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The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 15758

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

"I have heard of you so much," Mr. Marker said, "and it was a lucky chance which brought me to Bardur to meet you." They had taken their cigars out to the verandah, and were drinking the strong Persian coffee, with a prospect before them of twinkling town lights, and a mountain line of rock and snow. Their host had put on evening clothes and wore a braided dinner-jacket which gave the faintest touch of the foreigner to his appearance. At dinner he had talked well of a score of things. He had answered George's questions on sport with the readiness of an expert; he had told a dozen good stories, and in an easy, pleasant way he had gossiped of books and places, people and politics. His knowledge struck both men as uncanny. Persons of minute significance in Parliament were not unknown to him, and he was ready with a theory or an explanation on the most recondite matters. But coffee and cigars found him a different man. He ceased to be the enthusiast, the omnivorous and versatile inquirer, and relapsed into the ordinary good fellow, who is no cleverer than his neighbours.

"We're confoundedly obliged to you," said George. "Haystoun is keen enough, but when he was out last time he seems to have been very slack about the sport."

"Sort of student of frontier peoples and politics, as the newspapers call it. I fancy that game is, what you say, 'played out' a little nowadays. It is always a good cry for alarmist newspapers to send up their circulation by, but you and I, my friend, who have mixed with serious politicians, know its value."

George nodded. He liked to be considered a person of importance, and he wanted the conversation to get back to ibex.

"I speak as of a different nation," Marker said, looking towards Lewis. "But I find the curse of modern times is this mock-seriousness. Some centuries ago men and women were serious about honour and love and religion. Nowadays we are frivolous and sceptical about these things, but we are deadly in earnest about fads. Plans to abolish war, schemes to reform criminals, and raise the condition of woman, and supply the Bada-Mawidi with tooth-picks are sure of the most respectful treatment and august patronage."

"I agree," said Lewis. "The Bada-Mawidi live there?" And he pointed to the hill line.

Marker nodded. He had used the name inadvertently as an illustration, and he had no wish to answer questions on the subject.

"A troublesome tribe, rather?" asked Lewis, noticing the momentary hesitation.

"In the past. Now they are quiet enough."

"But I understood that there was a ferment in the Pamirs. The other side threatened, you know." He had almost said "your side," but checked himself.

"Ah yes, there are rumours of a rising, but that is further west. The Bada-Mawidi are too poor to raise two swords in the whole tribe. You will come across them if you go north, and I can recommend them as excellent beaters."

"Is the north the best shooting quarter?" asked Lewis with sharp eyes. "I am just a little keen on some geographical work, and if I can join both I shall be glad. Due north is the Russian frontier?

"Due north after some scores of the most precipitous miles in the world. It is a preposterous country. I myself have been on the verge of it, and know it as well as most. The geographical importance, too, is absurdly exaggerated. It has never been mapped because there is nothing about it to map, no passes, no river, no conspicuous mountain, nothing but desolate, unvaried rock. The pass to Yarkand goes to the east, and the Afghan routes are to the west. But to the north you come to a wall, and if you have wings you may get beyond it. The Bada-Mawidi live in some of the wretched nullahs. There is sport, of course, of a kind, but not perhaps the best. I should recommend you to try the more easterly hills."

The speaker's manner was destitute of all attempt to dissuade, and yet Lewis felt in some remote way that this man was trying to dissuade him. The rock-wall, the Bada-Mawidi, whatever it was, something existed between Bardur and the Russian frontier which this pleasant gentleman did not wish him to see.

"Our plans are all vague," he said, "and of course we are glad of your advice."

"And I am glad to give it, though in many ways you know the place better than I do. Your book is the work of a very clever and observant man, if you will excuse my saying so. I was thankful to find that you were not the ordinary embryo-publicist who looks at the frontier hills from Bardur, and then rushes home and talks about invasion."

"You think there is no danger, then?"

"On the contrary, I honestly think that there is danger, but from a different direction. Britain is getting sick, and when she is sick enough, some people who are less sick will overwhelm her. My own opinion is that Russia will be the people."

"But is not that one of the old cries that you object to?" and Lewis smiled.

