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   Chapter 14 A GENTLEMAN IN STRAITS

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 17262

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


THE fall of the leaf found Etterick very full of people, and new dwellers in Glenavelin. The invitations were of old standing, but Lewis found their fulfilment a pleasant trick of Fortune's. To keep a bustling household in good spirits leaves small room for brooding, and he was famous for his hospitality. The partridges were plentiful that year, and a rainless autumn had come on the heels of a fine summer. So life went pleasantly with all, and the master of the place cloaked a very sick heart under a ready good-humour.

His thoughts were always on Glenavelin, and when he happened to be near it he used to look with anxious eyes for a slim figure which was rarely out of his fancy. He had not seen Alice since the accident, save for one short minute, when riding from Gledsmuir he had passed her one afternoon at the Glenavelin gates. He had earnestly desired to stop, but his curious cowardice had made him pass with a lifted hat and a hasty smile. Could he have looked back, he might have seen the girl watching him out of sight with tearful eyes. To himself he was the hopeless lover, and she the scornful lady, while she in her own eyes was the unhappy girl for whom the soldier in the song shakes his bridle reins and cries an eternal adieu.

Matters did not improve when the Manorwaters left and Mr. Wishart himself came down, bringing with him Stocks, a certain Mr. Andrews and his wife, and an excellent young man called Thompson. All were pleasant people, with the manners which the world calls hearty, well-groomed, presentable folk, who enjoyed this life and looked forward to a better.

Mr. Wishart explored the place thoroughly the first evening, and explained that he was thankful indeed that he had been led to take it. He was a handsome man with a worn, elderly face, a square jaw and somewhat weary eyes. It is given to few men to make a great fortune and not bear the signs of it on their persons.

"I expect you enjoyed staying with Lady Manorwater, Alice?" Mrs. Andrews declared at dinner. "They are very plain people, aren't they, to be such great aristocrats?

"I suppose so," said the girl listlessly.

"I once met Lady Manorwater at Mrs. Cookson's at afternoon tea. I thought she was badly dressed. You know Manorwater, don't you, George?" said the lady to her husband, with the boldness which comes from the use of a peer's name without the handle.

"Oh yes, I know him well. I have met him at the Liberal Club dinners, and I was his chairman once when he spoke on Irish affairs. A delightful man!"

"I suppose they would have a pleasant house-party when you were here, my dear?" asked the lady. "And of course you had the election. What fun! And what a victory for you, Mr. Stocks! I hear you beat the greatest landowner in the district."

Mr. Stocks smiled and glanced at Alice. The girl flushed; she could not help it; and she hated Mr. Stocks for his look.

Her father spoke for the first time. "What is the young man like, Mr. Stocks? I hear he is very proud and foolish, the sort of over-educated type which the world has no use for."

"I like him," said Mr. Stocks dishonestly. "He fought like a gentleman."

"These people are so rarely gentlemen," said Mrs. Andrews, proud of her high attitude. "I suppose his father made his money in coal and bought the land from some poor dear old aristocrat. It is so sad to think of it. And that sort of person is always over-educated, for you see they have not the spirit of the old families and they bury themselves in books." Mrs. Andrews's father had kept a crockery shop, but his daughter had buried the memory.

Mr. Wishart frowned. The lady had been asked down for her husband's sake, and he did not approve of this chatter about family. Mr. Stocks, who was about to explain the Haystoun pedigree, caught his host's eye and left the dangerous subject untouched.

"You said in your letters that they had been kind to you at this young man's place. We must ask him down here to dinner, Alice. Oh, and that reminds me I found a letter from him to-day asking me to shoot. I don't go in for that sort of thing, but you young fellows had better try it."

Mr. Stocks declined, said he had given it up. Mr. Thompson said, "Upon my word I should like to," and privately vowed to forget the invitation. He distrusted his prowess with a gun.

"By the by, was he not at the picnic when you saved my daughter's life? I can never thank you enough, Stocks. What should I have done without my small girl?"

"Yes, he was there. In fact he was with Miss Alice at the moment she slipped."

He may not have meant it, but the imputation was clear, and it stirred one fiery expostulation. "Oh, but he hadn't time before Mr. Stocks came after me," she began, and then feeling it ungracious towards that gentleman to make him share a possibility of heroism with another, she was silent. More, a lurking fear which had never grown large enough for a suspicion, began to catch at her heart. Was it possible that Lewis had held back?

For a moment the candle-lit room vanished from her eyes. She saw the warm ledge of rock with the rowan berries above. She saw his flushed, eager face-it was her last memory before she had fallen. Surely never-never was there cowardice in those eyes!

Mrs. Andrews's vulgarities and her husband's vain repetitions began to pall upon the anxious girl. The young Mr. Thompson talked shrewdly enough on things of business, and Mr. Stocks abated something of his pomposity and was honestly amiable. These were her own people, the workers for whom she had craved. And yet-were they so desirable? Her father's grave, keen face pleased her always, but what of the others? The radiant gentlewomen whom she had met with the Manorwaters seemed to belong to another world than this of petty social struggling and awkward ostentation. And the men! Doubtless they were foolish, dilettanti, barbarians of sport, half-hearted and unpractical! And she shut her heart to any voice which would defend them.

