The Half-Hearted by John Buchan - HTML preview
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8. Mr. Wratislaw's Advent
As the three men went home in the dusk they talked of the day. Lewis had been in a bad humour, but the company of his friends exorcised the imp of irritation, and he felt only the mellow gloom of the evening and the sweet scents of the moor. In such weather he had a trick of walking with his head high and his nostrils wide, sniffing the air like the wild ass of the desert with which the metaphorical George had erstwhile compared him. That young man meanwhile was occupied with his own reflections. His good nature had been victimized, he had been made to fetch and carry continually, and the result was that he had scarcely spoken a word to Miss Wishart. His plans thus early foiled, nothing remained but to draw the more fortunate Arthur, so in a conspirator's aside he asked him his verdict. But Arthur refused to speak. "She is pretty and clever," he said, "and excellent company." And with this his lips were sealed, and his thoughts went off on his own concerns.
Lewis heard and smiled. The sun and wind of the hills beat in his pulses like wine. To have breathed all day the fragrance of heather and pines, to have gladdened the eye with an infinite distance and blue lines of mountain, was with this man to have drunk the cup of intoxicating youth. The cool gloaming did not chill; rather it was the high and solemn aftermath of the day's harvesting. The faces of gracious women seemed blent with the pageant of summer weather; kindly voices, simple joys--for a moment they seemed to him the major matters in life. So far it was pleasing fancy, but Alice soon entered to disturb with the disquieting glory of her hair. The family of the Haystouns had ever a knack of fine sentiment. Fantastic, unpractical, they were gluttons for the romantic, the recondite, and the dainty. But now had come a breath of strong wind which rent the meshes of a philandering fancy. A very new and strange feeling was beginning to make itself known. He had come to think of Alice with the hot pained affection which makes the high mountains of the world sink for the time to a species of mole-hillock. She danced through his dreams and usurped all the paths of his ambition. Formerly he had thought of himself--for the man was given to self-portraiture--as the adventurer, the scorner of the domestic; now he struggled to regain the old attitude, but he struggled in vain. The ways were blocked, a slim figure was ever in view, and lo! when he blotted it from his sight the world was dark and the roads blind. For a moment he had lost his bearings on the sea of life. As yet the discomfiture was sweet, his confusion was a joy; and it is the first trace of weakness which we have seen in the man that he accepted the unsatisfactory with composure.
At the door of Etterick it became apparent that something was astir. Wheel-marks were clear in the gravel, and the ancient butler had an air of ceremony. "Mr. Wratislaw has arrived, sir," he whispered to Lewis, whereat that young man's face shone. "When? How? Where is he now?" he cried, and with a word to his companions he had crossed the hall, raced down a lengthy passage, and flung open the door of his sanctum. There, sure enough, were the broad shoulders of Wratislaw bending among the books."Lord bless me, Tommy, what extraordinary surprise visit is this? I thought you would be over your ears in work. We are tremendously pleased to see you."
The sharp blue eyes had been scanning the other's frank sunburnt face with an air of affectionate consideration. "I got off somehow or other, as I had to see you, old man, so I thought I would try this place first. What a fortressed wilderness you live in! I got out at Gledsmuir after travelling some dreary miles in a train which stopped at every farm, and then I had to wait an hour till the solitary dogcart of the inn returned. Hullo! you've got other visitors" And he stretched out a massive hand to Arthur and George.
The sight of him had lifted a load from these gentlemen's hearts. The old watchdog had come; the little terriers might now take holiday. The task of being Lewis's keeper did not by right belong to them; they were only amateurs acting in the absence of the properly qualified Wratislaw. Besides, it had been anxious work, for while each had sworn to himself aforetime to protect his friend from the wiles of Miss Wishart, both were now devoted slaves drawn at that young woman's chariot wheel. You will perceive that it is a delicate matter to wage war with a goddess, and a task unblest of Heaven.
Supper was brought, and the lamps lit in the cool old room, where, through the open window, they could still catch the glint of foam on the stream and the dark gloom of pines on the hill. They fell ravenously on the meal, for one man had eaten nothing since midday and the others were fresh from moorland air. Thereafter they pulled armchairs to a window, and lit the pipes of contentment. Wratislaw stretched his arms on the sill and looked out into the fragrant darkness."Any news, Tommy?" asked his host. "Things seem lively in the East." "Very, but I am ill-informed. Did you lay no private lines of communication in your travels?"
"They were too short. I picked up a lot of out-of-the-way hints, but as I am not a diplomatist I cannot use them. I think I have already made you a present of most. By the by, I see from the papers that an official expedition is going north from Bardur. What idiot invented that?"
Wratislaw pulled his head in and sat back in his chair. "You are sure you don't happen to know?"
"Sure. But it is just the sort of canard which the gentry on the other side of the frontier would invent to keep things quiet. Who are the Englishmen at Bardur now?"
"Good men all, but slow in the uptake. Logan is a jewel. He gave me the best three days' shooting I ever dreamed of, and he has more stories in his head than George. But if matters got into a tangle I would rather not be in his company. Thwaite is a gentlemanlike sort of fellow, but dull-very, while Gribton is the ordinary shrewd commercial man, very cautious and rather timid.""Did you ever happen to hear of a man called Marka? He might call himself Constantine Marka, or Arthur Marker, or the Baron Mark--whatever happened to suit him."
Lewis puzzled for a little. "Yes, of course I did. By George! I should think so. It was a chap of that name who had gone north the week before I arrived. They said he would never be heard of again. He seemed a reckless sort of fool.""You didn't see him?" "No. But why?"
"Simply that you came within a week of meeting one of the cleverest men living, a cheerful being whom the Foreign Office is more interested in than any one else in the world. If you should hear again of Constantine Marka, Marker, or Mark, please note it down.""You mean that he is the author of the _canard_," said Lewis, with sharp eyes, taking up a newspaper. "Yes, and many more. This graceful person will complicate things for me, for I am to represent the Office in the Commons if we get back with a decent majority." Lewis held out a cordial hand. "I congratulate you, Tommy. Now beginneth the end, and may I be spared to see!" "I hope you may, and it's on this I want to talk to you. Merkland has resigned; it will be in the papers to-morrow. I got it kept out till I could see you!" "Yes?" said Lewis, with quickening interest. "And we want you to take his place. I spoke to him, and he is enthusiastic on the matter.
I wired to the Conservative Club at Gledsmuir, and it seems you are their most cherished possibility. The leaders of the party are more than willing, so it only remains for you to consent, my dear boy."
"I--don't--think--I--can," said the possibility slowly. "You see, only to-day I told that man Stocks that Merkland would not resign, and that I was sick of party politics and would not interfere with his chances. The poor beggar is desperately keen, and if I stood now he would think me disingenuous."
"But there is no reason why he should not know the truth. You can tell him that you only heard about Merkland to-night, and that you act only in deference to strong external pressure."
"In that case he would think me a fool. I have a bad enough reputation for lack of seriousness in these matters already. The man is not very particular, and there is nothing to hinder him from blazoning it up and down the place that I changed my mind in ten minutes on a friend's recommendation. I should get a very complete licking."
"Do you mind, Lewie, if I advise you to take it seriously? It is really not a case for little scruples about reputation. There are rocks ahead of me, and I want a man like you in the House more than I could make you understand. You say you hate party politics, and I am with you, but there is no reason why you should not use them as a crutch to better work. You are in your way an expert, and that is what we will need above all things in the next few years. Of course, if you feel yourself bound by a promise not to oppose Stocks, then I have nothing more to say; but, unless the man is a lunatic, he will admit the justice of your case.""You mean that you really want me, Tommy?" said the young man, in great doubt. "I hate the idea of fighting Stocks, and I shall most certainly be beaten."
"That is on the knees of the gods, and as for the rest I take the responsibility. I shall speak to Stocks myself. It will be a sharp fight, but I see no reason why you should not win. After all, it is your own countryside, and you are a better man than your opponent."
"You are the serpent who has broken up this peaceful home. I shall be miserable for a month, and the house will be divided against itself. Arthur has promised to help Stocks, while the Manorwaters, root and branch, are pledged to support him."
"I'll do my best, Lewie, for old acquaintance' sake. It had to come sooner or later, you know, and it is as well that you should seize the favourable moment. Now let us drop the subject for to-night. I want to enjoy myself."
And he rose, stretched his great arms, and wandered about the room.
To all appearance he had forgotten the very existence of things political. Arthur, who had a contest to face shortly, was eager for advice and the odds and ends of information which defend the joints in a candidate's harness, but the well-informed man disdained to help. He tested the guns, gave his verdict on rods, and ranged through a cabinet of sporting requisites. Then he fell on his host's books, and for an hour the three were content to listen to him. It was rarely that Wratislaw fell into such moods, but when the chance came it was not to be lightly disregarded. A laborious youth had given him great stores of scholarship, and Lewis's books were a curious if chaotic collection. On the fly-leaf of a little duodecimo was an inscription from the author of Waverley, who had often made Etterick his hunting-ground. A Dunbar had Hawthornden's autograph, and a set of tall classic folios bore the handwriting of George Buchanan. Lord Kames, Hume, and a score of others had dedicated works to lairds of Etterick, and the Haystouns themselves had deigned at times to court the Muse. Lewis's own special books-college prizes, a few modern authors, some well-thumbed poets, and a row in half a dozen languages on some matters of diplomatic interest-were crowded into a little oak bookcase which had once graced his college rooms. Thither Wratislaw ultimately turned, dipping, browsing, reading a score of lines.
"What a nice taste you have in arrangement!" he cried. "Scott, Tolstoi, Meredith, an odd volume of a Saga library, an odd volume of the _Corpus Boreale_, some Irish reprints, Stevenson's poems, Virgil and the _Pilgrim's Progress_, and a French Gazetteer of Mountains wedged above them. And then an odd Badminton volume, French _Memoires_, a Dante, a Homer, and a badly printed German text of Schopenhauer! Three different copies of Rabelais, a De Thou, a Horace, and-bless my soul!--about twenty books of fairy tales! Lewie, you must have a mind like a lumber-room."
"I pillaged books from the big library as I wanted them," said the young man humbly. "Do you know, Tommy, to talk quite seriously, I get more erratic every day? Knocking about the world and living alone make me a queer slave of whims. I am straying too far from the normal. I wish to goodness you would take me and drive me back to the ways of common sense.""Meaning--?
"That I am getting cranky and diffident. I am beginning to get nervous about people's opinion and sensitive to my own eccentricity. It is a sad case for a man who never used to care a straw for a soul on earth.""Lewie, attend to me," said Wratislaw, with mock gravity. "You have not by any chance been falling in love?"
The accused blushed like a girl, and lied withal like a trooper, to the delight of the unChristian George.
"Well, then, my dear fellow, there is hope for you yet. If a man once gets sentimental, he desires to be normal above all things, for he has a crazy intuition that it is the normal which women really like, being themselves but a hair's-breadth from the commonplace. I suppose it is only another of the immortal errors with which mankind hedges itself about."
"I wanted your opinion," said the perjured young man. "I thought of writing a book. But that is not the thing I was talking about. I want to be normal, aggressively normal, to court the suffrages of Gledsmuir. Do you know Stocks?""Surely."
"An excellent person, but I never heard him utter a word above a child's capacity. He can talk the most shrieking platitudes as if he had found at last the one and only truth. And people are impressed."
Wratislaw pulled down his eyebrows and proceeded to defend a Scottish constituency against the libel of gullibility. But Lewis was not listening. He did not think of the impression made on the voting powers, but on one small girl who clamorously impeded all his thoughts. She was, he knew, an enthusiast for the finer sentiments of life, and of these Mr. Stocks had long ago claimed a monopoly. He felt bitterly jealous-the jealousy of the innocent man to whom woman is an unaccountable creature, whose habits and likings must be curiously studied. He was dimly conscious of lacking the stage attributes of a lover. He could not pose as a mirror of all virtues, a fanatic for the True and the Good. Somehow or other he had acquired an air of self-seeking egotism, unscrupulousness, which he felt miserably must make him unlovely in certain eyes. Nor would the contest he was entering upon improve this fancied reputation of his. He would have to say hard, unfeeling things against what all the world would applaud as generous sentiment.
When the others had gone yawning to bed, he returned and sat at the window for a little, smoking hard and puzzling out the knots which confronted him. He had a dismal anticipation of failure. Not defeat--that was a little matter; but an abject show of incompetence. His feelings pulled him hither and thither. He could not utter moral platitudes to checkmate his opponent's rhetoric, for, after all, he was honest; nor could he fill the part of the cold critic of hazy sentiment; gladly though he would have done it, he feared the reproach in girlish eyes. This good man was on the horns of a dilemma. Love and habit, a generous passion and a keen intellect dragged him alternately to their side, and as a second sign of weakness the unwilling scribe has to record that his conclusion as he went to bed was to let things drift--to take his chance.
9. The Episodes Of A Day
It is painful to record it, but when the Glenavelin party arrived at noon of the next day it was only to find the house deserted. Lady Manorwater, accustomed to the vagaries of her nephew, led the guests over the place and found to her horror that it seemed undwelt in. The hall was in order, and the tart and rosy lairds of Etterick looked down from their Raeburn canvases on certain signs of habitation; but the drawing-rooms were dingy with coverings and all the large rooms were in the same tidy disarray. Then, wise from experience, she led the way to Lewis's sanctum, and found there a pretty luncheon-table and every token of men's presence. Soon the four tenants arrived, hot and breathless, from the hill, to find Bertha Afflint deep in rods and guns, Miss Wishart and Lady Manorwater ensconced in the great armchairs, and Mr. Stocks casting a critic's eye over the unruly bookshelves.
