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The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 17932

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

THE news of the election, brought to Glenavelin by a couple of ragged runners, had a different result from that forecast by Lewis. Alice heard it with a heart unquickened; and when, an hour after, the flushed, triumphant Mr. Stocks arrived in person to claim the meed of success, he was greeted with a painful carelessness. Lady Manorwater had been loud in her laments for her nephew, but to Mr. Stocks she gave the honest praise which a warm-hearted woman cannot withhold from the fighter.

"Our principles have won," she cried. "Now who will call the place a Tory stronghold? Oh, Mr. Stocks, you have done wonderfully, and I am very glad. I'm not a bit sorry for Lewis, for he well deserved his beating."

But with Alice there could be neither pleasure nor its simulation. Her terrible honesty forbade her the easy path of false congratulations. She bit her lip till tears filled her eyes. What was this wretched position into which she had strayed? Lewis was all she had feared, but he was Lewis, and far more than any bundle of perfections. A hot, passionate craving for his presence was blinding her to reason. And this man who had won-this, the fortunate politician-she cared for him not a straw. A strong dislike began to grow in her heart to the blameless Mr. Stocks.

Dinner that night was a weary meal to the girl. Lady Manorwater prattled about the day's events, and Lord Manorwater, hopelessly bored, ate his food in silence. The lively Bertha had gone to bed with a headache, and the younger Miss Afflint was the receptacle for the moment of her hostess's confidences. Alice sat between Mr. Stocks and Arthur, facing a tall man with a small head and immaculate hair who had ridden over to dine and sleep. One of the two had the wisdom to see her humour and keep silent, though the thought plunged him into a sea of ugly reflections. It would be hard if, now that things were going well with him, the lady alone should prove obdurate. For in all this politician's daydreams a dainty figure walked by his side, sat at his table's head, received his friends, fascinated austere ministers, and filled his pipe of an evening at home.

Arthur was silent, and to him the lady turned in vain. He treated her with an elaborate politeness which sat ill on his brusque manners, and for the most part showed no desire to enliven the prevailing dulness. But after dinner he carried her off to the gardens on the plea of fresh air and a fine sunset, and the girl, who liked the boy, went gladly. Then the reason of his silence was made plain. He dismayed her by becoming lovesick.

"Tell me your age, Alice," he implored.

"I am twenty at Christmas time," said the girl, amazed at the question.

"And I am seventeen or very nearly that. Men sometimes marry women older than themselves, and I don't see why I shouldn't. Oh, Alice, promise that you will marry me. I never met a girl I liked so much, and I am sure we should be happy."

"I am sure we should," said the girl, laughing. "You silly boy! what put such nonsense in your head? I am far too old for you, and though I like you very much, I don't in the least want to marry you." She seemed to herself to have got out of a sober world into a sort of Mad Tea-party, where people behaved like pantaloons and spoke in conundrums.

The boy flushed and his eyes grew cross. "Is it somebody else?" he asked; at which the girl, with a memory of Mr. Stocks, reflected on the dreadful monotony of men's ways.

A solution flashed upon his brain. "Are you going to marry Lewie Haystoun?" he cried in a more cheerful voice. After all, Lewis was his cousin, and a worthy rival.

Alice grew hotly uncomfortable. "I am not going to marry Mr. Lewis Haystoun, and I am not going to talk to you any more." And she turned round with a flaming face to the cool depths of the wood.

"Then it is that fellow Stocks. Oh, Lord!" groaned Arthur, irritated into bad manners. "You can't mean it, Alice. He's not fit to black your boots."

Some foolish impulse roused the girl to reply. She defended the very man against whom all the evening she had been unreasonably bitter. "You have no right to abuse him. He is your people's guest and a very distinguished man, and you are only a foolish boy."

He paled below his sunburn. Now he believed the truth of the horrid suspicion which had been fastening on his mind. "But-but," he stammered, "the chap isn't a gentleman, you know."

