MoboReader> Literature > The Half-Hearted

   Chapter 15 THE NEMESIS OF A COWARD

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 22061

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


TWO days later the Andrews drove up the glen to Etterick, taking with them the unwilling Mr. Wishart. Alice had escaped the ordeal with some feigned excuse, and the unfortunate Mr. Thompson, deeply grieving, had been summoned by telegram from cricket to law. The lady had chattered all the way up the winding moorland road, crying out banalities about the pretty landscape, or questioning her very ignorant companions about the dwellers in Etterick. She was full of praises for the house when it came in view; it was "quaint," it was "charming," it was everything inappropriate. But the amiable woman's prattle deserted her when she found herself in the cold stone hall with the great portraits and the lack of all modern frippery. It was so plainly a man's house, so clearly a place of tradition, that her pert modern speech seemed for one moment a fatuity.

It was an off-day for the shooters, and so for a miracle there were men in the drawing-room at tea-time. The hostess for the time was an aunt of Lewis's, a certain Mrs. Alderson, whose husband (the famous big-game hunter) had but recently returned from the jaws of a Zambesi lion. George's sister, Lady Clanroyden, a tall, handsome girl in a white frock, was arranging flowers in a bowl, and on the sill of the open window two men were basking in the sun. From the inner drawing-room there came an echo of voices and laughter. The whole scene was sunny and cheerful, youth and age, gay frocks and pleasant faces amid the old tapestry and mahogany of a moorland house.

Mr. Andrews sat down solemnly to talk of the weather with the two men, who found him a little dismal. One-he of the Zambesi lion episode-was grizzled, phlegmatic, and patient, and in no way critical of his company. So soon he was embarked on extracts from his own experience to which Mr. Andrews, who had shares in some company in the neighbourhood, listened with flattering attention. Mrs. Alderson set herself to entertain Mr. Wishart, and being a kindly, simple person, found the task easy. They were soon engaged in an earnest discussion of unsectarian charities.

Lady Clanroyden, with an unwilling sense of duty, devoted herself to Mrs. Andrews. That simpering matron fell into a vein of confidences and in five brief minutes had laid bare her heart. Then came the narrative of her recent visit to the Marshams, and the inevitable mention of the Hestons.

"Oh, you know the Hestons?" said Lady Clanroyden, brightening.

"Very well indeed." The lady smiled, looking round to make sure that Lewis was not in the room.

"Julia is here, you know. Julia, come and speak to your friends."

A dark girl in mourning came forward to meet the expansive smile of Mrs. Andrews. Earnestly the lady hoped that she remembered the single brief meeting on which she had built a fictitious acquaintance, and was reassured when the newcomer shook hands with her pleasantly. Truth to tell, Lady Julia had no remembrance of her face, but was too good-natured to be honest.

"And how is your dear mother? I was so sorry to hear from a mutual friend that she had been unwell." How thankful she was that she read each week various papers which reported people's doings!

A sense of bewilderment lurked in her heart. Who was this Lewis Haystoun who owned such a house and such a kindred? The hypothesis of money made in coal seemed insufficient, and with much curiosity she set herself to solve the problem.

"Is Mr. Haystoun coming back to tea?" she asked by way of a preface.

"No, he has had to go to Gledsmuir. We are all idle this afternoon, but he has a landowner's responsibilities."

"Have his family been here long? I seem never to have heard the name."

Lady Clanroyden looked a little surprised. "Yes, they have been rather a while. I forget how many centuries, but a good many. It was about this place, you know, that the old ballad of 'The Riding of Etterick' was made, and a Haystoun was the hero."

Mrs. Andrews knew nothing about old ballads, but she feigned a happy reminiscence.

"It is so sad his being beaten by Mr. Stocks," she declared. "Of course an old county family should provide the members for a district. They have the hearts of the people with them."

"Then the hearts of the people have a funny way of revealing themselves," Lady Clanroyden laughed. "I'm not at all sorry that Lewie was beaten. He is the best man in the world, but one wants to shake him up. His motto is 'Thole,' and he gets too few opportunities of 'tholing.'"

"You all call him 'Lewie,'" commented the lady. "How popular he must be!"

Mabel Clanroyden laughed. "I have known him ever since I was a small girl in a short frock and straight-brushed hair. He was never anything else than Lewie to his friends. Oh, here is my wandering brother and my only son returned," and she rose to catch up a small, self-possessed boy of some six years, who led the flushed and reluctant George in tow.

The small boy was very dirty, ruddy and cheerful. He had torn his blouse, and scratched his brow, and the crown of his straw hat had parted company with the brim.

"George," said his sister severely, "have you been corrupting the manners of my son? Where have you been?"

