MoboReader> Literature > The Half-Hearted


The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 22222

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

"Gad-a troop shall overcome him, but he shall overcome at the last."

Lewis peered into the gorge and saw only a thin darkness. The high walls made pits of shade at the foot, but above there was a misty column of light which showed the spectres of rock and bush in the nullah beyond. It was all but dark, and the stars were coming out like the lights on a sea-wall, hard and cold and gleaming. Just in the throat of the pass a huge boulder had fallen and left a passage not two yards wide. Beyond there was a sharp descent of a dozen feet to the gravelled bottom which fell away in easier stages to the other watershed. Here was a place made by nature for his plans. With immense pains he rolled the biggest stones he could move to the passage, so that they were poised above the slope. He tried the great boulder, too, with his shoulders, and it seemed to quiver. In the last resort this mass of rock might be sent crashing down the incline, and by the blessing of God it should account for its man.

He brought his rifles forward to the stones, loaded them and felt the cartridges easy in his pocket. They were for the thirty-yards range; his pistol would be kept for closer quarters. He tried one after the other, cuddling the stocks to his cheek. They were all dear-loved weapons, used in deer-stalking at home and on many a wilder beat. He knew the tricks of each, and he had little pet devices laughed at by his friends. This one had clattered down fifty feet of rock in Ross-shire as the scars on the stock bore witness, and another had his initials burned in the wood, the relic of a winter's night in a Finnish camp. A thousand old pleasant memories came back to him, the sights and scents and sounds of forgotten places, the zest of toil and escapade, the joy of food and warmth and rest. Well! he had lived, had tasted to the full the joys of the old earth, the kindly mother of her children. He had faced death thoughtlessly many times, and now the Ancient Enemy was on his heels and he was waiting to give him greeting. A phrase ran in his head, some trophy from his aimless wanderings among books, which spoke of death coming easily to one "who has walked steadfastly in the direction of his dreams." It was a comforting thought to a creature of moods and fancies. He had failed, doubtless, but he had ever kept some select fanciful aim unforgotten. In all his weakness he had never betrayed this ultimate Desire of the Heart.

Some few feet up the cliff was a little thicket of withered thorns. The air was chilly and the cleft was growing very black. Why should not he make a fire behind the great boulder? He gathered some armfuls and heaped them in a space of dry sand. They were a little wet, so they burned slowly with a great smoke, which the rising night wind blew behind him. He was still hungry, so he ate the food he had brought in his pockets; and then he lit his pipe. How oddly the tobacco tasted in this moment of high excitement! It was as if the essence of all the pipes he had ever smoked was concentrated into this last one. The smoke blew back, and as he sniffed its old homely fragrance he seemed to feel the smell of peat and heather, of drenched homespun in the snowy bogs, and the glory of a bright wood fire and the moorland cottage. In a second his thoughts were many thousand miles away. The night wind cooled his brow, and he looked into the dark gap and saw his own past.

The first picture was a cold place on a low western island. Snow was drifting sparsely, and a dull grey Atlantic swell was grumbling on the reefs. He was crouching among the withered rushes, where seaweed and shells had been blown, and snow lay in dirty patches. He felt the thick collar of his shooting-coat tight about his neck, while the December evening grew darker and colder. A gillie, who had no English, was lying at his right hand, and far out at sea a string of squattering geese were slowly drifting shorewards with the wind. He saw the scene clear in every line, and he remembered the moment as if it had been yesterday. It had been one of his periods of great exultation. He had just left Oxford, and had fled northward after some weeks in Paris to wash out the taste of civilization from his mouth among the island north-westers. He had had a great day among the woodcock, and now was finishing with a stalk after wild geese. He was furiously hungry, chilled and soaked to the bone, but riotously happy. His future seemed to stretch before him, a brighter continuation of a bright past, a time for high achievement, bold work, and yet no surcease of pleasure. He had been master of himself in that hour, his body firm and strong, his soul clear, his mind a tempered weapon awaiting his hands.

