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The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 14242

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

THE result of the election was announced in Gledsmuir on the next Wednesday evening, and carried surprise to all save Lewis's nearer friends. For Mr. Albert Stocks was duly returned member for the constituency by a majority of seventy votes. The defeated candidate received the news with great composure, addressed some good-humoured words to the people, had a generous greeting for his opponent, and met his committee with a smiling face. But his heart was sick within him, and as soon as he decently might he escaped from the turmoil, found his horse, and set off up Glenavelin for his own dwelling.

He had been defeated, and the fact, however confidently looked for, comes with a bitter freshness to every man. He had lost a seat for his party-that in itself was bad. But he had proved himself incompetent, unadaptable, a stick, a pedantic incapable. A dozen stings rankled in his soul. Alice would be justified of her suspicions. Where would his place be now in that small imperious heart? His own people had forsaken him for a gross and unlikely substitute, and he had been wrong in his estimate alike of ally and enemy. Above all came that cruelest stab-what would Wratislaw think of it? He had disgraced himself in the eyes of his friend. He who had made a fetish of competence had manifestly proved wanting; he who had loved to think of himself as the bold, opportune man, had shown himself formal and hidebound.

As he passed Glenavelin among the trees the thought of Alice was a sharp pang of regret. He could never more lift his eyes in that young and radiant presence. He pictured the successful Stocks welcomed by her, and words of praise for which he would have given his immortal soul, meted out lavishly to that owl-like being. It was a dismal business, and ruefully, but half-humorously, he caught at the paradox of his fate.

Through the swiftly failing darkness the inn of Etterick rose before him, a place a little apart from the village street. A noise of talk floated from the kitchen and made him halt at the door and dismount. The place would be full of folk discussing the election, and he would go in among them and learn the worst opinion which men might have of him. After all, they were his own people, who had known him in his power as they now saw him in his weakness. If he had failed he was not wholly foolish; they knew his few redeeming virtues, and they would be generous.

The talk stopped short as he entered, and he saw through the tobacco reek half a dozen lengthy faces wearing the air of solemnity which the hillman adopts in his pleasures. They were all his own herds and keepers, save two whom he knew for foresters from Glenavelin. He was recognized at once, and with a general nervous shuffling they began to make room for the laird at the table. He cried a hasty greeting to all, and sat down between a black-bearded giant, whose clothes smelt of sheep, and a red-haired man from one of the remoter glens. The notion of the thing pleased him, and he ordered drinks for each with a lavish carelessness. He asked for a match for his pipe, and the man who gave it wore a decent melancholy on his face and shook his head with unction.

"This is a bad job, Lewie," he said, using the privileged name of the ancient servant. "Whae would have ettled sic a calaamity to happen in your ain countryside? We a' thocht it would be a grand pioy for ye, for ye would settle down here and hae nae mair foreign stravaigins. And then this tailor body steps in and spoils a'. It's maist vexaatious."

"It was a good fight, and he beat me fairly; but we'll drop the matter. I'm sick-tired of politics, Adam. If I had been a better man they might have made a herd of me, and I should have been happy."

"Wheesht, Lewie," said the man, grinning. "A herd's job is no for the likes o' you. But there's better wark waiting for ye than poalitics. It's a beggar's trade after a', and far better left to bagman bodies like yon Stocks. It's a puir thing for sac proper a man as you."

"But what can I do?" cried Lewis in despair. "I have no profession. I am useless."

"Useless! Ye are a grand judge o' sheep and nowt, and ye ken a horse better than ony couper. Ye can ride like a jockey and drive like a Jehu, and there's no your equal in these parts with a gun or a fishing-rod. Forbye, I would rather walk ae mile on the hill wi' ye than twae, for ye gang up a brae-face like a mawkin! God! There's no a single man's trade that ye're no brawly fitted for. And then ye've a heap o' book-lear that folk learned ye away about England, though I cannot speak muckle on that, no being a jidge."

Lewis grinned at the portraiture. "You do me proud. But let's talk about serious things. You were on sheep when I came in. Get back to them and give me your mind on Cheviots. The lamb sales promise well."