Wratislaw's presence at first cast a certain awe on the assembly. His name was so painfully familiar, so consistently abused, that it was hard to refrain from curiosity. Lady Manorwater, an ancient ally, greeted him effusively, and Alice cast shy glances at this strong man with the kind smile and awkward manners. The truth is that Wratislaw was acutely nervous. With Mr. Stocks alone was he at his ease. He shook his hand heartily, declared himself delighted to meet him again, and looked with such manifest favour on this opponent that the gentleman was cast into confusion.
"I must talk shop," cried Lady Manorwater when they were seated at table. "Lewie, have you heard the news that poor Sir Robert has retired? What a treasure of a cook you have, sir! The poor man is going to travel, as his health is bad; he wrote me this morning. Now who is to take his place? And I wish you'd get me the recipe for this tomato soup."Lewis unravelled the tangled skein of his aunt's questions.
"I heard about Merkland last night from Wratislaw. I think, perhaps, I had better make a confession to everybody. I never intended to bother with party politics, at least not for a good many years, but some people want me to stand, so I have agreed. You will have a very weak opponent, Stocks, so I hope you will pardon my impertinence in trying the thing."The candidate turned a little pale, but he smiled gallantly. "I shall be glad to have so distinguished an opponent. But I thought that yesterday you would never have dreamed of the thing."
"No more I should; but Wratislaw talked to me seriously and I was persuaded." Wratislaw tried to look guileless, failed signally, and detected a sudden unfavourable glance from Mr. Stocks in his direction.
"We must manage everything as pleasantly as possible. You have my aunt and my uncle and Arthur on your side, while I have George, who doesn't count in this show, and I hope Wratislaw. I'll give you a three days' start if you like in lieu of notice." And the young man laughed as if the matter were the simplest of jokes.
The laugh jarred very seriously on one listener. To Alice the morning had been full of vexations, for Mr. Stocks had again sought her company, and wearied her with a new manner of would-be gallantry which sat ill upon him. She had come to Etterick with a tenderness towards Lewis which was somewhat dispelled by his newly-disclosed political aims. It meant that the Glenavelin household, including herself, would be in a different camp for three dreary weeks, and that Mr. Stocks would claim more of her society than ever. With feminine inconsistency she visited her repugnance towards that gentleman on his innocent rival. But Mr. Lewis Haystoun's light-hearted manner of regarding the business struck the little Puritan deeper. Politics had always been a thing of the gravest import in her eyes, bound up with a man's duty and honour and religion, and lo! here was this Gallio who not only adorned a party she had been led to regard as reprobate, but treated the whole affair as a half-jocular business, on which one should not be serious. It was sheer weakness, her heart cried out, the weakness of the philanderer, the half-hearted. In her vexation her interest flew in sympathy to Mr. Stocks, and she viewed him for the occasion with favour.
"You are far too frivolous about it," she cried. "How can you fight if you are not in earnest, and how can you speak things you only half believe? I hate to think of men playing at politics." And she had set her little white teeth, and sat flushed and diffident, a Muse of Protest.
Lewis flushed in turn. He recognized with pain the fulfilment of his fears. He saw dismally how during the coming fight he would sink daily in the estimation of this small critic, while his opponent would as conspicuously rise. The prospect did not soothe him, and he turned to Bertha Afflint, who was watching the scene with curious eyes.
"It's very sad, Lewie," she said, "but you'll get no canvassers from Glenavelin. We have all been pledged to Mr. Stocks for the last week. Alice is a keen politician, and, I believe, has permanently unsettled Lord Manorwater's easy-going Liberalism. She believes in action; whereas, you know, he does not."
"We all believe in action nowadays," said Wratislaw. "I could wish at times for the revival of 'leisureliness' as a party catch-word."
And then there ensued a passage of light arms between the great man and Bertha which did not soothe Alice's vexation. She ignored the amiable George, seeing in him another of the half-hearted, and in a fine heat of virtue devoted herself to Mr. Stocks. That gentleman had been melancholy, but the favour of Miss Wishart made him relax his heavy brows and become communicative. He was flattered by her interest. She heard his reminiscences with a smile and his judgments with attention. Soon the whole table talked merrily, and two people alone were aware that breaches yawned under the unanimity.
Archness was not in Alice's nature, and still less was coquetry. When Lewis after lunch begged to be allowed to show her his dwelling she did not blush and simper, she showed no pretty reluctance, no graceful displeasure. She thanked him, but coldly, and the two climbed the ridge above the lake, whence the whole glen may be seen winding beneath. It was still, hot July weather, and the far hills seemed to blink and shimmer in the haze; but at their feet was always coolness in the blue depth of the loch, the heathfringed shores, the dark pines, and the cold whinstone crags."You don't relish the prospect of the next month?" she asked. He shrugged his shoulders. "After all, it is only a month, and it will all be over before the shooting begins."
"I cannot understand you," she cried suddenly and impatiently. "People call you ambitious, and yet you have to be driven by force to the simplest move in the game, and all the while you are thinking and talking as if a day's sport were of far greater importance.""And it really vexes you--Alice?" he said, with penitent eyes. She drew swiftly away and turned her face, so that the man might not see the vexation and joy struggling for mastery. "Of course it is none of my business, but surely it is a pity." And the little doctrinaire walked with head erect to the edge of the slope and studied intently the distant hills.
The man was half amused, half pained, but his evil star was in the ascendant. Had he known it, he would have been plain and natural, for at no time had the girl ever been so near to him. Instead, he made some laughing remark, which sounded harshly flippant in her ears. She looked at him reproachfully; it was cruel to treat her seriousness with scorn; and then, seeing Lady Manorwater and the others on the lawn below, she asked him with studied carelessness to take her back. Lewis obeyed meekly, cursing in his heart his unhappy trick of an easy humour. If his virtues were to go far to rob him of what he most cared for, it looked black indeed for the unfortunate young man. Meantime Wratislaw and Mr. Stocks had drawn together by the attraction of opposites. A change had come over the latter, and momentarily eclipsed his dignity. For the man was not without tact, and he felt that the attitude of high-priest of all the virtues would not suit in the presence of one whose favourite task it was to laugh his so-called virtues to scorn. Such, at least to begin with, was his honourable intention. But the subtle Wratislaw drew him from his retirement and skilfully elicited his coy principles. It was a cruel performance--a shameless one, had there been any spectator. The one would lay down a fine generous line of policy; the other would beg for a fact in confirmation. The one would haltingly detail some facts; the other would promptly convince him of their falsity. Eventually the victim grew angry and a little frightened. The real Mr. Stocks was a man of business, not above making a deal with an opponent; and for a little the real Mr. Stocks emerged from his shell."You won't speak much in the coming fight, will you? You see, you are rather heavy metal for a beginner like myself," he said, with commercial frankness.
"No, my dear Stocks, to set your mind at rest, I won't. Lewis wants to be knocked about a little, and he wants the fight to brace him. I'll leave him to fight his own battles, and wish good luck to the better man. Also, I won't come to your meetings and ask awkward questions."
Mr. Stocks bore malice only to his inferiors, and respected his betters when he was not on a platform. He thanked Wratislaw with great heartiness, and when Lady Manorwater found the two they were beaming on each other like the most ancient friends.
"Has anybody seen Lewie?" she was asking. "He is the most scandalous host in the world. We can't find boats or canoes and we can't find him. Oh, here is the truant!" And the renegade host was seen in the wake of Alice descending from the ridge.
Something in the attitude of the two struck the lady with suspicion. Was it possible that she had been blind, and that her nephew was about to confuse her cherished schemes? This innocent woman, who went through the world as not being of it, had fancied that already Alice had fallen in with her plans. She had seemed to court Mr. Stocks's company, while he most certainly sought eagerly for hers. But Lewis, if he entered the lists, would be a perplexing combatant, and Lady Manorwater called her gods to witness that it should not be. Many motives decided her against it. She hated that a scheme of her own once made should be checkmated, though it were by her dearest friend. More than all, her pride was in arms. Lewis was a dazzling figure; he should make a great match; money and pretty looks and parvenu blood were not enough for his high mightiness.
So it came about that, when they had explored the house, circumnavigated the loch, and had tea on a lawn of heather, she informed her party that she must get out at Haystounslacks, for she wished to see the farmer, and asked Bertha to keep her company. The young woman agreed readily, with the result that Alice and Mr. Stocks were left sole occupants of the carriage for the better half of the way. The man was only too willing to seize the chance thus divinely given him. His irritation at Lewis's projects had been tempered by Alice's kindness at lunch and Wratislaw's unlooked-for complaisance. Things looked rosy for him; far off, as on the horizon of his hopes, he saw a seat in Parliament and a fair and amply dowered wife.
But Miss Wishart was scarcely in so pleasant a humour. With Lewis she was undeniably cross, but of Mr. Stocks she was radically intolerant. A moment of pique might send her to his side, but the position was unnatural and could not be maintained. Even now Lewis was in her thoughts. Fragments of his odd romantic speech clove to her memory. His figure--for he showed to perfection in his own surroundings--was so comely and gallant, so bright with the glamour of adventurous youth, that for a moment this prosaic young woman was a convert to the coloured side of life and had forgotten her austere creed.
Mr. Stocks went about his duty with praise-worthy thoroughness. For the fiftieth time in a week he detailed to her his prospects. When he had raised a cloud-built castle of fine hopes, when he had with manly simplicity repeated his confession of faith, he felt that the crucial moment had arrived. Now, when she looked down the same avenue of prospect as himself, he could gracefully ask her to adorn the fair scene with her presence."Alice," he said, and at the sound of her name the girl started from a reverie in which Lewis was not absent, and looked vacantly in his face. He took it for maidenly modesty.
"I have wanted to speak to you for long, Alice. We have seen a good deal of each other lately, and I have come to be very fond of you. I trust you may have some liking for me, for I want you to promise to be my wife."He told his love in regular sentences. Unconsciously he had fallen into the soft patronizing tone in which aforetime he had shepherded a Sunday school. The girl looked at the large sentimental face and laughed. She felt ashamed of her rudeness even in the act.
He caught her hands, and before she knew his face was close to hers. "Promise me, dear," he said. "We have everything in common. Your father will be delighted, and we will work together for the good of the people. You are not meant to be a casual idler like the people at Etterick. You and I are working man and woman."
It was her turn to flush in downright earnest. The man's hot face sickened her. What were these wild words he was speaking? She dimly caught their purport, heard the mention of Etterick, saw once again Lewis with his quick, kindly eyes, and turned coldly to the lover.
The girl looked quickly at him, and he was silent, abashed. Strangely enough, at that moment she liked him better than ever before. She forgave him his rudeness and folly, his tactless speech and his comical face. He was in love with her, he offered her what he most valued, his political chances and his code of fine sentiments; it was not his blame if she found both little better than husks.
Her attention flew for a moment to the place she had left, only to return to a dismal reflection. Was she not, after all, in the same galley as her rejected suitor? What place had she in the frank good-fellowship of Etterick, or what part had they in the inheritance of herself and her kind? Had not Mr. Stocks--now sitting glumly by her side--spoken the truth? We are only what we are made, and generations of thrift and seriousness had given her a love for the strenuous and the unadorned which could never be cast out. Here was a quandary--for at the same instant there came the voice of the heart defiantly calling her to the breaking of idols.
10. Home TruthsI
It is told by a great writer in his generous English that when the followers of Diabolus were arraigned before the Recorder and Mayor of regenerate Mansoul, a certain Mr. Haughty carried himself well to the last. "He declared," says Bunyan, "that he had carried himself bravely, not considering who was his foe or what was the cause in which he was engaged. It was enough for him if he fought like a man and came off victorious." Nevertheless, we are told, he suffered the common doom, being crucified next day at the place of execution. It is the old fate of the freelance, the Hal o' the Wynd who fights for his own hand; for in life's contest the taking of sides is assumed to be a necessity.
Such was Lewis's reflections when he found Wratislaw waiting for him in the Etterick dogcart when he emerged from a meeting in Gledsmuir. He had now enjoyed ten days of it, and he was heartily tired. His throat was sore with much speaking, his mind was barren with thinking on the unthinkable, and his spirits were dashed with a bitter sense of futility. He had honestly done his best. So far his conscience was clear; but as he reviewed the past in detail, his best seemed a very shoddy compromise. It was comfort to see the rugged face of Wratislaw again, though his greeting was tempered by mistrust. The great man had refused to speak for him and left him to fight his own battles; moreover, he feared the judgment of the old warrior on his conduct of the fight. He was acutely conscious of the joints in his armour, but he had hoped to have decently cloaked them from others. When he heard the first words, "Well, Lewie, my son, you have been making a mess of it," his heart sank."I am sorry," he said. "But how?"
"How? Why, my dear chap, you have no grip. You have let the thing get out of hand. I heard your speech to-night. It was excellent, very clever, a beautiful piece of work, but worse than useless for your purpose. You forget the sort of man you are fighting. Oh, I have been following the business carefully, and I felt bound to come down to keep you in order. To begin with, you have left your own supporters in the place in a nice state of doubt.""How?"
"Why, because you have given them nothing to catch hold of. They expected the ordinary Conservative confession of faith--a rosy sketch of foreign affairs, and a little gentle Socialism, and the old rhetoric about Church and State. Instead, they are put off with epigrams and excellent stories, and a few speculations as to the metaphysical basis of politics. Believe me, Lewie, it is only the very general liking for your unworthy self which keeps them from going over in a body to Stocks." And Wratislaw lit a cigar and puffed furiously."Then you would have me deliver the usual insincere platitudes?" said Lewis dismally.
