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The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 6901

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

LISTLESS leaves were tossing in the light wind or borne downward in the swirl of the flooded Midburn, to the weary shallows where they lay, beached high and sodden, till the frost nipped and shrivelled their rottenness into dust. A bleak, thin wind it was, like a fine sour wine, searching the marrow and bringing no bloom to the cheek. A light snow powdered the earth, the grey forerunner of storms.

Alice stood back in the shelter of the broken parapet. The highway with its modern crossing-place was some hundreds of yards up stream, but here, at the burn mouth, where the turbid current joined with the cold, glittering Avelin, there was a grass-grown track, and an ancient, broken-backed bridge. There were few passers on the high-road, none on this deserted way; but the girl in all her loneliness shrank back into the shadow. In these minutes she endured the bitter mistrust, the sore hesitancy, of awaiting on a certain but unknown grief.

She had not long to wait, for Lewis came down the Avelin side by a bypath from Etterick village. His alert gait covered his very real confusion, but to the girl he seemed one who belonged to an alien world of cheerfulness. He could not know her grief, and she regretted her coming.

His manners were the same courteous formalities. The man was torn with emotion, and yet he greeted her with a conventional ease.

"It was so good of you, Miss Wishart, to give me a chance to come and say good-bye. My going is such a sudden affair, that I might have had no time to come to Glenavelin, but I could not have left without seeing you."

The girl murmured some indistinct words. "I hope you will have a good time and come back safely," she said, and then she was tongue-tied.

The two stood before each other, awkward and silent-two between whom no word of love had ever been spoken, but whose hearts were clamouring at the iron gates of speech.

Alice's face and neck were dyed crimson, as the impossible position dawned on her mind. No word could break down the palisade, of form. Lewis, his soul a volcano, struggled for the most calm and inept words. He spoke of the weather, of her father, of his aunt's messages.

Then the girl held out her hand.

"Good-bye," she said, looking away from him.

He held it for a second. "Good-bye, Miss Wishart," he said hoarsely. Was this the consummation of his brief ecstasy, the end of months of longing? The steel hand of fate was on him and he turned to leave.

He turned when he had gone three paces and came back. The girl was still standing by the parapet, but she had averted her face towards the wintry waters. His step seemed to fall on deaf ears, and he stood beside her before she looked towards him.

Passion had broken down his awkwardness. He asked the old question with a shaking voice. "Alice," he said, "have I vexed you?"

She turned to him a pale, distraught face, her eyes brimming over with the sorrow of love, the passionate adventurous longing which claims true hearts for ever.

He caught her in his arms, his heart in a glory of joy.

"Oh, Alice, darling," he cried. "What has happened to us? I love you, I love you, and you have never given me a chance to say it."

She lay passive in his arms for one brief minute and then feebly drew back.

"Sweetheart," he cried. "Sweetheart! For I will call you sweetheart, though we never meet again. You are mine, Alice. We cannot help ourselves."

The girl stood

as in a trance, her eyes caught and held by his face.

"Oh, the misery of things," she said half-sobbing. "I have given my soul to another, and I knew it was not mine to give. Why, oh why, did you not speak to me sooner? I have been hungering for you and you never came."

A sense of his folly choked him.

"And I have made you suffer, poor darling! And the whole world is out of joint for us!"

The hopeless feeling of loss, forgotten for a moment, came back to him. The girl was gone from him for ever, though a bridge of hearts should always cross the chasm of their severance.

"I am going away," he said, "to make reparation. I have my repentance to work out, and it will be bitterer than yours, little woman. Ours must be an austere love."

She looked at him till her pale face flushed and a sad exultation woke in her eyes.

"You will never forget?" she asked wistfully, confident of the answer.

"Forget!" he cried. "It is my only happiness to remember. I am going away to be knocked about, dear. Wild, rough work, but with a man's chances!"

For a moment she let another thought find harbour in her mind. Was the past irretrievable, the future predetermined? A woman's word had an old right to be broken. If she went to him, would not he welcome her gladly, and the future might yet be a heritage for both?

The thought endured but a moment, for she saw how little simple was the crux of her destiny. The two of them had been set apart by the fates; each had salvation to work out alone; no facile union would ever join them. For him there was the shaping of a man's path; for her the illumination which only sorrows and parting can bring. And with the thought she thought kindly of the man to whom she had pledged her word. It was but a little corner of her heart he could ever possess; but doubtless in such matters he was not ambitious.

Lewis walked by her side down the by-path towards Glenavelin. Tragedy muffled in the garments of convention was there, not the old picturesque Tragic with sword and cloak and steel for the enemy, but the silent Tragic which pulls at the heart-strings.

"The summer is over," she said. "It has been a cruel summer, but very bright."

"Romance with the jarring modern note which haunts us all to-day," he said. "This upland country is confused with bustling politics, and pastoral has been worried to death by sickness of heart. You cannot find the old peaceful life without."

"And within?" she asked.

"That is for you and me to determine, dear. God grant it. I have found my princess, like the man in the fairy-tale, but I may not enter the kingdom."

"And the poor princess must sit and mope in her high stone tower? It is a hard world for princesses."

"Hard for the knights, too, for they cannot come back and carry off their ladies. In the old days it used to be so, but then simplicity has gone out of life."

"And the princess waits and watches and cries herself to sleep?"

"And the knight goes off to the World's End and never forgets."

They were at Glenavelin gates now, and stood silent against the moment of parting. She flew to his arms, for a second his kisses were on her lips, and then came the sundering. A storm of tears was in her heart, but with dry eyes she said the words of good-bye. Meanwhile from the hills came a drift of snow, and a dreary wind sang in the pines the dirge of the dead summer, the plaint of long farewells.


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