishart was scarcely in so pleasant a humour. With Lewis she was undeniably cross, but of Mr. Stocks she was radically intolerant. A moment of pique might send her to his side, but the position was unnatural and could not be maintained. Even now Lewis was in her thoughts. Fragments of his odd romantic speech clove to her memory. His figure-for he showed to perfection in his own surroundings-was so comely and gallant, so bright with the glamour of adventurous youth, that for a moment this prosaic young woman was a convert to the coloured side of life and had forgotten her austere creed.

Mr. Stocks went about his duty with praise-worthy thoroughness. For the fiftieth time in a week he detailed to her his prospects. When he had raised a cloud-built castle of fine hopes, when he had with manly simplicity repeated his confession of faith, he felt that the crucial moment had arrived. Now, when she looked down the same avenue of prospect as himself, he could gracefully ask her to adorn the fair scene with her presence.

"Alice," he said, and at the sound of her name the girl started from a reverie in which Lewis was not absent, and looked vacantly in his face.

He took it for maidenly modesty.

"I have wanted to speak to you for long, Alice. We have seen a good deal of each other lately, and I have come to be very fond of you. I trust you may have some liking for me, for I want you to promise to be my wife."

He told his love in regular sentences. Unconsciously he had fallen into the soft patronizing tone in which aforetime he had shepherded a Sunday school.

The girl looked at the large sentimental face and laughed. She felt ashamed of her rudeness even in the act.

He caught her hands, and before she knew his face was close to hers. "Promise me, dear," he said. "We have everything in common. Your father will be delighted, and we will work together for the good of the people. You are not meant to be a casual idler like the people at Etterick. You and I are working man and woman."

It was her turn to flush in downright earnest. The man's hot face sickened her. What were these wild words he was speaking? She dimly caught their purport, heard the mention of Etterick, saw once again Lewis with his quick, kindly eyes, and turned coldly to the lover.

"It is quite out of the question, Mr. Stocks," she said calmly. "Of course I am obliged to you for the honour you have done me, but the thing is impossible."

"Who is it?" he cried, with angry eyes. "Is it Lewis Haystoun?"

The girl looked quickly at him, and he was silent, abashed. Strangely enough, at that moment she liked him better than ever before. She forgave him his rudeness and folly, his tactless speech and his comical face. He was in love with her, he offered her what he most valued, his political chances and his code of fine sentiments; it was not his blame if she found both little better than husks.

Her attention flew for a moment to the place she had left, only to return to a dismal reflection. Was she not, after all, in the same galley as her rejected suitor? What place had she in the frank good-fellowship of Etterick, or what part had they in the inheritance of herself and her kind? Had not Mr. Stocks-now sitting glumly by her side-spoken the truth? We are only what we are made, and generations of thrift and seriousness had given her a love for the strenuous and the unadorned which could never be cast out. Here was a quandary-for at the same instant there came the voice of the heart defiantly calling her to the breaking of idols.

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