The words quickened her vexation. A gentleman! The cant word, the fetish of this ring of idle aristocrats-she knew the hollowness of the whole farce. The democrat in her made her walk off with erect head and bright eyes, leaving a penitent boy behind; while all the time a sick, longing heart drove her to the edge of tears.

* * *

The days dragged slowly for the girl. The brightness had gone out of the wide, airy landscape, and the warm August days seemed chill. She hated herself for the wrong impression she had left on the boy Arthur's mind, but she was too proud to seek to erase it; she could but trust to his honour for silence. If Lewis heard-the thought was too terrible to face! He would resign himself to the inevitable; she knew the temper of the man. Good form was his divinity, and never by word or look would he attempt to win another man's betrothed. She must see him and learn the truth: but he came no more to Glenavelin, and Etterick was a far cry for a girl's fancy. Besides, the Twelfth had come and the noise of guns on every hill spoke of other interests for the party at Etterick. Lewis had forgotten his misfortunes, she told herself, and in the easy way of the half-hearted found in bodily fatigue a drug for a mind but little in need of it.

* * *

One afternoon Lady Manorwater came over the lawn waving a letter. "Do you want to go and picnic to-morrow, Alice?" she cried. "Lewis is to be shooting on the moors at the head of the Avelin, and he wants us to come and lunch at the Pool of Ness. He wants the whole party to come, particularly Mr. Stocks, and he wants to know if you have forgiven him. What can the boy mean?"

As the cheerful little lady paused, Alice's heart beat till she feared betrayal. A sudden fierce pleasure burned in her veins. Did he still seek her good opinion? Was he, as well as herself, miserable alone? And then came like a stab the thought that he had joined her with Stocks. Did he class her with that alien world of prigs and dullards? She ceased to think, and avoiding her hostess and tea, ran over the wooden bridge to the slope of hill and climbed up among the red heather.

A month ago she had been heart-whole and young, a simple child. The same prejudices and generous beliefs had been hers, but held loosely with a child's comprehension. But now this old world had been awakened to arms against a dazzling new world of love and pleasure. She was led captive by emotion, but the cold rook of scruple remained. She had read of women surrendering all for love, but she felt dismally that this happy gift had been denied her. Criticism, a fierce, vulgar antagonism, impervious to sentiment, not to be exorcised by generous impulse-such was her unlovely inheritance.

As she leaned over a pool of clear brown water in a little burn, where scented ferns dipped and great rocks of brake and heather shadowed, she saw her face and figure mirrored in every colour and line. Her extraordinary prettiness delighted her, and then she laughed at her own vanity. A lady of the pools, with the dark eyes and red-gold hair of the north, surely a creature of dawn and the blue sky, and born for no dreary self-communings. She returned, with her eyes clear and something like laughter in her heart. To-morrow she should see him, to-morrow!

* * *

It was the utter burning silence of midday, when the man who toils loses the skin of his face, and the man who rests tastes the joys of deep leisure. The blue, airless sky, the level hilltops, the straight lines of glen, the treeless horizon of the moors-no sharp ridge or cliff caught the tired eye, only an even, sleep-lulled harmony. Five very hungry, thirsty, and wearied men lay in the shadow above the Pool of Ness, and prayed heaven for luncheon.

Lewis and George, Wratislaw and Arthur Mordaunt were there, and Doctor Gracey, who loved a day on the hills. The keepers sat farther up the slope smoking their master's tobacco-sure sign of a well-spent morning. For the party had been on the moors by eight, and for five burning hours had tramped the heather. All wore light and airy shooting-clothes save the doctor, who had merely buckled gaiters over his professional black trousers. All were burned to a tawny brown, and all lay in different attitudes of gasping ease. Few things so clearly proclaim a man's past as his posture when lounging. Arthur and Wratislaw lay, like townsmen, prone on their faces with limbs rigidly straight. Lewis and George-old campaigners both-lay a little on the side, a

rms lying loosely, and knees a little bent. But one and all gasped, and swore softly at the weather.