"It was; now it is ceasing to be a cry, and passing into a fact, or as much a fact as that erroneous form of gratuity, prophecy, can be. Look at Western Europe and you cannot disbelieve the evidence of your own eyes. In France you have anarchy, the vulgarest frivolity and the cheapest scepticism, joined with a sort of dull capacity for routine work. Germany, the very heart of it eaten out with sentiment, either the cheap military or the vague socialist brand. Spain and Italy shadows, Denmark and Sweden farces, Turkey a sinful anachronism."

"And Britain?" George asked.

"My Scotch blood gives me the right to speak my mind," said the man, laughing. "Honestly I don't find things much better in Britain. You were always famous for a dogged common sense which was never tricked with catch-words, and yet the British people seem to be growing nervous and ingenuous. The cult of abstract ideals, which has been the curse of the world since Adam, is as strong with you as elsewhere. The philosophy of 'gush' is good enough in its place, but it is the devil in politics."

"That is true enough," said Lewis solemnly. "And then you are losing grip. A belief in sentiment means a disbelief in competence and strength, and that is the last and fatalest heresy. And a belief in sentiment means a foolish scepticism towards the great things of life. There is none of the blood and bone left for honest belief. You hold your religion half-heartedly. Honest fanaticism is a thing intolerable to you. You are all mild, rational sentimentalists, and I would not give a ton of it for an ounce of good prejudice." George and Lewis laughed.

"And Russia?" they asked.

"Ah, there I have hope. You have a great people, uneducated and unspoiled. They are physically strong, and they have been trained by centuries of serfdom to discipline and hardships. Also, there is fire smouldering somewhere. You must remember that Russia is the stepdaughter of the East. The people are northern in the truest sense, but they have a little of Eastern superstition. A rational, sentimental people live in towns or market gardens, like your English country, but great lonely plains and forests somehow do not agree with that sort of creed. That slow people can still believe freshly and simply, and some day when the leader arrives they will push beyond their boundaries and sweep down on Western Europe, as their ancestors did thirteen hundred years ago. And you have no walls of Rome to resist them, and I do not think you will find a Charlemagne. Good heavens! What can your latter-day philosophic person, who weighs every action and believes only in himself, do against an unwearied people with the fear of God in their hearts? When that day comes, my masters, we shall have a new empire, the Holy Eastern Empire, and this rotten surface civilization of ours will be swept off. It is always the way. Men get into the habit of believing that they can se

ttle everything by talk, and fancy themselves the arbiters of the world, and then suddenly the great man arrives, your Caesar or Cromwell, and clears out the talkers."

"I've heard something like that before. In fact, on occasions I have said it myself. It's a pretty idea. How long do you give this Volkerwanderung to get started?"

"It will not be in our time," said the man sadly. "I confess I am rather anxious for it to come off. Europe is a dull place at present, given up to Jews and old women. But I am an irreclaimable wanderer, and it is some time since I have been home. Things may be already changing."

"Scarcely," said Lewis. "And meantime where is this Slav invasion going to begin? I suppose they will start with us here, before they cross the Channel?"

"Undoubtedly. But Britain is the least sick of the crew, so she may be left in peace till the confirmed invalids are destroyed. At the best it will be a difficult work. Our countrymen, you will permit the name, my friends, have unexpected possibilities in their blood. And even this India will be a hard nut to crack. It is assumed that Russia has but to find Britain napping, buy a passage from the more northerly tribes, and sweep down on the Punjab. I need not tell you how impossible such a land invasion is. It is my opinion that when the time comes the attack will be by sea from some naval base on the Persian Gulf. It is a mere matter of time till Persia is the Tsar's territory, and then they may begin to think about invasion."

"You think the northern road impossible! I suppose you ought to know."

"I do, and I have some reason for my opinion. I know Afghanistan and Chitral as few Europeans know it."

"But what about Bardur, and this Kashmir frontier? I can understand the difficulties of the Khyber, but this Kashmir road looks promising."

Marker laughed a great, good-humoured, tolerant, incredulous laugh. "My dear sir, that's the most utter nonsense. How are you to bring an army over a rock wall which a chamois hunter could scarcely climb? An invading army is not a collection of winged fowl. I grant you Bardur is a good starting-point if it were once reached. But you might as well think of a Chinese as of a Russian invasion from the north. It would be a good deal more possible, for there is a road to Yarkand, and respectable passes to the north-east. But here we are shut off from the Oxus by as difficult a barrier as the Elburz. Go up and see. There is some shooting to be had, and you will see for yourself the sort of country between here and Taghati."