"I would have you do nothing of the kind. I thought you understood my point of view. A man like Stocks speaks his platitudes with vehemence because he believes in them whole-heartedly. You have also your platitudes to get through with, not because you would stake your soul on your belief in them, but because they are as near as possible the inaccurate popular statement of your views, which is all that your constituents would understand, and you pander to the popular craving because it is honest enough in itself and is for you the stepping-stone to worthier work."Lewis shook his head dismally.
"I haven't the knack of it. I seem to stand beside myself and jeer all the while. Besides, it would be opposing complete sincerity with a very shady substitute. That man Stocks is at least an honest fool. I met him the other day after he had been talking some atrocious nonsense. I asked him as a joke how he could be such a humbug, and he told me quite honestly that he believed every word; so, of course, I apologized. He was attacking you people on your foreign policy, and he pulled out a New Testament and said, 'What do I read here?' It went down with many people, but the thing took away my breath."
His companion looked perplexedly at the speaker. "You have had the wrong kind of education, Lewie. You have always been the spoiled child, and easily and halfunconsciously you have mastered things which the self-made man has to struggle towards with a painful conscious effort. The result is that you are a highly cultured man without any crudeness or hysteria, while the other people see things in the wrong perspective and run their heads against walls and make themselves miserable. You gain a lot, but you miss one thing. You know nothing of the heart of the crowd. Oh, I don't mean the people about Etterick. They are your own folk, and the whole air of the place is semi-feudal. But the weavers and artisans of the towns and the ordinary farm workers--what do you know of them? Your precious theories are so much wind in their ears. They want the practical, the blatantly obvious, spiced with a little emotion. Stocks knows their demands. He began among them, and at present he is but one remove from them. A garbled quotation from the Scriptures or an appeal to their domestic affections is the very thing required. Moreover, the man understands an audience. He can bully it, you know; put on airs of sham independence to cover his real obeisance; while you are polite and deferent to hide your very obvious scorn."
"Do you know, Tommy, I'm a coward," Lewis broke in. "I can't face the people. When I see a crowd of upturned faces, crass, ignorant, unwholesome many of them, I begin to despair. I cannot begin to explain things from the beginning; besides, they would not understand me if I did. I feel I have nothing in common with them. They lead, most of them, unhealthy indoor lives, their minds are half-baked, and their bodies halfdeveloped. I feel a terrible pity, but all the same I cannot touch them. And then I become a coward and dare not face them and talk straight as man to man. I repeat my platitudes to the ceiling, and they go away thinking, and thinking rightly, that I am a fool."
Wratislaw looked worried. "That is one of my complaints. The other is that on certain occasions you cannot hold yourself in check. Do you know you have been blackguarded in the papers lately, and that there is a violent article against you in the Critic, and all on account of some unwise utterances?"
Lewis flushed deeply. "That is the worst thing I have done, and I feel horribly penitent. It was the act of a cad and a silly schoolboy. But I had some provocation, Tommy. I had spoken at length amid many interruptions, and I was getting cross. It was at Gledfoot, and the meeting was entirely against me. Then a man got up to tackle me, not a native, but some wretched London agitator. As I looked at him--a little chap With fiery eyes and receding brow--and heard his cockney patter, my temper went utterly. I made a fool of him, and I abused the whole assembly, and, funnily enough, I carried them with me. People say I helped my cause immensely."
"It is possible," said Wratislaw dryly. "The Scot has a sense of humour and has no objection to seeing his prophets put to shame. But you are getting a nice reputation elsewhere. When I read some of your sayings, I laughed of course, but I thought ruefully of your chances."
It was a penitent and desponding man who followed Wratislaw into the snuggery at Etterick. But light and food, the gleam of silver and vellum and the sweet fragrance of tobacco consoled him; for in most matters he was half-hearted, and politics sat lightly on his affections.II
To Alice the weeks of the contest were filled with dire unpleasantness. Lewis, naturally, kept far from Glenavelin, while of Mr. Stocks she was never free. She followed Lady Manorwater's lead and canvassed vigorously, hoping to find distraction in the excitement of the fight. But her efforts did not prosper. On one occasion she found herself in a cottage on the Gledsmuir road, her hands filled with election literature. A hale old man was sitting at his meal, who greeted her cordially, and made her sit down while she stumbled through the usual questions and exhortations. "Are ye no' bidin' at Glenavelin?" he asked. "And have I no seen ye walking on the hill wi' Maister Lewie?" When the girl assented, he asked, with the indignation of the privileged, "Then what for are ye sac keen this body Stocks should win in? If Maister Lewie's fond o' ye, wad it no be wiser--like to wark for him? Poalitics! What should a woman's poalitics be but just the same as her lad's? I hae nae opeenion o' this clash about weemen's eddication." And with flaming cheeks the poor girl had risen and fled from the old reactionary.
The incident burned into her mind, and she was wretched with the anomaly of her position. A dawning respect for her rejected lover began to rise in her heart. The first of his meetings which she attended had impressed her with his skill in his own vocation. He had held those people interested. He had spoken bluntly, strongly, honestly. To few women is it given to distinguish the subtle shades of sincerity in speech, and to the rule Alice was no exception. The rhetoric and the cheers which followed had roused the speaker to a new life. His face became keen, almost attractive, without question full of power. He was an orator beyond doubt, and when he concluded in a riot of applause, Alice sat with small hands clenched and eyes shining with delight. He had spoken the main articles of her creed, but with what force and freshness! She was convinced, satisfied, delighted; though somewhere in her thought lurked her old dislike of the man and the memory of another.
As ill-luck would have it, the next night she went to hear Lewis in Gledsmuir, when that young gentleman was at his worst. She went unattended, being a fearless young woman, and consequently found herself in the very back of the hall crowded among some vehement politicians. The audience, to begin with, was not unkind. Lewis was greeted with applause, and at the first heard with patience. But his speech was vague, incoherent, and tactless. To her unquiet eyes he seemed to be afraid of the men before him. Every phrase was guarded with a proviso, and "possiblys" bristled in every sentence. The politicians at the back grew restless, and Alice was compelled to listen to their short, scathing criticisms. Soon the meeting was hopelessly out of hand. Men rose and rudely marched to the door. Catcalls were frequent from the corners, and the back of the hall became aggressive. The girl had sat with white, pained face, understanding little save that Lewis was talking nonsense and losing all grip on his hearers. In spite of herself she was contrasting this fiasco with the pithy words of Mr. Stocks. When the meeting became unruly she looked for some display of character, some proof of power. Mr. Stocks would have fiercely cowed the opposition, or at least have spoken the last word in any quarrel. Lewis's conduct was different. He shrugged his shoulders, made some laughing remark to a friend on the platform, and with all the nonchalance in the world asked the meeting if they wished to hear any more. A claque of his supporters replied with feigned enthusiasm, but a malcontent at Alice's side rose and stamped to the door. "I came to hear sense," he cried, "and no this bairn's-blethers!"
The poor girl was in despair. She had fancied him a man of power and ambition, a doer, a man of action. But he was no more than a creature of words and sentiment, graceful manners, and an engaging appearance. The despised Mr. Stocks was the real worker. She had laughed at his incessant solemnity as the badge of a fool, and adored Lewis's light-heartedness as the true air of the great. But she had been mistaken. Things were what they seemed. The light-hearted was the half-hearted, "the wandering dilettante," Mr. Stocks had called him, "the worst type of the pseudo-culture of our universities." She told herself she hated the whole affectation of breeding and chivalry. Those men-Lewis and his friends--were always kind and soft-spoken to her and her sex. Her soul hated it; she cried aloud for equal treatment, for a share of the iron and rigour of life. Their manners were a mere cloak for contempt. If they could only be rude to a woman, it would be a welcome relief from this facile condescension. What had she or any woman with brains to do in that galley? They despised her kind, with the scorn of sultans who chose their women-folk for looks and graces. The thought was degrading, and a bitterness filled her heart against the whole clique of easy aristocrats. Mr. Stocks was her true ally. To him she was a woman, an equal; to them she was an engaging child, a delicate toy.
So far she went in her heresy, but no farther. It is a true saying that you will find twenty heroic women before you may meet one generous one; but Alice was not wholly without this rarest of qualities. The memory of a frank voice, very honest grey eyes, and a robust cheerfulness brought back some affection for the erring Lewis. The problem was beyond her reconciling efforts, so the poor girl, torn between common sense and feeling, and recognizing with painful clearness the complexity of life, found refuge in secret tears.III
The honours of the contest, so far as Lewis's party was concerned, fell to George Winterham, and this was the fashion of the event. He had been dragged reluctantly into the thing, foreseeing dire disaster for himself, for he knew little and cared less about matters political, though he was ready enough at a pinch to place his ignorance at his friend's disposal. So he had been set to the dreary work of committee-rooms; and then, since his manners were not unpleasing, dispatched as aide-de-camp to any chance orator who enlivened the county. But at last a crisis arrived in which other use was made of him. A speaker of some pretensions had been announced for a certain night at the considerable village of Allerfoot. The great man failed, and as it was the very eve of the election none could be found for his place. Lewis was in despair, till he thought of George. It was a desperate chance, but the necessity was urgent, so, shutting himself up for an hour, he wrote the better part of a speech which he entrusted to his friend to prepare. George, having a good memory, laboriously learned it by heart, and clutching the friendly paper and whole-heartedly abusing his chief, he set out grimly to his fate.
Promptly at the hour of eight he was deposited at the door of the Masonic Hail in Allerfoot. The place seemed full, and a nervous chairman was hovering around the gate. News of the great man's defection had already been received, and he was in the extremes of nervousness. He greeted George as a saviour, and led him inside, where some three hundred people crowded a small whitewashed building. The village of Allerfoot itself is a little place, but it is the centre of a wide pastoral district, and the folk assembled were brown-faced herds and keepers from the hills, plough-men from the flats of Glen Aller, a few fishermen from the near sea-coast, as well as the normal inhabitants of the village.
George was wretchedly nervous and sat in a cold sweat while the chairman explained that the great Mr. S---- deeply regretted that at the last moment he was unfortunately compelled to break so important an engagement, but that he had sent in his stead Mr. George Winterham, whose name was well known as a distinguished Oxford scholar and a rising barrister. George, who had been ploughed twice for Smalls and had eventually taken a pass degree, and to whom the law courts were nearly as unknown as the Pyramids, groaned inwardly at the astounding news. The audience might have been a turnip field for all the personality it possessed for him. He heard their applause as the chairman sat down mopping his brow, and he rose to his feet conscious that he was smiling like an idiot. He made some introductory remarks of his own--that "he was sorry the other chap hadn't turned up, that he was happy to have the privilege of expounding to them his views on this great subject "--and then with an ominous sinking of heart plucked forth his papers and launched into the unknown.
The better part of the speech was wiped clean from his memory at the start, so he had to lean heavily on the written word. He read rapidly but without intelligence. Now and again a faint cheer would break the even flow, and he would look up for a moment with startled eyes, only to go off again with quickened speed. He found himself talking neat paradoxes which he did not understand, and speaking glibly of names which to him were no more than echoes. Eventually he came to an end at least twenty minutes before a normal political speech should close, and sat down, hot and perplexed, with a horrible sense of having made a fool of himself.
The chairman, no less perplexed, made the usual remarks and then called for questions, for the time had to be filled in somehow. The words left George aghast. The wretched man looked forward to raw public shame. His ignorance would be exposed, his presumption laid bare, his pride thrown in the dust. He nerved himself for a despairing effort. He would brazen things out as far as possible; afterwards, let the heavens fall.
An old minister rose and asked in a thin ancient voice what the Government had done for the protection of missionaries in Khass-Kotannun. Was he, Mr. Winterham, aware that our missionaries in that distant land had been compelled to wear native dress by the arrogant chiefs, and so fallen victims to numerous chills and epidemics? George replied that he considered the treatment abominable, believed that the matter occupied the mind of the Foreign Office night and day, and would be glad personally to subscribe to any relief fund. The good man declared himself satisfied, and St. Sebastian breathed freely again.
A sturdy man in homespun rose to discover the Government's intention on Church matters. Did the speaker ken that on his small holding he paid ten pound sterling in tithes, though he himself did not hold with the Establishment, being a Reformed Presbyterian? The Laodicean George said he did not understand the differences, but that it seemed to him a confounded shame, and he would undertake that Mr. Haystoun, if returned, would take immediate steps in the matter.
So far he had done well, but with the next question he betrayed his ignorance. A good man arose, also hot on Church affairs, to discourse on some disabilities, and casually described himself as a U.P. George's wits busied themselves in guessing at the mystic sign. At last to his delight he seemed to achieve it, and, in replying, electrified his audience by assuming that the two letters stood for Unreformed Presbyterian.
But the meeting was in good humour in spite of his incomprehensible address and unsatisfying answers, till a small section of the young bloods of the opposite party, who had come to disturb, felt that this peace must be put an end to. Mr. Samuel M'Turk, lawyer's clerk, who hailed from the west country and betrayed his origin in his speech, rose amid some applause from his admirers to discomfit George. He was a young man with a long, sallow face, carefully oiled and parted hair, and a resonant taste in dress. A bundle of papers graced his hand, and his air was parliamentary."Wis Mister Winterham aware that Mister Haystoun had contradicted himself on two occasions lately, as he would proceed to show?" George heard him patiently, said that now he was aware of the fact, but couldn't for the life of him see what the deuce it mattered.