"Turn round, Tommy," said George, glancing up, "or you'll get sunstroke at the back of the neck. I've had it twice, so I ought to know. You want to wet your handkerchief and put it below your cap. Why don't you wear a deer-stalker instead of that hideous jockey thing? Feugh, I am warm and cross and thirsty. Lewis, I'll give your aunt five minutes, and then I shall go down and drink that pool dry."

Lewis sat up and watched the narrow ribbon of road which coiled up the glen to the pool's edge. He only saw some hundreds of yards down it, but the prospect served to convince him that his erratic aunt was late.

"If my wishes had any effect," said George, "at this moment I should be having iced champagne." And he cast a longing eye to the hampers.

"You won't get any," said Lewis. "We are not sybarites in this glen, and our drinks are the drinks of simple folk. Do you remember Cranstoun? I once went stalking with him, and we had pate-de-foie-gras for luncheon away up on the side of a rugged mountain. That sort of thing sets my teeth on edge."

"Honest man!" cried George. "But here are your friends, and you had better stir yourself and make them welcome."

Five very cool and leisurely beings were coming up the hill-path, for, having driven to above the village, they had had an easy walk of scarcely half a mile. Lewis's eye sought out a slight figure behind the others, a mere gleam of pink and white. As she stepped out from the path to the heather his eye was quick to seize her exquisite grace. Other women arrayed themselves in loose and floating raiment, ribbons and what not; but here was one who knew her daintiness, and made no effort to cloak it. Trim, cool, and sweet, the coils of bright hair above the white frock catching the noon sun-surely a lady to pray for and toil for, one made for no facile wooing or easy conquest.

Lewis advanced to Mr. Stocks as soon as he had welcomed his aunt, and shook hands cordially. "We seem to have lost sight of each other during the last few days. I never congratulated you enough, but you probably understood that my head was full of other things. You fought splendidly, and I can't say I regret the issue. You will do much better than I ever could."

Mr. Stocks smiled happily. The wheel of his fortunes was bringing him very near the top. All the way up he had had Alice for a companion; and that young woman, happy from a wholly different cause, had been wonderfully gracious. He felt himself on Mr. Lewis Haystoun's level at last, and the baffling sense of being on a different plane, which he had always experienced in his company, was gone, he hoped, for ever. So he became frank and confidential, forgot the pomp of his talk and his inevitable principles, and assisted in laying lunch.

Lady Manorwater drove her nephew into a corner.

"Where have you been, Lewis, all these days? If you had been anybody else, I should have said you were sulking. I must speak to you seriously. Do you know that Alice has been breaking her heart for you? I won't have the poor child made miserable, and though I don't in the least want you to marry her, yet; I cannot have you playing with her."

Lewis had grown suddenly very red.

"I think you are mistaken," he said stiffly. "Miss Wishart does not care a straw for me. If she is in love with anybody, it is with Stocks."

"I am much older than you, my dear, and I should know better. I may as well confess that I hoped it would be Mr. Stocks, but I can't disbelieve my own eyes. The child becomes wretched whenever she hears your name."

"You are making me miserably unhappy, because I can't believe a word of it. I have made a howling fool of myself lately, and I can't be blind to what she thinks of me."

Lady Manorwater looked pathetic. "Is the great Lewis ashamed of himself?"

"Not a bit. I would do it again, for it is my nature to, as the hymn says. I am cut all the wrong way, and my mind is my mind, you know. But I can't expect Miss Wishart to take that point of view."

His aunt shook a hopeless head. "Your moral nature is warped, my dear. It has always been the same since you were a very small boy at Glenavelin, and read the Holy War on the hearthrug. You could never be made to admire Emmanuel and his captains, but you set your heart on the reprobates Jolly and Griggish. But get away and look after your guests, sir."

