John Buchan.

The Half-Hearted online

. (page 1 of 21)
Online LibraryJohn BuchanThe Half-Hearted → online text (page 1 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

E-text prepared by MRK





For the convenience of the reader it may
be stated that the period of this tale is the
closing years of the 19th Century.










From the heart of a great hill land Glenavelin stretches west and south
to the wider Gled valley, where its stream joins with the greater water
in its seaward course. Its head is far inland in a place of mountain
solitudes, but its mouth is all but on the lip of the sea, and salt
breezes fight with the flying winds of the hills. It is a land of green
meadows on the brink of heather, of far-stretching fir woods that climb
to the edge of the uplands and sink to the fringe of corn. Nowhere is
there any march between art and nature, for the place is in the main for
sheep, and the single road which threads the glen is little troubled
with cart and crop-laden wagon. Midway there is a stretch of wood and
garden around the House of Glenavelin, the one great dwelling-place in
the vale. But it is a dwelling and a little more, for the home of the
real lords of the land is many miles farther up the stream, in the
moorland house of Etterick, where the Avelin is a burn, and the hills
hang sharply over its source. To a stranger in an afternoon it seems a
very vale of content, basking in sun and shadow, green, deep, and
silent. But it is also a place of storms, for its name means the "glen
of white waters," and mist and snow are commoner in its confines than
summer heats.

On a very wet evening in June a young man in a high dogcart was driving
up the glen. A deer-stalker's cap was tied down over his ears, and the
collar of a great white waterproof defended his neck. A cheerful
bronzed face was shadowed by the peak of his cap, and two very keen grey
eyes peered out into the mist. He was driving with tight rein, for the
mare was fresh and the road had awkward slopes and corners; but none the
less he was dreaming, thinking pleasant thoughts, and now and then
looking cheerily at the ribs of hill which at times were cleared of
mist. His clean-shaven face was wet and shining with the drizzle, pools
formed on the floor of the cart, and the mare's flanks were plastered
with the weather.

Suddenly he drew up sharp at the sight of a figure by the roadside.

"Hullo, Doctor Gracey," he cried, "where on earth have you come from?
Come in and I'll give you a lift."

The figure advanced and scrambled into the vacant seat. It was a little
old man in a big topcoat with a quaint-fashioned wide-awake hat on his
head. In ill weather all distinctions are swept away. The stranger
might have been a statesman or a tramp.

"It is a pleasure to see you, Doctor," and the young man grasped a
mittened hand and looked into his companion's face. There was something
both kindly and mirthful in his grey eyes.

The old man arranged his seat comfortably, buttoned another button at
the neck of the coat, and then scrutinised the driver. "It's four
years - four years in October since I last cast eyes on you, Lewie, my
boy," he said. "I heard you were coming, so I refused a lift from
Haystounslacks and the minister. Haystounslacks was driving from
Gledsmuir, and unless the Lord protects him he will be in Avelin water
ere he gets home. Whisky and a Glenavelin road never agree, Lewie, as I
who have mended the fool's head a dozen times should know. But I
thought you would never come, and was prepared to ride in the next
baker's van." The Doctor spoke with the pure English and high northern
voice of an old school of professional men, whose tongue, save in
telling a story, knew not the vernacular, and yet in its pitch and
accent inevitably betrayed their birthplace. Precise in speech and
dress, uncommonly skilful, a mild humorist, and old in the world's
wisdom, he had gone down the evening way of life with the heart of a

"I was delayed - I could not help it, though I was all afternoon at the
job," said the young man. "I've seen a dozen and more tenants and I
talked sheep and drains till I got out of my depth and was gravely
corrected. It's the most hospitable place on earth, this, but I thought
it a pity to waste a really fine hunger on the inevitable ham and eggs,
so I waited for dinner. Lord, I have an appetite! Come and dine,
Doctor. I am in solitary state just now, and long, wet evenings are

"I'm afraid I must excuse myself, Lewie," was the formal answer, with
just a touch of reproof. Dinner to Doctor Gracey was a serious
ceremony, and invitations should not be scattered rashly. "My
housekeeper's wrath is not to be trifled with, as you should know."

