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The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 12429

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

AT Mrs. Montrayner's dinner parties a world of silent men is sandwiched between a monde of chattering women. The hostess has a taste for busy celebrities who eat their dinner without thought of the cookery, and regard their fair neighbours much as the diners think of the band in a restaurant. She chose her company with care, and if at her table there was not the busy clack of a fluent conversation, there was always the possibility of bons mots and the off-chance of a State secret. So to have dined with the Montrayners became a boast in a small social set, and to the unilluminate the Montrayner banquets seemed scarce less momentous than Cabinet meetings.

Wratislaw found himself staring dully at a snowy bank of flowers and looking listlessly at the faces beyond. He was extremely worried, and his grey face and sunken eyes showed the labour he had been passing through. The country was approaching the throes of a crisis, and as yet the future was a blind alley to him. There was an autumn session, and he had been badgered all the afternoon in the Commons; his even temper had been perilously near its limits, and he had been betrayed unconsciously into certain ineptitudes which he knew would grin in his face on the morrow from a dozen leading articles. The Continent seemed on the edge of an outbreak; in the East especially, Russia by a score of petty acts had seemed to foreshadow an incomprehensible policy. It was a powder-barrel waiting for the spark; and he felt dismally that the spark might come at any moment from some unlooked-for quarter of the globe. He ran over in his mind the position of foreign affairs. All seemed vaguely safe; and yet he was conscious that all was vaguely unsettled. The world was on the eve of one of its cyclic changes, and unrest seemed to make the air murky.

He tried to be polite and listened attentively to the lady on his right, who was telling him the latest gossip about a certain famous marriage. But his air was so manifestly artificial that she turned to the presumably more attractive topic of his doings.

"You look ill," she said-she was one who adopted the motherly air towards young men, which only a pretty woman can use. "Are they over-working you in the House?"

"Pretty fair," and he smiled grimly. "But really I can't complain. I have had eight hours' sleep in the last four days, and I don't think Beauregard could say as much. Some day I shall break loose and go to a quiet place and sleep for a week. Brittany would do-or Scotland."

"I was in Scotland last week," she said. "I didn't find it quiet. It was at one of those theatrical Highland houses where they pipe you to sleep and pipe you to breakfast. I used to have to sit up all night by the fire and read Marius the Epicurean, to compose myself. Did you ever try the specific?"

"No," he said, laughing. "I always soothe my nerves with Blue-books."

She made a mouth at the thought. "And do you know I met such a nice man up there, who said you were a great friend of his? His name was Haystoun."

"Do you remember his Christian name?" he asked.

"Lewis," she said without hesitation.

He laughed. "He is a man who should only have one name and that his Christian one. I never heard him called 'Haystoun' in my life. How is he?"

"He seemed well, but he struck me as being at rather a loose end. What is wrong with him? You know him well and can tell me. He seems to have nothing to do; to have fallen out of his niche, you know. And he looks so extraordinarily clever."

"He is extraordinarily clever. But if I undertook to tell you what was wrong with Lewie Haystoun, I should never get to the House to-night. The vitality of a great family has run to a close in him. He is strong and able, and yet, unless the miracle of miracles happens, he will never do anything. Two hundred years ago he might have led some mad Jacobite plot to success. Three hundred and he might have been another Raleigh. Six hundred, and there would have been a new crusade. But as it is, he is out of harmony with his times; life is too easy and mannered; the field for a man's courage is in petty and recondite things, and Lewie is not fitted to understand it. And all this, you see, spells a kind of cowardice: and if you have a friend who is a hero out of joint, a great man smothered in the wrong sort of civilization, and all the while one who is building up for himself with the world and in his own heart the reputation of a coward, you naturally grow hot and bitter."

The lady looked curiously at the speaker. She had never heard the silent politician speak so earnestly before.

"It seems to me a clear case of chercher la femme," said she.

"That," said Wratislaw with emphasis, "is the needle-point of the whole business. He has fallen in love with just the wrong sort of woman. Very pretty, very good, a demure puritanical little Pharisee, clever enough, too, to see Lewie's merits, too weak to hope to remedy them, and too full of prejudice to accept them. There you have the makings of a very pretty tragedy."

"I am so sorry," said the lady. She was touched by this man's anxiety for his friend, and Mr. Lewis Haystoun, whom she was never likely to meet again, became a figure of interest in her eyes. She turned to say something more, but Wratislaw, having unburdened his soul to some one, and feeling a little relieved, was watching his chief's face further down the table. That nobleman, hopelessly ill at ease, had given up the pretence of amiability and was now making frantic endeavours to send mute signals across the flowers to his under secretary.

The Montrayner guests seldom linger. Within half an hour after the ladies left the table Beauregard and Wratislaw were taking leave and hurrying into their greatcoats.

"You are going down to the House," said the elder man, "and I'll come too. I want to have some talk with you. I tried to catch your eye at dinner to get you to come round and deliver me from old Montrayner, for I had to sit on his right hand and couldn't come round to you. Heigho-ho! I wish I was a Trappist."

