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   Chapter 10 HOME TRUTHS

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 23756

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


I

IT is told by a great writer in his generous English that when the followers of Diabolus were arraigned before the Recorder and Mayor of regenerate Mansoul, a certain Mr. Haughty carried himself well to the last. "He declared," says Bunyan, "that he had carried himself bravely, not considering who was his foe or what was the cause in which he was engaged. It was enough for him if he fought like a man and came off victorious." Nevertheless, we are told, he suffered the common doom, being crucified next day at the place of execution. It is the old fate of the freelance, the Hal o' the Wynd who fights for his own hand; for in life's contest the taking of sides is assumed to be a necessity.

Such was Lewis's reflections when he found Wratislaw waiting for him in the Etterick dogcart when he emerged from a meeting in Gledsmuir. He had now enjoyed ten days of it, and he was heartily tired. His throat was sore with much speaking, his mind was barren with thinking on the unthinkable, and his spirits were dashed with a bitter sense of futility. He had honestly done his best. So far his conscience was clear; but as he reviewed the past in detail, his best seemed a very shoddy compromise. It was comfort to see the rugged face of Wratislaw again, though his greeting was tempered by mistrust. The great man had refused to speak for him and left him to fight his own battles; moreover, he feared the judgment of the old warrior on his conduct of the fight. He was acutely conscious of the joints in his armour, but he had hoped to have decently cloaked them from others. When he heard the first words, "Well, Lewie, my son, you have been making a mess of it," his heart sank.

"I am sorry," he said. "But how?"

"How? Why, my dear chap, you have no grip. You have let the thing get out of hand. I heard your speech to-night. It was excellent, very clever, a beautiful piece of work, but worse than useless for your purpose. You forget the sort of man you are fighting. Oh, I have been following the business carefully, and I felt bound to come down to keep you in order. To begin with, you have left your own supporters in the place in a nice state of doubt."

"How?"

"Why, because you have given them nothing to catch hold of. They expected the ordinary Conservative confession of faith-a rosy sketch of foreign affairs, and a little gentle Socialism, and the old rhetoric about Church and State. Instead, they are put off with epigrams and excellent stories, and a few speculations as to the metaphysical basis of politics. Believe me, Lewie, it is only the very general liking for your unworthy self which keeps them from going over in a body to Stocks." And Wratislaw lit a cigar and puffed furiously.

"Then you would have me deliver the usual insincere platitudes?" said Lewis dismally.

"I would have you do nothing of the kind. I thought you understood my point of view. A man like Stocks speaks his platitudes with vehemence because he believes in them whole-heartedly. You have also your platitudes to get through with, not because you would stake your soul on your belief in them, but because they are as near as possible the inaccurate popular statement of your views, which is all that your constituents would understand, and you pander to the popular craving because it is honest enough in itself and is for you the stepping-stone to worthier work."

Lewis shook his head dismally.

"I haven't the knack of it. I seem to stand beside myself and jeer all the while. Besides, it would be opposing complete sincerity with a very shady substitute. That man Stocks is at least an honest fool. I met him the other day after he had been talking some atrocious nonsense. I asked him as a joke how he could be such a humbug, and he told me quite honestly that he believed every word; so, of course, I apologized. He was attacking you people on your foreign policy, and he pulled out a New Testament and said, 'What do I read here?' It went down with many people, but the thing took away my breath."

His companion looked perplexedly at the speaker. "You have had the wrong kind of education, Lewie. You have always been the spoiled child, and easily and half-unconsciously you have mastered things which the self-made man has to struggle towards with a painful conscious effort. The result is that you are a highly cultured man without any crudeness or hysteria, while the other people see things in the wrong perspective and run their heads against walls and make themselves miserable. You gain a lot, but you miss one thing. You know nothing of the heart of the crowd. Oh, I don't mean the people about Etterick. They are your own folk, and the whole air of the place is semi-feudal. But the weavers and artisans of the towns and the ordinary farm workers-what do you know of them? Your precious theories are so much wind in their ears. They want the practical, the blatantly obvious, spiced with a little emotion. Stocks knows their demands. He began among them, and at present he is but one remove from them. A garbled quotation from the Scriptures or an appeal to their domestic affections is the very thing required. Moreover, the man understands an audience. He can bully it, you know; put on airs of sham independence to cover his real obeisance; while you are polite and deferent to hide your very obvious scorn."

