Goodreads.com
back to The Half-Hearted »
contents
read reviews
previous chapter
next chapter
-
+
i


Chapter 17 The Brink of the Rubicon

The next evening Wratislaw drove in a hired dogcart up Glenavelin from Gledsmuir just as a stormy autumn twilight was setting in over the bare fields. A wild back-end had followed on the tracks of a marvellous summer. Though it was still October the leaves lay heaped beneath the hedgerows, the bracken had yellowed to a dismal hue of decay, and the heather had turned from the purple of its flower to the grey-blue of its passing. Rain had fallen, and the long road-side pools were fired by the westering sun. Glenavelin looked crooked and fantastic in the falling shadows, and two miles farther the high lights of Etterick rose like a star in the bosom of the hills. Seen after many weeks' work in the bustle and confinement of town, the solitary, shadow-haunted world soothed and comforted.

He found Lewis in his room alone. The place was quite dark for no lamp was lit, and only a merry fire showed the occupant. He welcomed his friend with crazy vehemence, pushing him into a great armchair, offering a dozen varieties of refreshment, and leaving the butler aghast with contradictory messages about dinner.

"Oh, Tommy, upon my soul, it is good to see you here! I was getting as dull as an owl."

"Are you alone?" Wratislaw asked.

"George is staying here, but he has gone over to Glenaller to a big shoot. I didn't care much about it, so I stayed at home. He will be back to-morrow."

Lewis's face in the firelight seemed cheerful and wholesome enough, but his words belied it. Wratislaw wondered why this man, who had been wont to travel to the ends of the earth for good shooting, should deny himself the famous Glenaller coverts.

At dinner the lamplight showed him more clearly, and the worried look in his eyes could not be hidden. He was listless, too, his kindly, boisterous manner seemed to have forsaken him, and he had acquired a great habit of abstracted silence. He asked about recent events in the House, commenting shrewdly enough, but without interest. When Wratislaw in turn questioned him on his doings, he had none of the ready enthusiasm which had been used to accompany his talk on sport. He gave bare figures and was silent.

Afterwards in his own sanctum, with drawn curtains and a leaping fire, he became more cheerful. It was hard to be moody in that pleasant room, with the light glancing from silver and vellum and dark oak, and a thousand memories about it of the clean, outdoor life. Wratislaw stretched his legs to the blaze and watched the coils of blue smoke mounting from his pipe with a feeling of keen pleasure. His errand was out of the focus of his thoughts.

It was Lewis himself who recalled him to the business.

"I thought of coming down to town," he said. "I have been getting out of spirits up here, and I wanted to be near you."

"Then it was an excellent chance which brought me up to-night. But why are you dull? I thought you were the sort of man who is sufficient unto himself, you know."

"I am not," he said sharply. "I never realized my gross insufficiency so bitterly."

"Ah!" said Wratislaw, sitting up, "love?

"Did you happen to see Miss Wishart's engagement in the papers?"

"I never read the papers. But I have heard about this: in fact, I believe I have congratulated Stocks."

"Do you know that she ought to have married me?" Lewis cried almost shrilly. "I swear she loved me. It was only my hideous folly that drove her from me."

"Folly?" said Wratislaw, smiling. "Folly? Well you might call it that. I have come up 'ane's errand,' as your people hereabouts say, to talk to you like a schoolmaster, Lewie. Do you mind a good talking-to?"

"I need it," he said. "Only it won't do any good, because I have been talking to myself for a month without effect. Do you know what I am, Tommy?"

"I am prepared to hear," said the other.

"A coward! It sounds nice, doesn't it? I am a shirker, a man who would be drummed out of any regiment."

"Rot!" said Wratislaw. "In that sort of thing you have the courage of your kind. You are the wrong sort of breed for common shirking cowards. Why, man, you might get the Victoria Cross ten times over with ease, as far as that goes. Only you wouldn't, for you are something much more subtle and recondite than a coward."

It was Lewis's turn for the request. "I am prepared to hear," he said.

"A fool! An arrant, extraordinary fool! A fool of quality and parts, a fool who is the best fellow in the world and who has every virtue a man can wish, but at the same time a conspicuous monument of folly. And it is this that I have come to speak about."

Lewis sat back in his chair with his eyes fixed on the glowing coal.

"I want you to make it all plain," he said slowly. "I know it all already; I have got the dull, dead consciousness of it in my heart, but I want to hear it put into words." And he set his lips like a man in pain.

"It is hard," said Wratislaw, "devilish hard, but I've got to try." He knocked out the ashes from his pipe and leaned forward.

"What would you call the highest happiness, Lewie?" he asked.

"The sense of competence," was the answer, given without hesitation.

"Right. And what do we mean by competence? Not success! God knows it is something very different from success! Any fool may be successful, if the gods wish to hurt him. Competence means that splendid joy in your own powers and the approval of your own heart, which great men feel always and lesser men now and again at favoured intervals. There are a certain number of things in the world to be done, and we have got to do them. We may fail—it doesn't in the least matter. We may get killed in the attempt—it matters still less. The things may not altogether be worth doing—it is of very little importance. It is ourselves we have got to judge by. If we are playing our part well, and know it, then we can thank God and go on. That is what I call happiness."

"And I," said Lewis.

"And how are you to get happiness? Not by thinking about it. The great things of the world have all been done by men who didn't stop to reflect on them. If a man comes to a halt and analyses his motives and distrusts the value of the thing he strives for, then the odds are that his halt is final. You strive to strive and not to attain. A man must have that direct practical virtue which forgets itself and sees only its work. Parsons will tell you that all virtue is self-sacrifice, and they are right, though not in the way they mean. It may all seem a tissue of contradictions. You must not pitch on too fanciful a goal, nor, on the other hand, must you think on yourself. And it is a contradiction which only resolves itself in practice, one of those anomalies on which the world is built up."