And then the scene changed to a June evening in his own countryside. He was deep in the very heart of the hills beside a little loch, whose clear waves lapped on beaches of milky sand, it was just on twilight, and an infinite sighing of soft winds was around him, a far-away ineffable brightness of sunset, and the good scents of dusk among thyme and heather. He had fished all the afternoon, and his catch lay on the bent beside him. He was to sleep the night in his plaid, and already a fire of heather-roots behind him was prepared for supper. He had been for a swim, and his hair was still wet on his forehead. Just across a conical hill rose into the golden air, the highest hill in all the countryside, but here but a little thing, for the loch was as high as many a hill-top. Just on its face was a scaur, and there a raven-a speck-was wheeling slowly. Among the little islands broods of mallard were swimming, and trout in a bay were splashing with wide circles. The whole place had seemed caught up into an ecstasy, a riot of gold and crimson and far-off haunting shades and scents and voices. And yet it was no wild spectacle; it was the delicate comfort of it all which had charmed him. Life seemed one glorious holiday, the world a garden of the gods. There was his home across the hills, with its cool chambers, its books and pictures, its gardens and memories. There were his friends up and down the earth. There was the earth itself waiting for his conquest. And, meantime, there was this airy land around him, his own by the earliest form of occupation.

The fire died down to embers and a sudden scattering of ashes woke him out of his dreaming. The old Scots land was many thousand miles away. His past was wiped out behind him. He was alone in a very strange place, cut off by a great gulf from youth and home and pleasure. For an instant the extreme loneliness of an exile's death smote him, but the next second he comforted himself. The heritage of his land and his people was his in this ultimate moment a hundredfold more than ever. The sounding tale of his people's wars-one against a host, a foray in the mist, a last stand among the mountain snows-sang in his heart like a tune. The fierce, northern exultation, which glories in hardships and the forlorn, came upon him with such keenness and delight that, as he looked into the night and the black unknown, he felt the joy of a greater kinship. He was kin to men lordlier than himself, the true-hearted who had ridden the King's path and trampled a little world under foot. To the old fighters in the Border wars, the religionists of the South, the Highland gentlemen of the Cause, he cried greeting over the abyss of time. He had lost no inch of his inheritance. Where, indeed, was the true Scotland? Not in the little barren acres he had left, the few thousands of city-folk, or the contentions of unlovely creeds and vain philosophies. The elect of his race had ever been the wanderers. No more than Hellas had his land a paltry local unity. Wherever the English flag was planted anew, wherever men did their duty faithfully and without hope of little reward-there was the fatherland of the true patriot.

The time was passing, and still the world was quiet. The hour must be close on midnight, and still there was no sign of men. For the first time he dared to hope for success. Before, an hour's delay was all that he had sought. To give the north time for a little preparation, to make defence possible, had been his aim; now with the delay he seemed to see a chance for victory. Bardur would be alarmed hours ago; men would be on the watch all over Kashmir and the Punjab; the railways would be guarded. The invader would find at the least no easy conquest. When they had trodden his life out in the defile they would find stronger men to bar their path, and he would not have died in vain. It was a slender satisfaction for vanity, for what share would he have in the defence? Unknown, unwept, he would perish utterly, and to others would be the glory. He did not care, nay, he rejoiced in the brave obscurity. He had never sought so vulgar a thing as fame. He was going out of life like a snuffed candle. George, if George survived, would know nothing of his death. He was miles beyond the frontier, and if George, after months of war, should make his way to this fatal cleft, what trace would he find of him? And all his friends, Wratislaw, Arthur Mordaunt, the folk of Glenavelin-no word would ever come to them to tell them of his end.

But Alice-and in one wave there returned to him the story which he had striven to put out of his heart. She had known him in his weakness, but she would never think of him in his strength. The whimsical fate pleased him. The last meeting on that grey autumn afternoon at the Broken Bridge had heartened him for his travellings. It had been a compact between them; and now he was redeeming the promise of the tryst. And she would never know it, would only know that somewhere and somehow he had ceased to struggle with an inborn weakness. Well-a-day! It was no world of rounded corners and complete achievements. It was enough if a hint, a striving, a beginning were found in the scheme of man's frailty. He had no clear-cut conception of a future-that was the happy lot of the strong-hearted-but he had a generous intolerance of little success. He did not ask rewards, but he prayed for the hope of a good beginning or a gallant failure. The odd romance which lies in the wanderer's brain welcomed the paradox. Alice and her bright hair floated dim on the horizon of his vision, something exquisite and dear, a memory, a voice, a note of tenderness in this last exhilaration. A sentimental passion was beyond him; he was too critical of folly to worship any lost lady; and he had no love for vain reminiscences. But the girl had become the embodied type of the past. A year ago he had not seen her, now she was home and childhood and friends to him. For a moment there was the old heart-hunger, but the pain had gone. The ineffectual longing which had galled him had perished at the advent of his new strength.