"Do you know, Tommy, I'm a coward," Lewis broke in. "I can't face the people. When I see a crowd of upturned faces, crass, ignorant, unwholesome many of them, I begin to despair. I cannot begin to explain things from the beginning; besides, they would not understand me if I did. I feel I have nothing in common with them. They lead, most of them, unhealthy indoor lives, their minds are half-baked, and their bodies half-developed. I feel a terrible pity, but all the same I cannot touch them. And then I become a coward and dare not face them and talk straight as man to man. I repeat my platitudes to the ceiling, and they go away thinking, and thinking rightly, that I am a fool."

Wratislaw looked worried. "That is one of my complaints. The other is that on certain occasions you cannot hold yourself in check. Do you know you have been blackguarded in the papers lately, and that there is a violent article against you in the Critic, and all on account of some unwise utterances?"

Lewis flushed deeply. "That is the worst thing I have done, and I feel horribly penitent. It was the act of a cad and a silly schoolboy. But I had some provocation, Tommy. I had spoken at length amid many interruptions, and I was getting cross. It was at Gledfoot, and the meeting was entirely against me. Then a man got up to tackle me, not a native, but some wretched London agitator. As I looked at him-a little chap with fiery eyes and receding brow-and heard his cockney patter, my temper went utterly. I made a fool of him, and I abused the whole assembly, and, funnily enough, I carried them with me. People say I helped my cause immensely."

"It is possible," said Wratislaw dryly. "The Scot has a sense of humour and has no objection to seeing his prophets put to shame. But you are getting a nice reputation elsewhere. When I read some of your sayings, I laughed of course, but I thought ruefully of your chances."

It was a penitent and desponding man who followed Wratislaw into the snuggery at Etterick. But light and food, the gleam of silver and vellum and the sweet fragrance of tobacco consoled him; for in most matters he was half-hearted, and politics sat lightly on his affections.

II

TO Alice the weeks of the contest were filled with dire unpleasantness. Lewis, naturally, kept far from Glenavelin, while of Mr. Stocks she was never free. She followed Lady Manorwater's lead and canvassed vigorously, hoping to find distraction in the excitement of the fight. But her efforts did not prosper. On one occasion she found herself in a cottage on the Gledsmuir road, her hands filled with election literature. A hale old man was sitting at his meal, who greeted her cordially, and made her sit down while she stumbled through the usual questions and exhortations. "Are ye no' bidin' at Glenavelin?" he asked. "And have I no seen ye walking on the hill wi' Maister Lewie?" When the girl assented, he asked, with the indignation of the privileged, "Then what for are ye sac keen this body Stocks should win in? If Maister Lewie's fond o' ye, wad it no be wiser-like to wark for him? Poalitics! What should a woman's poalitics be but just the same as her lad's? I hae nae opeenion o' this clash about weemen's eddication." And with flaming cheeks the poor girl had risen and fled from the old reactionary.

The incident burned into her mind, and she was wretched with the anomaly of her position. A dawning respect for her rejected lover began to rise in her heart. The first of his meetings which she attended had impressed her with his skill in his own vocation. He had held those people interested. He had spoken bluntly, strongly, honestly. To few women is it given to distinguish the subtle shades of sincerity in speech, and to the rule Alice was no exception. The rhetoric and the cheers which followed had roused the speaker to a new life. His face became keen, almost attractive, without question full of power. He was an orator beyond doubt, and when he concluded in a riot of applause, Alice sat with small hands clenched and eyes shining with delight. He had spoken the main articles of her creed, but with what force and freshness! She was convinced, satisfied, delighted; though somewhere in her thought lurked her old dislike of the man and the memory of another.