For twenty minutes the room hummed with technicalities. One man might support the conversation on alien matters, but on sheep the humblest found a voice: Lewis watched the ring of faces with a sharp delight. The election had made him sick of his fellows-fellows who chattered and wrangled and wallowed in the sentimental. But now every line of these brown faces, the keen blue eyes, the tawny, tangled beards, and the inimitable soft-sounding southern speech, seemed an earnest of a real and strenuous life. He began to find a new savour in existence. The sense of his flat incompetence left him, and he found himself speaking heartily and laughing with zest.

"It's as I say," said the herd of the Redswirebead. "I'm getting an auld man and a verra wise ane, and the graund owercome for the world is just 'Pay no attention.' Ye'll has heard how the word cam' to be. It was Jock Linklater o' the Caulds wha was glen notice to quit by the laird, and a' the countryside was vexed to pairt wi' Jock, for he was a popular character. But about a year after a friend meets him at Gledsmuir merkit as crouse as ever. 'Lodsake, Jock, man, I thocht ye were awa',' says he. 'No,' says Jock, 'no. I'm here as ye see.' 'But how did ye manage it?' he asked. 'Fine,' says Jock. 'They sent me a letter tellin' me I must gang; but I just payed no attention. Syne they sent me a blue letter frae the lawyer's, but I payed no attention. Syne the factor cam' to see me.' 'Ay, and what did ye do then, Jock?' says he. 'Oh, I payed no attention. Syne the laird cam' himsel.' 'Ay, that would fricht ye,' he says. 'No, no a grain,' said Jock, verra calm. 'I just payed no attention, and here I am.'"

Lewis laughed, but the rest of the audience suffered no change of feature. The gloaming had darkened, and the little small-paned window was a fretted sheet of dark and lucent blue. Grateful odours of food and drink and tobacco hung in the air, though tar and homespun and the far-carried fragrance of peat fought stoutly for the mastery.

One man fell to telling of a fox-hunt, when he lay on the hill for the night and shot five of the destroyers of his flock before the morning, it was the sign-and the hour-for stories of many kinds-tales of weather and adventure, humorous lowland escapades a

nd dismal mountain realities. Or stranger still, there would come the odd, half-believed legends of the glen, told shamefully yet with the realism of men for whom each word had a power and meaning far above fiction. Lewis listened entranced, marking his interest now by an exclamation, and again by a question.

The herd of Farawa told of the salmon, the king of the Aller salmon, who swam to the head of Aller and then crossed the spit of land to the head of Callowa to meet the king of the Callowa fish. It was a humorous story, and was capped there and then by his cousin of the Dreichill, who told a ghastly tale of a murder in the wilds. Then a lonely man, Simon o' the Heid o' the Hope, glorified his powers on a January night when he swung himself on a flood-gate over the Aller while the thing quivered beneath him, and the water roared redly above his thighs.

"And that yett broke when I was three pairts ower, and I went down the river with my feet tangled in the bars and nae room for sweemin'. But I gripped an oak-ritt and stelled mysel' for an hour till the water knockit the yett to sawdust. It broke baith my ankles, and though I'm a mortal strong man in my arms, thae twisted kitts keepit me helpless. When a man's feet are broke he has nae strength in his wrist."

"I know," said Lewis, with excitement. "I have found the same myself."

"Where?" asked the man, without rudeness.

"Once on the Skifso when I was after salmon, and once in the Doorab hills above Abjela."

"Were ye sick when they rescued ye? I was. I had twae muscles sprung on my arm, but that was naething to the retching and dizziness when they laid me on the heather. Jock Jeffrey was bending ower me, and though he wasna touching me I began to suffocate, and yet I was ower weak to cry out and had to thole it."

"I know. If you hang up in the void for a little and get the feeling of great space burned on your mind, you nearly die of choking when you are pulled up. Fancy you knowing about that."

"Have you suffered it, Maister Lewie?" said the man.