The cab had turned out of Piccadilly into St. James's Street before either man spoke again. The tossing lights o

f a windy autumn evening were shimmering on the wet pavement, and faces looked spectral white in the morris-dance of shine and shadow. Wratislaw, whose soul was sick for high, clean winds and the great spaces of the moors, was thinking of Glenavelin and Lewis and the strong, quickening north. His companion was furrowing his brow over some knotty problem in his duties.

In Pall Mall there was a lull in the noise, but neither seemed disposed to talk.

"We had better wait till we get to the House," said Beauregard. "We must have peace, for I have got the most vexatious business to speak about." And again he wrinkled his anxious brows and stared in front of him.

They entered a private room where the fire had burned itself out, and the lights fell on heavy furniture and cheerless solitude. Beauregard spread himself out in an arm-chair, and stared at the ceiling. Wratislaw, knowing his chief's manners, stood before the blackened grate and waited.

"Fetch me an atlas-that big one, and find the map of the Indian frontier." Wratislaw obeyed and stretched the huge folio on the table.

The elder man ran his forefinger in a circle.

"There-that wretched radius is the plague of my life. Our reports stop short at that line, and reliable information begins again some hundreds of miles north. Meanwhile-between?" And he shrugged his shoulders.

"I got news to-day in a roundabout way from Taghati. That's the town just within the Russian frontier there. It seems that the whole country is in a ferment. The hill tribes are out and the Russian frontier line is threatened. So they say. I have the actual names of the people who are making the row. Russian troops are being massed along the line there. The whole place, you know, has been for long a military beehive and absurdly over-garrisoned, so there is no difficulty about the massing. The difficulty lies in the reason. Three thousand square miles or so of mountain cannot be so dangerous. One would think that the whole Afghan nation was meditating a descent on the Amu Daria." He glanced up at his companion, and the two men saw the same anxiety in each other's eyes.

"Anything more of Marka?" asked Wratislaw.

"Nothing definite. He is somewhere in the Pamirs, up to some devilry or other. Oh, by the by, there is something I have forgotten. I found out the other day that our gentleman had been down quite recently in south-west Kashmir. He was Arthur Marker at the time, the son of a German count and a Scotch mother, you understand. Immensely popular, too, among natives and Europeans alike. He went south from Bardur, and apparently returned north by the Punjab. At Bardur, Logan and Thwaite were immensely fascinated, Gribton remained doubtful. Now the good Gribton is coming home, and so he will have the place for a happy hunting-ground."

Wratislaw was puffing his under-lip in deep thought. "It is a sweet business," he said. "But what can we do? Only wait?"

"Yes, one could wait if Marka were the only disquieting feature. But what about Taghati and the Russian activity? What on earth is going on or about to go on in this square inch of mountain land to make all the pother? If it is a tribal war on a first-class scale then we must know about it, for it is in the highest degree our concern too. If it is anything else, things look more than doubtful. All the rest I don't mind. It's open and obvious, and we are on the alert. But that little bit of frontier there is so little known and apparently so remote that I begin to be afraid of trouble in that direction. What do you think?"

Wratislaw shook his head. He had no opinion to offer.

"At any rate, you need fear no awkward questions in the House, for this sort of thing cannot be public for months."

"I am wondering whether somebody should not go out. Somebody quite unofficial and sufficiently clever."

"My thought too," said Beauregard. "The pinch is where to get our man from. I have been casting up possibilities all day, and this one is too clever, another too dull, another too timid, and another too hare-brained."

Wratislaw seemed sunk in a brown study.

"Do you remember my telling you once about my friend Lewis Haystoun?" he asked.

"I remember perfectly. What made him get so badly beaten? He ought to have won."

"That's part of my point," said the other. "If I knew him less well than I do I should say he was the man cut out by Providence for the work. He has been to the place, he knows the ropes of travelling, he is exceedingly well-informed, and he is uncommonly clever. But he is badly off colour. The thing might be the saving of him, or the ruin-in which case, of course, he would also be the ruin of the thing."

"As risky as that?" Beauregard asked. "I have heard something of him, but I thought it merely his youth. What's wrong with him?"

"Oh, I can't tell. A thousand things, but all might be done away with by a single chance like this. I tell you what I'll do. After to-night I can be spared for a couple of days. I feel rather hipped myself, so I shall get up to the north and see my man. I know the circumstances and I know Lewis. If the two are likely to suit each other I have your authority to give him your message?"

"Certainly, my dear Wratislaw. I have all the confidence in the world in your judgment. You will be back the day after to-morrow?"

"I shall only be out of the House one night, and I think the game worth it. I need not tell you that I am infernally anxious both about the business and my friend. It is just on the cards that one might be the solution of the other."

"You understand everything?"

"Everything. I promise you I shall be exacting enough. And now I had better be looking after my own work."

Beauregard stared after him as he went out of the room and remained for a few minutes in deep thought. Then he deliberately wrote out a foreign telegram form and rang the bell.

"I fancy I know the man," he said to himself. "He will go. Meantime I can prepare things for his passage." The telegram was to the fugitive Gribton at Florence, asking him to meet a certain Mr. Haystoun at the Embassy in Paris within a week for the discussion of a particular question.

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