As ill-luck would have it, the next night she went to hear Lewis in Gledsmuir, when that young gentleman was at his worst. She went unattended, being a fearless young woman, and consequently found herself in the very back of the hall crowded among some vehement politicians. The audience, to begin with, was not unkind. Lewis was greeted with applause, and at the first heard with patience. But his speech was vague, incoherent, and tactless. To her unquiet eyes he seemed to be afraid of the men before him. Every phrase was guarded with a proviso, and "possiblys" bristled in every sentence. The politicians at the back grew restless, and Alice was compelled to listen to their short, scathing criticisms. Soon the meeting was hopelessly out of hand. Men rose and rudely marched to the door. Catcalls were frequent from the corners, and the back of the hall became aggressive. The girl had sat with white, pained face, understanding little save that Lewis was talking nonsense and losing all grip on his hearers. In spite of herself she was contrasting this fiasco with the pithy words of Mr. Stocks. When the meeting became unruly she looked for some display of character, some proof of power. Mr. Stocks would have fiercely cowed the opposition, or at least have spoken the last word in any quarrel. Lewis's conduct was different. He shrugged his shoulders, made some laughing remark to a friend on the platform, and with all the nonchalance in the world asked the meeting if they wished to hear any more. A claque of his supporters replied with feigned enthusiasm, but a malcontent at Alice's side rose and stamped to the door. "I came to hear sense," he cried, "and no this bairn's-blethers!"

The poor girl was in despair. She had fancied him a man of power and ambition, a doer, a man of action. But he was no more than a creature of words and sentiment, graceful manners, and an engaging appearance. The despised Mr. Stocks was the real worker. She had laughed at his incessant solemnity as the badge of a fool, and adored Lewis's light-heartedness as the true air of the great. But she had been mistaken. Things were what they seemed. The light-hearted was the half-hearted, "the wandering dilettante

," Mr. Stocks had called him, "the worst type of the pseudo-culture of our universities." She told herself she hated the whole affectation of breeding and chivalry. Those men-Lewis and his friends-were always kind and soft-spoken to her and her sex. Her soul hated it; she cried aloud for equal treatment, for a share of the iron and rigour of life. Their manners were a mere cloak for contempt. If they could only be rude to a woman, it would be a welcome relief from this facile condescension. What had she or any woman with brains to do in that galley? They despised her kind, with the scorn of sultans who chose their women-folk for looks and graces. The thought was degrading, and a bitterness filled her heart against the whole clique of easy aristocrats. Mr. Stocks was her true ally. To him she was a woman, an equal; to them she was an engaging child, a delicate toy.

So far she went in her heresy, but no farther. It is a true saying that you will find twenty heroic women before you may meet one generous one; but Alice was not wholly without this rarest of qualities. The memory of a frank voice, very honest grey eyes, and a robust cheerfulness brought back some affection for the erring Lewis. The problem was beyond her reconciling efforts, so the poor girl, torn between common sense and feeling, and recognizing with painful clearness the complexity of life, found refuge in secret tears.

III

THE honours of the contest, so far as Lewis's party was concerned, fell to George Winterham, and this was the fashion of the event. He had been dragged reluctantly into the thing, foreseeing dire disaster for himself, for he knew little and cared less about matters political, though he was ready enough at a pinch to place his ignorance at his friend's disposal. So he had been set to the dreary work of committee-rooms; and then, since his manners were not unpleasing, dispatched as aide-de-camp to any chance orator who enlivened the county. But at last a crisis arrived in which other use was made of him. A speaker of some pretensions had been announced for a certain night at the considerable village of Allerfoot. The great man failed, and as it was the very eve of the election none could be found for his place. Lewis was in despair, till he thought of George. It was a desperate chance, but the necessity was urgent, so, shutting himself up for an hour, he wrote the better part of a speech which he entrusted to his friend to prepare. George, having a good memory, laboriously learned it by heart, and clutching the friendly paper and whole-heartedly abusing his chief, he set out grimly to his fate.