"I do," said the young man in a tone of decent melancholy. "She once
cuffed my ears the month I stayed with you for falling in the burn.
Does she beat you, Doctor?"

"Indeed, no," said the little old gentleman; "not as yet. But
physically she is my superior and I live in terror." Then abruptly, "For
heaven's sake, Lewie, mind the mare."

"It's all right," said the driver, as the dogcart swung neatly round an
ugly turn. "There's the mist going off the top of Etterick Law,
and - why, that's the end of the Dreichill?"

"It's the Dreichill, and beyond it is the Little Muneraw. Are you glad
to be home, Lewie?"

"Rather," said the young man gravely. "This is my own countryside, and
I fancy it's the last place a man forgets."

"I fancy so - with right-thinking people. By the way, I have much to
congratulate you on. We old fogies in this desert place have been often
seeing your name in the newspapers lately. You are a most experienced

"Fair. But people made a great deal more of that than it deserved. It
was very simple, and I had every chance. Some day I will go out and do
the same thing again with no advantages, and if I come back you may
praise me then."

"Right, Lewie. A bare game and no chances is the rule of war. And now,
what will you do?"

"Settle down," said the young man with mock pathos, "which in my case
means settling up also. I suppose it is what you would call the crucial
moment in my life. I am going in for politics, as I always intended,
and for the rest I shall live a quiet country life at Etterick. I've a
wonderful talent for rusticity."

The Doctor shot an inquiring glance from beneath the flaps of his hat.
"I never can make up my mind about you, Lewie."

"I daresay not. It is long since I gave up trying to make up my mind
about myself."

"When you were a very small and very bad boy I made the usual prophecy
that you would make a spoon or spoil a horn. Later I declared you would
make the spoon. I still keep to that opinion, but I wish to goodness I
knew what shape your spoon would take."

"Ornamental, Doctor, some odd fancy spoon, but not useful. I feel an
inner lack of usefulness."

"Humph! Then things are serious, Lewie, and I, as your elder, should
give advice; but confound it, my dear, I cannot think what it should be.
Life has been too easy for you, a great deal too easy. You want a
little of the salt and iron of the world. You are too clever ever to be
conceited, and you are too good a fellow ever to be a fool, but apart
from these sad alternatives there are numerous middle stages which are
not very happy."

The young man's face lengthened, as it always did either in repose or

"You are old and wise, Doctor. Have you any cure for a man with
sufficient money and no immediate profession to prevent stagnation?"

"None," said the Doctor; "but the man himself can find many. The chief
is that he be conscious of his danger, and on the watch against it. As
a last expedient I should recommend a second course of travel."

"But am I to be barred from my home because of this bogey of yours?"

"No, Lewie lad, but you must be kept, as you say, 'up to scratch,'" and
the old face smiled. "You are too good to waste. You Haystouns are
high-strung, finicking people, on whom idleness sits badly. Also you
are the last of your race and have responsibilities. You must remember
I was your father's friend, and knew you all well."

At the mention of his father the young man's interest quickened.

"I must have been only about six years old when he died. I find so few
people who remember him well and can tell me about him."

"You are very like him, Lewie. He began nearly as well as you; but he
settled down into a quiet life, which was the very thing for which he
was least fitted. I do not know if he had altogether a happy time. He
lost interest in things, and grew shy and rather irritable. He
quarrelled with most of his neighbours, and got into a trick of
magnifying little troubles till he shrank from the slightest

"And my mother?"

"Ah, your mother was different - a cheery, brave woman. While she lived
she kept him in some measure of self-confidence, but you know she died
at your birth, Lewie, and after that he grew morose and retiring. I
speak about these things from the point of view of my profession, and I
fancy it is the special disease which lies in your blood. You have all
been over-cultured and enervated; as I say, you want some of the salt
and iron of life."

The young man's brow was furrowed in a deep frown which in no way broke
the good-humour of his face. They were nearing a cluster of houses, the
last clachan of sorts in the glen, where a kirk steeple in a grove of
trees proclaimed civilization. A shepherd passed them with a couple of
dogs, striding with masterful step towards home and comfort. The cheery
glow of firelight from the windows pleased both men as they were whirled
through the raw weather.