"Once. There was a gully in the Doorabs just like the Scarts o' the Muneraw, only twenty times deeper, and there was a bridge of tree-trunks bound with ropes across it. We all got over except one mule and a couple of men. They were just getting off when a trunk slipped and dangled down into the abyss with one end held up by the ropes. The poor animal went plumb to the bottom; we heard it first thud on a jag of rock and then, an age after, splash in the water. One of the men went with it, but the other got his legs caught between the ropes and the tree and managed to hang on. The poor beggar was helpless with fright; and he squealed-great heavens! how he did squeal!"

"And what did ye dae?" asked a breathless audience.

"I went down after him. I had to, for I was his master, and besides, I was a bit of an athlete then. I cried to him to hang on and not look down. I clambered down the swaying trunk while my people held the ropes at the top, and when I got near the man I saw what had happened.

"He had twisted his ankles in the fall, and though he had got them out of the ropes, yet they hung loose and quite obviously broken. I got as near him as I could, and leaned over, and I remember seeing through below his armpits the blue of the stream six hundred feet down. It made me rather sick with my job, and when I called him to pull himself up a bit till I could grip him I thought he was helpless with the same fright. But it turned out that I had misjudged him. He had no power in his arms, simply the dead strength to hang on. I was in a nice fix, for I could lower myself no farther without slipping into space. Then I thought of a dodge. I got a good grip of the rope and let my legs dangle down till they were level with his hands. I told him to try and change his grip and catch my ankles. He did it, somehow or other, and by George! the first shock of his weight nearly ended me, for he was a heavy man. However, I managed to pull myself up a yard or two and then I could reach down and catch his arms. We both got up somehow or other, but it took a devilish time, and when they laid us both on the ground and came round like fools with brandy I thought I should choke and had scarcely strength to swear at them to get out."

The assembly had listened intently, catching its breath with a sharp risp as all outdoor folks will do when they hear of an escapade which strikes their fancy. One man-a stranger-hammered his empty pipe-bowl on the table in applause.

"Whae was the man, d'ye say?" he asked. "A neeger?"

Lewis laughed. "Not a nigger most certainly, though he had a brown face."

"And ye risked your life for a black o' some kind? Man, ye must be awfu' fond o' your fellow men. Wad ye dae the same for the likes o' us?

"Surely. For one of my own folk! But it was really a very small thing."

"Then I have just ae thing to say," said the brown-bearded man. "I am what ye cal a Raadical, and yestreen I recorded my vote for yon man Stocks. He crackit a lot about the rights o' man-as man, and I was wi' him. But I tell ye that you yoursel' have a better notion o' human kindness than ony Stocks, and though ye're no o' my party, yet I herewith propose a vote o' confidence in Maister Lewis Haystoun."

The health was drunk solemnly yet with gusto, and under cover of it Lewis fled out of doors. His despondency had passed, and a fit of fierce exhilaration had seized him. Men still swore by his name; he was still loved by his own folk; small matter to him if a townsman had defeated him. He was no vain talker, but a doer, a sportsman, an adventurer. This was his true career. Let others have the applause of excited indoor folk or dull visionaries; for him a man's path, a man's work, and a man's commendation.

The moon was up, riding high in a shoreless sea of blue, and in the still weather the streams called to each other from the mountain sides, as in some fantastic cosmic harmony. High on the ridge shoulder the lights of Etterick twinkled starlike amid the fretted veil of trees. A sense of extraordinary and crazy exhilaration, the recoil from the constraint of weeks, laid hold on his spirit. He hummed a dozen fragments of song, and at times would laugh with the pure pleasure of life. The quixotic, the generous, the hopeless, the successful; laughter and tears; death and birth; the warm hearth and the open road-all seemed blent for the moment into one great zest for living. "I'll to Lochiel and Appin and kneel to them," he was humming aloud, when suddenly his bridle was caught and a man's hand was at his knee.

"Lewie," cried Wratislaw, "gracious, man! have you been drinking?" And then seeing the truth, he let go the bridle, put an arm through the stirrup leathers, and walked by the horse's side. "So that's the way you take it, old chap? Do you know that you are a discredited and defeated man? and yet I find you whistling like a boy. I have hopes for you, Lewie. You have the Buoyant Heart, and with that nothing can much matter. But, confound it! you are hours late for dinner."

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