For in this ultimate moment he at last seemed to have come to his own. The vulgar little fears, which, like foxes, gnaw at the roots of the heart, had gone, even the greater perils of faint hope and a halting energy. The half-heart

ed had become the stout-hearted. The resistless vigour of the strong and the simple was his. He stood in the dark gully peering into the night, his muscles stiff from heel to neck. The weariness of the day had gone: only the wound in his ear, got the day before, had begun to bleed afresh. He wiped the blood away with his handkerchief, and laughed at the thought of this little care. In a few minutes he would be facing death, and now he was staunching a pin-prick.

He wondered idly how soon death would come. It would be speedy, at least, and final. And then the glory of the utter loss. His bones whitening among the stones, the suns of summer beating on them and the winter snowdrifts decently covering them with a white sepulchre. No man could seek a lordlier burial. It was the death he had always craved. From murder, fire, and sudden death, why should we call on the Lord to deliver us? A broken neck in a hunting-field, a slip on rocky mountains, a wounded animal at bay-such was the environment of death for which he had ever prayed. But this-this was beyond his dreams.

And with it all a great humility fell upon him. His battles were all unfought. His life had been careless and gay; and the noble commonplaces of faith and duty had been things of small meaning. He had lived within the confines of a little aristocracy of birth and wealth and talent, and the great melancholy world scourged by the winds of God had seemed to him but a phrase of rhetoric. His creeds and his arguments seemed meaningless now in this solemn hour; the truth had been his no more than his crude opponent's! Had he his days to live over again he would look on the world with different eyes. No man any more should call him a dreamer. It pleased him to think that, half-hearted and sceptical as he had been, a humorist, a laughing philosopher, he was now dying for one of the catchwords of the crowd. He had returned to the homely paths of the commonplace, and young, unformed, untried, he was caught up by kind fate to the place of the wise and the heroic.

* * *

Suddenly on his thoughts there broke in a dull tread of men, a sound of slipping stones and feet upon dry gravel. He broke into the cold sweat of tense nerves, and waited, half hidden, with his rifle ready. Then came the light of dull lanterns which showed a thin, endless column beneath the rock walls. They advanced with wonderful quietness, the sound of feet broken only by a soft word of command. He calculated the distance-now it was three hundred yards, now two, now a bare eighty. At fifty his rifle flew to his shoulder and he fired. His nerves were bad, for one bullet clicked on the rock, while the second took the dust a yard before the enemy's feet. Instantly there was a halt and the sound of speech.

The failure had steadied him. The second pair of shots killed their men. He heard the quick cry of pain and shivered. He was new to this work and the cry hurt him. But he picked up his express and fired again, and again there was a cry and a fall. Then he heard a word of command and the sound of men creeping in the side of the nullah. Eye and ear were marvelously acute at the moment, for he picked out the scouts and killed them. Then he loaded his rifles and waited.

He saw a man in the half-light not five yards below him. He fired and the man dropped, but he had used his rifle and the great spattering of earth showed his whereabouts. Now was the time for keen eye and steady arm. The enemy had halted thirty yards off and beneath the slope there was a patch of darkness. He kept one eye on this, for it might contain a man. He fixed his attention on a ray of moonlight which fell across the floor of the gully. When a man crept past this he shot, and he rarely failed.

Then a command was given and the column came forward at the double. He fired two shots, but the advance continued. They passed the ray of light and he saw the whites of their eyes and the gleam of teeth and steel. They paused a second to fire a volley, and a storm of shot rattled about him. He had stepped back into his shelter, and was unscathed, but when he looked out he saw the enemy at the foot of the slope. His weapons were all loaded except the express, and in mad haste he sent shot after shot into the ranks. The fire halted them, and for a second they were on the edge of a panic. This unknown destruction coming out of the darkness was terrifying to the stoutest hearts. All the while there was wrath behind them. This stopping of the advance column was throwing the whole force into confusion. Angry messages came up from the centre, and distracted officers cursed their native guides.

Meanwhile Lewis was something wholly unlike himself, a maddened creature with every sense on the alert, drinking in the glory of the fight. He husbanded the chances of his life with generous parsimony. Every chance meant some minutes' delay and every delay a new link of safety for the north. His cartridges were getting near an end, but there still remained the stones and his pistol and the power of his arm hand to hand.

Suddenly came a second volley which all but killed him, bullets glancing on all sides of him and scraping the rocks with a horrid message of death. Then on the heels of it came a charge up the slope. The turn had come for the last expedient. He rushed to the stone and with the strength of madness rooted it from its foundations. It wavered for a second, and then with a cloud of earth and gravel it plunged downwards. A second and it had ploughed its way with a sickening grinding sound into the ranks of the men below. There was one wild scream of terror, and then a retreat, a flight, almost a panic.

