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   Chapter 18 THE FURTHER BRINK

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 13353

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


WRATISLAW left betimes the next morning, and a long day faced Lewis with every hour clamouring for a decision. George would be back by noon, and before his return he must seek quiet and the chances of reflection. He was happy with a miserable fluctuating happiness. Of a sudden his horizon was enlarged, but as he gazed it seemed to narrow again. His mind was still unplumbed; somewhere in its depths might lie the shrinking and unwillingness which would bind him to the dreary present.

He went out to the autumn hills and sought the ridge which runs for miles on the lip of the glen. It was a grey day, with snow waiting in cloud-banks in the north sky and a thin wind whistling through the pines. The scene matched his humour. He was in love for the moment with the stony and stormy in life. He hungered morbidly for ill-fortune, something to stamp out the ease in his soul, and weld him into the form of a man.

He had got his chance and the rest lay with himself. It was a chance of high adventure, a great mission, a limitless future. At the thought the old fever began to rise in his blood. The hot, clear smell of rock and sand, the brown depths of the waters, the far white peaks running up among the stars, all spoke to him with the long-remembered call. Once more he should taste life, and, alert in mind and body, hold up his chin among his fellows. It would be a contest of wits, and for all his cowardice this was not the contest he shrank from.

And then there came back on him, like a flood, the dumb misery of incompetence which had weighed on heart and brain. The hatred of the whole struggling, sordid crew, all the cant and ugliness and ignorance of a mad world, his weakness in the face of it, his fall from common virtue, his nerveless indolence-all stung him like needle points, till he cried out in agony. Anything to deliver his soul from such a bondage, and in his extreme bitterness his mind closed with Wratislaw's offer.

He felt-and it is a proof of his weakness-a certain nameless feeling of content when he had once forced himself into the resolution. Now at least he had found a helm and a port to strain to. As his fancy dwelt upon the mission and drew airy pictures of the land, he found to his delight a boyish enthusiasm arising. Old simple pleasures seemed for the moment dear. There was a zest for toils and discomforts, a tolerance of failure, which had been aforetime his chief traveller's heritage.

And then as he came to the ridge where the road passes from Glenavelin to Glen Adler, he stopped as in duty bound to look at the famous prospect. You stand at the shedding of two streams; behind, the green and woodland spaces of the pastoral Avelin; at the feet, a land of stones and dwarf junipers and naked rifts in the hills, with white-falling waters and dark shadows even at midday. And then, beyond and afar, the lines of hill-land crowd upon each other till the eye is lost in a mystery of grey rock and brown heather and single bald peaks rising sentinel-like in the waste. The grey heavens lent a chill eeriness to the dim grey distances; the sharp winds, the forerunners of snow, blew over the moors like blasts from a primeval night.

By an odd vagary of temper the love of these bleak hills blazed up fiercely in his heart. Never before had he felt so keenly the nameless glamour of his own heritage. He had not been back six months and yet he had come to accept all things as matters of course, the beauty of the place, its sport, its memories. Rarely had he felt that intimate joy in it which lies at the bottom of all true souls. There is a sentiment which old poets have made into songs and called the "Lilt of the Heather," and which is knit closer to man's heart than love of wife or kin or his own fair fortune. It had not come to him in the time of the hills' glory, but now on the brink of winter the far-off melancholy of the place and its infinite fascination seemed to clutch at his heart-strings. It was his own land, the place of his fathers; and now he must sever himself from it and carry only a barren memory.

And yet he felt no melancholy. Rather it was the immortal gaiety of the wanderer, to whom the homeland is dearest as a memory, who pitches his camp by waters of Babylon and yet as ever the old word on his lip, the old song in his ear, and the kindly picture in his heart. Strange that it is the little races who wander farthest and yet have the eternal home-sickness! And yet not strange, for to the little peoples, their land, bare and uncouth and unfriendly for the needs of life, must be more the ideal, the dream, than the satisfaction. The lush countries give corn and wine for their folks, the little bare places afford no more than a spiritual heritage. Yet spiritual it is, and for two men who in the moment of their extremity will think on meadow, woodland, or placid village, a score will figure the windy hill, the grey lochan, and the mournful sea.

For the moment he felt a self-pity which he cast from him. To this degradation at least he should never come. But as the thought of Alice came up ever and again, his longing for her seemed to be changed from hot pain to a chastened regret. The red hearth-fire was no more in his fancy. The hunger for domesticity had gone, and the girl was now less the wife he had desired than the dream of love he had vainly followed. As he came back across the moors, for the first time for weeks his jealous love left him at peace. His had been a fanciful Sylvia, "holy, fair, and wise"; and what if mortal Sylvia were unkind, there was yet comfort in this elusive lady of his memories.

* * *

He found George at the end of a second breakfast, a very ruddy, happy young man hunting high and low for a lost tobacco-jar.

"Oh, first-class," he said in answer to Lewis's question. "Out and out the best day's shooting I've had in my life. You were an ass not to come, you know. A lot of your friends there, tremendously disappointed too, and entrusted me with a lot of messages for you which I have forgotten."

His companion's high spirits infected Lewis and he fell into cheery gossip. Then he could contain the news no more.

"I had Tommy up last night on a flying visit. He says that Beauregard wants me to go out to Kashmir again. There has been some threatening of a row up there, and he thinks that as I know the place I might be able to get good information."

"Official?" asked George.

"Practically, yes; but in theory it's quite off my own bat, and they are good enough to tell me that they will not acknowledge responsibility. However, it's a great chance and I am going."

"Good," said the other, and h

is face and voice had settled into gravity. "Pretty fair sport up in those parts, isn't there?"

