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   Chapter 22 THE OUTPOSTS

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 14936

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


TOWARDS the close of a wet afternoon two tongas discharged Lewis, George, two native servants, and a collection of gun-cases in the court-yard of the one hotel in Bardur. They had made a record journey up country, stopping to present no letters of introduction, which are the thieves of time. Now, as Lewis found himself in the strait valley, with the eternal snows where the sky should be, and sniffed the dry air from the granite walls, he glowed with the pleasure of recollection.

The place was the same as ever. The same medley of races perambulated the streets. Sheep-skinned Central Asians and Mongolian merchants from Yarkand still displayed their wares and their cunning; Hunza tribesmen, half-clad Chitralis, wild-eyed savages from Yagistan mingled in the narrow stone streets with the civilized Persian and Turcoman from beyond the mountains. Kashmir sepoys, an untidy race, still took their ease in the sun, and soldiers of South India from the Imperial Service Troops showed their odd accoutrements and queer race mixtures. The place looked and smelled like a kind of home, and Lewis, with one eye on the gun-cases and one on the great hills, forgot his heart-sickness and had leisure for the plain joys of expectation.

"I am going to get to work at once," he said, when he had washed the dust out of his eyes and throat. "I shall go and call on the Logans this very minute, and I expect we shall see Thwaite and some of the soldiers at the club to-night." So George, much against his will, was compelled to don a fresh suit and suffer himself to be conducted to the bungalow of the British Resident.

The Sahib was from home, at Gilgit, but Madame would receive the strangers. So the two found themselves in a drawing-room aggressively English in its air, shaking hands with a small woman with kind eyes and a washed-out complexion.

Mrs. Logan was unaffectedly glad to see them. She had that trick of dominating her surroundings which English ladies seem to bear to the uttermost ends of the globe. There, in that land of snows and rock, with savage tribesmen not thirty miles away, and the British frontier-line something less than fifty, she gave them tea and talked small talk with the ease and gusto of an English country home.

"It's the most unfortunate thing in the world," she cried. "If you had only wired, Gilbert would have stayed, but as it is he has gone down to Gilgit about some polo ponies, and won't be back for two days. Things are so humdrum and easy-going up here that one loses interest in one's profession. Gilbert has nothing to do except arrange with the foreman of the coolies who are making roads, and hold stupid courts, and consult with Captain Thwaite and the garrison people. The result is that the poor man has become crazy about golf, and wastes all his spare money on polo ponies. You can have no idea what a godsend a new face is to us poor people. It is simply delightful to see you again, Mr. Haystoun. You left us about sixteen months ago, didn't you? Did you enjoy going back?"

Lewis said yes, with an absurd sense of the humour of the question. The lady talked as if home had been merely an interlude, instead of the crisis of his life.

"And what did you do? And whom did you see? Please tell me, for I am dying for a gossip."

"I have been home in Scotland, you know. Looking after my affairs and idling. I stood for Parliament and got beaten."

"Really! How exciting! Where is your home in Scotland, Mr. Haystoun? You told me once, but I have forgotten. You know I have no end of Scotch relatives."

"It's in rather a remote part, a place called Etterick, in Glenavelin."

"Glenavelin, Glenavelin," the lady repeated. "That's where the Manorwaters live, isn't it?"

"My uncle," said Lewis.

"I had a letter from a friend who was staying there in the summer. I wonder if you ever met her. A Miss Wishart. Alice Wishart?"

Lewis strove to keep any extraordinary interest out of his eyes. This voice from another world had broken rudely in upon his new composure.

"I knew her," he said, and his tone was of such studied carelessness that Mrs. Logan looked up at him curiously.

"I hope you liked her, for her mother was a relation of my husband, and when I have been home the small Alice has always been a great friend of mine. I wonder if she has grown pretty. Gilbert and I used to bet about it on different sides. I said she would be very beautiful some day."

"She is very beautiful," said Lewis in a level voice, and George, feeling the thin ice, came to his friend's rescue. He could at least talk naturally of Miss Wishart.

"The Wisharts took the place, you know, Mrs. Logan, so we saw a lot of them. The girl was delightful, good sportswoman and all that sort of thing, and capital company. I wonder she never told us about you. She knew we were coming out here, for I told her, and she was very interested."