"There, you see," said the Doctor, nodding his head towards the
retreating figure; "there's a man who in his own way knows the secret of
life. Most of his days are spent in dreary, monotonous toil. He is for
ever wrestling with the weather and getting scorched and frozen, and the
result is that the sparse enjoyments of his life are relished with a
rare gusto. He sucks his pipe of an evening with a zest which the man
who lies on his back all day smoking knows nothing about. So, too, the
labourer who hoes turnips for one and sixpence the day. They know the
arduousness of life, which is a lesson we must all learn sooner or
later. You people who have been coddled and petted must learn it, too;
and for you it is harder to learn, but pleasanter in the learning,
because you stand above the bare need of things, and have leisure for
the adornments. We must all be fighters and strugglers, Lewie, and it
is better to wear out than to rust out. It is bad to let choice things
become easily familiar; for, you know, familiarity is apt to beget a
proverbial offspring."

The young man had listened attentively, but suddenly he leaned from the
seat and with a dexterous twitch of his whip curled it round the leg of
a boy of sixteen who stood before a cottage.

"Hullo, Jock," he cried. "When are you coming up to see me? Bring your
brother some day and we'll go and fish the Midburn." The urchin pulled
off a ragged cap and grinned with pleasure.

"That's the boy you pulled out of the Avelin?" asked the Doctor. "I had
heard of that performance. It was a good introduction to your

"It was nothing," said the young man, flushing slightly. "I was
crossing the ford and the stream was up a bit. The boy was fishing,
wading pretty deep, and in turning round to stare at me he slipped and
was carried down. I merely rode my horse out and collared him. There
was no danger."

"And the Black Linn just below," said the Doctor, incredulously. "You
have got the usual modesty of the brave man, Lewie."

"It was a very small thing. My horse knew its business - that was all."
And he flicked nervously with the whip.

A grey house among trees rose on the left with a quaint gateway of
unhewn stone. The dogcart pulled up, and the Doctor scrambled down and
stood shaking the rain from his hat and collar. He watched the young
man till, with a skilful turn, he had entered Etterick gates, and then
with a more meditative face than is usual in a hungry man he went
through the trees to his own dwelling.



When the afternoon train from the south drew into Gledsmuir station, a
girl who had been devouring the landscape for the last hour with eager
eyes, rose nervously to prepare for exit. To Alice Wishart the country
was a novel one, and the prospect before her an unexplored realm of
guesses. The daughter of a great merchant, she had lived most of her
days in the ugly environs of a city, save for such time as she had spent
at the conventional schools. She had never travelled; the world of men
and things was merely a name to her, and a girlhood, lonely and
brightened chiefly by the companionship of books, had not given her
self-confidence. She had casually met Lady Manorwater at some political
meeting in her father's house, and the elder woman had taken a strong
liking to the quiet, abstracted child. Then came an invitation to
Glenavelin, accepted gladly yet with much fear and searching of heart.
Now, as she looked out on the shining mountain land, she was full of
delight that she was about to dwell in the heart of it. Something of
pride, too, was present, that she was to be the guest of a great lady,
and see something of a life which seemed infinitely remote to her
provincial thoughts. But when her journey drew near its end she was
foolishly nervous, and scanned the platform with anxious eye.

The sight of her hostess reassured her. Lady Manorwater was a small
middle-aged woman, with a thin classical face, large colourless eyes,
and untidy fair hair. She was very plainly dressed, and as she darted
forward to greet the girl with entire frankness and kindness, Alice
forgot her fears and kissed her heartily. A languid young woman was
introduced as Miss Afflint, and in a few minutes the three were in the
Glenavelin carriage with the wide glen opening in front.