The boy-he rejoiced in the sounding name of Archibald-slapped a small leg with a miniature whip, and counterfeited with great skill the pose of the stable-yard. He slowly unclenched a smutty fist and revealed three separate shillings.

"I won um myself," he explained.

"Is it highway robbery?" asked his mother with horrified eyes. "Archibald, have you stopped a coach, or held up a bus or anything of the kind?"

The child unclenched his hand again, beamed on his prize, smiled knowingly at the world, and shut it.

"What has the dreadful boy been after? Oh, tell me, George, please. I will try to bear it."

"We fell in with a Sunday-school picnic along in the glen, and Archie made me take him there. And he had tea-I hope the little chap won't be ill, by the by. And he made a speech or a recitation or something of the sort. Nobody understood it, but it went down like anything."

"And do you mean to say that the people gave him money, and you allowed him to take it?" asked an outraged mother.

"He won it," said George. "Won it in fair fight. He was second in the race under twelve, and first in the race under ten. They gave him a decent handicap, and he simply romped home. That chap can run, Mabel. He tried the sack race, too, but the first time he slipped altogether inside the thing and had to be taken out, yelling. But he stuck to it like a Trojan, and at the second shot he got started all right, and would have won it if he hadn't lost his head and rolled down a bank. He isn't scratched much, considering he fell among whins. That also explains the state of his hat."

"George, you shall never, never, as long as I live, take my son out with you again. It is a wonder the poor child escaped with his life. You have not a scrap of feeling. I must take the boy away or he will shame me before everybody. Come and talk to Mrs. Andrews, George. May I introduce my brother, Mr. Winterham?"

George, who wanted to smoke, sat down unwillingly in the chair which his sister had left. The lady, whose airs and graces were all for men, put on her most bewitching manner.

"Your sister and I have just been talking about this exquisite place, Mr. Winterham. It must be delightful to live in such a centre of old romance. That lovely 'Riding of Etterick' has been running in my head all the way up."

George privately wondered at the confession. The peculiarly tragic and ghastly fragments which made up "The Riding of Etterick," seemed scarcely suited to haunt a lady's memory.

"Had you a long drive?" he asked in despair for a topic.

"Only from Glenavelin."

He awoke to interest. "Are you staying at Glenavelin just now? The Wisharts are in it, are they not? We were a great deal about the place when the Manorwaters were there."

"Oh yes. I have heard about Lady Manorwater from Alice Wishart. She must be a charming woman; Alice cannot speak enough about her."

George's face brightened. "Miss Wishart is a great friend of mine, and a most awfully good sort."

"And as you are a great friend of hers I think I may tell you a great secret," and the lady patted him playfully. "Our pretty Alice is going to be married."

George was thoroughly roused to attention. "Who is the man?" he asked sharply.

"I think I may tell you," said Mrs. Andrews, enjoying her sense of importance. "It is Mr. Stocks, the new member."

George restrained with difficulty a very natural oath. Then he looked at his informant and saw in her face only silliness and truth. For the good woman had indeed persuaded herself of the verity of her fancy. Mr. Stocks had told her that he had her father's consent and good wishes, and misinterpreting the girl's manner she had considered the affair settled.

It was unfortunate that Mr. Wishart at this moment showed such obvious signs of restlessness that the lady rose to take her leave, otherwise George might have learned the truth. After the Glenavelin party had gone he wandered out to the lawn, pulling his moustache in vast perplexity and cursing the twisted world. He had no guess at Lewis's manner of wooing; to him it had seemed the simple, straightforward love which he thought beyond resistance. And now, when he learned of this melancholy issue, he was sore at heart for his friend.

He was awakened from his reverie by Lewis himself, who, having ridden straight to the stables, was now sauntering towards the house. A trim man looks at his best in riding clothes, and Lewis was no exception. He was flushed with sun and motion, his spirits were high, for all the journey he had been dreaming of a coming meeting with Alice, and the hope which had suddenly increased a thousand-fold. George marked his mood, and with a regret at his new role caught him by the arm and checked him.

"I say, old man, don't go in just yet. I want to tell you something, and I think you had better hear it now."

Lewis turned obediently, amazed by the gravity of his friend's face.

"Some people came up from Glenavelin this afternoon and among them a Mrs. Andrews, whom I had a talk to. She told me that Al-Miss Wishart is engaged to that fellow Stocks."