"Yes, it's odd, for I suppose she had read Mr. Haystoun's book, where my husband comes in a good deal. I shall tell her about seeing you in my next letter. And now tell me your plans."

Lewis's face had begun to burn in a most compromising way. Those last days in Glenavelin had risen again before the eye of his mind and old wounds were reopened. The thought that Alice was not yet wholly out of his life, that the new world was not utterly severed from the old, affected him with a miserable delight. Mrs. Logan became invested with an extraordinary interest. He pulled himself together to answer her question.

"Oh, our errand is much the same as last time. We want to get all the sport we can, and if possible to cross the mountains into Turkestan. I am rather keen on geographical work just now, and there's a bit of land up here which wants exploring."

The lady laughed. "That sounds like poor dear Mr. Gribton. I suppose you remember him? He left here in the summer, but when he lived in Bardur he had got that northern frontier-line on the brain. He was a horrible bore, for he would always work the conversation round to it sooner or later. I think it was really Mr. Gribton who made people often lose interest in these questions. They had to assume an indolent attitude in pure opposition to his fussiness."

"When will your husband be home?" Lewis asked.

"In two days, or possibly three. I am so sorry about it. I'll wire at once, but it's a slow journey, especially if he is bringing ponies. Of course you want to see him before you start. It's such a pity, but Bardur is fearfully empty of men just now. Captain Thwaite has gone off after ibex, and though I think he will be back to-morrow, I am afraid he will be too late for my dance. Oh, really, this is lucky. I had forgotten all about it. Of course you two will come. That will make two more men, and we shall be quite a respectable party. We are having a dance to-morrow night, and as the English people here are so few and uncertain in their movements we can't afford to miss a chance. You must come. I've got the Thwaites and the Beresfords and the Waltons, and some of the garrison people who are down on leave. Oh, and there's a man coming whom you must know. A Mr. Marker, a most delightful person. I don't think you met him before, but you must have heard my husband talk about him. He is the very man for your purpose. Gilbert says he knows the hills better than any of the Hunza tribesmen, and that he is the best sportsman he ever met. Besides, he is such an inter

esting person, very much a man of the world, you know, who has been everywhere and knows everybody."

Lewis congratulated himself on his luck. "I should like very much to come to the dance, and I especially want to meet Mr. Marker."

"He is half Scotch, too," said the lady. "His mother was a Kirkpatrick or some name like that, and he actually seems to talk English with a kind of Scotch accent. Of course that may be the German part of him. He is a Pomeranian count or something of the sort, and very rich. You might get him to go with you into the hills."

"I wish we could," said Lewis falsely. His curiosity was keenly excited.

"Why does he come up here such a lot?" George asked.

"I suppose because he likes to 'knock about,' as you call it. He is a tremendous traveller. He has been into Tibet and all over Turkestan and Persia. Gilbert says that he is the wonder of the age."

"Is he here just now?"

"No, I don't think so. I know he is coming to-morrow, because he wrote me about it, and promised to come to my dance. But he is a very busy man, so I don't suppose he will arrive till just before. He wrote me from Gilgit, so he may find Gilbert there and bring him up with him."

Marker, Marker. The air seemed full of the strange name. Lewis saw again Wratislaw's wrinkled face when he talked of him, and remembered his words. "You were within an ace of meeting one of the cleverest men living, a cheerful being in whom the Foreign Office is more interested than in any one else in the world." Wratislaw had never been in the habit of talking without good authority. This Marker must be indeed a gentleman of parts.

Then conversation dwindled. Lewis, his mind torn between bitter memories and the pressing necessities of his mission, lent a stupid ear to Mrs. Logan's mild complaints, her gossip about Bardur, her eager questions about home. George manfully took his place, and by a fortunate clumsiness steered the flow of the lady's talk from Glenavelin and the Wisharts. Lewis spoke now and then, when appealed to, but he was busy thinking out his own problem. On the morrow night he should meet Marker, and his work would reveal itself. Meanwhile he was in the dark, the flimsiest adventurer on the wildest of errands. This easy, settled place, these Englishmen whose minds held fast by polo and games, these English ladies who had no thought beyond little social devices to relieve the monotony of the frontier, all seemed to make a mockery of his task. He had fondly imagined himself going to a certainty of toil and danger; to his vexation this certainty seemed to be changing into the most conventional of visits to the most normal of places. But to-morrow he should see Marker; and his hope revived at the prospect.