Lewis nodded his head.

"And the moral of it all is that there are two sorts of people who will never do any good on this planet. One is the class which makes formulas and shallow little ideals its gods and has no glimpse of human needs and the plain issues of life. The other is the egotist whose eye is always filled with his own figure, who investigates his motives, and hesitates and finicks, till Death knocks him on the head and there is an end of him. Of the two give me the second, for even a narrow little egotistical self is better than a formula. But I pray to be delivered from both."

"'Then who shall stand if Thou, O Lord, dost mark iniquity?'" Lewis quoted.

"There are two men only who will not be ashamed to look their work in the face in the end—the brazen opportunist and the rigid Puritan. Suppose you had some desperate frontier work to get through with and a body of men to pick for it, whom would you take? Not the ordinary, colourless, respectable being, and still less academic nonentities! If I had my pick, my companions should either be the narrowest religionists or frank, unashamed blackguards. I should go to the Calvinists and the fanatics for choice, but if I could not get them then I should have the rankers. For, don't you see, the first would have the fear of God in them, and that somehow keeps a man from fearing anything else. They would do their work because they believed it to be their duty. And the second would have the love of the sport in them, and they should also be made to dwell in the fear of me. They would do their work because they liked it, and liked me, and I told them to do it."

"I agree with you absolutely," said Lewis. "I never thought otherwise."

"Good," said Wratislaw. "Now for my application. You've had the misfortune to fall between the two stools, Lewie. You're too clever for a Puritan and too good for a ranker. You're too finicking and high-strung and fanciful for a prosaic world. You think yourself the laughing philosopher with an infinite appreciation of everything, and yet you have not the humour to stand aside and laugh at yourself."

"I am a coward, as I have told you," said the other dourly.

"No, you are not. But you can't bring yourself down to the world of compromises, which is the world of action. You have lost the practical touch. You muddled your fight with Stocks because you couldn't get out of touch with your own little world in practice, however you might manage it in theory. You can't be single-hearted. Twenty impulses are always pulling different ways with you, and the result is that you become an unhappy, self-conscious waverer."

Lewis was staring into the fire, and the older man leaned forward and put his hand very tenderly on his shoulder.

"I don't want to speak about the thing which gives you most pain, old chap; but I think you have spoiled your chances in the same way in another matter-the most important matter a man can have to do with, though it ill becomes a cynical bachelor like myself to say it."

"I know," said Lewis dismally.

"You see it is the Nemesis of your race which has overtaken you. The rich, strong blood of you Haystouns must be given room or it sours into moodiness. It is either a spoon or a spoiled horn with you. You are capable of the big virtues, and just because of it you are extraordinarily apt to go to the devil. Not the ordinary devil, of course, but to a very effective substitute. You want to be braced and pulled together. A war might do it, if you were a soldier. A religious enthusiasm would do it, if that were possible for you. As it is, I have something else, which I came up to propose to you."

Lewis faced round in an attitude of polite attention. But his eyes had no interest in them.

"You know Bardur and the country about there pretty well?"

Lewis nodded.

"Also I once talked to you about a man called Marka. Do you remember?"

"Yes, of course I do. The man who went north from Bardur the week before I turned up there?"

"Well, there's trouble brewing thereabouts. You know the Taghati country up beyond the Russian line. Things are in a ferment there, great military preparations and all the rest of it, and the reason, they say, is that the hill-tribes in the intervening No-man's-land are at their old games. Things look very ugly abroad just now, and we can't afford to neglect anything when a crisis may be at the door. So we want a man to go out there and find out the truth."

Lewis had straightened himself and was on his feet before Wratislaw had done. "Upon my word," he cried, "if it isn't what I expected! We have been far too sure of the safety of that Kashmir frontier. You mean, of course, that there may be a chance of an invasion?"

"I mean nothing. But things look ugly enough in Europe just now, and Asia would naturally be the starting-point."

Lewis made some rapid calculations in his head which he jotted on the wood of the fireplace. "It would take a week to get from Bardur to Taghati by the ordinary Kashmir rate of travelling, but of course the place is unknown and it might take months. One would have to try it?"

"I can only give you the bare facts. If you decide to go, Beauregard will give you particulars in town."

"When would he want to know?"

"At once. I go back to-morrow morning, and I must have your answer within three days. You would be required to start within a week. You can take time and quiet to make up your mind."

"It's a great chance," said Lewis. "Does Beauregard think it important?"

"Of the highest importance. Also, of course it is dangerous. The travelling is hard, and you may be knocked on the head at any moment as a spy."

"I don't mind that," said the other, flushing. "I've been through the same thing before."

"I need not say the work will be very difficult. Remember that your errand will not be official, so in case of failure or trouble we could not support you. We might even have to disclaim all responsibility. In the event of success, on the other hand, your fortune is something more than made."

"Would you go?" came the question.

"No," said Wratislaw, "I shouldn't."

"But if you were in my place?"

"I should hope that I would, but then I might not have the courage. I am giving you the brave man's choice, Lewie. You will be going out to uncertainty and difficulty and extreme danger. On the other hand, I believe in my soul it will harden you into the man you ought to be. Lord knows I would rather have you stay at home!"

The younger man looked up for a second and saw something in Wratislaw's face which made him turn away his eyes. The look of honest regret cut him to the heart. Those friends of his, of whom he was in nowise worthy, made the burden of his self-distrust doubly heavy.

"I will tell you within three days," he said hoarsely. "God bless you, Tommy. I don't deserve to have a man like you troubling himself about me."

It was his one spoken tribute to their friendship; and both, with the nervousness of honest men in the presence of emotion, hastened to change the subject.