Lewis drove over to dine some four days later with dismal presentiments. The same hopeless self-contempt which had hung over him for weeks was still weighing on his soul. He dreaded the verdict of Alice's eyes, and in a heart which held only kindness he looked for a cold criticism. It was this despair which made his position hopeless. He would never take his chance; there could be no opportunity for the truth to become clear to both; for in his plate-armour of despair he was shielded against the world. Such was his condition to the eyes of a friend; to himself he was the common hopeless lover who sighed for a stony mistress.

He noticed changes in Glenavelin. Businesslike leather pouches stood in the hall, and an unwontedly large pile of letters lay on a table. The drawing-room was the same as ever, but in the dining-room an escritoire had been established which groaned under a burden of papers. Mr. Wishart puzzled and repelled him. It was a strong face, but a cold and a stupid one, and his eyes had the glassy hardness of the man without vision. He was bidden welcome, and thanked in a tactless way for his kindness to Mr. Wishart's daughter. Then he was presented to Mrs. Andrews, and his courage sank as he bowed to her.

At table the lady twitted him with graceful badinage. "Alice and you must have had a gay time, Mr. Haystoun. Why, you've been seeing each other constantly for months. Have you become great friends?" She exerted herself, for, though he might be a parvenu, he was undeniably handsome.

Mr. Stocks explained that Mr. Haystoun had organized wonderful picnic parties. The lady clapped her many-ringed hands, and declared that he must repeat the experiment. "For I love picnics," she said, "I love the simplicity and the fresh air and the rippling streams. And washing up is fun, and it is such a great chance for you young men." And she cast a coy glance over her shoulder.

"Do you live far off, Mr. Haystoun?" she asked repeatedly. "Four miles? Oh, that's next door. We shall come and see you some day. We have just been staying with the Marshams-Mr. Marsham, you know, the big cotton people. Very vulgar, but the house is charming. It was so exciting, for the elections were on, and the Hestons, who are the great people in that part of the country, were always calling. Dear Lady Julia is so clever. Did you ever meet Mr. Marsham, by any chance?"

"Not that I remember. I know the Hestons of course. Julia is my cousin."

The lady was silenced. "But I thought," she murmured. "I thought-they were-" She broke off with a cough.

"Yes, I spent a good many o

f my school holidays at Heston."

Alice broke in with a question about the Manorwaters. The youthful Mr. Thompson, who, apart from his solicitor's profession, was a devotee of cricket, asked in a lofty way if Mr. Haystoun cared for the game.

"I do rather. I'm not very good, but we raised an eleven this year in the glen which beat Gledsmuir."

The notion pleased the gentleman. If a second match could be arranged he might play and show his prowess. In all likelihood this solemn and bookish laird, presumably brought up at home, would be a poor enough player.

"I played a lot at school," he said. "In fact I was in the Eleven for two years and I played in the Authentics match, and once against the Eton Ramblers. A strong lot they were."

"Let me see. Was that about seven years ago? I seem to remember."

"Seven years ago," said Mr. Thompson. "But why? Did you see the match?"

"No, I wasn't in the match; I had twisted my ankle, jumping. But I captained the Ramblers that season, so I remember it."

Respect grew large in Mr. Thompson's eyes. Here were modesty and distinction equally mated. The picture of the shy student had gone from his memory.

"If you like to come up to Etterick we might get up a match from the village," said Lewis courteously. "Ourselves with the foresters and keepers against the villagers wouldn't be a bad arrangement."

To Alice the whole conversation struck a jarring note. His eye kindled and he talked freely on sport. Was it not but a new token of his incurable levity? Mr. Wishart, who had understood little of the talk, found in this young man strange stuff to shape to a politician's ends. Contrasted with the gravity of Mr. Stocks, it was a schoolboy beside a master.

"I have been reading," he said slowly, "reading a speech of the new Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. I cannot understand the temper of mind which it illustrates. He talks of the Bosnian war, and a brave people struggling for freedom, as if it were merely a move in some hideous diplomatists' game. A man of that sort cannot understand a moral purpose."

"Tommy-I mean to say Mr. Wratislaw-doesn't believe in Bosnian freedom, but you know he is a most ardent moralist."

"I do not understand," said Mr. Wishart drily.

"I mean that personally he is a Puritan, a man who tries every action of his life by a moral standard. But he believes that moral standards vary with circumstances."

"Pernicious stuff, sir. There is one moral law. There is one Table of Commandments."

"But surely you must translate the Commandments into the language of the occasion. You do not believe that 'Thou shalt not kill' is absolute in every case?"

"I mean that except in the God-appointed necessity of war, and in the serving of criminal justice, killing is murder."