"But people come over here sometimes."

"Yes, from the south, or by Afghanistan."

"Not always. What about the Korabaut Pass into Chitral? Ianoff and the Cossacks came through it."

"That's true," said the man, as if in deep thought. "I had forgotten, but the band was small and the thing was a real adventure."

"And then you have Gromchevtsky. He brought his people right down through the Pamirs."

For a second the man's laughing ease deserted him. He leaned his head forward and peered keenly into Lewis's face. Then, as if to cover his discomposure, he fell into the extreme of bluff amusement. The exaggeration was plain to both his hearers.

"Oh yes, there was poor old Gromchevtsky. But then you know he was what you call 'daft,' and one never knew how much to believe. He had hatred of the English on the brain, and he went about the northern valleys making all sorts of wild promises on the part of the Tsar. A great Russian army was soon to come down from the hills and restore the valleys to their former owners. And then, after he had talked all this nonsense, and actually managed to create some small excitement among the tribesmen, the good fellow disappeared. No man knows where he went. The odd thing is that I believe he has never been heard of again in Russia to this day. Of course his mission, as he loved to call it, was perfectly unauthorized, and the man himself was a creature of farce. He probably came either by the Khyber or the Korabaut Pass, possibly even by the ordinary caravan-route from Yarkand, but felt it necessary for his mission's sake to pretend he had found some way through the rock barrier. I am afraid I cannot allow him to be taken seriously."

Lewis yawned and reached out his hand for the cigars. "In any case it is merely a question of speculative interest. We shall not fall just yet, though you think so badly of us."

"You will not fall just yet," said Marker slowly, "but that is not your fault. You British have sold your souls for something less than the conventional mess of pottage. You are ruled in the first place by money-bags, and the faddists whom they support to blind your eyes. If I were a young man in your country with my future to make, do you know what I would do? I would slave in the Stock Exchange. I would spend my days and nights in the pursuit of fortune, and, by heaven, I would get it. Then I would rule the market and break, crush, quietly and ruthlessly, the whole gang of Jew speculators and vulgarians who would corrupt a great country. Money is power with you, and I should attain it, and use it to crush the leeches who suck our blood."

"Good man," said George, laughing. "That's my way of thinking. Never heard it better put."

"I have felt the same," said Lewis. "When I read of 'rings' and 'corners' and 'trusts' and the misery and vulgarity of it all, I have often wished to have a try myself, and see whether average brains and clean blood could not beat these fellows on their own ground."

"Then why did you not?" asked Marker. "You were rich enough to make a proper beginning."

"I expect I was too slack. I wanted to try the thing, but there was so much that was repulsive that I never quite got the length of trying. Besides, I have a bad habit of seeing both sides of a question. The ordinary arguments seemed to me weak, and it was too much fag to work out an attitude for oneself."

Marker looked sharply at Lewis, and George for a moment saw and contrasted the two faces. Lewis's keen, kindly, humorous, cultured, with strong lines ending weakly, a face over-bred, brave and finical; the other's sharp, eager, with the hungry wolf-like air of ambition, every line graven in steel, and the whole transfused, as it were, by the fire of the eyes into the living presentment of human vigour.

It was the eternal contrast of qualities, and for a moment in George's mind there rose a delight that two such goodly pieces of manhood should have found a meeting-ground.

"I think, you know, that we are not quite so bad as you make out," said Lewis quietly. "To an outsider we must appear on the brink of incapacity, but then it is not the first time we have produced that impression. You will still find men who in all their spiritual sickness have kept something of that restless, hard-bitten northern energy, and that fierce hunger for righteousness, which is hard to fight with. Scores of people, who can see no truth in the world and are sick with doubt and introspection and all the latter-day devils, have yet something of pride and honour in their souls which will make them show well at the last. If we are going to fall our end will not be quite inglorious."

Marker laughed and rose. "I am afraid I must leave you now. I have to see my servant, for I am off to-morrow. This has been a delightful meeting. I propose that we drink to its speedy repetition."

They drank, clinking glasses in continental fashion, and the host shook hands and departed.

"Good chap," was George's comment. "Put us up to a wrinkle or two, and seemed pretty sound in his politics. I wish I could get him to come and stop with me at home. Do you think we shall run across him again?"

Lewis was looking at the fast vanishing lights of the town. "I should think it highly probable," he said.

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