"Oh, my dear, I hope you will enjoy your visit. We are quite a small
party, for Jack says Glenavelin is far too small to entertain in. You
are fond of the country, aren't you? And of course the place is very
pretty. There is tennis and golf and fishing; but perhaps you don't
like these things? We are not very well off for neighbours, but we are
large enough in number to be sufficient to ourselves. Don't you think
so, Bertha?" And Lady Manorwater smiled at the third member of the

Miss Afflint, a silent girl, smiled back and said nothing. She had been
engaged in a secret study of Alice's face, and whenever the object of
the study raised her eyes she found a pair of steady blue ones beaming
on her. It was a little disconcerting, and Alice gazed out at the
landscape with a fictitious curiosity.

They passed out of the Gled valley into the narrower strath of Avelin,
and soon, leaving the meadows behind, went deep into the recesses of
woods. At a narrow glen bridged by the road and bright with the spray
of cascades and the fresh green of ferns, Alice cried out in delight,
"Oh, I must come back here some day and sketch it. What a Paradise of a

"Then you had better ask Lewie's permission." And Lady Manorwater

"Who is Lewie?" asked the girl, anticipating some gamekeeper or

"Lewie is my nephew. He lives at Etterick, up at the head of the glen."

Miss Afflint spoke for the first time. "A very good man. You should
know Lewie, Miss Wishart. I'm sure you would like him. He is a great
traveller, you know, and has written a famous book. Lewis Haystoun is
his full name."

"Why, I have read it," cried Alice. "You mean the book about Kashmir.
But I thought the author was an old man."

"Lewie is not very old," said his aunt; "but I haven't seen him for
years, so he may be decrepit by this time. He is coming home soon, he
says, but he never writes. I know two of his friends who pay a Private
Inquiry Office to send them news of him."

Alice laughed and became silent. What merry haphazard people were these
she had fallen among! At home everything was docketed and ordered.
Meals were immovable feasts, the hour for bed and the hour for rising
were more regular than the sun's. Her father was full of proverbs on
the virtue of regularity, and was wont to attribute every vice and
misfortune to its absence. And yet here were men and women who got on
very well without it. She did not wholly like it. The little
doctrinaire in her revolted and she was pleased to be censorious.

"You are a very learned young woman, aren't you?" said Lady Manorwater,
after a short silence. "I have heard wonderful stories about your
learning. Then I hope you will talk to Mr. Stocks, for I am afraid he
is shocked at Bertha's frivolity. He asked her if she was in favour of
the Prisons Regulation Bill, and she was very rude."

"I only said," broke in Miss Afflint, "that owing to my lack of definite
local knowledge I was not in a position to give an answer commensurate
with the gravity of the subject." She spoke in a perfect imitation of
the tone of a pompous man.

"Bertha, I do not approve of you," said Lady Manorwater. "I forbid you
to mimic Mr. Stocks. He is very clever, and very much in earnest over
everything. I don't wonder that a butterfly like you should laugh, but
I hope Miss Wishart will be kind to him."

"I am afraid I am very ignorant," said Alice hastily, "and I am very
useless. I never did any work of any sort in my life, and when I think
of you I am ashamed."

"Oh, my dear child, please don't think me a paragon," cried her hostess
in horror. "I am a creature of vague enthusiasms and I have the sense
to know it. Sometimes I fancy I am a woman of business, and then I take
up half a dozen things till Jack has to interfere to prevent financial
ruin. I dabble in politics and I dabble in philanthropy; I write review
articles which nobody reads, and I make speeches which are a horror to
myself and a misery to my hearers. Only by the possession of a sense of
humour am I saved from insignificance."

To Alice the speech was the breaking of idols. Competence,
responsibility were words she had been taught to revere, and to hear
them light-heartedly disavowed seemed an upturning of the foundation of
things. You will perceive that her education had not included that
valuable art, the appreciation of the flippant.