"After Mister Winterham's ignoring of my pint," went on the young man, "I proceed to show . . ." and with all the calmness in the world he displayed to his own satisfaction how Mr. Lewis Haystoun was no fit person to represent the constituency. He profaned the Sabbath, which this gentleman professed to hold dear, he was notorious for drunkenness, and his conduct abroad had not been above suspicion.
George was on his feet in a moment, his confusion gone, his face very red, and his shoulders squared for a fight. The man saw the effect of his words, and promptly sat down."Get up," said George abruptly. The man's face whitened and he shrank back among his friends. "Get up; up higher--on the top of the seat, that everybody may see and hear you! Now repeat very carefully all that over again." The man's confidence had deserted him. He stammered something about meaning no harm.
"You called my friend a drunken blackguard. I am going to hear the accusation in detail." George stood up to his full height, a terrible figure to the shrinking clerk, who repeated his former words with a faltering tongue.
He heard him out quietly, and then stared coolly down on the people. He felt himself master of the situation. The enemy had played into his hands, and in the shape of a sweating clerk sat waiting on his action."You have heard what this man has to tell you. I ask you as men, as folk of this countryside, if it is true?"
It was the real speech of the evening, which was all along waiting to be delivered instead of the frigid pedantries on the paper. A man was speaking simply, valiantly, on behalf of his friend. It was cunningly done, with the natural tact which rarely deserts the truly honest man in his hour of extremity. He spoke of Lewis as he had known him, at school and college and in many wild sporting expeditions in desert places, and slowly the people kindled and listened. Then, so to speak, he kicked away the scaffolding of his erection. He ceased to be the apologist, and became the frank eulogist. He stood squarely on the edge of the platform, gathering the eyes of his hearers, smiling pleasantly, arms akimbo, a man at his ease and possibly at his pleasure.
"Some of you are herds," he cried, "and some are fishers, and some are farmers, and some are labourers. Also some of you call yourselves Radicals or Tories or Socialists. But you are all of you far more than these things. You are men--men of this great countryside, with blood in your veins and vigour in that blood. If you were a set of palefaced mechanics, I should not be speaking to you, for I should not understand you. But I know you all, and I like you, and I am going to prevent you from making godless fools of yourselves. There are two men before you. One is a very clever man, whom I don't know anything about, nor you either. The other is my best friend, and known to all of you. Many of you have shot or sailed with him, many of you were born on his and his fathers' lands. I have told you of his abilities and quoted better judges than myself. I don't need to tell you that he is the best of men, a sportsman, a kind master, a very good fellow indeed. You can make up your mind between the two. Opinions matter very little, but good men are too scarce to be neglected. Why, you fools," he cried with boisterous good humour, "I should back Lewis if he were a Mohammedan or an Anarchist. The man is sound metal, I tell you, and that's all I ask."
It was a very young man's confession of faith, but it was enough. The meeting went with him almost to a man. A roar of applause greeted the smiling orator, and when he sat down with flushed face, bright eyes, and a consciousness of having done his duty, John Sanderson, herd in Nether Callowa, rose to move a vote of confidence:"That this assembly is of opinion that Maister Lewis Haystoun is a guid man, and sae is our friend Maister Winterham, and we'll send Lewie back to Parliament or be--" It was duly seconded and carried with acclamation.
11. The Pride Before A Fall
The result of the election was announced in Gledsmuir on the next Wednesday evening, and carried surprise to all save Lewis's nearer friends. For Mr. Albert Stocks was duly returned member for the constituency by a majority of seventy votes. The defeated candidate received the news with great composure, addressed some good-humoured words to the people, had a generous greeting for his opponent, and met his committee with a smiling face. But his heart was sick within him, and as soon as he decently might be escaped from the turmoil, found his horse, and set off up Glenavelin for his own dwelling.
He had been defeated, and the fact, however confidently looked for, comes with a bitter freshness to every man. He had lost a seat for his party-that in itself was bad. But he had proved himself incompetent, unadaptable, a stick, a pedantic incapable. A dozen stings rankled in his soul. Alice would be justified of her suspicions. Where would his place be now in that small imperious heart? His own people had forsaken him for a gross and unlikely substitute, and he had been wrong in his estimate alike of ally and enemy. Above all came that cruelest stab--what would Wratislaw think of it? He had disgraced himself in the eyes of his friend. He who had made a fetish of competence had manifestly proved wanting; he who had loved to think of himself as the bold, opportune man, had shown himself formal and hidebound.
As he passed Glenavelin among the trees the thought of Alice was a sharp pang of regret. He could never more lift his eyes in that young and radiant presence. He pictured the successful Stocks welcomed by her, and words of praise for which he would have given his immortal soul, meted out lavishly to that owl-like being. It was a dismal business, and ruefully, but half-humorously, he caught at the paradox of his fate.
Through the swiftly failing darkness the inn of Etterick rose before him, a place a little apart from the village street. A noise of talk floated from the kitchen and made him halt at the door and dismount. The place would be full of folk discussing the election, and he would go in among them and learn the worst opinion which men might have of him. After all, they were his own people, who had known him in his power as they now saw him in his weakness. If he had failed he was not wholly foolish; they knew his few redeeming virtues, and they would be generous.
The talk stopped short as he entered, and he saw through the tobacco reek half a dozen lengthy faces wearing the air of solemnity which the hillman adopts in his pleasures. They were all his own herds and keepers, save two whom he knew for foresters from Glenavelin. He was recognized at once, and with a general nervous shuffling they began to make room for the laird at the table. He cried a hasty greeting to all, and sat down between a black-bearded giant, whose clothes smelt of sheep, and a red-haired man from one of the remoter glens. The notion of the thing pleased him, and he ordered drinks for each with a lavish carelessness. He asked for a match for his pipe, and the man who gave it wore a decent melancholy on his face and shook his head with unction.
"This is a bad job, Lewie," he said, using the privileged name of the ancient servant. "Whae would have ettled sic a calaamity to happen in your ain countryside? We a' thocht it would be a grand pioy for ye, for ye would settle down here and hae nae mair foreign stravaigins. And then this tailor body steps in and spoils a'. It's maist vexaatious."
"It was a good fight, and he beat me fairly; but we'll drop the matter. I'm sick--tired of politics, Adam. If I had been a better man they might have made a herd of me, and I should have been happy."
"Wheesht, Lewie," said the man, grinning. "A herd's job is no for the likes o' you. But there's better wark waiting for ye than poalitics. It's a beggar's trade after a', and far better left to bagman bodies like yon Stocks. It's a puir thing for sac proper a man as you.""But what can I do?" cried Lewis in despair. "I have no profession. I am useless."
"Useless! Ye are a grand judge o' sheep and nowt, and ye ken a horse better than ony couper. Ye can ride like a jockey and drive like a Jehu, and there's no your equal in these parts with a gun or a fishing-rod. Forbye, I would rather walk ae mile on the hill wi' ye than twae, for ye gang up a brae-face like a mawkin! God! There's no a single man's trade that ye're no brawly fitted for. And then ye've a heap o' book-lear that folk learned ye away about England, though I cannot speak muckle on that, no being a jidge."
Lewis grinned at the portraiture. "You do me proud. But let's talk about serious things. You were on sheep when I came in. Get back to them and give me your mind on Cheviots. The lamb sales promise well."
For twenty minutes the room hummed with technicalities. One man might support the conversation on alien matters, but on sheep the humblest found a voice: Lewis watched the ring of faces with a sharp delight. The election had made him sick of his fellows-fellows who chattered and wrangled and wallowed in the sentimental. But now every line of these brown faces, the keen blue eyes, the tawny, tangled beards, and the inimitable soft-sounding southern speech, seemed an earnest of a real and strenuous life. He began to find a new savour in existence. The sense of his flat incompetence left him, and he found himself speaking heartily and laughing with zest.
"It's as I say," said the herd of the Redswirebead. "I'm getting an auld man and a verra wise ane, and the graund owercome for the world is just 'Pay no attention.' Ye'll has heard how the word cam' to be. It was Jock Linklater o' the Caulds wha was glen notice to quit by the laird, and a' the countryside was vexed to pairt wi' Jock, for he was a popular character. But about a year after a friend meets him at Gledsmuir merkit as crouse as ever. 'Lodsake, Jock, man, I thocht ye were awa',' says he. 'No,' says Jock, 'no. I'm here as ye see.' 'But how did ye manage it?' he asked. 'Fine,' says Jock. 'They sent me a letter tellin' me I must gang; but I just payed no attention. Syne they sent me a blue letter frae the lawyer's, but I payed no attention. Syne the factor cam' to see me.' 'Ay, and what did ye do then, Jock?' says he. 'Oh, I payed no attention. Syne the laird cam' himsel.' 'Ay, that would fricht ye,' he says. 'No, no a grain,' said Jock, verra calm. 'I just payed no attention, and here I am.'"
Lewis laughed, but the rest of the audience suffered no change of feature. The gloaming bad darkened, and the little small-paned window was a fretted sheet of dark and lucent blue. Grateful odours of food and drink and tobacco hung in the air, though tar and homespun and the far-carried fragrance of peat fought stoutly for the mastery.
One man fell to telling of a fox-hunt, when he lay on the hill for the night and shot five of the destroyers of his flock before the morning, it was the sign--and the hour--for stories of many kinds--tales of weather and adventure, humorous lowland escapades and dismal mountain realities. Or stranger still, there would come the odd, half-believed legends of the glen, told shamefully yet with the realism of men for whom each word had a power and meaning far above fiction. Lewis listened entranced, marking his interest now by an exclamation, and again by a question.
The herd of Farawa told of the salmon, the king of the Aller salmon, who swam to the head of Aller and then crossed the spit of land to the head of Callowa to meet the king of the Callowa fish. It was a humorous story, and was capped there and then by his cousin of the Dreichill, who told a ghastly tale of a murder in the wilds. Then a lonely man, Simon o' the Heid o' the Hope, glorified his powers on a January night when he swung himself on a flood-gate over the Aller while the thing quivered beneath him, and the water roared redly above his thighs.
"And that yett broke when I was three pairts ower, and I went down the river with my feet tangled in the bars and nae room for sweemin'. But I gripped an oak-ritt and stelled mysel' for an hour till the water knockit the yett to sawdust. It broke baith my ankles, and though I'm a mortal strong man in my arms, thae twisted kitts keepit me helpless. When a man's feet are broke he has nae strength in his wrist.""I know," said Lewis, with excitement. "I have found the same myself."
"Where?" asked the man, without rudeness.
"Once on the Skifso when I was after salmon, and once in the Doorab hills above Abjela."
"Were ye sick when they rescued ye? I was. I had twae muscles sprung on my arm, but that was naething to the retching and dizziness when they laid me on the heather. Jock Jeffrey was bending ower me, and though he wasna touching me I began to suffocate, and yet I was ower weak to cry out and had to thole it."
"I know. If you hang up in the void for a little and get the feeling of great space burned on your mind, you nearly die of choking when you are pulled up. Fancy you knowing about that.""Have you suffered it, Maister Lewie?" said the man.
"Once. There was a gully in the Doorabs just like the Scarts o' the Muneraw, only twenty times deeper, and there was a bridge of tree-trunks bound with ropes across it. We all got over except one mule and a couple of men. They were just getting off when a trunk slipped and dangled down into the abyss with one end held up by the ropes. The poor animal went plumb to the bottom; we heard it first thud on a jag of rock and then, an age after, splash in the water. One of the men went with it, but the other got his legs caught between the ropes and the tree and managed to hang on. The poor beggar was helpless with fright; and he squealed--great heavens! how he did squeal!""And what did ye dae?" asked a breathless audience.
"I went down after him. I had to, for I was his master, and besides, I was a bit of an athlete then. I cried to him to hang on and not look down. I clambered down the swaying trunk while my people held the ropes at the top, and when I got near the man I saw what bad happened.
"He had twisted his ankles in the fall, and though he had got them out of the ropes, yet they hung loose and quite obviously broken. I got as near him as I could, and leaned over, and I remember seeing through below his armpits the blue of the stream six hundred feet down. It made me rather sick with my job, and when I called him to pull himself up a bit till I could grip him I thought he was helpless with the same fright. But it turned out that I had misjudged him. He bad no power in his arms, simply the dead strength to hang on. I was in a nice fix, for I could lower myself no farther without slipping into space. Then I thought of a dodge. I got a good grip of the rope and let my legs dangle down till they were level with his hands. I told him to try and change his grip and catch my ankles. He did it, somehow or other, and by George! the first shock of his weight nearly ended me, for he was a heavy man. However, I managed to pull myself up a yard or two and then I could reach down and catch his arms. We both got up somehow or other, but it took a devilish time, and when they laid us both on the ground and came round like fools with brandy I thought I should choke and had scarcely strength to swear at them to get out."
The assembly had listened intently, catching its breath with a sharp _risp_ as all outdoor folks will do when they hear of an escapade which strikes their fancy. One man--a stranger--hammered his empty pipe-bowl on the table in applause."Whae was the man, d'ye say?" he asked. "A neeger?" Lewis laughed. "Not a nigger most certainly, though he had a brown face." "And ye risked your life for a black o' some kind? Man, ye must be awfu' fond o' your fellow men. Wad ye dae the same for the likes o' us? "Surely. For one of my own folk! But it was really a very small thing."
"Then I have just ae thing to say," said the brown-bearded man. "I am what ye cal a Raadical, and yestreen I recorded my vote for yon man Stocks. He crackit a lot about the rights o' man--as man, and I was wi' him. But I tell ye that you yoursel' have a better notion o' human kindness than ony Stocks, and though ye're no o' my party, yet I herewith propose a vote o' confidence in Maister Lewis Haystoun."