"It is so pleasant seeing two fresh fellow-countrymen," Mrs. Logan was saying. "Do you know, you two people look quite different from our men up here. They are all so dried up and tired out. Our complexions are all gone, and our eyes have got that weariness of the sun in them which never goes away even when we go home again. But you two look quite keen and fresh and enthusiastic. You mustn't mind compliments from an old woman, but I wish our own people looked as nice as you. You will make us all homesick."

A native servant entered, more noiseless and more dignified than any English footman, and announced another visitor. Lewis lifted his head, and saw the lady rise, smiling, to greet a tall man who had come in with the frankness of a privileged acquaintance. "How do you do, Mr. Marker?" he heard. "I am so glad to see you. We didn't dare to expect you till to-morrow. May I introduce two English friends, Mr. Haystoun and Mr. Winterham?"

And so the meeting came about in the simplest way. Lewis found himself shaking hands cordially with a man who stood upright, quite in the English fashion, and smiled genially on the two strangers. Then he took the vacant chair by Mrs. Logan, and answered the lady's questions with the ease and kindliness of one who knows and likes his fellow-creatures. He deplored Logan's absence, grew enthusiastic about the dance, and produced from a pocket certain sweetmeats, not made in Kashmir, for the two children. Then he turned to George and asked pleasantly about the journey. How did they find the roads from Gilgit? He hoped they would get good sport, and if he could be of any service, would they command him? He had heard of Lewis's former visit, and, of course, he had read his book. The most striking book of travel he had seen for long. Of course he didn't agree with certain things, but each man for his own view; and he should like to talk over the matter with Mr. Haystoun. Were they staying long? At Galetti's of course? By good luck that was also his headquarters. And so he talked pleasingly, in the style of a lady's drawing-room, while Lewis, his mind consumed with interest, sat puzzling out the discords in his face.

"Do you know, Mr. Marker, we were talking about you before you came in. I was telling Mr. Haystoun that I thought you were half Scotch. Mr. Haystoun, you know, lives in Scotland."

"Do you really? Then I am a thousand times delighted to meet you, for I have many connections with Scotland. My grandmother was a Scotswoman, and though I have never been in your beautiful land, yet I have known many of your people. And, indeed, I have heard of one of your name who was a friend of my father's-a certain Mr. Haystoun of Etterick."

"My father," said Lewis.

"Ah, I am so pleased to hear. My father and he met often in Paris, when they were attached to their different embassies. My father was in the German service."

"Your mother was Russian, was she not?" Lewis asked tactlessly, impelled by he knew not what motive.

"Ah, how did you know?" Mr. Marker smiled in reply, with the slightest raising of the eyebrows. "I have indeed the blood of many nationalities in my veins. Would that I were equally familiar with all nations, for I know less of Russia than I know of Scotland. We in Germany are their near neighbours, and love them, as you do here, something less than ourselves."

He talked English with that pleasing sincerity which seems inseparable from the speech of foreigners, who use a purer and more formal idiom than ourselves. George looked anxiously towards Lewis, with a question in his eyes, but finding his companion abstracted, he spoke himself.

"I have just arrived," said the other simply; "but it was from a different direction. I have been shooting in the hills, getting cool air into my lungs after the valleys. Why, Mrs. Logan, I have been down to Rawal Pindi since I saw you last, and have been choked with the sun. We northerners do not take kindly to glare and dust."

"But you are an old hand here, they tell me. I wish you'd show me the ropes, you know. I'm very keen, but as ignorant as a babe. What sort of rifles do they use here? I wish you'd come and look at my ironmongery." And George plunged into technicalities.

When Lewis rose to leave, following unwillingly the convention which forbids a guest to stay more than five minutes after a new visitor has arrived, Marker crossed the room with them. "If you're not engaged for to-night, Mr. Haystoun, will you do me the honour to dine with me? I am alone, and I think we might manage to find things to talk about." Lewis accepted gladly, and with one of his sweetest smiles the gentleman returned to Mrs. Logan's side.

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