Down in the hollow was a babel of sound, men yelping with fright, officers calming and cursing them, and the shouting of the forces behind. For Lewis the last moment was approaching. The neck of the pass was now bare and wide and half of the slope was gone. He had lost his weapons in the fall, all but his express, and the loosening of the stone had crushed his foot so that he could scarcely stand. Then order seemed to be restored, for another volley rang out, which passed over his head as he crouched on the ground. The enemy were advancing slowly, resolutely. He knew that now there was something different in their tread.

He was calm and quiet. The mad exhilaration was ebbing and he was calculating chances as dispassionately as a scientist in his study. Two shots, the six chambers of his pistol, and then he would be ground to powder. The moon rode over the top of the cleft and a sudden wave of light fell on the slope, the writhing dead, and below, the advancing column. It gave him a chance for fair shooting, and he did not miss. But the men were maddened with anger and taunts, and they would have charged a battery. They came up on the slope with a fierce rush, cursing in gutturals. He slipped behind the old friendly jag of rock and waited till they were abreast. Then began a strange pistol practice. Crouching in the darkness he selected his men and shot them, making no mistake. The front ranks of the column turned to the right and lunged with their bayonets into the gloom. But the man knew his purpose. He climbed farther back till he was above their heads, looking down on ranks of white inhuman faces mad with slaughter and the courage which is next door to fear. They were still advancing, but with an uncertain air. He saw his chance and took it. Crying out he knew not what, he leapt among them with clutched rifle, striking madly to right and left. There was a roar of fright, and for a moment a space was cleared around him. He fought like a maniac, stumbling with his crushed foot and leaving two men stunned at his feet. But it was only for a moment. A bayonet entered his side and his rifle snapped at the stock. He grappled with the nearest man and pulled him to the ground, for he could stand no longer. Then there came a wild surge around, a dozen bayonets pierced him, and in the article of death he was conscious of a great press which ground him into the earth. The next moment the column was marching over his body.

* * *

Dawn came with light and sweet airs to the dark cleft in the hills. Just at that moment, when the red east was breaking into spires and clouds of colour, and the little morning winds were beginning to flutter among the crags, two men were standing in the throat of the pass. The ground about them was ploughed up as if by a battery, the rock seamed and broken, and red stains of blood were on the dry gravel. From the north, in the direction of the plain, came the confused sound of an army in camp. But to the south there was a glimpse through an aperture of hill of a far side of mountain, and on it a gleam as of fire.

Marka, clad in the uniform of a captain of Cossacks, looked fiercely at his companion and then at the beacon.

"Look," he said, "look and listen!" And sure enough in the morning stillness came the sound as of a watchword cried from post to post.

"That," said he, "is the morning signal of an awakened empire and the final proof of our failure."

"It was no fault of mine," said Fazir Khan sourly. "I did as I was commanded, and lo! when I come I find an army in confusion and the frontier guarded." The chief spoke with composure, but he had in his heart an uneasy consciousness that he had had some share in this undoing.

Marka looked down at a body which lay wrinkled across the path. It was trodden all but shapeless, the poor face was unrecognizable, the legs were scrawled like a child's letters. Only one hand with a broken gold signet-ring remained to tell of the poor inmate of the clay.

The Cossack looked down on the dead with a scowling face. "Curse him-curse him eternally. Who would have guessed that this fool, this phrasing fool, would have spoiled our plans? Curse his conscience and his honour, and God pity him for a fool! I must return to my troops, for this is no place to linger in." The man saw his work of years spoiled in a night, and all by the agency of a single adventurer. He saw his career blighted, his reputation gone. It is not to be wondered at if he was bitter.

He turned to go, and in leaving pushed the dead man over with his foot. He saw the hand and the broken ring.

"This thing was once a gentleman," he said, and he went down the pass.

But Fazir Khan remained by the body. He remembered his guest of two days before, and he cursed himself for underrating this wandering Englishman. He saw himself in evil case. His chances of spoil and glory had departed. He foresaw expeditions of reprisal, and the Bada-Mawidi hunted like partridges upon the mountains. He had staked his all on a desperate chance, and this one man had been his ruin. For a moment the barbarian came out, and in a sudden ferocity he kicked the dead.

But as he looked again he was moved to a juster appreciation.

"This thing was a man," he said.

Then stooping he dipped his finger in blood and touched his forehead. "This man," he said, "was of the race of kings."

* * *

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top