The health was drunk solemnly yet with gusto, and under cover of it Lewis fled out of doors. His despondency had passed, and a fit of fierce exhilaration had seized him. Men still swore by his name; he was still loved by his own folk; small matter to him if a townsman had defeated him. He was no vain talker, but a doer, a sportsman, an adventurer. This was his true career. Let others have the applause of excited indoor folk or dull visionaries; for him a man's path, a man's work, and a man's commendation.
The moon was up, riding high in a shoreless sea of blue, and in the still weather the streams called to each other from the mountain sides, as in some fantastic cosmic harmony. High on the ridge shoulder the lights of Etterick twinkled starlike amid the fretted veil of trees. A sense of extraordinary and crazy exhilaration, the recoil from the constraint of weeks, laid hold on his spirit. He hummed a dozen fragments of song, and at times would laugh with the pure pleasure of life. The quixotic, the generous, the hopeless, the successful; laughter and tears; death and birth; the warm hearth and the open road--all seemed blent for the moment into one great zest for living. "I'll to Lochiel and Appin and kneel to them," he was humming aloud, when suddenly his bridle was caught and a man's hand was at his knee.
"Lewie," cried Wratislaw, "gracious, man! have you been drinking?" And then seeing the truth, he let go the bridle, put an arm through the stirrup leathers, and walked by the horse's side. "So that's the way you take it, old chap? Do you know that you are a discredited and defeated man? and yet I find you whistling like a boy. I have hopes for you, Lewie. You have the Buoyant Heart, and with that nothing can much matter. But, confound it! you are hours late for dinner."
12. Pastoral And Tragedy
The news of the election, brought to Glenavelin by a couple of ragged runners, had a different result from that forecast by Lewis. Alice heard it with a heart unquickened; and when, an hour after, the flushed, triumphant Mr. Stocks arrived in person to claim the meed of success, he was greeted with a painful carelessness. Lady Manorwater had been loud in her laments for her nephew, but to Mr. Stocks she gave the honest praise which a warm-hearted woman cannot withhold from the fighter.
"Our principles have won," she cried. "Now who will call the place a Tory stronghold? Oh, Mr. Stocks, you have done wonderfully, and I am very glad. I'm not a bit sorry for Lewis, for he well deserved his beating."
But with Alice there could be neither pleasure nor its simulation. Her terrible honesty forbade her the easy path of false congratulations. She bit her lip till tears filled her eyes. What was this wretched position into which she had strayed? Lewis was all she had feared, but he was Lewis, and far more than any bundle of perfections. A hot, passionate craving for his presence was blinding her to reason. And this man who had won--this, the fortunate politician--she cared for him not a straw. A strong dislike began to grow in her heart to the blameless Mr. Stocks.
Dinner that night was a weary meal to the girl. Lady Manorwater prattled about the day's events, and Lord Manorwater, hopelessly bored, ate his food in silence. The lively Bertha had gone to bed with a headache, and the younger Miss Afflint was the receptacle for the moment of her hostess's confidences. Alice sat between Mr. Stocks and Arthur, facing a tall man with a small head and immaculate hair who had ridden over to dine and sleep. One of the two had the wisdom to see her humour and keep silent, though the thought plunged him into a sea of ugly reflections. It would be hard if, now that things were going well with him, the lady alone should prove obdurate. For in all this politician's daydreams a dainty figure walked by his side, sat at his table's head, received his friends, fascinated austere ministers, and filled his pipe of an evening at home.
Arthur was silent, and to him the lady turned in vain. He treated her with an elaborate politeness which sat ill on his brusque manners, and for the most part showed no desire to enliven the prevailing dulness. But after dinner he carried her off to the gardens on the plea of fresh air and a fine sunset, and the girl, who liked the boy, went gladly. Then the reason of his silence was made plain. He dismayed her by becoming lovesick."Tell me your age, Alice," he implored.
"I am twenty at Christmas time," said the girl, amazed at the question.
"And I am seventeen or very nearly that. Men sometimes marry women older than themselves, and I don't see why I shouldn't. Oh, Alice, promise that you will marry me. I never met a girl I liked so much, and I am sure we should be happy."
"I am sure we should," said the girl, laughing. "You silly boy! what put such nonsense in your head? I am far too old for you, and though I like you very much, I don't in the least want to marry you." She seemed to herself to have got out of a sober world into a sort of Mad Tea-party, where people behaved like pantaloons and spoke in conundrums.The boy flushed and his eyes grew cross. "Is it somebody else?" he asked; at which the girl, with a memory of Mr. Stocks, reflected on the dreadful monotony of men's ways. A solution flashed upon his brain. "Are you going to marry Lewie Haystoun?" he cried in a more cheerful voice. After all, Lewis was his cousin, and a worthy rival.
Alice grew hotly uncomfortable. "I am not going to marry Mr. Lewis Haystoun, and I am not going to talk to you any more." And she turned round with a flaming face to the cool depths of the wood."Then it is that fellow Stocks. Oh, Lord!" groaned Arthur, irritated into bad manners. "You can't mean it, Alice. He's not fit to black your boots."
Some foolish impulse roused the girl to reply. She defended the very man against whom all the evening she had been unreasonably bitter. "You have no right to abuse him. He is your people's guest and a very distinguished man, and you are only a foolish boy."
He paled below his sunburn. Now he believed the truth of the horrid suspicion which had been fastening on his mind. "But--but," he stammered, "the chap isn't a gentleman, you know."
The words quickened her vexation. A gentleman! The cant word, the fetish of this ring of idle aristocrats--she knew the hollowness of the whole farce. The democrat in her made her walk off with erect head and bright eyes, leaving a penitent boy behind; while all the time a sick, longing heart drove her to the edge of tears.
The days dragged slowly for the girl. The brightness had gone out of the wide, airy landscape, and the warm August days seemed chill. She hated herself for the wrong impression she had left on the boy Arthur's mind, but she was too proud to seek to erase it; she could but trust to his honour for silence. If Lewis heard--the thought was too terrible to face! He would resign himself to the inevitable; she knew the temper of the man. Good form was his divinity, and never by word or look would he attempt to win another man's betrothed. She must see him and learn the truth: but he came no more to Glenavelin, and Etterick was a far cry for a girl's fancy. Besides, the Twelfth had come and the noise of guns on every hill spoke of other interests for the party at Etterick. Lewis had forgotten his misfortunes, she told herself, and in the easy way of the halfhearted found in bodily fatigue a drug for a mind but little in need of it.
One afternoon Lady Manorwater came over the lawn waving a letter. "Do you want to go and picnic to-morrow, Alice?" she cried. "Lewis is to be shooting on the moors at the head of the Avelin, and he wants us to come and lunch at the Pool of Ness. He wants the whole party to come, particularly Mr. Stocks, and he wants to know if you have forgiven him. What can the boy mean?"
As the cheerful little lady paused, Alice's heart beat till she feared betrayal. A sudden fierce pleasure burned in her veins. Did he still seek her good opinion? Was he, as well as herself, miserable alone? And then came like a stab the thought that he had joined her with Stocks. Did he class her with that alien world of prigs and dullards? She ceased to think, and avoiding her hostess and tea, ran over the wooden bridge to the slope of hill and climbed up among the red heather.
A month ago she had been heart-whole and young, a simple child. The same prejudices and generous beliefs had been hers, but held loosely with a child's comprehension. But now this old world had been awakened to arms against a dazzling new world of love and pleasure. She was led captive by emotion, but the cold rook of scruple remained. She had read of women surrendering all for love, but she felt dismally that this happy gift had been denied her. Criticism, a fierce, vulgar antagonism, impervious to sentiment, not to be exorcised by generous impulse--such was her unlovely inheritance.
As she leaned over a pool of clear brown water in a little burn, where scented ferns dipped and great rocks of brake and heather shadowed, she saw her face and figure mirrored in every colour and line. Her extraordinary prettiness delighted her, and then she laughed at her own vanity. A lady of the pools, with the dark eyes and red-gold hair of the north, surely a creature of dawn and the blue sky, and born for no dreary selfcommunings. She returned, with her eyes clear and something like laughter in her heart. To-morrow she should see him, to-morrow!
It was the utter burning silence of midday, when the man who toils loses the skin of his face, and the man who rests tastes the joys of deep leisure. The blue, airless sky, the level hilltops, the straight lines of glen, the treeless horizon of the moors--no sharp ridge or cliff caught the tired eye, only an even, sleep-lulled harmony. Five very hungry, thirsty, and wearied men lay in the shadow above the Pool of Ness, and prayed heaven for luncheon.
Lewis and George, Wratislaw and Arthur Mordaunt were there, and Doctor Gracey, who loved a day on the hills. The keepers sat farther up the slope smoking their master's tobacco--sure sign of a well-spent morning. For the party had been on the moors by eight, and for five burning hours had tramped the heather. All wore light and airy shooting-clothes save the doctor, who had merely buckled gaiters over his professional black trousers. All were burned to a tawny brown, and all lay in different attitudes of gasping ease. Few things so clearly proclaim a man's past as his posture when lounging. Arthur and Wratislaw lay, like townsmen, prone on their faces with limbs rigidly straight. Lewis and George--old campaigners both--lay a little on the side, arms lying loosely, and knees a little bent. But one and all gasped, and swore softly at the weather.
"Turn round, Tommy," said George, glancing up, "or you'll get sunstroke at the back of the neck. I've had it twice, so I ought to know. You want to wet your handkerchief and put it below your cap. Why don't you wear a deer-stalker instead of that hideous jockey thing? Feugh, I am warm and cross and thirsty. Lewis, I'll give your aunt five minutes, and then I shall go down and drink that pool dry."
Lewis sat up and watched the narrow ribbon of road which coiled up the glen to the pool's edge. He only saw some hundreds of yards down it, but the prospect served to convince him that his erratic aunt was late."If my wishes had any effect," said George, "at this moment I should be having iced champagne." And he cast a longing eye to the hampers.
"You won't get any," said Lewis. "We are not sybarites in this glen, and our drinks are the drinks of simple folk. Do you remember Cranstoun? I once went stalking with him, and we had _pate-de-foie-gras_ for luncheon away up on the side of a rugged mountain. That sort of thing sets my teeth on edge.""Honest man!" cried George. "But here are your friends, and you had better stir yourself and make them welcome."
Five very cool and leisurely beings were coming up the hill-path, for, having driven to above the village, they had had an easy walk of scarcely half a mile. Lewis's eye sought out a slight figure behind the others, a mere gleam of pink and white. As she stepped out from the path to the heather his eye was quick to seize her exquisite grace. Other women arrayed themselves in loose and floating raiment, ribbons and what not; but here was one who knew her daintiness, and made no effort to cloak it. Trim, cool, and sweet, the coils of bright hair above the white frock catching the noon sun--surely a lady to pray for and toil for, one made for no facile wooing or easy conquest.
Lewis advanced to Mr. Stocks as soon as he had welcomed his aunt, and shook hands cordially. "We seem to have lost sight of each other during the last few days. I never congratulated you enough, but you probably understood that my head was full of other things. You fought splendidly, and I can't say I regret the issue. You will do much better than I ever could."
Mr. Stocks smiled happily. The wheel of his fortunes was bringing him very near the top. All the way up he had had Alice for a companion; and that young woman, happy from a wholly different cause, had been wonderfully gracious. He felt himself on Mr. Lewis Haystoun's level at last, and the baffling sense of being on a different plane, which he had always experienced in his company, was gone, he hoped, for ever. So he became frank and confidential, forgot the pomp of his talk and his inevitable principles, and assisted in laying lunch.
"Where have you been. Lewis, all these days? If you had been anybody else, I should have said you were sulking. I must speak to you seriously. Do you know that Alice has been breaking her heart for you? I won't have the poor child made miserable, and though I don't in the least want you to marry her, yet; I cannot have you playing with her."Lewis had grown suddenly very red. "I think you are mistaken," he said stiffly. "Miss Wishart does not care a straw for me. If she is in love with anybody, it is with Stocks."
"I am much older than you, my dear, and I should know better. I may as well confess that I hoped it would be Mr. Stocks, but I can't disbelieve my own eyes. The child becomes wretched whenever she hears your name.""You are making me miserably unhappy, because I can't believe a word of it. I have made a howling fool of myself lately, and I can't be blind to what she thinks of me." Lady Manorwater looked pathetic. "Is the great Lewis ashamed of himself?"
"Not a bit. I would do it again, for it is my nature to, as the hymn says. I am cut all the wrong way, and my mind is my mind, you know. But I can't expect Miss Wishart to take that point of view."
His aunt shook a hopeless head. "Your moral nature is warped, my dear. It has always been the same since you were a very small boy at Glenavelin, and read the Holy War on the hearthrug. You could never be made to admire Emmanuel and his captains, but you set your heart on the reprobates Jolly and Griggish. But get away and look after your guests, sir."
Lunch came just in time to save five hungry men from an undignified end. The Glenavelin party looked on with amusement as the ravenous appetites were satisfied. Mr. Stocks, in a huge good humour, talked discursively of sport. He inquired concerning the morning's bag, and called up reminiscences of friends who had equalled or exceeded it. Lewis was uncomfortable, for he felt that in common civility Mr. Stocks should have been asked to shoot. He could not excuse himself with the plea of an unintentional omission, for he had heard reports of the gentleman's wonderful awkwardness with a gun, and he had not found it in his heart to spoil the sport of five keen and competent hands.