Promptly at the hour of eight he was deposited at the door of the Masonic Hail in Allerfoot. The place seemed full, and a nervous chairman was hovering around the gate. News of the great man's defection had already been received, and he was in the extremes of nervousness. He greeted George as a saviour, and led him inside, where some three hundred people crowded a small whitewashed building. The village of Allerfoot itself is a little place, but it is the centre of a wide pastoral district, and the folk assembled were brown-faced herds and keepers from the hills, plough-men from the flats of Glen Aller, a few fishermen from the near sea-coast, as well as the normal inhabitants of the village.

George was wretchedly nervous and sat in a cold sweat while the chairman explained that the great Mr. S-- deeply regretted that at the last moment he was unfortunately compelled to break so important an engagement, but that he had sent in his stead Mr. George Winterham, whose name was well known as a distinguished Oxford scholar and a rising barrister. George, who had been ploughed twice for Smalls and had eventually taken a pass degree, and to whom the law courts were nearly as unknown as the Pyramids, groaned inwardly at the astounding news. The audience might have been a turnip field for all the personality it possessed for him. He heard their applause as the chairman sat down mopping his brow, and he rose to his feet conscious that he was smiling like an idiot. He made some introductory remarks of his own-that "he was sorry the other chap hadn't turned up, that he was happy to have the privilege of expounding to them his views on this great subject "-and then with an ominous sinking of heart plucked forth his papers and launched into the unknown.

The better part of the speech was wiped clean from his memory at the start, so he had to lean heavily on the written word. He read rapidly but without intelligence. Now and again a faint cheer would break the even flow, and he would look up for a moment with startled eyes, only to go off again with quickened speed. He found himself talking neat paradoxes which he did not understand, and speaking glibly of names which to him were no more than echoes. Eventually he came to an end at least twenty minutes before a normal political speech should close, and sat down, hot and perplexed, with a horrible sense of having made a fool of himself.

The chairman, no less perplexed, made the usual remarks and then called for questions, for the time had to be filled in somehow. The words left George aghast. The wretched man looked forward to raw public shame. His ignorance would be exposed, his presumption laid bare, his pride thrown in the dust. He nerved himself for a despairing effort. He would brazen things out as far as possible; afterwards, let the heavens fall.

An old minister rose and asked in a thin ancient voice what the Government had done for the protection of missionaries in Khass-Kotannun. Was he, Mr. Winterham, aware that our missionaries in that distant land had been compelled to wear native dress by the arrogant chiefs, and so fallen victims to numerous chills and epidemics?

George replied that he considered the treatment abominable, believed that the matter occupied the mind of the Foreign Office night and day, and would be glad personally to subscribe to any relief fund. The good man declared himself satisfied, and St. Sebastian breathed freely again.

A sturdy man in homespun rose to discover the Government's intention on Church matters. Did the speaker ken that on his small holding he paid ten pound sterling in tithes, though he himself did not hold with the Establishment, being a Reformed Presbyterian? The Laodicean George said he did not understand the differences, but that it seemed to him a confounded shame, and he would undertake that Mr. Haystoun, if returned, would take immediate steps in the matter.

So far he had done well, but with the next question he betrayed his ignorance. A good man arose, also hot on Church affairs, to discourse on some disabilities, and casually described himself as a U.P. George's wits busied themselves in guessing at the mystic sign. At last to his delight he seemed to achieve it, and, in replying, electrified his audience by assuming that the two letters stood for Unreformed Presbyterian.

