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Many of the aristocrats profiled in John Buchan’s novel The Half-Hearted are beset with crippling doubts about their own lifestyles and characters. Protagonist Lewis Haystoun is disgusted with his own inability to take a decisive stand on any issue of significance, and sets about to cure himself by undertaking a life-or-death campaign halfway around the world. This crowd-pleasing novel has something for everyone: romance, derring-do, and plenty of action and adventure.
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 boy.
“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 dreary.”
“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?”