He dared not look at Alice, for his aunt's words had set his pulses beating hotly. For the last week he had wrestled with himself, telling his heart that this lady was beyond his ken for ever and a day, for he belonged by nature to the clan of despondent lovers. Before, she had had all the icy reserve, he all the fervours. The hint of some spark of fire behind the snows of her demeanour filled him with a delirious joy. Every movement of her body pleased him, every word which she spoke, the blitheness of her air and the ready kindness. The pale, pretty Afflint girls, with their wit and their confidence, seemed old and womanly compared with Alice. Let simplicity be his goddess henceforth-simplicity and youth.
The Pool of Ness is a great, black cauldron of clear water, with berries above and berries below, and high crags red with heather. There you may find shade in summer, and great blaeberries and ripening rowans in the wane of August. These last were the snare for Alice, who was ever an adventurer. For the moment she was the schoolgirl again, and all sordid elderly cares were tossed to the wind. She teased Doctor Gracey to that worthy's delight, and she bade George and Arthur fetch and carry in a way that made them her slaves for life. Then she unbent to Mr. Stocks and made him follow her out on a peninsula of rock, above which hung a great cluster of fruit. The unfortunate politician was not built for this kind of exercise, and slipped and clung despairingly to every root and cleft. Lewis followed aimlessly: her gaiety did not fit with his mood; and he longed to have her to himself and know his fortune.He passed the panting Stocks and came up with the errant lady. "For heaven's sake be careful, Miss Wishart," he cried in alarm. "That's an ugly black swirl down there." The girl laughed in his face. "Isn't the place glorious!" she cried. "It's as cool as winter, and oh! the colours of that hillside. I'm going up to that birk-tree to sit. Do you think I can do it?" "I am coming up after you," said Lewis.
She stopped and regarded it with serious eyes. "It's hard, but I'm going to try. It's 'harder than the Midburn that I climbed up on the day I saw you fishing."
She remembered! Joy caught at his heart, and he laughed so gladly that Alice turned round to look at him. Something in his eyes made her turn her head away and scan the birk-tree again.
Then suddenly there was a slip of soil, a helpless clutch at fern and heather, a cry of terror, and he was alone on the headland. The black swirl was closing over the girl's head.
He had been standing rapt in a happy fancy, his thoughts far in a world of their own, and his eyes vacant of any purpose. Startled to alertness, he still saw vaguely, and for a second stood irresolute and wondering. Then came another splash, and a heavy body flung itself into the pool from lower down the rock. He knew the black head and the round shoulders of Mr. Stocks.
The man caught the girl as she struggled to get out of the swirl and with strong ugly strokes began to make for shore. Lewis stood with a sick heart, slow to realize the horror which had overtaken him. She was out of danger, though the man was swimming badly; dismally he noted the fact of his atrocious swimming. But this was the hero; he had stood irresolute. The thought burned him like a hot iron.
Half a dozen pairs of hands relieved the swimmer of his burden. Alice was little the worse, a trifle pale, very draggled and unhappy, and utterly tired. Lady Manorwater wept over her and kissed her, and hailed the dripping Stocks as her preserver. Lewis alone stood back. He satisfied himself that she was unhurt, and then, on the plea of getting the carriage, set off down the glen with a very grey, quivering face.
13. The Pleasures Of A Conscience
It was half-way down the glen that the full ignominy of his position came on Lewis with the shock of a thunder-clap. A hateful bitterness against her preserver and the tricks of fate had been his solitary feeling, till suddenly he realized the part he had played, and saw himself for a naked coward. Coward he called himself-without reflection; for in such a moment the mind thinks in crude colours and bold lines of division. He set his teeth in his lip, and with a heart sinking at the shameful thought stalked into the farm stables where the Glenavelin servants were.
He could not return to the Pool. Alice was little hurt, so anxiety was needless; better let him leave Mr. Stocks to enjoy his heroics in peace. He would find an excuse; meanwhile, give him quiet and solitude to digest his bitterness. He cursed himself for the unworthiness of his thoughts. What a pass had he come to when he grudged a little _kudos_ to a rival, grudged it churlishly, childishly. He flung from him the self-reproach. Other people would wonder at his ungenerousness, and his sulky ill-nature. They would explain by the first easy discreditable reason. What eared he for their opinion when he knew the far greater shame in his heart?
For as he strode up the woodland path to Etterick the wrappings of surface passion fell off from his view of the past hour, and he saw the bald and naked ribs of his own incapacity. It was a trivial incident to the world, but to himself a momentous selfrevelation. He was a dreamer, a weakling, a fool. He had hesitated in a crisis, and another had taken his place. A thousand incidents of ready courage in past sport and travel were forgotten, and on this single slip the terrible indictment was founded. And the reason is at hand; this weakness had at last drawn near to his life's great passion.
He found a deserted house, but its solitude was too noisy for his unrest. Bidding the butler tell his friends that he had gone up the hill, he crossed the sloping lawns and plunged into the thicket of rhododendrons. Soon he was out on the heather, with the great slopes, scorched with the heat, lying still and fragrant before him. He felt sick and tired, and flung himself down amid the soft brackens.
It was the man's first taste of bitter mental anguish. Hitherto his life had been equable and pleasant; his friends had adored him; the world had flattered him; he had been at peace with his own soul. He had known his failings, but laughed at them cavalierly; he stood on a different platform from the struggling, conscience-stricken herd. Now he had in very truth been flung neck and crop from the pedestal of his self-esteem; and he lay groaning in the dust of abasement.
Wratislaw guessed with a friend's instinct his friend's disquietude, and turned his steps to the hill when he had heard the butler's message. He had known something of Lewis's imaginary self-upbraidings, and he was prepared for them, but he was not prepared for the grey and wretched face in the lee of the pinewood. A sudden suspicion that Lewis had been guilty of some real dishonour flashed across his mind for the moment, only to be driven out with scorn.
Tragedy grew in Lewis's eyes. "Don't laugh, old chap. You don't know what I did. I let her fall into the water, and then I stood staring and let another man--the other man-save her.""Well, and what about that? He had a better chance than you. You shouldn't grudge him his good fortune." "Good Lord, man, you don't think it's that that's troubling me! I felt murderous, but it wasn't on his account." "Why not?" asked the older man drily. "You love the girl, and he's in the running with you. What more?"
Lewis groaned. "How can I talk about loving her when my love is such a trifling thing that it doesn't nerve me to action? I tell you I love her body and soul. I live for her. The whole world is full of her. She is never a second out of my thoughts. And yet I am so little of a man that I let her come near death and never try to save her.""But, confound it, man, it may have been mere absence of mind. You were always an extraordinarily plucky chap." Wratislaw spoke irritably, for it seemed to him sheer folly. Lewis looked at him imploringly. "Can you not understand?" he cried.
Wratislaw did understand, and suddenly. The problem was subtler than he had thought. Weakness was at the core of it, weakness revealed in self-deception and selfaccusation alike, the weakness of the finical dreamer, the man with the unrobust conscience. But the weakness which Lewis arraigned himself on was the very obvious failing of the diffident and the irresolute. Wratislaw tried the path of boisterous encouragement.
"Get up, you old fool, and come down to the house. You a coward! You are simply a romancer with an unfortunate knack of tragedy." The man must be laughed out of this folly. If he were not he would show the self-accusing front to the world, and the Manorwaters, Alice, Stocks--all save his chosen intimates--would credit him with a cowardice of which he had no taint.
Arthur and George, resigned now to the inevitable lady, had seen in the incident only the anxiety of a man for his beloved, and just a hint of the ungenerous in his treatment of Mr. Stocks. They were not prepared for the silent tragic figure which Wratislaw brought with him.
Arthur had a glint of the truth, but the obtuse George saw nothing. "Do you know that you are going to have the Wisharts for neighbours for a couple of months yet? Old Wishart has taken Glenavelin from the end of August."
This would have been pleasant hearing at another time, but now it simply drove home the nail of his bitter reflections. Alice would be near him, a terrible reproach-she, the devotee of strength and competence. He could not win her, and it is characteristic of the man that he had ceased to think of Mr. Stocks as his rival. He would lose her to no rival; to his ragged incapacity alone would his ill fortune be due.
He struggled to act the part of the cheerful host, and Wratislaw watched his efforts grimly. He ate little at dinner, showed no desire to smoke, and played billiards so badly that Wratislaw, an execrable player, won the first and last game of his life. The victor took him out of doors thereafter to walk on the moonlit, fragrant lawn."You are taking things to heart," said he. "And I'm blessed if I can understand you. To me it's sheer mania." "And to me it's the last link in a chain. I have suspected myself for long, now I know myself and-ugh! the knowledge is a hideous thing." Wratislaw stood regarding his companion seriously. "I wonder what will happen to you, Lewie. Life is serious enough without inventing a crotchety virtue to make it miserable."
"Can't you understand me, Tommy? It isn't that I'm a cad, it's that I am a coward. I couldn't be a cad supposing I tried. These things are a matter chiefly of blood and bone, and I am not made that way. But God help me! I am a coward. I can't fight worth twopence. Look at my performance a fortnight ago. The ordinary gardener's boy can beat me at making love. I am full of generous impulses and sentiments, but what's the use of them? Everything grows cold and I am a dumb icicle when it comes to action. I knew all this before, but I thought I had kept my bodily courage. I've had a good enough training, and I used to have pluck."
"But you don't mean to tell me that it was funk that kept you out of the pool to-day?" cried the impatient Wratislaw.
The others seemed to see a catch in his mirth, a ring as of something hollow. He opened some letters, and looked up from one with a twitching face and a curious droop of the eyelids. "Miss Wishart is all right," he said. "My aunt says that she is none the worse, but that Stocks has caught a tremendous cold. An unromantic ending!"
The meal ended, they wandered out to the lawn to smoke, and Wratislaw found himself standing with a hand on his host's shoulder. He noticed something distraught in his glance and air."Are you fit again to-day?" he asked.
"Quite fit, thanks," said Lewis, but his face belied him. He had forgiven himself the incident of yesterday, but no proof of a non sequitur could make him relinquish his dismal verdict. The wide morning landscape lay green and soothing at his feet. Down in the glen men were winning the bog-hay; up on the hill slopes they were driving lambs; the Avelin hurried to the Gled, and beyond was the great ocean and the infinite works of man. The whole brave bustling world was astir, little and great ships hasting out of port, the soldier scaling the breach, the adventurer travelling the deserts. And he, the fool, had no share in this braggart heritage. He could not dare to look a man straight in the face, for like the king in the old fable he had lost his soul.
14. A Gentleman In Straits
The fall of the leaf found Etterick very full of people, and new dwellers in Glenavelin. The invitations were of old standing, but Lewis found their fulfilment a pleasant trick of Fortune's. To keep a bustling household in good spirits leaves small room for brooding, and he was famous for his hospitality. The partridges were plentiful that year, and a rainless autumn had come on the heels of a fine summer. So life went pleasantly with all, and the master of the place cloaked a very sick heart under a ready good-humour.
His thoughts were always on Glenavelin, and when he happened to be near it he used to look with anxious eyes for a slim figure which was rarely out of his fancy. He had not seen Alice since the accident, save for one short minute, when riding from Gledsmuir he had passed her one afternoon at the Glenavelin gates. He had earnestly desired to stop, but his curious cowardice had made him pass with a lifted hat and a hasty smile. Could he have looked back, he might have seen the girl watching him out of sight with tearful eyes. To himself he was the hopeless lover, and she the scornful lady, while she in her own eyes was the unhappy girl for whom the soldier in the song shakes his bridle reins and cries an eternal adieu.
Matters did not improve when the Manorwaters left and Mr. Wishart himself came down, bringing with him Stocks, a certain Mr. Andrews and his wife, and an excellent young man called Thompson. All were pleasant people, with the manners which the world calls hearty, well-groomed, presentable folk, who enjoyed this life and looked forward to a better.
Mr. Wishart explored the place thoroughly the first evening, and explained that he was thankful indeed that he had been led to take it. He was a handsome man with a worn, elderly face, a square jaw and somewhat weary eyes. It is given to few men to make a great fortune and not bear the signs of it on their persons."I expect you enjoyed staying with Lady Manorwater, Alice?" Mrs. Andrews declared at dinner. "They are very plain people, aren't they, to be such great aristocrats? "I suppose so," said the girl listlessly.
"I once met Lady Manorwater at Mrs. Cookson's at afternoon tea. I thought she was badly dressed. You know Manorwater, don't you, George?" said the lady to her husband, with the boldness which comes from the use of a peer's name without the handle.
"Oh yes, I know him well. I have met him at the Liberal Club dinners, and I was his chairman once when he spoke on Irish affairs. A delightful man!"
"I suppose they would have a pleasant house-party when you were here, my dear?" asked the lady. "And of course you had the election. What fun! And what a victory for you, Mr. Stocks! I hear you beat the greatest landowner in the district."
"These people are so rarely gentlemen," said Mrs. Andrews, proud of her high attitude. "I suppose his father made his money in coal and bought the land from some poor dear old aristocrat. It is so sad to think of it. And that sort of person is always over-educated, for you see they have not the spirit of the old families and they bury themselves in books." Mrs. Andrews's father had kept a crockery shop, but his daughter had buried the memory.
Mr. Wishart frowned. The lady had been asked down for her husband's sake, and he did not approve of this chatter about family. Mr. Stocks, who was about to explain the Haystoun pedigree, caught his host's eye and left the dangerous subject untouched.
"You said in your letters that they had been kind to you at this young man's place. We must ask him down here to dinner, Alice. Oh, and that reminds me I found a letter from him to-day asking me to shoot. I don't go in for that sort of thing, but you young fellows had better try it."
Mr. Stocks declined, said he had given it up. Mr. Thompson said, "Upon my word I should like to," and privately vowed to forget the invitation. He distrusted his prowess with a gun."By the by, was he not at the picnic when you saved my daughter's life? I can never thank you enough, Stocks. What should I have done without my small girl?" "Yes, he was there. In fact he was with Miss Alice at the moment she slipped."