"Suppose a man goes travelling," said Lewis with abstracted eyes, "and has a lot of native servants. They mutiny, and he shoots down one or two. He saves his life, he serves, probably, the ends of civilization. Do you call that murder?"

"Assuredly. Better, far better that he should perish in the wilderness than that he should take the law into his own hands and kill one of God's creatures."

"But law, you know, is not an absolute word."

Mr. Wishart scented danger. "I can't argue against your subtleties, but my mind is clear; and I can respect no man who could think otherwise."

Lewis reddened and looked appealingly at Alice. She, too, was uncomfortable. Her opinions sounded less convincing when stated dogmatically by her father.

Mr. Stocks saw his chance and took it.

"Did you ever happen to be in such a crisis as you speak of, Mr. Haystoun? You have travelled a great deal."

"I have never had occasion to put a man to death," said Lewis, seeing the snare and scorning to avoid it.

"But you have had difficulties?"

"Once I had to flog a couple of men. It was not pleasant, and worst of all it did no good."

"Irrational violence seldom does," grunted Mr. Wishart.

"No, for, as I was going to say, it was a clear case where the men should have been put to death. They had deserved it, for they had disobeyed me, and by their disobedience caused the death of several innocent people. They decamped shortly afterwards, and all but managed to block our path. I blame myself still for not hanging them."

A deep silence hung over the table. Mr. Wishart and the Andrews stared with uncomprehending faces. Mr. Stocks studied his plate, and Alice looked on the speaker with eyes in which unwilling respect strove with consternation.

Only the culprit was at his ease. The discomfort of these good people for a moment amused him. Then the sight of Alice's face, which he wholly misread, brought him back to decent manners.

"I am afraid I have shocked you," he said simply. "If one knocks about the world one gets a different point of view."

Mr. Wishart restrained a flood of indignation with an effort. "We won't speak on the subject," he said. "I confess I have my prejudices."

Mr. Stocks assented with a smile and a sigh. In the drawing-room afterwards Lewis was presented with the olive-branch of peace. He had to attend Mrs. Andrews to the piano and listen to her singing of a sentimental ballad with the face of a man in the process of enjoyment. Soon he pleaded the four miles of distance and the dark night, and took his leave. His spirits had in a measure returned. Alice had not been gracious, but she had shown no scorn. And her spell at the first sight of her was woven a thousand-fold over his heart.

He found her alone for one moment in the hall.

"Alice-Miss Wishart, may I come and see you? It is a pity such near neighbours should see so little of each other."

His hesitation made him cloak a despairing request in the garb of a conventional farewell.

The girl had the sense to pierce the disguise. "You may come and see us, if you like, Mr. Haystoun. We shall be at home all next week."

"I shall come very soon," he cried, and he was whirled away from the light; with the girl's face framed in the arch of the doorway making a picture for his memory.

* * *

When the others had gone to bed, Stocks and Mr. Wishart sat up over a last pipe by the smoking-room fire.

The younger man moved uneasily in his chair. He had something to say which had long lain on his mind, and he was uncertain of its reception.

"You have been for a long time my friend, Mr. Wishart," he began. "You have done me a thousand kindnesses, and I only hope I have not proved myself unworthy of them."

Mr. Wishart raised his eyebrows at the peculiar words. "Certainly you have not," he said. "I regard you as the most promising by far of the younger men of my acquaintance, and any little services I may have rendered have been amply repaid me."

The younger man bowed and looked into the fire.

"It is very kind of you to speak so," he said. "I have been wondering whether I might not ask for a further kindness, the greatest favour which you could confer upon me. Have you made any plans for your daughter's future?"

Mr. Wishart sat up stiffly on the instant. "You mean?" he said.

"I mean that I love Alice ... your daughter ... and I wish to make her my wife. If you will give me your consent, I will ask her."

"But-but," said the old man, stammering. "Does the girl know anything of this?"

"She knows that I love her, and I think she will not be unkind."

"I don't know that I object," said Mr. Wishart after a long pause. "In fact I am very willing, and I am very glad that you had the good manners to speak to me first. Yes, upon my word, sir, I am pleased. You have had a creditable career, and your future promises well. My girl will help you, for though I say it, she will not be ill-provided for. I respect your character and I admire your principles, and I give you my heartiest good wishes."

Mr. Stocks rose and held out his hand. He felt that the interview could not be prolonged in the present fervour of gratitude.

"Had it been that young Haystoun now," said Mr. Wishart, "I should never have given my consent. I resolved long ago that my daughter should never marry an idle man. I am a plain man, and I care nothing for social distinctions."

But as Mr. Stocks left the room the plain man glanced after him, and sitting back suffered a moment's reflection. The form of this worker contrasted in his mind with the figure of the idler who had that evening graced his table. A fool, doubtless, but a fool with an air and a manner! And for one second he allowed himself to regret that he was to acquire so unromantic a son-in-law.

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