Lewis's face whitened and he turned away his eyes. He could not credit it. Two days ago she had been free; he could swear it; he remembered her eyes at parting. Then came the thought of his blindness, and in a great horror of self-mistrust he seemed to see throughout it all his criminal folly. He, poor fool, had been pleasing himself with dreams of a meeting, when all the while the other man had been the real lover. She had despised him, spared not a thought for him save as a pleasing idler; and he-that he should ever have ventured for one second to hope! Curiously enough, for the first time he thought of Stocks with respect; to have won the girl seemed in itself the proo

f of dignity and worth.

"Thanks very much for telling me. I am glad I know. No, I don't think I'll go into the house yet."

* * *

The days passed and Alice waited with anxious heart for the coming of the very laggard Lewis. To-day he will come, she said each morning; and evening found her-poor heart!-still expectant. She told herself a thousand times that it was sheer folly. He meant nothing, it was a mere fashion of speech; and then her heart would revolt and bid common sense be silent. He came indeed with some of the Etterick party on a formal call, but this was clearly not the fulfilment of his promise. So the girl waited and despaired, while the truant at Etterick was breaking his heart for the unattainable.

Mr. Stocks, having won the official consent, conducted his suit with commendable discretion. Suit is the word for the performance, so full was it of elaborate punctilios. He never intruded upon her unhappiness. A studied courtesy, a distant thoughtfulness were his only compliments. But when he found her gayer, then would he strive with subtle delicacies of manner to make clear the part he desired to play.

The girl saw his kindness and was grateful. In the revulsion against the Andrews he seemed a link with the more pleasant sides of life, and soon in her despair and anger his modest merits took heroic proportions in her eyes. She forgot her past dislike; she thought only of this, the simple good man, contrasted with the showy and fickle-hearted-true metal against glittering tinsel. His very weaknesses seemed homely and venial. He was of her own world, akin to the things which deep down in her soul she knew she must love to the last. It is to the credit of the man's insight that he saw the mood and took pains to foster it.

Twice he asked her to marry him. The first time her heart was still sore with disappointment and she refused-yet half-heartedly.

He waited his time and when the natural cheerfulness of her temper was beginning to rise, he again tried his fortune.

"I cannot," she cried. "I cannot. I like you very much, but oh, it is too much to ask me to marry you."

"But I love you with all my heart, Alice." And the honesty of his tone and the distant thought of a very different hope brought the tears to her eyes.

He had forgotten all pompous dreams and the stilted prospects with which he had aforetime hoped to beguile his wife. The man was plain and simple now, a being very much on fire with an honest passion. He may have left her love-cold, but he touched the sympathy which in a true woman is love's nearest neighbour. Before she knew herself she had promised, and had been kissed respectfully and tenderly by her delighted lover. For a moment she felt something like joy, and then, with a dreadful thought of the baselessness of her pleasure, walked slowly homewards by his side.

* * *

The next morning Alice rose with a dreary sense of the irrevocable. A door seemed to have closed behind her, and the future stretched before her in a straight dusty path with few nooks and shadows. This was not the blithe morning of betrothal she had looked for. The rapturous outlook on life which she had dreamed of was replaced by a cold and business-like calculation of profits. The rose garden of the "god unconquered in battle" was exchanged for a very shoddy and huckstering paradise.

Mrs. Andrews claimed her company all the morning, and with the pertinacity of her kind soon guessed the very obvious secret. Her gushing congratulations drove the girl distracted. She praised the good Stocks, and Alice drank in the comfort of such words with greedy ears. From one young man she passed to another, and hung lovingly over the perfections of Mr. Haystoun. "He has the real distinction, dear," she cried, "which you can never mistake. It only belongs to old blood and it is quite inimitable. His friends are so charming, too, and you can always tell a man by his people. It is so pleasant to fall in with old acquaintances again. That dear Lady Clanroyden promised to come over soon. I quite long to see her, for I feel as if I had known her for ages."

After lunch Alice fled the house and sought her old refuge-the hills. There she would find the deep solitude for thought. She was not broken-hearted, though she grieved now and again with a blind longing of regret. But she was confused and shaken; the landmarks of her vision seemed to have been removed, and she had to face the grim narrowing-down of hopes which is the sternest trial for poor mortality.

Autumn's hand was lying heavy on the hillsides. Bracken was yellowing, heather passing from bloom, and the clumps of wild-wood taking the soft russet and purple of decline. Faint odours of wood smoke seemed to flit over the moor, and the sharp lines of the hill fastnesses were drawn as with a graving-tool against the sky. She resolved to go to the Midburn and climb up the cleft, for the place was still a centre of memory. So she kept for a mile to the Etterick road, till she came in view of the little stone bridge where the highway spans the moorland waters.

There had been intruders in Paradise before her. Broken bottles and scraps of paper were defacing the hill turf, and when she turned to get to the water's edge she found the rushy coverts trampled on every side. From somewhere among the trees came the sound of singing-a silly music-hall catch. It was a sharp surprise, and the girl, in horror at the profanation, was turning in all haste to leave.