He may not have meant it, but the imputation was clear, and it stirred one fiery expostulation. "Oh, but he hadn't time before Mr. Stocks came after me," she began, and then feeling it ungracious towards that gentleman to make him share a possibility of heroism with another, she was silent. More, a lurking fear which had never grown large enough for a suspicion, began to catch at her heart. Was it possible that Lewis had held back?
For a moment the candle-lit room vanished from her eyes. She saw the warm ledge of rock with the rowan berries above. She saw his flushed, eager face--it was her last memory before she had fallen. Surely never--never was there cowardice in those eyes!
Mrs. Andrews's vulgarities and her husband's vain repetitions began to pall upon the anxious girl. The young Mr. Thompson talked shrewdly enough on things of business, and Mr. Stocks abated something of his pomposity and was honestly amiable. These were her own people, the workers for whom she had craved. And yet--were they so desirable? Her father's grave, keen face pleased her always, but what of the others? The radiant gentlewomen whom she had met with the Manorwaters seemed to belong to another world than this of petty social struggling and awkward ostentation. And the men! Doubtless they were foolish, dilettanti, barbarians of sport, half-hearted and unpractical! And she shut her heart to any voice which would defend them.
Lewis drove over to dine some four days later with dismal presentiments. The same hopeless self-contempt which had hung over him for weeks was still weighing on his soul. He dreaded the verdict of Alice's eyes, and in a heart which held only kindness he looked for a cold criticism. It was this despair which made his position hopeless He would never take his chance; there could be no opportunity for the truth to become clear to both; for in his plate-armour of despair he was shielded against the world. Such was his condition to the eyes of a friend; to himself he was the common hopeless lover who sighed for a stony mistress.
He noticed changes in Glenavelin. Businesslike leather pouches stood in the hall, and an unwontedly large pile of letters lay on a table. The drawing-room was the same as ever, but in the dining-room an escritoire had been established which groaned under a burden of papers. Mr. Wishart puzzled and repelled him. It was a strong face, but a cold and a stupid one, and his eyes had the glassy hardness of the man without vision. He was bidden welcome, and thanked in a tactless way for his kindness to Mr. Wishart's daughter. Then he was presented to Mrs. Andrews, and his courage sank as he bowed to her.
At table the lady twitted him with graceful badinage. "Alice and you must have had a gay time, Mr. Haystoun. Why, you've been seeing each other constantly for months. Have you become great friends?" She exerted herself, for, though he might be a parvenu, he was undeniably handsome.
Mr. Stocks explained that Mr. Haystoun had organized wonderful picnic parties. The lady clapped her many-ringed hands, and declared that he must repeat the experiment. "For I love picnics," she said, "I love the simplicity and the fresh air and the rippling streams. And washing up is fun, and it is such a great chance for you young men." And she cast a coy glance over her shoulder.
"Do you live far off, Mr. Haystoun?" she asked repeatedly. "Four miles? Oh, that's next door. We shall come and see you some day. We have just been staying with the Marshams--Mr. Marsham, you know, the big cotton people. Very vulgar, but the house is charming. It was so exciting, for the elections were on, and the Hestons, who are the great people in that part of the country, were always calling. Dear Lady Julia is so clever. Did you ever meet Mr. Marsham, by any chance?"
Alice broke in with a question about the Manorwaters. The youthful Mr. Thompson, who, apart from his solicitor's profession, was a devotee of cricket, asked in a lofty way if Mr. Haystoun cared for the game."I do rather. I'm not very good, but we raised an eleven this year in the glen which beat Gledsmuir."
The notion pleased the gentleman. If a second match could be arranged he might play and show his prowess. In all likelihood this solemn and bookish laird, presumably brought up at home, would be a poor enough player."I played a lot at school," he said. "In fact I was in the Eleven for two years and I played in the Authentics match, and once against the Eton Ramblers. A strong lot they were." "Let me see. Was that about seven years ago? I seem to remember." "Seven years ago," said Mr. Thompson. "But why? Did you see the match?" "No, I wasn't in the match; I had twisted my ankle, jumping. But I captained the Ramblers that season, so I remember it." Respect grew large in Mr. Thompson's eyes. Here were modesty and distinction equally mated. The picture of the shy student had gone from his memory.
"If you like to come up to Etterick we might get up a match from the village," said Lewis courteously. "Ourselves with the foresters and keepers against the villagers wouldn't be a bad arrangement."
To Alice the whole conversation struck a jarring note. His eye kindled and he talked freely on sport. Was it not but a new token of his incurable levity? Mr. Wishart, who had understood little of the talk, found in this young man strange stuff to shape to a politician's ends. Contrasted with the gravity of Mr. Stocks, it was a schoolboy beside a master.
"I have been reading," he said slowly, "reading a speech of the new Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. I cannot understand the temper of mind which it illustrates. He talks of the Bosnian war, and a brave people struggling for freedom, as if it were merely a move in some hideous diplomatists' game. A man of that sort cannot understand a moral purpose.""Tommy--I mean to say Mr. Wratislaw--doesn't believe in Bosnian freedom, but you know he is a most ardent moralist." "I do not understand," said Mr. Wishart drily. "I mean that personally he is a Puritan, a man who tries every action of his life by a moral standard. But he believes that moral standards vary with circumstances." "Pernicious stuff, sir. There is one moral law. There is one Table of Commandments." "But surely you must translate the Commandments into the language of the occasion. You do not believe that 'Thou shalt not kill' is absolute in every case?" "I mean that except in the God-appointed necessity of war, and in the serving of criminal justice, killing is murder."
"Suppose a man goes travelling," said Lewis with abstracted eyes, "and has a lot of native servants. They mutiny, and he shoots down one or two. He saves his life, he serves, probably, the ends of civilization. Do you call that murder?""Assuredly. Better, far better that he should perish in the wilderness than that he should take the law into his own hands and kill one of God's creatures." "But law, you know, is not an absolute word." Mr. Wishart scented danger. "I can't argue against your subtleties, but my mind is clear; and I can respect no man who could think otherwise." Lewis reddened and looked appealingly at Alice. She, too, was uncomfortable. Her opinions sounded less convincing when stated dogmatically by her father. Mr. Stocks saw his chance and took it.
"Did you ever happen to be in such a crisis as you speak of, Mr. Haystoun? You have travelled a great deal."
"I have never had occasion to put a man to death," said Lewis, seeing the snare and scorning to avoid it.
"No, for, as I was going to say, it was a clear case where the men should have been put to death. They had deserved it, for they had disobeyed me, and by their disobedience caused the death of several innocent people. They decamped shortly afterwards, and all but managed to block our path. I blame myself still for not hanging them."
A deep silence hung over the table. Mr. Wishart and the Andrews stared with uncomprehending faces. Mr. Stocks studied his plate, and Alice looked on the speaker with eyes in which unwilling respect strove with consternation.
Only the culprit was at his ease. The discomfort of these good people for a moment amused him. Then the sight of Alice's face, which he wholly misread, brought him back to decent manners."I am afraid I have shocked you," he said simply. "If one knocks about the world one gets a different point of view." Mr. Wishart restrained a flood of indignation with an effort. "We won't speak on the subject," he said. "I confess I have my prejudices."
Mr. Stocks assented with a smile and a sigh. In the drawing-room afterwards Lewis was presented with the olive-branch of peace. He had to attend Mrs. Andrews to the piano and listen to her singing of a sentimental ballad with the face of a man in the process of enjoyment. Soon he pleaded the four miles of distance and the dark night, and took his leave. His spirits had in a measure returned. Alice had not been gracious, but she had shown no scorn. And her spell at the first sight of her was woven a thousand-fold over his heart.He found her alone for one moment in the hall. "Alice--Miss Wishart, may I come and see you? It is a pity such near neighbours should see so little of each other."
His hesitation made him cloak a despairing request in the garb of a conventional farewell.
The girl had the sense to pierce the disguise. "You may come and see us, if you like, Mr. Haystoun. We shall be at home all next week."
Mr. Wishart raised his eyebrows at the peculiar words. "Certainly you have not," he said. "I regard you as the most promising by far of the younger men of my acquaintance, and any little services I may have rendered have been amply repaid me."The younger man bowed and looked into the fire.
"It is very kind of you to speak so," he said. "I have been wondering whether I might not ask for a further kindness, the greatest favour which you could confer upon me. Have you made any plans for your daughter's future?"Mr. Wishart sat up stiffly on the instant. "You mean?" he said. "I mean that I love Alice . . . your daughter . . . and I wish to make her my wife. If you will give me your consent, I will ask her." "But--but," said the old man, stammering. "Does the girl know anything of this?" "She knows that I love her, and I think she will not be unkind."
"I don't know that I object," said Mr. Wishart after a long pause. "In fact I am very willing, and I am very glad that you had the good manners to speak to me first. Yes, upon my word, sir, I am pleased. You have had a creditable career, and your future promises well. My girl will help you, for though I say it, she will not be ill-provided for. I respect your character and I admire your principles, and I give you my heartiest good wishes."Mr. Stocks rose and held out his hand. He felt that the interview could not be prolonged in the present fervour of gratitude.
"Had it been that young Haystoun now," said Mr. Wishart, "I should never have given my consent. I resolved long ago that my daughter should never marry an idle man. I am a plain man, and I care nothing for social distinctions."
But as Mr. Stocks left the room the plain man glanced after him, and sitting back suffered a moment's reflection. The form of this worker contrasted in his mind with the figure of the idler who had that evening graced his table. A fool, doubtless, but a fool with an air and a manner! And for one second he allowed himself to regret that he was to acquire so unromantic a son-in-law.
15. The Nemesis Of A Coward
Two days later the Andrews drove up the glen to Etterick, taking with them the unwilling Mr. Wishart. Alice had escaped the ordeal with some feigned excuse, and the unfortunate Mr. Thompson, deeply grieving, had been summoned by telegram from cricket to law. The lady had chattered all the way up the winding moorland road, crying out banalities about the pretty landscape, or questioning her very ignorant companions about the dwellers in Etterick. She was full of praises for the house when it came in view; it was "quaint," it was "charming," it was everything inappropriate. But the amiable woman's prattle deserted her when she found herself in the cold stone hall with the great portraits and the lack of all modern frippery. It was so plainly a man's house, so clearly a place of tradition, that her pert modern speech seemed for one moment a fatuity.
It was an off-day for the shooters, and so for a miracle there were men in the drawingroom at tea-time. The hostess for the time was an aunt of Lewis's, a certain Mrs. Alderson, whose husband (the famous big-game hunter) had but recently returned from the jaws of a Zambesi lion. George's sister, Lady Clanroyden, a tall, handsome girl in a white frock, was arranging flowers in a bowl, and on the sill of the open window two men were basking in the sun. From the inner drawing-room there came an echo of voices and laughter. The whole scene was sunny and cheerful, youth and age, gay frocks and pleasant faces amid the old tapestry and mahogany of a moorland house.
Mr. Andrews sat down solemnly to talk of the weather with the two men, who found him a little dismal. One--he of the Zambesi lion episode--was grizzled, phlegmatic, and patient, and in no way critical of his company. So soon he was embarked on extracts from his own experience to which Mr. Andrews, who had shares in some company in the neighbourhood, listened with flattering attention. Mrs. Alderson set herself to entertain Mr. Wishart, and being a kindly, simple person, found the task easy. They were soon engaged in an earnest discussion of unsectarian charities.
Lady Clanroyden, with an unwilling sense of duty, devoted herself to Mrs. Andrews. That simpering matron fell into a vein of confidences and in five brief minutes had laid bare her heart. Then came the narrative of her recent visit to the Marshams, and the inevitable mention of the Hestons."Oh, you know the Hestons?" said Lady Clanroyden, brightening. "Very well indeed." The lady smiled, looking round to make sure that Lewis was not in the room.
"Julia is here, you know. Julia, come and speak to your friends."
A dark girl in mourning came forward to meet the expansive smile of Mrs. Andrews. Earnestly the lady hoped that she remembered the single brief meeting on which she had built a fictitious acquaintance, and was reassured when the newcomer shook hands with her pleasantly. Truth to tell, Lady Julia had no remembrance of her face, but was too good-natured to be honest.
"And how is your dear mother? I was so sorry to hear from a mutual friend that she had been unwell." How thankful she was that she read each week various papers which reported people's doings!
A sense of bewilderment lurked in her heart. Who was this Lewis Haystoun who owned such a house and such a kindred? The hypothesis of money made in coal seemed insufficient, and with much curiosity she set herself to solve the problem."Is Mr. Haystoun coming back to tea?" she asked by way of a preface. "No, he has had to go to Gledsmuir. We are all idle this afternoon, but he has a landowner's responsibilities." "Have his family been here long? I seem never to have heard the name."
Lady Clanroyden looked a little surprised. "Yes, they have been rather a while. I forget how many centuries, but a good many. It was about this place, you know, that the old ballad of 'The Riding of Etterick' was made, and a Haystoun was the hero."Mrs. Andrews knew nothing about old ballads, but she feigned a happy reminiscence.
"It is so sad his being beaten by Mr. Stocks," she declared. "Of course an old county family should provide the members for a district. They have the hearts of the people with them."
"Then the hearts of the people have a funny way of revealing themselves," Lady Clanroyden laughed. "I'm not at all sorry that Lewie was beaten. He is the best man in the world, but one wants to shake him up. His motto is 'Thole,' and he gets too few opportunities of 'tholing.'""You all call him 'Lewie,'" commented the lady. "How popular he must be!"