By this time the carriage was entering the gates of the park, and the
thick wood cleared and revealed long vistas of short hill grass, rising
and falling like moorland, and studded with solitary clumps of firs.
Then a turn in the drive brought them once more into shadow, this time
beneath a heath-clad knoll where beeches and hazels made a pleasant
tangle. All this was new, not three years old; but soon they were in
the ancient part of the policy which had surrounded the old house of
Glenavelin. Here the grass was lusher, the trees antique oaks and
beeches, and grey walls showed the boundary of an old pleasure-ground.
Here in the soft sunlit afternoon sleep hung like a cloud, and the peace
of centuries dwelt in the long avenues and golden pastures. Another
turning and the house came in sight, at first glance a jumble of grey
towers and ivied walls. Wings had been built to the original square
keep, and even now it was not large, a mere moorland dwelling. But the
whitewashed walls, the crow-step gables, and the quaint Scots baronial
turrets gave it a perfection to the eye like a house in a dream. To
Alice, accustomed to the vulgarity of suburban villas with Italian
campaniles, a florid lodge a stone's throw from the house, darkened too
with smoke and tawdry with paint, this old-world dwelling was a patch of
wonderland. Her eyes drank in the beauty of the place - the great blue
backs of hill beyond, the acres of sweet pasture, the primeval woods.

"Is this Glenavelin?" she cried. "Oh, what a place to live in!"

"Yes, it's very pretty, dear." And Lady Manorwater, who possessed half a
dozen houses up and down the land, patted her guest's arm and looked
with pleasure on the flushed girlish face.

* * * * *

Two hours later, Alice, having completed dressing, leaned out of her
bedroom window to drink in the soft air of evening. She had not brought
a maid, and had refused her hostess's offer to lend her her own on the
ground that maids were a superfluity. It was her desire to be a very
practical young person, a scorner of modes and trivialities, and yet she
had taken unusual care with her toilet this evening, and had spent many
minutes before the glass. Looking at herself carefully, a growing
conviction began to be confirmed - that she was really rather pretty.
She had reddish-brown hair and - a rare conjunction - dark eyes and
eyebrows and a delicate colour. As a small girl she had lamented
bitterly the fate that had not given her the orthodox beauty of the dark
or fair maiden, and in her school days she had passed for plain. Now it
began to dawn on her that she had beauty of a kind - the charm of
strangeness; and her slim strong figure had the grace which a wholesome
life alone can give. She was in high spirits, curious, interested, and
generous. The people amused her, the place was a fairyland and outside
the golden weather lay still and fragrant among the hills.

When she came down to the drawing-room she found the whole party
assembled. A tall man with a brown beard and a slight stoop ceased to
assault the handle of a firescreen and came over to greet her. He had
only come back half an hour ago, he explained, and so had missed her
arrival. The face attracted and soothed her. Abundant kindness lurked
in the humorous brown eyes, and a queer pucker on the brow gave him the
air of a benevolent despot. If this was Lord Manorwater, she had no
further dread of the great ones of the earth. There were four other
men, two of them mild, spectacled people, who had the air of students
and a precise affected mode of talk, and one a boy cousin of whom no one
took the slightest notice. The fourth was a striking figure, a man of
about forty in appearance, tall and a little stout, with a rugged face
which in some way suggested a picture of a prehistoric animal in an old
natural history she had owned. The high cheek-bones, large nose, and
slightly protruding eyes had an unfinished air about them, as if their
owner had escaped prematurely from a mould. A quantity of bushy black
hair - which he wore longer than most men - enhanced the dramatic air of his
appearance. It was a face full of vigour and a kind of strength,
shrewd, a little coarse, and solemn almost to the farcical. He was
introduced in a rush of words by the hostess, but beyond the fact that
it was a monosyllable, Alice did not catch his name.

Lord Manorwater took in Miss Afflint, and Alice fell to the dark man
with the monosyllabic name. He had a way of bowing over his hand which
slightly repelled the girl, who had no taste for elaborate manners. His
first question, too, displeased her. He asked her if she was one of the
Wisharts of some unpronounceable place.

She replied briefly that she did not know. Her grandfathers on both
sides had been farmers.

The gentleman bowed with the smiling unconcern of one to whom pedigree
is a matter of course.

"I have heard often of your father," he said. "He is one of the local
supports of the party to which I have the honour to belong. He
represents one great section of our retainers, our host another. I am
glad to see such friendship between the two." And he smiled elaborately
from Alice to Lord Manorwater.

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryJohn BuchanThe Half-Hearted → online text (page 1 of 21)