But the meeting was in good humour in spite of his incomprehensible address and unsatisfying answers, till a small section of the young bloods of the opposite party, who had come to disturb, felt that this peace must be put an end to. Mr. Samuel M'Turk, lawyer's clerk, who hailed from the west country and betrayed his origin in his speech, rose amid some applause from his admirers to discomfit George. He was a young man with a long, sallow face, carefully oiled and parted hair, and a resonant taste in dress. A bundle of papers graced his hand, and his air was parliamentary.

"Wis Mister Winterham aware that Mister Haystoun had contradicted himself on two occasions lately, as he would proceed to show?"

George heard him patiently, said that now he was aware of the fact, but couldn't for the life of him see what the deuce it mattered.

"After Mister Winterham's ignoring of my pint," went on the young man, "I proceed to show ..." and with all the calmness in the world he displayed to his own satisfaction how Mr. Lewis Haystoun was no fit person to represent the constituency. He profaned the Sabbath, which this gentleman professed to hold dear, he was notorious for drunkenness, and his conduct abroad had not been above suspicion.

George was on his feet in a moment, his confusion gone, his face very red, and his shoulders squared for a fight. The man saw the effect of his words, and promptly sat down.

"Get up," said George abruptly.

The man's face whitened and he shrank back among his friends.

"Get up; up higher-on the top of the seat, that everybody may see and hear you! Now repeat very carefully all that over again."

The man's confidence had deserted him. He stammered something about meaning no harm.

"You called my friend a drunken blackguard. I am going to hear the accusation in detail." George stood up to his full height, a terrible figure to the shrinking clerk, who repeated his former words with a faltering tongue.

He heard him out quietly, and then stared coolly down on the people. He felt himself master of the situation. The enemy had played into his hands, and in the shape of a sweating clerk sat waiting on his action.

"You have heard what this man has to tell you. I ask you as men, as folk of this countryside, if it is true?"

It was the real speech of the evening, which was all along waiting to be delivered instead of the frigid pedantries on the paper. A man was speaking simply, valiantly, on behalf of his friend. It was cunningly done, with the natural tact which rarely deserts the truly honest man in his hour of extremity. He spoke of Lewis as he had known him, at school and college and in many wild sporting expeditions in desert places, and slowly the people kindled and listened. Then, so to speak, he kicked away the scaffolding of his erection. He ceased to be the apologist, and became the frank eulogist. He stood squarely on the edge of the platform, gathering the eyes of his hearers, smiling pleasantly, arms akimbo, a man at his ease and possibly at his pleasure.

"Some of you are herds," he cried, "and some are fishers, and some are farmers, and some are labourers. Also some of you call yourselves Radicals or Tories or Socialists. But you are all of you far more than these things. You are men-men of this great countryside, with blood in your veins and vigour in that blood. If you were a set of pale-faced mechanics, I should not be speaking to you, for I should not understand you. But I know you all, and I like you, and I am going to prevent you from making godless fools of yourselves. There are two men before you. One is a very clever man, whom I don't know anything about, nor you either. The other is my best friend, and known to all of you. Many of you have shot or sailed with him, many of you were born on his and his fathers' lands. I have told you of his abilities and quoted better judges than myself. I don't need to tell you that he is the best of men, a sportsman, a kind master, a very good fellow indeed. You can make up your mind between the two. Opinions matter very little, but good men are too scarce to be neglected. Why, you fools," he cried with boisterous good humour, "I should back Lewis if he were a Mohammedan or an Anarchist. The man is sound metal, I tell you, and that's all I ask."

It was a very young man's confession of faith, but it was enough. The meeting went with him almost to a man. A roar of applause greeted the smiling orator, and when he sat down with flushed face, bright eyes, and a consciousness of having done his duty, John Sanderson, herd in Nether Callowa, rose to move a vote of confidence:

"That this assembly is of opinion that Maister Lewis Haystoun is a guid man, and sae is our friend Maister Winterham, and we'll send Lewie back to Parliament or be-"

It was duly seconded and carried with acclamation.

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