Mabel Clanroyden laughed. "I have known him ever since I was a small girl in a short frock and straight-brushed hair. He was never anything else than Lewie to his friends. Oh, here is my wandering brother and my only son returned," and she rose to catch up a small, self-possessed boy of some six years, who led the flushed and reluctant George in tow.
The small boy was very dirty, ruddy and cheerful. He had torn his blouse, and scratched his brow, and the crown of his straw hat had parted company with the brim.
The boy--he rejoiced in the sounding name of Archibald--slapped a small leg with a miniature whip, and counterfeited with great skill the pose of the stable-yard. He slowly unclenched a smutty fist and revealed three separate shillings."I won um myself," he explained. "Is it highway robbery?" asked his mother with horrified eyes. "Archibald, have you stopped a coach, or held up a bus or anything of the kind?" The child unclenched his hand again, beamed on his prize, smiled knowingly at the world, and shut it. "What has the dreadful boy been after? Oh, tell me, George, please. I will try to bear it."
"We fell in with a Sunday-school picnic along in the glen, and Archie made me take him there. And he had tea--I hope the little chap won't be ill, by the by. And he made a speech or a recitation or something of the sort. Nobody understood it, but it went down like anything.""And do you mean to say that the people gave him money, and you allowed him to take it?" asked an outraged mother.
"He won it," said George. "Won it in fair fight. He was second in the race under twelve, and first in the race under ten. They gave him a decent handicap, and he simply romped home. That chap can run, Mabel. He tried the sack race, too, but the first time he slipped altogether inside the thing and had to be taken out, yelling. But he stuck to it like a Trojan, and at the second shot he got started all right, and would have won it if he hadn't lost his head and rolled down a bank. He isn't scratched much, considering he fell among whins. That also explains the state of his hat."
"George, you shall never, never, as long as I live, take my son out with you again. It is a wonder the poor child escaped with his life. You have not a scrap of feeling. I must take the boy away or he will shame me before everybody. Come and talk to Mrs. Andrews, George. May I introduce my brother, Mr. Winterham?"
George, who wanted to smoke, sat down unwillingly in the chair which his sister had left. The lady, whose airs and graces were all for men, put on her most bewitching manner.
"Your sister and I have just been talking about this exquisite place, Mr. Winterham. It must be delightful to live in such a centre of old romance. That lovely 'Riding of Etterick' has been running in my head all the way up."
George privately wondered at the confession. The peculiarly tragic and ghastly fragments which made up "The Riding of Etterick," seemed scarcely suited to haunt a lady's memory."Had you a long drive?" he asked in despair for a topic. "Only from Glenavelin." He awoke to interest. "Are you staying at Glenavelin just now? The Wisharts are in it, are they not? We were a great deal about the place when the Manorwaters were there." "Oh yes. I have heard about Lady Manorwater from Alice Wishart. She must be a charming woman; Alice cannot speak enough about her." George's face brightened. "Miss Wishart is a great friend of mine, and a most awfully good sort." "And as you are a great friend of hers I think I may tell you a great secret," and the lady patted him playfully. "Our pretty Alice is going to be married." George was thoroughly roused to attention. "Who is the man?" he asked sharply. "I think I may tell you," said Mrs. Andrews, enjoying her sense of importance. "It is Mr. Stocks, the new member."
George restrained with difficulty a very natural oath. Then he looked at his informant and saw in her face only silliness and truth. For the good woman had indeed persuaded herself of the verity of her fancy. Mr. Stocks had told her that he had her father's consent and good wishes, and misinterpreting the girl's manner she had considered the affair settled.
It was unfortunate that Mr. Wishart at this moment showed such obvious signs of restlessness that the lady rose to take her leave, otherwise George might have learned the truth. After the Glenavelin party had gone he wandered out to the lawn, pulling his moustache in vast perplexity and cursing the twisted world. He had no guess at Lewis's manner of wooing; to him it had seemed the simple, straightforward love which he thought beyond resistance. And now, when he learned of this melancholy issue, he was sore at heart for his friend.
He was awakened from his reverie by Lewis himself, who, having ridden straight to the stables, was now sauntering towards the house. A trim man looks at his best in riding clothes, and Lewis was no exception. He was flushed with sun and motion, his spirits were high, for all the journey he had been dreaming of a coming meeting with Alice, and the hope which had suddenly increased a thousand-fold. George marked his mood, and with a regret at his new role caught him by the arm and checked him."I say, old man, don't go in just yet. I want to tell you something, and I think you had better hear it now." Lewis turned obediently, amazed by the gravity of his friend's face.
"Some people came up from Glenavelin this afternoon and among them a Mrs. Andrews, whom I had a talk to. She told me that Al--Miss Wishart is engaged to that fellow Stocks."
Lewis's face whitened and he turned away his eyes. He could not credit it. Two days ago she had been free; he could swear it; he remembered her eyes at parting. Then came the thought of his blindness, and in a great horror of self-mistrust he seemed to see throughout it all his criminal folly. He, poor fool, had been pleasing himself with dreams of a meeting, when all the while the other man had been the real lover. She had despised him, spared not a thought for him save as a pleasing idler; and he--that he should ever have ventured for one second to hope! Curiously enough, for the first time he thought of Stocks with respect; to have won the girl seemed in itself the proof of dignity and worth."Thanks very much for telling me. I am glad I know. No, I don't think I'll go into the house yet." * * * * *
The days passed and Alice waited with anxious heart for the coming of the very laggard Lewis. To-day he will come, she said each morning; and evening found her--poor heart!
-still expectant. She told herself a thousand times that it was sheer folly. He meant nothing, it was a mere fashion of speech; and then her heart would revolt and bid common sense be silent. He came indeed with some of the Etterick party on a formal call, but this was clearly not the fulfilment of his promise. So the girl waited and despaired, while the truant at Etterick was breaking his heart for the unattainable.
Mr. Stocks, having won the official consent, conducted his suit with commendable discretion. Suit is the word for the performance, so full was it of elaborate punctilios. He never intruded upon her unhappiness. A studied courtesy, a distant thoughtfulness were his only compliments. But when he found her gayer, then would he strive with subtle delicacies of manner to make clear the part he desired to play.
The girl saw his kindness and was grateful. In the revulsion against the Andrews he seemed a link with the more pleasant sides of life, and soon in her despair and anger his modest merits took heroic proportions in her eyes. She forgot her past dislike; she thought only of this, the simple good man, contrasted with the showy and fickle-hearted
-true metal against glittering tinsel. His very weaknesses seemed homely and venial. He was of her own world, akin to the things which deep down in her soul she knew she must love to the last. It is to the credit of the man's insight that he saw the mood and took pains to foster it.
He had forgotten all pompous dreams and the stilted prospects with which he had aforetime hoped to beguile his wife. The man was plain and simple now, a being very much on fire with an honest passion. He may have left her love-cold, but he touched the sympathy which in a true woman is love's nearest neighbour. Before she knew herself she had promised, and had been kissed respectfully and tenderly by her delighted lover. For a moment she felt something like joy, and then, with a dreadful thought of the baselessness of her pleasure, walked slowly homewards by his side.
The next morning Alice rose with a dreary sense of the irrevocable. A door seemed to have closed behind her, and the future stretched before her in a straight dusty path with few nooks and shadows. This was not the blithe morning of betrothal she had looked for. The rapturous outlook on life which she had dreamed of was replaced by a cold and business-like calculation of profits. The rose garden of the "god unconquered in battle" was exchanged for a very shoddy and huckstering paradise.
Mrs. Andrews claimed her company all the morning, and with the pertinacity of her kind soon guessed the very obvious secret. Her gushing congratulations drove the girl distracted. She praised the good Stocks, and Alice drank in the comfort of such words with greedy ears. From one young man she passed to another, and hung lovingly over the perfections of Mr. Haystoun. "He has the real distinction, dear," she cried, "which you can never mistake. It only belongs to old blood and it is quite inimitable. His friends are so charming, too, and you can always tell a man by his people. It is so pleasant to fall in with old acquaintances again. That dear Lady Clanroyden promised to come over soon. I quite long to see her, for I feel as if I had known her for ages."
After lunch Alice fled the house and sought her old refuge--the hills. There she would find the deep solitude for thought. She was not broken-hearted, though she grieved now and again with a blind longing of regret. But she was confused and shaken; the landmarks of her vision seemed to have been removed, and she had to face the grim narrowing-down of hopes which is the sternest trial for poor mortality.
Autumn's hand was lying heavy on the hillsides. Bracken was yellowing, heather passing from bloom, and the clumps of wild-wood taking the soft russet and purple of decline. Faint odours of wood smoke seemed to flit over the moor, and the sharp lines of the hill fastnesses were drawn as with a graving-tool against the sky. She resolved to go to the Midburn and climb up the cleft, for the place was still a centre of memory. So she kept for a mile to the Etterick road, till she came in view of the little stone bridge where the highway spans the moorland waters.
There had been intruders in Paradise before her. Broken bottles and scraps of paper were defacing the hill turf, and when she turned to get to the water's edge she found the rushy coverts trampled on every side. From somewhere among the trees came the sound of singing--a silly music-hall catch. It was a sharp surprise, and the girl, in horror at the profanation, was turning in all haste to leave.
But the Fates had prepared an adventure. Three half-tipsy men came swinging down the slope, their arms linked together, and bowlers set rakishly on the backs of their heads. They kept up the chorus of the song which was being sung elsewhere, and they suited their rolling gait to the measure.
"For it ain't Maria," came the tender melody; and the reassuring phrase was repeated a dozen times. Then by ill-luck they caught sight of the astonished Alice, and dropping their musical efforts they hailed her familiarly. Clearly they were the stragglers of some picnic from the town, the engaging type of gentleman who on such occasions is drunk by midday. They were dressed in ill-fitting Sunday clothes, great flowers beamed from their button-holes, and after the fashion of their kind their waistcoats were unbuttoned for comfort. The girl tried to go back by the way she had come, but to her horror she found that she was intercepted. The three gentlemen commanded her retreat.They seemed comparatively sober, so she tried entreaty. "Please, let me pass," she said pleasantly. "I find I have taken the wrong road."
"No, you haven't, dearie," said one of the men, who from a superior neatness of apparel might have been a clerk. "You've come the right road, for you've met us. And now you're not going away." And he came forward with a protecting arm.
Alice, genuinely frightened, tried to cross the stream and escape by the other side. But the crossing was difficult, and she slipped at the outset and wet her ankles. One of the three lurched into the water after her, and withdrew with sundry oaths.
The poor girl was in sad perplexity. Before was an ugly rush of water and a leap beyond her strength; behind, three drunken men, their mouths full of endearment and scurrility. She looked despairingly to the level white road for the Perseus who should deliver her.
And to her joy the deliverer was not wanting. In the thick of the idiot shouting of the trio there came the clink-clank of a horse's feet and a young man came over the bridge. He saw the picture at a glance and its meaning; and it took him short time to be on his feet and then over the broken stone wall to the waterside. Suddenly to the girl's delight there appeared at the back of the roughs the inquiring, sunburnt face of Lewis.
The men turned and stared with hanging jaws. "Now, what the dickens is this?" he cried, and catching two of their necks he pulled their heads together and then flung them apart.The three seemed sobered by the apparition. "And what the h-ll is your business?" they cried conjointly; and one, a dark-browed fellow, doubled his fists and advanced.
Lewis stood regarding them with a smiling face and very bright, cross eyes. "Are you by way of insulting this lady? If you weren't drunk, I'd teach you manners. Get out of this in case I forget myself."
For answer the foremost of the men hit out. A glance convinced Lewis that there was enough sobriety to make a fight of it. "Miss Wishart . . . Alice," he cried, "come back and go down to the road and see to my horse, please. I'll be down in a second."
The girl obeyed, and so it fell out that there was no witness to that burn-side encounter. It was a complex fight and it lasted for more than a second. Two of the men had the grace to feel ashamed of themselves half-way through, and retired from the contest with shaky limbs and aching faces. The third had to be assisted to his feet in the end by his antagonist. It was not a good fight, for the three were pasty-faced, overgrown young men, in no training and stupid with liquor. But they pressed hard on Lewis for a little, till he was compelled in self-defence to treat them as fair opponents.
He came down the road in a quarter of an hour with a huge rent in his coat-sleeve and a small cut on his forehead. He was warm and breathless, still righteously indignant at the event, and half-ashamed of so degrading an encounter. He found the girl standing statue-like, holding the bridle-rein, and looking into the distance with vacant eyes.
"Are you going back to Glenavelin, Miss Wishart?" he asked. "I think I had better go with you if you will allow me."
Alice mutely assented and walked beside him while he led his horse. He could think of nothing to say. The whole world lay between them now, and there was no single word which either could speak without showing some trace of the tragic separation.
"I want to thank you with all my heart," she stammered. And then by an awkward intuition she looked in his face and saw written there all the hopelessness and longing which he was striving to conceal. For one moment she saw clearly, and then the crooked perplexities of the world seemed to stare cruelly in her eyes. A sob caught her voice, and before she was conscious of her action she laid a hand on Lewis's arm and burst into tears.
The sight was so unexpected that it deprived him of all power of action. Then came the fatally easy solution that it was but reaction of over-strained nerves. Always ill at ease in a woman's presence, a woman's tears reduced him to despair. He stroked her hair gently as he would have quieted a favourite horse."I am so sorry that these brutes have frightened you. But here we are at Glenavelin gates." And all the while his heart was crying out to him to clasp her in his arms, and the words which trembled on his tongue were the passionate consolations of a lover.