"Pretty fair? it's about the best in the world. Your ordinary man who goes the grand tour comes home raving about the sport in the Himalayan foothills, and it's not to be named with this."

"Good chance too of a first-rate row, isn't there? Natives troublesome, and Russia near, and that sort of thing?" George's manner showed a growing enthusiasm.

"A rather good chance. It is about that I'm going, you know."

"Then if you don't mind, I am coming with you."

Lewis stared, incredulous.

"It's quite true. I am serious enough. I am doing nothing at the Bar, and I want to travel, proper travelling, where you are not coddled with railways and hotels."

"But it's hideously risky, and probably very arduous and thankless. You will tire of it in a week."

"I won't," said George, "and in any case I'll make my book for that. You must let me come, Lewie. I simply couldn't stand your going off alone."

"But I may have to leave you. There are places where one can go when two can't."

"When you come to that sort of place I'll stay behind. I'll be quite under your orders."

"Well, at any rate take some time to think over it."

"Bless you, I don't want time to think over it," cried George. "I know my own mind. It's the chance I've been waiting on for years."

"Thanks tremendously then, my dear chap," said Lewis, very ill at ease. "It's very good of you. I must wire at once to Tommy."

"I'll take it down, if you like. I want to try that new mare of yours in the dog-cart."

When his host had left the room George forgot to light his pipe, but walked instead to the window and whistled solemnly. "Poor old man," he said softly to himself, "it had to come to this, but I'm hanged if he doesn't take it like a Trojan." And he added certain striking comments on the ways of womankind and the afflictions of life, which, being expressed in Mr. Winterham's curious phraseology, need not be set down.

* * *

Alice had gone out after lunch to walk to Gledsmuir, seeking in the bitter cold and the dawning storm the freshness which comes from conflict. All the way down the glen the north wind had stung her cheeks to crimson and blown stray curls about her ears; but when she left the little market-place to return she found a fine snow powdering the earth, and a haze creeping over the hills which threatened storm. A mile of the weather delighted her, but after that she grew weary. When the fall thickened she sought the shelter of a way-side cottage, with the purpose of either sending to Glenavelin for a carriage or waiting for the off-chance of a farmer's gig.

By four o'clock the snow showed no sign of clearing, but fell in the same steady, noiseless drift. The mistress of the place made the girl tea and dispatched her son to Glenavelin. But the errand would take time, for the boy was small, and Alice, ever impatient, stood drumming on the panes, watching the dreary weather with a dreary heart. The goodwife was standing at the door on the look-out for a passing gig, and her cry brought the girl to attention.

"I see a machine comin'! I think it's the Etterick dowg-cairt. Ye'll get a drive in it."

Alice had gone to the door, and lo! through the thick fall a dog-cart came into view driven by a tall young man. He recognized her at once, and drew up.

"Hullo, Miss Wishart! Storm-stayed? Can I help you?"

The girl looked distrustfully at the very restless horse and he caught her diffidence.

"Don't be afraid. 'What I don't know about 'oases ain't worth knowin','" he quoted with a laugh; and leaning forward he prepared to assist her to mount.

There was nothing for it but to accept, and the next minute she found herself in the high seat beside him. Her wraps, sufficient for walking, were scarcely sufficient for a snowy drive, and this, to his credit, the young man saw. He unbuttoned his tweed shooting-cape, and gravely put it round her. A curious dainty figure she made with her face all bright with wind, framed in the great grey cloak.

The horse jibbed for a second and then swung along the wild road with the vigorous ease of good blood skilfully handled. George was puzzling his brain all the while as to how he should tell his companion something which she ought to know. The strong drift and the turns of the road claimed much of his attention, so it is possible that he blurted out his news somewhat baldly.

"Do you know, Miss Wishart, that Lewis Haystoun and I are going off next week? Abroad, you know."

The girl, who had been enjoying the ecstasy of swift motion through the bitter weather, glanced up at him with pain in her eyes.

"Where?" she asked.

"To the Indian frontier. We are going to be special unpaid unofficial members of the Intelligence Department."

She asked the old, timid woman's question about danger.

"It's where Lewis was before. Only, you see, things have got into a mess thereabouts, and the Foreign Office has asked him to go out again. By the by, you mustn't tell any one about this, for it's in strict confidence."

The words were meaningless, and yet they sent a pang through her heart. Had he no guess at her inmost feelings? Could he think that she would talk to Mr. Stocks of a thing which was bound up for her with all the sorrow and ecstasy of life?

He looked down and saw that her face had paled and that her mouth was drawn with some emotion. A sudden gleam of light seemed to break in upon him.

"Are you sorry?" he asked half-unwittingly.

For answer the girl turned her tragic eyes upon him, tried to speak, and faltered. He cursed himself for a fool and a brute, and whipped up an already over-active horse, till it was all but unmanageable. It was a wise move, for it absorbed his attention and gave the poor child at his side a chance to recover her composure.

They came to Glenavelin gates and George turned in. "I had better drive you to the door, in this charming weather," he said. The sight of the pale little face had moved him to deep pity. He cursed his blindness, the blindness of a whole world of fools, and at the same time, with the impotence of the honest man, he could only wait and be silent.

At the door he stopped to unbutton his cape from her neck, and even in his nervousness he felt the trembling of her body. She spoke rapidly and painfully.

"I want you to take a message from me to-to-Lewis. Tell him I must see him. Tell him to come to the Midburn foot, to-morrow in the afternoon. Oh, I am ashamed to ask you, but you must tell him." And then without thanks or good-bye she fled into the house.

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