Lunch came just in time to save five hungry men from an undignified end. The Glenavelin party looked on with amusement as the ravenous appetites were satisfied. Mr. Stocks, in a huge good humour, talked discursively of sport. He inquired concerning the morning's bag, and called up reminiscences of friends who had equalled or exceeded it. Lewis was uncomfortable, for he felt that in common civility Mr. Stocks should have been asked to shoot. He could not excuse himself with the plea of an unintentional omission, for he had heard reports of the gentleman's wonderful awkwardness with a gun, and he had not found it in his heart to spoil the sport of five keen and competent hands.

He dared not look at Alice, for his aunt's words had set his pulses beating hotly. For the last week he had wrestled with himself, telling his heart that this lady was beyond his ken for ever and a day, for he belonged by nature to the clan of despondent lovers. Before, she had had all the icy reserve, he all the fervours. The hint of some spark of fire behind the snows of her demeanour filled him with a delirious joy. Every movement of her body pleased him, every word which she spoke, the blitheness of her air and the ready kindness. The pale, pretty Afflint girls, with their wit and their confidence, seemed old and womanly compared with Alice. Let simplicity be his goddess henceforth-simplicity and youth.

The Pool of Ness is a great, black cauldron of clear water, with berries above and berries below, and high crags red with heather. There you may find shade in summer, and great blaeberries and ripening rowans in the wane of August. These last were the snare for Alice, who was ever an adventurer. For the moment she was the schoolgirl again, and all sordid elderly cares were tossed to the wind. She teased Doctor Gracey to that worthy's delight, and she bade George and Arthur fetch and carry in a way that made them her slaves for life. Then she unbent to Mr. Stocks and made him follow her out on a peninsula of rock, above which hung a great cluster of fruit. The unfortunate politician was not built for this kind of exercise, and slipped and clung despairingly to every root and cleft. Lewis followed aimlessly: her gaiety did not fit with his mood; and he longed to have her to himself and know his fortune.

He passed the panting Stocks and came up with the errant lady.

"For heaven's sake be careful, Miss Wishart," he cried in alarm. "That's an ugly black swirl down there."

The girl laughed in his face.

"Isn't the place glorious!" she cried. "It's as cool as winter, and oh! the colours of that hillside. I'm going up to that birk-tree to sit. Do you think I can do it?"

"I am coming up after you," said Lewis.

She stopped and regarded it with serious eyes. "It's hard, but I'm going to try. It's harder than the Midburn that I climbed up on the day I saw you fishing."

She remembered! Joy caught at his heart, and he laughed so gladly that Alice turned round to look at him. Something in his eyes made her turn her head away and scan the birk-tree again.

Then suddenly there was a slip of soil, a helpless clutch at fern and heather, a cry of terror, and he was alone on the headland. The black swirl was closing over the girl's head.

He had been standing rapt in a happy fancy, his thoughts far in a world of their own, and his eyes vacant of any purpose. Startled to alertness, he still saw vaguely, and for a second stood irresolute and wondering. Then came another splash, and a heavy body flung itself into the pool from lower down the rock. He knew the black head and the round shoulders of Mr. Stocks.

The man caught the girl as she struggled to get out of the swirl and with strong ugly strokes began to make for shore. Lewis stood with a sick heart, slow to realize the horror which had overtaken him. She was out of danger, though the man was swimming badly; dismally he noted the fact of his atrocious swimming. But this was the hero; he had stood irresolute. The thought burned him like a hot iron.

Half a dozen pairs of hands relieved the swimmer of his burden. Alice was little the worse, a trifle pale, very draggled and unhappy, and utterly tired. Lady Manorwater wept over her and kissed her, and hailed the dripping Stocks as her preserver. Lewis alone stood back. He satisfied himself that she was unhurt, and then, on the plea of getting the carriage, set off down the glen with a very grey, quivering face.

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