But the Fates had prepared an adventure. Three half-tipsy men came swinging down the slope, their arms linked together, and bowlers set rakishly on the backs of their heads. They kept up the chorus of the song which was being sung elsewhere, and they suited their rolling gait to the measure.

"For it ain't Maria," came the tender melody; and the reassuring phrase was repeated a dozen times. Then by ill-luck they caught sight of the astonished Alice, and dropping their musical efforts they hailed her familiarly. Clearly they were the stragglers of some picnic from the town, the engaging type of gentleman who on such occasions is drunk by midday. They were dressed in ill-fitting Sunday clothes, great flowers beamed from their button-holes, and after the fashion of their kind their waistcoats were unbuttoned for comfort. The girl tried to go back by the way she had come, but to her horror she found that she was intercepted. The three gentlemen commanded her retreat.

They seemed comparatively sober, so she tried entreaty. "Please, let me pass," she said pleasantly. "I find I have taken the wrong road."

"No, you haven't, dearie," said one of the men, who from a superior neatness of apparel might have been a clerk. "You've come the right road, for you've met us. And now you're not going away." And he came forward with a protecting arm.

Alice, genuinely frightened, tried to cross the stream and escape by the other side. But the crossing was difficult, and she slipped at the outset and wet her ankles. One of the three lurched into the water after her, and withdrew with sundry oaths.

The poor girl was in sad perplexity. Before was an ugly rush of water and a leap beyond her strength; behind, three drunken men, their mouths full of endearment and scurrility. She looked despairingly to the level white road for the Perseus who should deliver her.

And to her joy the deliverer was not wanting. In the thick of the idiot shouting of the trio there came the clink-clank of a horse's feet and a young man came over the bridge. He saw the picture at a glance and its meaning; and it took him short time to be on his feet and then over the broken stone wall to the waterside. Suddenly to the girl's delight there appeared at the back of the roughs the inquiring, sunburnt face of Lewis.

The men turned and stared with hanging jaws. "Now, what the dickens is this?" he cried, and catching two of their necks he pulled their heads together and then flung them apart.

The three seemed sobered by the apparition. "And what the h-ll is your business?" they cried conjointly; and one, a dark-browed fellow, doubled his fists and advanced.

Lewis stood regarding them with a smiling face and very bright, cross eyes. "Are you by way of insulting this lady? If you weren't drunk, I'd teach you manners. Get out of this in case I forget myself."

For answer the foremost of the men hit out. A glance convinced Lewis that there was enough sobriety to make a fight of it. "Miss Wishart ... Alice," he cried, "come back and go down to the road and see to my horse, please. I'll be down in a second."

The girl obeyed, and so it fell out that there was no witness to that burn-side encounter. It was a complex fight and it lasted for more than a second. Two of the men had the grace to feel ashamed of themselves half-way through, and retired from the contest with shaky limbs and aching faces. The third had to be assisted to his feet in the end by his antagonist. It was not a good fight, for the three were pasty-faced, overgrown young men, in no training and stupid with liquor. But they pressed hard on Lewis for a little, till he was compelled in self-defence to treat them as fair opponents.

He came down the road in a quarter of an hour with a huge rent in his coat-sleeve and a small cut on his forehead. He was warm and breathless, still righteously indignant at the event, and half-ashamed of so degrading an encounter. He found the girl standing statue-like, holding the bridle-rein, and looking into the distance with vacant eyes.

"Are you going back to Glenavelin, Miss Wishart?" he asked. "I think I had better go with you if you will allow me."

Alice mutely assented and walked beside him while he led his horse. He could think of nothing to say. The whole world lay between them now, and there was no single word which either could speak without showing some trace of the tragic separation.

It was the girl who first broke the silence.

"I want to thank you with all my heart," she stammered. And then by an awkward intuition she looked in his face and saw written there all the hopelessness and longing which he was striving to conceal. For one moment she saw clearly, and then the crooked perplexities of the world seemed to stare cruelly in her eyes. A sob caught her voice, and before she was conscious of her action she laid a hand on Lewis's arm and burst into tears.

The sight was so unexpected that it deprived him of all power of action. Then came the fatally easy solution that it was but reaction of over-strained nerves. Always ill at ease in a woman's presence, a woman's tears reduced him to despair. He stroked her hair gently as he would have quieted a favourite horse.

"I am so sorry that these brutes have frightened you. But here we are at Glenavelin gates."

And all the while his heart was crying out to him to clasp her in his arms, and the words which trembled on his tongue were the passionate consolations of a lover.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares