And Janet sat upo' the chair, White as the day did daw; Her smile was a sunlight left on the sea, Whan the sun has gane awa'.
Alec had never till now heard her sing really. Wild music and eerie ballad together filled and absorbed him. He was still gazing at her lovely head, when the last wailing sounds of the accompaniment ceased, and her face turned round, white as Janet's. She gave one glance of unutterable feeling up into Beauchamp's face, and hiding her own in her handkerchief, sobbed out, "You would make me sing it!" and left the room.
Alec's heart swelled with indignant sympathy. But what could he do? The room became insupportable the moment she had quitted it, and he made his way to the door. As he opened it, he could not help glancing at Beauchamp. Instead of the dismay he expected, he saw triumph on his pale countenance, and in the curl of his scarred lip.—He flew frantic from the house. The sky was crowded with the watchings of starry eyes. To his fancy, they were like Beauchamp's, and he hated them. Seeking refuge from their gaze, he rushed to the library, and threw himself on a heap of foreign books, which he had that morning arranged for binding. A ghostly glimmer from the snow, and the stars overhead, made the darkness thinner about the windows; but there was no other light in the place; and there he lay, feeling darker within than the night around him. Kate was weeping in her room; that contemptible ape had wounded her; and instead of being sorry for it, was rejoicing in his power. And he could not go to her; she would receive no comfort from him.
It was a bitter hour. Eternity must be very rich to make up for some such hours.
He had lain a long time with his face down upon the books, when he suddenly started and listened. He heard the sound of an opening door, but not of the door in ordinary use. Thinking it proceeded from some thievish intent, he kept still. There was another door, in a corner, covered with books, but it was never opened at all. It communicated with a part of the buildings of the quadrangle which had been used for the abode of the students under a former economy. It had been abandoned now for many years, as none slept any longer within the walls of the college. Alec knew all this, but he did not know that there was also a communication between this empty region and Mr Fraser's house; or that the library had been used before as a tryst by Beauchamp and Kate.
The door closed, and the light of a lantern flashed to the ceiling. Wondering that such a place should excite the cupidity of housebreakers, yet convinced that such the intruders were, Alec moved gently into the embrasure of one of the windows, against the corner of which abutted a screen of book-shelves. A certain light rustling, however, startled him into doubt, and the doubt soon passed into painful conviction.
"Why were you so unkind, Patrick?" said the voice of Kate. "You know it kills me to sing that ballad. I cannot bear it."
"Why should you mind singing an old song your nurse taught you?"
"My nurse learned it from my mother. Oh Patrick! what would my mother say if she knew that I met you this way? You shouldn't ask me. You know I can refuse you nothing; and you should be generous."
Alec could not hear his answer, and he knew why. That scar on his lip! Kate's lips there!
Of course Alec ought not to have listened. But the fact was, that, for the time, all consciousness of free will and capability of action had vanished from his mind. His soul was but a black gulf into which poured the Phlegethontic cataract of their conversation.
"Ah, yes, Patrick! Kisses are easy. But you hurt me terribly sometimes. And I know why. You hate my cousin, poor boy!—and you want me to hate him too. I wonder if you love me as much as he does!—or did; for surely I have been unkind enough to cure him of loving me. Surely you are not jealous of him?"
"Jealous of him!—I should think not!"
Human expression could have thrown no more scorn into the word.
"But you hate him."
"I don't hate him. He's not worth hating—the awkward steer!—although I confess I have cause to dislike him, and have some gratification in mortifying him. But he's not a pleasant subject to me."
"His mother has been very kind to me. I wish you would make it up with him for my sake, Patrick. He may be uncouth and awkward—I don't know—but that's no reason for hating him. I love you so that I could love anybody that loved you. You don't know how I love you, Patrick—though you are unkind sometimes. The world used to look so cold, and narrow, and grey; but now there is a flush like sunset over everything, and I am so happy! Patrick, don't make me do things before my cousin that will hurt him."
Alec knew that she pressed closer to Beauchamp, and offered him her face.
"Listen, my Kate," said Beauchamp. "I know there are things you cannot bear to hear; but you must hear this."
"No, no, not now!" answered Kate, shuddering.
Alec knew how she looked—saw her with the eyes of his memory as she had looked once or twice—and listened unconscious of any existence but that of hearing.
"You must, Kate, and you shall," said Beauchamp. "You asked me only yesterday how I came by that scar on my lip. I will tell you. I rebuked that cousin of yours for unmanly behaviour in the dissecting-room, the very first time he entered it. He made no reply; but when we came out, he struck me."
The icy mood passed away, and such a glow of red anger rushed through Alec's veins, that he felt as if the hot blast from molten metal were playing upon his face. That Kate should marry such a man! The same moment he stood in the light of the lantern, with one word on his lips:
Beauchamp's hand sprang to the hilt of his dirk. Alec laughed with bitter contempt.
"Pooh!" he said; "even you will not say I am a coward. Do if you dare!"
After her first startled cry, Kate had stood staring and trembling. Beauchamp's presence of mind returned. He thrust his half-drawn dirk into its sheath, and with a curl of the scarred lip, said coldly—
"Lying," retorted Alec.
"Well, I must say," returned Beauchamp, assuming his most polished tone, "that this kind of conversation is at least unusual in the presence of a lady."
Without making him any reply, Alec turned to Kate.
"Kate," he said, "I swear to you that I struck him only after fair warning, after insult to myself, and insult to the dead. He did not know that I was able to give him the chastisement he deserved."
I doubt if Kate heard any of this speech. She had been leaning against a book-case, and from it she now slipped sideways to the floor.
"You brute!" said Beauchamp. "You will answer to me for this."
"When you please," returned Alec. "Meantime you will leave this room, or I will make you."
"Go to the devil!" said Beauchamp, again laying his hand on his dirk.
"You can claim fair play no more than a wolf," said Alec, keeping his eye on his enemy's hand. "You had better go. I have only to ring this bell and the sacrist will be here."
"That is your regard for your cousin! You would expose her to the servants!"
"I will expose her to anything rather than to you. I have held my tongue too long."
"And you will leave her lying here?"
"You will leave her lying here."
"That is your revenge, is it?"
"I want no revenge even on you, Beauchamp. Go."
"I will neither forestall nor forget mine," said Beauchamp, as he turned and went out into the quadrangle.
When Alec came to think about it, he could not understand the ease of his victory. He did not know what a power their first encounter had given him over the inferior nature of Beauchamp, in whom the animal, unsupported by the moral, was cowed before the animal in Forbes, backed by the sense of right.
And above all things Beauchamp hated to find himself in an awkward position, which certainly would have been his case if Alec had rung for the sacrist. Nor was he capable of acting well on the spur of any moment. He must have plans: those he would carry out remorselessly.—So he went away to excogitate further revenge. But he was in love with Kate just enough to be uneasy as to the result of Alec's interview with her.
Returning to Kate, Alec found her moaning. He supported her head as she had done for him in that old harvest field, and chafed her chilly hands. Before her senses had quite returned, she began to talk, and, after several inarticulate attempts, her murmured words became plain.
"Never mind, dear," she said; "the boy is wild. He doesn't know what he says. Oh, Patrick, my heart is aching with love to you. It is good love, I know; and you must be kind to me, and not make me do what I don't like to do. And you must forgive my poor cousin, for he did not mean to tell lies. He fancies you bad, because I love you so much more than him. But you know I can't help it, and I daresay he can't either."
Alec felt as if a green flame were consuming his brain. And the blood surged so into his head and eyes, that he saw flashes of fire between him and Kate. He could not remain in such a false position, with Kate taking him for her lover. But what an awful shock it would be to her when she discovered the truth! How was it to be avoided? He must get her home before she recovered quite. For this there was but one chance, and that lay in a bold venture. Mr Fraser's door was just across a corner of the quadrangle. He would carry her to her own room. The guests must be gone, and it was a small household, so that the chance of effecting it undiscovered was a good one. He did effect it; in three minutes more he had laid her on her own bed, had rung her bell, and had sped out of the house as fast and as quietly as he could.
His gratification at having succeeded in escaping Kate's recognition, bore him up for a little, but before he reached home his heart felt like a burnt-out volcano.
Meantime Mr Cupples had been fretting over his absence, for he had come to depend very much upon Alec. At last he had rung the bell, knowing that Mrs Leslie was out, and that it would be answered by a dirty girl in nailed shoes turned down at the heel; she would be open to a bribe. Nor did she need much persuasion besides. Off she ran with his empty bottle, to get it filled at the grocer's over the way.
When Alec came home, he found his friend fast asleep in bed, the room smelling strongly of toddy, and the bottle standing on the table beside the empty tumbler. Faint in body, mind, and spirit, as if from the sudden temptation of an unholy power, he caught up the bottle. The elixir mortis flowed gurgling from the narrow neck into the tumbler which Mr Cupples had lately emptied. Heedless and reckless, he nearly filled it, and was just lifting it to his lips, when a cry half-moulded into a curse rang from the bed, and the same instant the tumbler was struck from his hand. It flew in fragments against the grate, and the spirit rushed in a roaring flame of demoniacal wrath up the chimney.
"Damn you!" half-shrieked, half-panted Mr Cupples in his night-shirt, at Alec's elbow, still under the influence of the same spirit he had banned on its way to Alec Forbes's empty house—"damn you, bantam! ye've broken my father's tumler. De'il tak' ye for a vaigabon'! I've a guid min' to thraw the neck o' ye!"
Seeing Mr Cupples was only two-thirds of Alec's height, and one-half of his thickness, the threat, as he then stood, was rather ludicrous. Miserable as he was, Alec could not help laughing.
"Ye may lauch, bantam! but I want no companion in hell to cast his damnation in my teeth. Gin ye touch that bottle again, faith, I'll brain ye, and sen' ye into the ither warl' withoot that handle at least for Sawtan to catch a grip o' ye by. And there may be a handle somewhaur o' the richt side o' ye for some saft-hertit angel to lay han' upo' and gie ye a lift whaur ye ill deserve to gang, ye thrawn buckie! Efter a' that I hae said to ye!—Damn ye!"
Alec burst into a loud roar of laughter. For there was the little man standing in his shirt, shaking a trembling fist at him, stammering with eagerness, and half-choked with excitement.
"Gang to yer bed, Mr Cupples, or ye'll tak' yer deith o' cauld. Luik here."
And Alec seized the bottle once more. Mr Cupples flew at him, and would have knocked the bottle after the glass, had not Alec held it high above his reach, exclaiming,
"Toots, man! I'm gaein' to pit it intil its ain neuk. Gang ye to yer bed, and lippen to me."
"Ye gie me yer word, ye winna pit it to yer mou'?"
"I do," answered Alec.
The same moment Mr Cupples was floundering on the bed in a perplexed attempt to get under the bed-clothes. A violent fit of coughing was the consequence of the exertion.
"Ye're like to toom yer ain kist afore ye brain my pan, Mr Cupples," said Alec.
"Haud yer tongue, and lat me host (cough) in peace," panted Mr Cupples.
When the fit was over, he lay still, and stared at Alec. Alec had sat down in Mr Cupples's easy-chair, and was staring at the fire.
"I see," muttered Mr Cupples. "This'll do no longer. The laddie's gaein' to the dogs for want o' bein' luikit efter. I maun be up the morn. It's thae wimmen! thae wimmen! Puir things! they canna aye help it; but, de'il tak' them for bonnie oolets! mony's the fine laddie they drive into the cluiks o' auld Horney. Michtna some gran' discovery be made in Pheesiology, to enable the warl' to gang on wantin' them? But, Lord preserve me! I wad hae naething left worth greetin' aboot!"
He hid his face in the bed-clothes.
Alec hearing part of this muttered discourse, had grown attentive, but there was nothing more forthcoming. He sat for a little, staring helplessly into the fire. The world was very blank and dismal.
Then he rose to go to bed; for Mr Cupples did not require him now. Finding him fast asleep under the bed-clothes, he made him as comfortable as he could. Then he locked the closet where the whisky was, and took the key with him.
Their mutual care in this respect was comical.
The next morning, Alec saw Mr Cupples in bed before he left. His surprise therefore was great when, entering the library after morning lectures, he found him seated in his usual place, hard at work on his catalogue. Except that he was yet thinner and paler than before, the only difference in his appearance was that his eyes were brighter and his complexion was clearer.
"You here, Mr Cupples!" he exclaimed.
"What garred ye lock the press last nicht, ye deevil?" returned the librarian, paying no attention to Alec's expression of surprise. "But I say, bantam," he continued, not waiting for a reply, which indeed was unnecessary, "ye hae dune yer wark weel—verra near as weel's I cud hae dune't mysel'."
"I'm sure, Mr Cupples, it was the least thing I could do."
"Ye impident cock! It was the verra best you cud do, or ye wadna hae come within sicht o' me. I mayna be muckle at thrashin' attoarneys, or cuttin' up deid corpuses, but I defy ye to come up to me at onything conneckit wi' buiks."
"Faith! Mr Cupples, ye may gang farther nor that. Efter what ye hae dune for me, gin I war a general, ye sud lead the Forlorn Hope."
"Ay, ay. It's a forlorn hope, a' 'at I'm fit for, Alec Forbes," returned Cupples sadly.
This struck Alec so near his own grief that he could not reply with even seeming cheerfulness. He said nothing. Mr Cupples resumed.
"I hae twa three words to say to you, Alec Forbes. Can ye believe in a man as weel's ye can in a wumman?"
"I can believe in you, Mr Cupples. That I'll sweir till."
"Weel, jist sit doon there, and carry on frae whaur ye loot sit. Syne efter the three o'clock lecture—wha is't ye're atten'in' this session?—we'll gang doon to Luckie Cumstie's, and hae a moufu' o' denner—she 'll do her best for me—an' I'll hae jist a tumler o' toddy—but de'il a drap sall ye hae, bantam—and de'il a word will I say to ye there. But we'll come back here, and i' the gloamin', I'll gie ye a bit episode i' my life.—Episode did I ca' 'it? Faith it's my life itsel', and no worth muckle, eyther. Ye'll be the first man that ever I tell't it till. And ye may judge o' my regaird for ye frae that fac'."
Alec worked away at his catalogue, and then attended the afternoon lecture. The dinner at Luckie Cumstie's followed—of the plainest, but good. Alec's trouble had not yet affected the region in which Paley seats the organ of happiness. And while an appetite exists, a dinner will be interesting. Just as the gloaming was fading into night, they went back to the library.
"Will I rin ower to the sacrist's for a licht?" asked Alec.
"Na, na; lat be. The mirk's mercifu', whiles."
"I canna unnerstan' ye, Mr Cupples. Sin ever I kent ye i' this library, I never kent ye bide the oncome o' the nicht. As sune's the gloamin' began to fa', ye aye flew to yer hat, and oot at the door as gin there had been a ghaist gettin' its banes thegither oot o' the dark to come at ye."
"Maybe sae there was, bantam. Sae nane o' your jokin'."
"I didna mean to anger ye, Mr Cupples."
"Whaur naething's meant, naething's dune. I'm nae angert. And that ye'll sune see. Sit ye doon there, and tak yer plaid aboot ye, or ye'll be cauld."
"Ye hae nae plaid yersel. Ye're mair like to be cauld nor I am."
"I weir my plaid o' my inside. Ye haena had ony toddy. Deil's broo! It may weel haud a body warm. It comes frae a het quarter."
The open oak ceiling overhead was getting very dark by this time; and the room, divided and crowded with books in all directions, left little free course to the light that struggled through the dusty windows. The friends seated themselves on the lower steps of an open circular oak staircase which wound up to a gallery running round the walls.
"Efter I had taen my degree," began Mr Cupples, "frae the han' o' this same couthy auld mither, I heard o' a grit leebrary i' the north—I winna say whaur—that wantit the han' o' a man that kenned what he was aboot, to pit in dacent order, sae that a body cud lay his han's upon a buik whan he wantit it, and no be i' the condition o' Tantalus, wi' watter at the mou, but nane for the hause (throat). Dinna imaigin' it was a public library. Na, na. It belonged to a grit an' gran' hoose—the Lord hae respec till't, for it's no joke o' a hoose that—as I weel kent afore a' was ower! Weel, I wrought awa', likin' the wark weel, for a buik's the bonniest thing i' the warl' but ane, and there's no dirl (thrill) in't whan ye lay han's upo' 't, as there is, guid kens, in the ither. Man, ye had better lay han's upon a torpedo, or a galvanic battery, nor upon a woman—I mean a woman that ye hae ony attraction till—for she'll gar ye dirl till ye dinna ken yer thoomb frae yer muckle tae. But I was speikin' aboot buiks an' no aboot women, only somehoo whatever a man begins wi', he'll aye en' aff wi' the same thing. The Lord hae a care o' them, for they're awfu' craters! They're no like ither fowk a'thegither. Weel, ye see, I had a room till mysel', forby the library an' my bedroom—an' a gran' place that was! I didna see onything o' the family, for I had my denner and my wine and 'a thing human stammack cud desire served up till me i' my ain room. But ae day, my denner was made up o' ae mess efter anither, vera fine nae doot, but unco queer and ootlandish, and I had nae appeteet, and I cudna eat it. Sae I rase, afore my ordinar' time, and gaed back to my wark. I had taen twa or three glasses o' a dooms fine tipple they ca' Madeira, an' a moufu' o' cheese—that was a'. Weel, I sat doon to my catalogue there, as it micht be here; but I hadna sat copyin' the teetles o' the buiks laid out upo' the muckle table afore me, for mair nor twa minutes, whan I heard a kin' o' a reestlin', an' I thocht it was mice, to whilk I'm a deidly enemy ever sin they ate half o' a first edition o' the Fairy Queen, conteenin' only the first three buiks, ye ken, o' whilk they consumed an' nae doot assimilated ae haill buik and full a half o' anither. But whan I luikit up, what sud I see but a wee leddy, in a goon the colour o' a clood that's takin' nae pairt i' the sunset, but jist lookin' on like, stan'in afore the buik-shelves i' the further en' o' the room. Noo I'm terrible lang-sichtit, and I had pitten the buiks i' that pairt a' richt already wi' my ain han'—and I saw her put her han' upon a buik that was no fit for her. I winna say what it was. Some hermaphrodeet cratur had written't that had no respec for man or woman, an' whase neck sud hae been thrawn by the midwife, for that buik cam o' sparin' o' 'm!
"'Dinna touch that buik, my bonny leddy,' I cried. 'It's awfu' fu' o' dist and stoor. It'll smore ye to open the twa brods o' 't. Yer rosy goon'll be clean blaudit wi' the stew (dust) o' 't.'
"She startit and luikit roon some frichtit like, and I rase an' gaed across the flure till her. And her face grew bonnier as I cam nearer till her. Her nose an' her twa eebrees jist min'd ye upo' the picturs o' the Holy Ghost comin' doon like a doo; and oot aneath ilka wing there luikit a hert o' licht—that was her twa een, that gaed throu and throu me as gin I had been a warp and they twa shuttles; and faith! they made o' my life and o' me what it is and I am. They wove the wab o' me.
"Ay. They gaed oot and in, and throu and throu, and back and fore, and roon and aboot, till there wasna a nerve or a fibre o' my bein', but they had twisted it up jist as a spither does a flee afore he sooks the life oot o' 't. But that's a prolepsis."
"'Are you the librarian?' said she, saft and sma', like hersel'.
"'That I am, mem,' said I. 'My name's Cupples—at your service, mem.'
"'I was looking, Mr Cupples,' said she, 'for some book to help me to learn Gaelic. I want very much to read Gaelic.'
"'Weel, mem,' said I, 'gin it had been ony o' the Romance languages, or ony ane o' the Teutonic breed, I micht hae gien ye a lift. But I doot ye maun bide till ye gang to Edinburgh, or Aberdeen, whaur ye'll easy fa' in wi' some lang-leggit bejan that'll be prood to instruc' ye, and coont himsel' ower weel paid wi' the sicht o' yer bonny face.'
"She turned some reid at that, and I was feared that I had angert her. But she gied a sma' lauch, and oot at the door she gaed, wi' her 'rosy fleece o' fire' lowin' and glimmerin' aboot her, jist like ane o' the seraphims that auld Crashaw sings aboot. Only she was gey sma' for a seraph, though they're nae ower big. Weel, ye see, that was the first time I saw her. And I thochtna ower muckle mair aboot her. But in a day or twa there she was again. And she had a hantle to speir at me aboot; and it took a' the knowledge I had o' buiks in general to answer her questions. In fac I was whiles compelled to confess my ignorance, which is no pleesant whan a man wants to stan' weel wi' a bonny crater that spiers questons. Whan she gaed, I gaed efter her, followin' aboot at her—i' my thochts, I mean—like a hen efter her ae chucken. She was bonnier this time than the last. She had tired o' the rosy clood, and she had on a bonny goon o' black silk, sae modest and sae rich, wi' diamond buttons up the front o' the briest o' 't. Weel, to mak a lang story short, and the shorter the better, for it's nae a pleesant ane to me, she cam aftener and aftener. And she had sae muckle to say and speir aboot, that at last we had to tak doon buiks, and I had to clear a neuk o' the table. At lenth I cam to luik for her as reglar as gin she had been a ghaist, and the time that chappit upo' the auld clock had belongt to the midnicht instead o' the mornin'. Ye'll be wonnerin' what like she was. As I tell't ye, she was a wee body, wi' muckle black een, that lay quaiet in her face and never cam oot till they war wantit, an' a body gimp and sma', but roon' and weel proportioned throughoot. Her hand and her fit war jist past expression bonny. And she had a' her features conformin'—a' sma' but nane o' them ower sma' in relation to ane anither. And she had a licht way wi' her, that was jist dazin'. She seemed to touch ilka thing wi' the verra tips o' her fingers, and syne ken a'thing aboot it, as gin she had a universal insicht; or raither, I wad say, her natur, notwithstandin' its variety, was sae homogeneous, that whan ae nerve o' her spiritual being cam in contack wi' onything, the haill sowl o' her cam in contack wi' 't at the same time and thereby; and ilka pairt read the report efter its ain fashion, translatin' 't accordin' to 'ts ain experience: as the different provinces and languages o' the Chinese Empire read the universal written tongue. A heap o' pains I took that I micht never hae to say I dinna ken to sic a gleg-ee'd cratur as that. And ilka day she cam to read wi' me, and we jist got on like a mail-coach—at least I did—only the wrang road. An' she cam aye i' the efternoon and bade till the gloamin' cam doon an' it grew ower mirk to ken the words frae ane anither. And syne she wad gang and dress hersel' for denner, as she said.
"Ye may say I was a muckle gowk. And ye may lauch at a bairn for greitin' efter the mune; but I doot that same avarice o' the wee man comes frae a something in him that he wad be ill aff wi'oot. Better greit for the mune than no be cawpable o' greetin' for the mune. And weel I wat, I grat for the mune, or a' was dune, and didna get it, ony mair than the lave o' my greedy wee brithers."
The night had gathered thick about them. And for a few moments out of the darkness came no sound. At length Mr Cupples resumed:
"I maun jist confess, cauf that I was—and yet I wad hae been a greater cauf gin it hadna been sae—I cud hae lickit the verra dist aff o' the flure whaur her fit had been. Man, I never saw onything like her, The hypostasis o' her was jist perfection itsel'. Weel, ae nicht—for I wrocht full late, my een war suddenly dazed wi' the glimmer o' something white. I thocht the first minute that I had seen a ghost, and the neist that I was a ghost mysel'. For there she was in a fluffy cloud o' whiteness, wi' her bonny bare shouthers and airms, and jist ae white rose in her black hair, and deil a diamond or ruby aboot her!
"'It's so hot,' said she, 'in the drawing-room! And they're talking such nonsense there! There's nobody speaks sense to me but you, Mr Cupples.'
"''Deed, mem,' says I, 'I dinna ken whaur it's to come frae the nicht. For I hae nae sense left but ane, and that's nearhan' 'wi' excess o' brightness blind.' Auld Spenser says something like that, doesna he, mem?' I added, seein' that she luikit some grave. But what she micht hae said or dune, I dinna ken; for I sweir to ye, bantam, I know nothing that happent efter, till I cam' to mysel' at the soun' o' a lauch frae outside the door. I kenned it weel eneuch, though it was a licht flutterin' lauch. Maybe I heard it the better frae the conductin' pooer o' timmer, for my broo was doon o' the buirds o' the flure. I sprang to my feet, but the place reeled roon', and I fell. It was the lauch that killed me. What for sud she lauch?—And sic a ane as her that was no licht-heidit lassie, but cud read and unnerstan', wi the best? I suppose I had gane upo' my knees till her, and syne like the lave o' the celestials she tuik to her feathers and flew. But I ken nae mair than this: that for endless ages I gaed followin' her through the heavenly halls, aye kennin as sure's gospel that she was ahint the neist door, and aye openin' that door upon an empty glory, to be equally certain that she was ahint the neist. And sae on I gaed till, ahint ane o' the thoosan' doors, I saw the reek-enamelled couples o' my auld mither's bit hoosie upo' the mairgin o' the bog, and she was hingin' ower me, sayin' her prayers as gin she wad gang efter them like a balloon wi' verra fervour. And whan she saw my een open, she drappit upo' her knees and gaed on prayin'. And I wonner that thae prayers warna hearkent till. I never cud unnerstan' that."
"Hoo ken ye that they warna hearkent till?" asked Alec.
"Luik at me! Do ye ca' that hearkenin' till a prayer? Luik what she got me back for. Ca' ye that an answer to prayers like my auld mither's? Faith! I'll be forced to repent some day for her sake, though there sudna be anither woman atween Venus and Mars but wad rive wi' lauchin at a word frae Cosmo Cupples. But, man! I wad hae repentit lang syne gin I cud hae gotten ae glimp o' a possible justice in pittin a hert as grit's mine into sic a misgreein', scrimpit, contemptible body as this. The verra sowl o' me has to draw up the legs o' 't to haud them inside this coffin o' a corpus, and haud them ohn shot oot into the everlastin' cauld. Man, the first thing I did, whan I cam' to mysel', was to justify her afore God for lauchin at me. Hoo could onybody help lauchin at me? It wasna her wyte. And eh! man, ye dinna ken hoo quaiet and comfortable I was in my ain min', as sune's I had gotten her justified to mysel' and had laid it doon that I was ane fit to be lauchen at.—I winna lat you lauch at me, though, bantam. I tell ye that."
"Mr Cupples! Laugh at you! I would rather be a doormat to the devil,' exclaimed Alec.
"Thank you, bantam.—Weel, ye see, ance I had made up my min' aboot that, I jist began followin' at her again like a hungry tyke that stops the minute ye liuk roon efter him—I mean i' my thochts, ye ken—jist as I had been followin' her, a' the time o' my fiver, throu the halls o' heaven, as I thoucht them, whan they war only the sma' crinkle-crankle convolutions o' my cerebral dome—a puir heaven for a man to bide in! I hae learnt that waur and better than maist men, as I'm gaein to tell ye; for it was for the sake o' that that I begud this dismal story.—Whan I grew some better, and wan up—wad ye believe 't?—the kin'ness o' the auld, warpit, broon, wrinklet woman that brocht me furth, me Cosmo Cupples, wi' the muckle hert and the sma' body, began to console me a wee for the lauch o' that queen o' white-skinned leddies. It was but a wee, ye ken; still it was consolation. My mither thocht a heap o' me. Fowk thinks mair o' fowk, the mair they are themsels. But I wat it was sma' honour I brocht her hame, wi' my een brunt oot wi' greetin' for the mune.—I'll tell ye the lave o' 't efter we win hame. I canna bide to be here i' the dark. It's the quaiet beuks a' roon' me that I canna bide. It was i' the mids o' beuks, i' the dark, that I heard that lauch. It jist blastit me and the beuks and a' thing. They aye luik as gin they war hearin' 't. For the first time I loot the gloamin come doon upo' me i' this same leebrary, a' at ance I heard the sma' nicher o' a woman's lauch frae somewhaur in or oot o' the warl'. I grew as het's hell, and was oot at the door in a cat-loup. And as sure's death I'll hear't again, gin I bide ae minute langer. Come oot wi' ye."
There was light in Mr Fraser's drawing-room, and a shadow flitted across the blind. The frosty night, and the keenness of the stars, made Mr Cupples shiver. Alec was in a feverous glow. When they reached home, Mr Cupples went straight to the cupboard, swallowed a glass of the merum, put coals on the fire, drew his chair close to it, and said:
"It's dooms cauld! Sit doon there, bantam. Pit on the kettle first. It's an ac' o' the purest disinteresstitness, for deil a drap sall ye drink! But I'll sing ye a sang, by way o' upmak'."
"I never heard ye sing, Mr Cupples. Ye can do a' thing, I think."
"I cudna gar a bonnie, high-born, white-handit leddy fa' in love wi' a puir futteret (weasel) o' a crater—a shargar (scrag) like Cosmo Cupples, bantam. But I can do twa or three things; an' ane o' them is, I can mak' a sang; and anither is, I can mak' a tune till't; and a third is, I can sing the tane to the tither, that is whan I haena had either ower muckle or ower little o' the tappit hen. Noo, heark ye. This ane's a' my ain:
GAEIN' AND COMIN'.
Whan Andrew frae Strathbogie gaed, The lift was lowerin' dreary; The sun he wadna lift his heid; The win' blew laich and eerie. In's pouch he had a plack or twa, I vow he hadna mony; Yet Andrew like a lintie sang, For Lizzie was sae bonny!
O Lizzie, Lizzie, bonnie lassie! Bonnie, saucy hizzie! What richt had ye to luik at me, And drive me daft and dizzy?
Whan Andrew to Strathbogie cam', The sun was shinin' rarely; He rade a horse that pranced and sprang— I vow he sat him fairly. And he had gowd to spend and spare, And a heart as true as ony; But's luik was doon, and his sigh was sair, For Lizzie was sae bonny!
O Lizzie, Lizzie, bonny hizzie! Ye've turned the daylicht dreary. Ye're straucht and rare, ye're fause and fair— Hech! auld John Armstrong's dearie!"
His voice was mellow, and ought to have been even. His expression was perfect.
The kettle was boiling. Mr Cupples made his toddy, and resumed his story.
"As sune's I was able, I left my mither greitin'—God bless her!—and cam to this toon, for I wasna gaein' to be eaten up with idleset as weel's wi' idolatry. The first thing I tuik till was teachin'. Noo that's a braw thing, whan the laddies and lassies want to learn, and hae questons o' their ain to speir. But whan they dinna care, it's the verra deevil. Or lang, a'thing grew grey. I cared for naething and naebody. My verra dreams gaed frae me, or cam only to torment me, wi' the reid hert o' them changed to yallow and grey.
"Weel, ae nicht I had come hame worn oot wi' warstlin' to gar bairns eat that had no hunger, I spied upo' the table a bottle o' whusky. A frien' o' mine—a grocer he was—had sent it across the street to me, for it was hard upo' Hogmanay. I rang the bell incontinent. Up comes the lass, and says I, 'Bell, lat's hae a kettlefu' o' het water.' And to mak' a lang story short, I could never want het water sin syne. For I hadna drunken aboon a twa glaiss, afore the past began to revive as gin ye had come ower't wi' a weet sponge. A' the colours cam' oot upo' 't again, as gin they had never turned wan and grey; and I said to mysel' wi' pride: 'My leddy canna, wi' a' her breedin' and her bonnie skin, haud Cosmo Cupples frae lo'ein' her.' And I followed aboot at her again throu a' the oots and ins o' the story, and the past was restored to me.—That's hoo it appeared to me that nicht.—Was't ony wonner that the first thing I did whan I cam' hame the neist nicht was to ring for the het water? I wantit naething frae Providence or Natur' but jist that the colour michtna be a' ta'en oot o' my life. The muckle deevil was in't, that I cudna stan' up to my fate like a man, and, gin my life was to cast the colour, jist tak my auld cloak aboot me, and gang on content. But I cudna. I bude to see things bonnie, or my strength gaed frae me. But ye canna slink in at back doors that gait. I was pitten oot, and oot I maun bide. It wasna that lang afore I began to discover that it was a' a delusion and a snare. Whan I fell asleep, I wad dream whiles that, openin' the door into ane o' thae halls o' licht, there she was stan'in' lauchin' at me. And she micht hae gane on lauchin' to a' eternity—for onything I cared. And—ten times waur—I wad whiles come upon her greitin' and repentin', and haudin' oot her han' to me, and me carin' no more for her than for the beard o' a barley-stalk. And for makin' a sang—I jist steikit my lugs (stopped my ears) whan I heard a puir misguidit canary singin' i' the sunshine. And I begud to hear a laich lauch far awa', and it cam' nearer and nearer ilka week, till it was ringin' i' my verra lug. But a' that was naething compairateevely. I' the mids o' a quaiet contemplation, suddenly, wi' an awfu' stoon, a ghaistly doobt pat it's heid up i' my breist, and cried: 'It's a' fause. The grey luik o' life's the true ane, and the only aspec' ye hae a richt to see.' And efter that, a' the whusky in Glenlivat cudna console me.—Luik at me noo. Ye see what I am. I can whiles sing an auld sang—but mak' a new ane!—Lord, man! I can hardly believe 'at ever I made a sang i' my life. Luik at my han' hoo it trimles. Luik at my hert. It's brunt oot. There's no a leevin' crater but yersel' that I hae ony regaird for, sin my auld mither deid. Gin it warna for buiks, I wad amaist cut my throat. And the senawtus disna think me bye and aboon half a proper companion for buiks even; as gin Cupples micht corrup' Milton himsel, although he was ten feet ower his heid bottled in a buik. And whan I saw ye poor oot the whusky in that mad-like mainner, as gin 't had been some sma' tipple o' penny ale, it jist drave me mad wi' anger."
"Weel, Mr Cupples," Alec ventured to say, "what for dinna ye sen' the bottle to the devil?"
"What, my ain auld tappit hen!" exclaimed Mr Cupples, with a sudden reaction from the seriousness of his late mood; "Na, na, she shanna gang to the deil till we gang thegither. Eh! but we'll baith hae dry insides or we win frae him again, I doobt. That drouth's an awfu' thing to contemplate. But speyk o' giein' ower the drink! The verra attemp'—an' dinna ye think that I haena made it—aich! What for sud I gang to hell afore my time? The deils themselves compleen o' that. Na, na. Ance ye hae learned to drink, ye canna do wantin' 't. Man, dinna touch 't. For God's sake, for yer mither's sake, for ony sake, dinna lat a drap o' the hell-broth gang ower yer thrapple—or ye're damned like me for ever and ever. It's as guid's signin' awa' yer sowl wi' yer ain han' and yer ain blude."
Mr Cupples lifted his glass, emptied it, and, setting it down on the table with a gesture of hatred, proceeded to fill it yet again.
"I say, Forbes, you keep yourself all to yourself and old Cupples, away there in the new town. Come and take some supper with me to-night. It's my birthday, old boy."
"I don't do much in that way, you know, Gibby."
"Oh yes, I know. You're never jolly but amongst the shell-fish. At least that's what the Venall thinks of you. But for once in a way you might come."
"Well, I don't mind," said Alec, really not caring what came to him or of him, and glad of anything to occupy him with no-thinking. "When shall I come?"
"At seven. We'll have a night of it. To-morrow's Saturday."
It was hardly worth while to go home. He would not dine to-day. He would go and renew his grief by the ever-grieving sea. For his was a young love, and his sorrow was interesting to him: he embalmed his pangs in the amber of his consciousness. So he crossed the links to the desolate sandy shore; there let the sound of the waves enter the portals of his brain and fill all its hollow caves with their moaning; and then wandering back to the old city, stood at length over the keystone of the bridge, and looked down into the dark water below the Gothic arch.
He heard a footstep behind him on the bridge. Looking round he saw Beauchamp. Without reason or object, he walked up to him and barred his way. Beauchamp started, and drew back.
"Beauchamp," said Alec, "you are my devil."
"Granted," said Beauchamp, coolly, but on his guard.
"What are you about with my cousin?"
"What is that to you?"
"She is my cousin."
"I don't care. She's not mine."
"If you play her false, as you have played me—by heavens!—"
"Oh! I'll be very kind to her. You needn't be afraid. I only wanted to take down your damned impudence. You may go to her when you like."
Alec's answer was a blow, which Beauchamp was prepared for and avoided. Alec pursued the attack with a burning desire to give him the punishment he deserved. But he turned suddenly sick, and, although he afterwards recalled a wrestle, knee to knee, the first thing he was aware of was the cold waters of the river closing over him. The shock restored him. When he rose to the surface he swam down the stream, for the banks were precipitous in the neighbourhood of the bridge. At length he succeeded in landing, and set out for home. He had not gone far, however, before he grew very faint, and had to sit down on a door-step. Then he discovered that his arm was bleeding, and knew that Beauchamp had stabbed him. He contrived to tie it up after a fashion, and reached home without much more difficulty. Mr Cupples had not come in. So he got his landlady to tie up his arm for him, and then changed his clothes. Fortunately the wound, although long and deep, ran lengthways between the shoulder and elbow, on the outside of the arm, and so was not of a serious character. After he was dressed, feeling quite well, he set off to keep his engagement with Gilbert Gordon.
Now how could such a thing have taken place in the third decade of the nineteenth century?—The parapet was low and the struggle was fierce. I do not think that Beauchamp intended murder, for the consequences of murder must be a serious consideration to every gentleman. He came of a wild race, with whom a word and a steel blow had been linked for ages. And habits transmitted become instincts. He was of a cold temperament, and such a nature, once roused, is often less under control than one used to excitement: a saint will sometimes break through the bonds of the very virtue which has gained him all his repute. If we combine these considerations with the known hatred of Beauchamp, the story Alec told Cupples the next day may become in itself credible. Whether Beauchamp tried to throw him from the bridge may remain doubtful, for when the bodies of two men are locked in the wrestle of hate, their own souls do not know what they intend. Beauchamp must have sped home with the conscience of a murderer; and yet when Alec made his appearance in the class, most probably a revival of hatred was his first mental experience. But I have had no opportunity of studying the morbid anatomy of Beauchamp, and I do not care about him, save as he influences the current of this history. When he vanishes, I shall be glad to forget him.
Soon after Alec had left the house, Cupples came home with a hurried inquiry whether the landlady had seen anything of him. She told him as much as she knew, whereupon he went up-stairs to his Aeschylus, &c.
Alec said nothing about his adventure to any of his friends, for, like other Scotchmen young and old, he liked to keep things in his own hands till he knew what to do with them. At first, notwithstanding his loss of blood, he felt better than he had felt for some time; but in the course of the evening he grew so tired, and his brain grew so muddy and brown, that he was glad when he heard the order given for the boiling water. He had before now, although Mr Cupples had never become aware of the fact, partaken of the usual source of Scotch exhilaration, and had felt nothing the worse; and now heedless of Mr Cupples's elaborate warning—how could he be expected to mind it?—he mixed himself a tumbler eagerly. But although the earth brightened up under its influences, and a wider horizon opened about him than he had enjoyed for months before, yet half-frightened at the power of the beverage over his weakened frame, he had conscience enough to refuse a second tumbler, and rose early and went home.
The moment he entered the garret, Mr Cupples, who had already consumed his nightly portion, saw that he had been drinking. He looked at him with blue eyes, wide-opened, dismay and toddy combining to render them of uncertain vision.
"Eh, bantam! bantam!" he said, and sank back in his chair; "ye hae been at it in spite o' me."
And Mr Cupples burst into silent tears—no unusual phenomenon in men under the combined influences of emotion and drink. Notwithstanding his own elevated condition, Alec was shocked.
"Mr Cupples," he said, "I want to tell you all about it."
Mr Cupples took no notice. Alec began his story notwithstanding, and as he went on, his friend became attentive, inserting here and there an expletive to the disadvantage of Beauchamp, whose behaviour with regard to Kate he now learned for the first time. When Alec had finished, Cupples said solemnly:
"I warned ye against him, Alec. But a waur enemy nor Beauchamp has gotten a sickerer haud o' ye, I doobt. Do 'at he like, Beauchamp's dirk couldna hurt ye sae muckle as yer ain han', whan ye liftit the first glass to yer ain mou' the nicht. Ye hae despised a' my warnings. And sorrow and shame'll come o' 't. And I'll hae to beir a' the wyte o' 't. Yer mither'll jist hate me like the verra black taed that no woman can bide. Gang awa' to yer bed. I canna bide the sicht o' ye."
Alec went to bed, rebuked and distressed. But not having taken enough to hurt him much, he was unfortunately able, the next morning, to regard Mr Cupples's lecture from a ludicrous point of view. And what danger was he in more than the rest of the fellows, few of whom would refuse a tumbler of toddy, and fewer of whom were likely to get drunk?—Had not Alec been unhappy, he would have been in less danger than most of them; but he was unhappy.
And although the whisky had done him no great immediate injury, yet its reaction, combined with the loss of blood, made him restless all that day. So that, when the afternoon came, instead of going to Mr Cupples in the library, he joined some of the same set he had been with the evening before. And when he came home, instead of going up-stairs to Mr Cupples, he went straight to bed.
The next morning, while he was at breakfast, Mr Cupples made his appearance in his room.
"What cam' o' ye last nicht, bantam?" he asked kindly, but with evident uneasiness.
"I cam' hame some tired, and gaed straucht to my bed."
"But ye warna hame verra ear'."
"I wasna that late."
"Ye hae been drinkin' again. I ken by the luik o' yer een."
Alec had a very even temper. But a headache and a sore conscience together were enough to upset it. To be out of temper with oneself is to be out of temper with the universe.
"Did my mother commission you to look after me, Mr Cupples?" he asked, and could have dashed his head against the wall the next moment. But the look of pitying and yet deprecating concern in Mr Cupples's face fixed him so that he could say nothing.
Mr Cupples turned and walked slowly away, with only the words:
"Eh! bantam! bantam! The Lord hae pity upo' ye—and me too!"
He went out at the door bowed like an old man.
"Preserve's, Mr Cupples! What ails ye?" exclaimed his landlady meeting him in the passage.
"The whusky's disagreed wi' me," he said. "It's verra ill-faured o' 't. I'm sure I pay't ilka proper attention."
Then he went down the stairs, murmuring—
"Rainbows! Rainbows! Naething for me but rainbows! God help the laddie!"
It may appear strange to some of my renders that Alec should fall into this pit immediately upon the solemn warning of his friend. He had listened to the story alone; he had never felt the warning: he had never felt the danger. Had he not himself in his own hands? He was not fond of whisky. He could take it or leave it. And so he took it; and finding that there was some comfort in it, took it again and again, seeking the society in which it was the vivifying element.—Need I depict the fine gradations by which he sank—gradations though fine yet so numerous that, in a space of time almost too brief for credit, the bleared eye, the soiled garments, and the disordered hair, would reveal how the night had been spent, and the clear-browed boy looked a sullen, troubled, dissatisfied youth? The vice had laid hold of him like a fast-wreathing, many-folded serpent. He had never had any conscious religion. His life had never looked up to its source. All that was good in him was good of itself, not of him. So it was easy to go down, with grief staring at him over the edge of the pit. All return to the unific rectitude of a manly life must be in the face of a scorching past and a dank future—and those he could not face.
And as his life thus ebbed away from him, his feelings towards Beauchamp grew more and more bitter, approximating in character to those of Beauchamp towards him. And he soon became resolved to have his revenge on him, though it was long before he could make up his mind as to what the revenge should be.
Beauchamp avoided him constantly.
And Mr Cupples was haunting him unseen. The strong-minded, wise-headed, weak-willed little poet, wrapped in a coat of darkness, dogged the footsteps of a great handsome, good-natured, ordinary-gifted wretch, who could never make him any return but affection, and had now withdrawn all interchange of common friendship in order that he might go the downward road unchecked. Cupples was driven almost distracted. He drank harder than ever, but with less satisfaction than ever, for he only grew the more miserable. He thought of writing to Alec's mother, but, with the indecision of a drunkard, he could not make up his mind, and pondered over every side of the question, till he was lost in a maze of incapacity.
Bad went to worse. Vice grew upon vice.
There are facts in human life which human artists cannot touch. The great Artist can weave them into the grand whole of his Picture, but to the human eye they look too ugly and too painful. Even the man who can do the deeds dares not represent them. Mothers have to know such facts of their sons, and such facts of women like themselves.
Alec had fallen amongst a set of men who would not be satisfied till he should be as low as they—till there should be nothing left in him to remind them that they had once been better. The circle in which he began to drink had gradually contracted about him. The better sort had fallen away, and the worse had remained—chiefly older men than he, men who had come near to the enjoyment of vileness for its own sake, if that be possible, and who certainly enjoyed making others like themselves. Encouraged by their laughter and approbation, Alec began to emulate them, and would soon have had very little to learn if things had not taken a turn. A great hand is sometimes laid even on the fly-wheel of life's engine.
Andrew Constable, with his wife and old-fashioned child Isie, was seated at tea in the little parlour opening from the shop, when he was called out by a customer. He remained longer than was likely to be accounted for by the transaction of business at that time of the day. And when he returned his honest face looked troubled.
"Wha was that?" asked his wife.
"Ow! it was naebody but Jeames Johnston, wantin' a bit o' flannin for's wife's coatie."
"And what had he to say 'at keepit ye till yer tay's no fit to drink?"
"Ow! my tay'll do weel eneuch. It's nae by ordinar' cauld."
"But what said he?"
"Weel! hm! hm!—He said it was fine frosty weather."
"Ay, nae doobt! He kent that by the way the shuttle flew. Was that a'?"
"Na, nae freely. But cogues hae lugs, and bairns hae muckle een."
For Isie sat on her stool staring at her father and mother alternately, and watching for the result of her mother's attempt at picking the lock of her father's reticence. But the moment she heard the word lugs, she knew that she had no chance, and her eyes grew less and their pupils grew larger. Fearing he had hurt her, Andrew said,
"Winna ye hae a starnie jam, Isie? It's grosert-jam."
"Na, thank ye, daddie. Maybe it wad gie me a sair wame," answered the solemn old-faced Scotchwoman of seven.
A child who refuses jam lest it should serve her as the little book did the Apostle John, might be considered prudent enough to be intrusted with a secret. But not a word more was said on the subject, till Isie was in bed, and supposed to be fast asleep, in a little room that opened off the parlour. But she was not asleep. And the door was always left open, that she might fall asleep in the presence of her parents. Their words therefore flowed freely into her ears, although the meaning only played on her mind with a dull glimmer like that which played on her wall from the fire in the room where they sat talking.
"Ay, woman," began Andrew, "it'll be sair news, this, to the lady ower the watter."
"Ye dinna mean Mistress Forbes, Anerew?"
"'Deed I mean jist her."
"Is't her son? Has he met wi' ony mischeef? What's happent till him? Is he droont, or killt? The Lord preserve's! She'll dee o' 't."
"Na, lass. It's a hantle waur nor a' that."
The woodcuts in Fox's Book of Martyrs, of which three folio volumes in black letter lay in the room whence the conversation flowed to Isie's ears, rose in all their hideousuess before the mental vision of the child. In no other way than as torture could she conceive of worse than being killed.
"Ye gar me grue," said Mrs Constable, with a shudder.
"Ay, woman, ye ken little o' the wickedness o' great toons—hoo they lie in wait at ilka corner, wi' their gins and their snares and their pits that they howk to catch the unwary yowth," said Andrew, in something of the pride of superior knowledge.
From this elevation, however, he was presently pulled down in a rather ignominious fashion by his more plain-spoken though not a whit more honest wife.
"Anerew, dinna ye mint (aim) at speikin' like a chapter o' the Proverbs o' Solomon, the son o' Dawvid. Say straucht oot 'at thae coorse jawds that hing aboot i' the gloamin' hae gotten a grip o' the bonnie lad. Eh! but he'll fair ill; and the Lord hae mercy upo' him—and nane upo' them!"
"Hoot! hoot! lass; dinna speik wi' sic a venom. Ye ken wha says Vengeance is mine?"
"Ay, ay, weel eneuch. And I houp He'll tak's ain upo' sic brazen hizzies. You men-fowk think ye ken a hantle o' things that ye wad haud us ohn kent. But nane kens the wiles o' a wumman, least awa them 'at fa's into them, but anither wumman."
"It's nae savin' lore," said Andrew, a little troubled that his wife should assert a familiar acquaintance with such things. But she went on.
"Women's jist dreidfu'. Whan ance they gang the ill gait, they're neither to haud nor bin'. And to think o' them layin' han's upo' sic a bonnie weel-behaved laddie as that Alec Forbes, a ceevil, herty cratur, wi' a kin' word an' a joke even for the beggar 'at he geid a bawbee till! Weel, he'll come oot o' their cluiks, maybe no that nmckle the waur efter a', as mony a man frae King Dawvid doonwith afore him."
"Noo, wumman!" said Andrew, in a tone of authority blended with rising indignation; "ye're slidin' aff o' yer ain stule, and ye'll be upo' the grun' afore ye win on to mine. Richt or wrang aboot the women, I bude to ken mair aboot the men nor ye do; and I daur affirm and uphaud that never man cam' oot o' the grip o' thae poor deluded craters—"
Mrs Constable interposed with one single emphatic epithet, not admittable to the ears of this generation; but Andrew resumed, and went on.
"—poor deluded craters, withoot losin' a great pairt o' what was left in him o' the eemage o' God efter the fall. Woman, he tynes (loses) a heap!"
"Hoo sud ye ken onything aboot that, Anerew?" returned his wife sharply.
"The same way than ye ken sae weel aboot the she side o' the queston, lass. We may jist enlichten ane anither a wee aboot some things, mayhap."
Meantime the ears of the little pitcher in bed had been growing longer and longer with curious horror. The something in itself awfully vague about Alec's fate was wrapt in yet deeper clouds of terror and mystery by the discord of opinion with regard to it on the part of her father and mother, whom she had rarely heard differ. She pictured to herself the image of his Maker being scratched off Alec by the claws of furies; and hot pincers tearing nail after nail from the hand which had once given her a penny. And her astonishment was therefore paralyzing when she heard her father say:
"But ye maun haud a quaiet tongue i' yer heid, guidwife; for weel as ye like the laddie, ye may blast his character gin ye say a word aboot it."
"I s' warran' it's a' ower Glamerton afore it comes to your lugs, Anerew," returned her mother. "They're no that gleg efter sic news. But I wad like sair to ken wha sent hame the word o' 't."
"I'm thinking it's been young Bruce."
"The Lord be praised for a lee!" exclaimed Mrs Constable. "Haena I tell't ye afore noo, sae that it's no upmak to pick the lock o' the occasion, Anerew, that Rob Bruce has a spite at that faimily for takin' sic a heap o' notice o' Annie Annerson. And I wadna wonner gin he had set's hert upo' merryin' her upo' 's ain Rob, and sae keepin' her bit siller i' the faimily. Gin that be sae, he micht weel gie Alec Forbes a back-handit cloot (blow)."
"'Deed! maybe, gudewife. He's a burnin' and a shinin' licht amo' you missioners, though; and ye maunna say ill o' 'm, for fear he has ye up afore the kirk."
"Ay, deed is he! He's a burnin' shame, and a stinkin' lamp; for the grace o' God wasna hauden to the nib o' 'm lang eneuch to set him in a low (flame), but only lang eneuch to gar the ile o' 'm reek fit to scomfish (suffocate) a haill Sodom."
"Hoot, lass! Ye're ower sair even upo' him. But it's verra true that gin the story cam' frae that en' o' the toon, there's room for rizzonable doobts. Sae we'll awa' to our beds, and houp things mayna be sae far gane as the soun' o' them. Only I drede there's aye some water whaur the stirkie droons."
It was long before little Isie got to sleep, what with attempting to realize the actual condition of Alec Forbes, and trying to excogitate the best means for his deliverance. Why should not all Glamerton set out in a body with flails and pitchforks? And if she must not meddle for that, seeing her father had said the matter must not be mentioned, yet his prohibition could not include Alec's mother, whom it would be wicked to keep in ignorance. For what would Isie think if she was taken prisoner by a cruel woman and they would not tell her mother? So she fell asleep, to wake in the morning with the sense of a mission upon her important little mind.
What rendered it probable that the rumour came from "that end of the town" was, that Bruce the younger was this year a bejan at Alec's college, and besides was the only other scion of Glamerton there grafted, so that any news about Alec other than he would care to send himself, must in all likelihood have come through him.—For Bruce the elder had determined that in his son he would restore the fallen fortunes of the family, giving him such an education as would entitle him to hold up his head with the best, and especially with that proud upstart, Alec Forbes.
The news had reached Thomas Crann, and filled him with concern. He had, as was his custom in trouble, betaken himself straightway to "the throne of grace," and "wrestled in prayer" with God that he would restore the prodigal to his mother. What would Thomas have thought if he had been told that his anxiety, genuine as it was, that his love, true as it was, did not come near the love and anxiety of another man who spent his evenings in drinking whisky and reading heathen poets, and who, although he knew not a little of his Bible, never opened it from one end of the year to the other? If he had been told that Cosmo Cupples had more than once, after the first tumbler of toddy and before the second, betaken himself to his prayers for his poor Alec Forbes, and entreated God Almighty to do for him what he could not do, though he would die for him—to rescue him from the fearful pit and the miry clay of moral pollution—if he had heard this, he would have said that it was a sad pity, but such prayers could not be answered, seeing he that prayed was himself in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity.
There was much shaking of the head amongst the old women. Many an ejaculation and many a meditative eh me! were uttered over Alec's fall; and many a word of tender pity for his poor mother floated forth on the frosty air of Glamerton; but no one ventured to go and tell the dreary tidings. The men left it to the women; and the woman knew too well how the bearer of such ill news would appear in her eyes, to venture upon the ungracious task. So they said to themselves she must know it just as well as they did; or if she did not know, poor woman! she would know time enough for all the good it would do her. And that came of sending sons to colleges! &c., &c.
But there was just one not so easily satisfied about the extent of her duties: that was little Isie Constable.
The tertians gave a supper at Luckie Cumstie's, and invited the magistrands. On such an occasion Beauchamp, with his high sense of his own social qualities, would not willingly be absent. When the hour arrived, he took his place near the head of the table.
After all the solid and a part of the liquid entertainment was over, Alec rose in the space between two toasts, and said:
"Mr Chairman and gentlemen, I propose, at my own proper cost, to provide something for your amusement."
Beauchamp and all stared at the speaker.
"It is to be regretted," Alec went on, "that students have no court of honour to which to appeal. This is the first opportunity I have had of throwing myself on the generosity of my equals, and asking them to listen to my story."
The interest of the company was already roused. All the heads about the long table leaned towards the speaker, and cries of hear, hear, arose in all directions. Alec then gave a brief statement of the facts of the encounter upon the bridge. This was the only part of his relations with Beauchamp which he chose to bring before the public; for the greater wrong of lying defamation involved his cousin's name. He told how Beauchamp had sought the encounter by deliberate insult, had used a weapon against an unarmed enemy, and then thrown him from the bridge.
"Now," he concluded, "all I ask of you, gentlemen, is to allow me the fair arena of your presence while I give this sneaking chieftain the personal chastisement which he has so richly merited at my hands."
Beauchamp had soon recovered his self-possession after the first surprise of the attack. He sat drinking his toddy all the time Alec spoke, and in the middle of his speech he mixed himself another tumbler. When Alec sat down, he rose, glanced round the assembly, bent his lip into its most scornful curves, and, in a clear, unwavering voice, said:
"Mr Chairman and gentlemen, I repel the accusation."
Alec started to his feet in wrath.
"Mr Forbes, sit down," bawled the chairman; and Alec obeyed, though with evident reluctance.
"I say the accusation is false," repeated Beauchamp. "I do not say that Mr Forbes consciously invented the calumny in order to take away my character: such an assertion would preclude its own credence. Nor do I venture to affirm that he never was stabbed, or thrown into the river. But I ask any gentleman who happens to be aware of Mr Forbes's devotions at the shrine of Father Lyaeus, which is the more likely—that a fellow-student should stab and throw him into the water, or that, as he was reeling home at midnight, the treacherous divinity of the bowl should have handed him over to the embrace of his brother deity of the river. Why then should even his imagination fix upon me as the source of the injury? Gentlemen, a foolish attachment to the customs of a long line of ancestors has led me into what I find for the first time to be a dangerous habit—that of wearing arms;—dangerous, I mean, to myself; for now I am wounded with my own weapon. But the real secret of the affair is—I am ashamed to say—jealousy. Mr Forbes knows what I say to be true—that a lady whom he loves prefers me to him."
"Don't bring her name in, you brute!" roared Alec, starting again to his feet, "or I'll tear your tongue out."
"You hear, gentlemen," said Beauchamp, and sat down.
A murmur arose. Heads gathered into groups. No one stood up. Alec felt with the deepest mortification that his adversary's coolness and his own violence had turned the scale against him. This conviction, conjoined with the embarrassment of not knowing how to say a word in his own defence without taking some notice of the close of his adversary's speech, fixed him to his seat. For he had not yet fallen so low as to be capable of even alluding to the woman he loved in such an assembly. He would rather abandon the field to his adversary.
Probably not many seconds had passed, but his situation was becoming intolerable, when a well-known voice rose clear above the confused murmur; and glancing to the lower end of the room, he saw Cosmo Cupples standing at the end of the table.
"I ken weel eneuch, gentlemen," he said, "that I hae no richt to be here. Ye a' ken me by the sicht o' the een. I'm a graduate o' this university, and at present your humble servant the librarian. I intrude for the sake o' justice, and I cast mysel' upo' your clemency for a fair hearin'."
This being accorded by general acclamation,
"Gentlemen," he resumed, "I stan' afore ye wi' a sair hert. I hae occupied the position o' tutor to Mr Forbes; for, as Sir Pheelip Sidney says in a letter to his brither Rob, wha was efterwards Yerl o' Leicester upo' the demise o' Robert Dudley, 'Ye may get wiser men nor yersel' to converse wi' ye and instruck ye, in ane o' twa ways—by muckle ootlay or muckle humility.' Noo, that laddie was ane o' the finest naturs I ever cam' across, and his humility jist made it a pleesur to tak' chairge o' 'm baith mentally and morally. That I had a sair doon come whan he took to the drink, I am forced to confess. But I aye thocht he was strauchtforet, notwithstandin' the whusky. I wasna prepared for sic a doonfa' as this.—I maun jist confess, Mr Cheerman, that I heard him throu' the crack o' the door-cheek. And he broucht sic deevilich accusations—"
"Mr Cupples!" cried Alec.
"Haud yer tongue, Alec Forbes, and lat this company hear me. Ye appealed to the company yersel' first o' a'.—I say hoo cud he bring sic deevilich accusations against a gentleman o' sic birth and breedin' and accomplishments as the Laird o' Chattachan!—Maybe the Laird wad jist condescend to say whaur he was upo' the nicht in queston; for gin we cud get the rampaugin' misguidit laddie ance fairly into the yard, wi' the yetts steekit (gates closed), he wad see that leein' wadna serve his turn."
Alec was in chaotic confusion. Notwithstanding the hard words Mr Cupples had used, he could ill believe that he had turned his enemy. He had behaved very badly to Mr Cupples, but was Mr Cupples one to revenge himself?
Mr Cupples had paused with his eyes resting on Beauchamp. He, without rising, replied carelessly:
"Really, sir, I do not keep a register of my goings and comings. I might have done so had I known its importance. I have not even been informed when the occurrence is said to have taken place."
"I can gie your memory a prod upo' the dates, sir. For I ken weel the nicht whan Alec Forbes cam' hame wi' a lang and a deep cut upo' the ootside o' 's left airm atween the shouther an' the elbuck. I may weel remember 't to my grief; for though he cam' hame as sober as he was drippin' weet—I hae oor guidwife's testimony to that—he gaed oot again, and whan he cam' hame ance mair, he was the waur o' drink for the first time sin' ever I kent him. Noo, sir, it a' took place the same day that ye cam' to the leebrary, and tuik awa' wi' ye a novell ca'd Aiken Drum. I tauld ye it wad ill repay ye, for it was but a fule thing. And I remember 't the better that I was expeckin' Alec Forbes in ilka minute, and I was feared for a collieshangie (outbreak) atween ye."
"I remember all about that night perfectly, now you call it to my recollection. I went straight home, and did not go out again—I was so taken up with Aiken Drum."
"I tell't ye sae!" cried Cupples, triumphantly. "Wha wadna tak' the word o' The MacChattachan? There's sma' profit in addin' my testimony to the weight o' that; but I wad jist like to tell this company, Mr Cheerman and gentlemen, hoo I cam' to ken mair aboot the affair nor my frien' Alec Forbes is awar' o'. That same efternoon, I expeckit him i' the leebrary as I hae said, and whan he didna come, I took my hat—that was about a half-hoor efter the laird left me—and gaed oot to luik for him. I gaed ower the links; for my man had the profitless habit at that time, whilk he's gien up for a mair profitless still, o' stravaguin' aboot upo' the seashore, wi' 's han's in 's pooches, and his chin reposin' upo' the third button o' 's waistcoat—all which bears hard upo' what the laird says aboot's jealousy. The mune was jist risin' by the time I wan to the shore, but I saw no sign o' man or woman alang that dreary coast. I was jist turnin' to come hame again, whan I cam' upo' tracks i' the weet san'. And I kent the prent o' the fit, and I followed it on to the links again, and sae I gaed back at my leisure. And it was sic a bonny nicht, though the mune wasna that far up, drivin' lang shaidows afore her, that I thocht I wad jist gang ance ower the brig and back again, and syne maybe turn into Luckie Cumstie's here. But afore I wan to the brig, whan I was i' the shaidow o' Baillie Bapp's hoose, I heard sic a scushlin' and a shochlin' upo' the brig! and I saw something gang reelin' aboot; and afore I cud gaither my wits and rin foret, I heard an awfu' splash i' the water; and by gangs somebody wi' lang quaiet strides, and never saw me. He had on the kilts and the lave o' the fandangles. And he turned into the quadrangle, and throu't he gaed and oot at the corner o' 't. I was close ahint him—that is, I was into the quadrangle afore he was oot o' 't. And I saw the sacrist come oot at the door o' the astronomical tooer jist afore the Hielanman turned the neuk o' 't. And I said to Thomson, says I, 'Wha was that gaed by ye, and oot the back gait?' And says he, 'It was Maister Beauchamp.' 'Are ye sure o' that?' says I. 'As sure's deith,' says he. Ye ken William's phrase, gentlemen."
Beauchamp's nonchalance had disappeared for some time. When his own name came out, his cheeks grew deathly pale, and thin from the falling of his jaw. Cupples, watching him, went on.
"As sune's I was sure o' my man, I saw what a damned idiot I was to rin efter him. And back I flew to the brig. I kent full weel wha the ither man bude to be. It could be nane but my ain Alec Forbes; for I sweir to ye, gentlemen, I hae watched The MacChattachan watchin' Alec Forbes mair nor twa or three times sin' Alec throosh him for bein' foul-mou'd i' the face o' the deid."
By this time Beauchamp, having swallowed the rest of his tumbler at a gulp, had recovered a little. He rose with defiance on his face.
"Dinna lat him gang, gentlemen," cried Cupples, "till I tell ye ae ither God's trowth.—I ran back to the brig, as hard's my legs cud carry me, consolin' mysel' wi' the reflection that gin Alec had na been sair hurtit i' the scuffle, there was no fear o' him. For I heard him fa' clean into the water, and I kent ye micht as sune droon a herrin as Alec Forbes. I ran richt to the mids' o' the brig and there was the black heid o' him bobbin' awa' doon the water i' the hert o' the munelicht. I'm terrible lang-sichtit, gentlemen. I canna sweir that I saw the face o' 'm, seein' the back o' 's heid was to me; but that it was Alec Forbes, I hae no more doobt than o' my ain existence. I was jist turnin', nearhan' the greetin', for I lo'ed the laddie weel, whan I saw something glintin' bonnie upo' the parapet o' the brig. And noo I beg to restore't till'ts richtful owner. Wad ye pass't up the table, gentlemen. Some o' ye will recogneeze't as ane o' the laird's bonnie cairngorum-buttons."
Handing the button to the man nearest him, Mr Cupples withdrew into a corner, and leaned his back against the wall. The button made many a zigzag from side to side of the table, but Beauchamp saw the yellow gleam of it coming nearer and nearer. It seemed to fascinate him. At last bursting the bonds of dismay, the blood rushed into his pale face, and he again moved to go:
"A conspiracy, gentlemen!" he cried. "You are all against me. I will not trouble you longer with my presence. I will bide my time."
"Stop a moment, Mr Beauchamp," said the chairman—the pale-faced son of a burly ploughman—rising. "Your departure will scarcely satisfy us now. Gentlemen, form yourselves in a double row, and grace the exit of a disgrace. I leave it to yourselves to kick him or not as you may think proper. But I think myself the way is to be merciful to the confounded. Better leave him to his own conscience."
Beauchamp's hand, following its foolish habit, fell upon the hilt of his dirk.
"Draw that dirk one inch," said the chairman hastily, clenching his fist, "and I'll have you thrown on Luckie Cumstie's midden."
Beauchamp's hand dropped. The men formed as directed.
"Now," said the chairman sternly.
And Beauchamp without a word marched down the long avenue white as a ghost, and looking at nobody. Each made him a low bow as he passed, except the wag of the tertians, who turned his back on him and bowed to the universe in general. Mr Cupples was next the door, and bowed him out. Alec alone stood erect. He could not insult him.
Beauchamp's feelings I do not care to analyze. As he passes from that room, he passes from my history.—I do not think a man with such an unfavourable start, could arrive at the goal of repentance in this life.
"Mr Cupples," cried the chairman, "will you oblige us by spending the rest of the evening with us?"
"You do me mair honour nor I deserve, sir," replied Mr Cupples; "but that villain Alec Forbes has cost me sae muckle in drink to haud my hert up, that I winna drink in his company. I micht tak' ower muckle and disgrace mysel' forbye. Good nicht to ye a', gentlemen, and my best thanks."
So saying, Mr Cupples left the room before Alec could get near him with a word or a sign of gratitude. But sorry and ashamed as he was, his spirits soon returned. Congratulation restored him to his worse self; and ere long he felt that he had deserved well of the community. The hostess turned him out with the last few at midnight, for one of the professors was provost; and he went homewards with another student, who also lived in the new town.
The two, however, not having had enough of revelry yet, turned aside into a lane, and thence up a court leading to a low public-house, which had a second and worse reputation. Into this Alec's companion went. Alec followed. But he was suddenly seized in the dark, and ejected with violence. Recovering himself from his backward stagger into the court, he raised his arm to strike. Before him stood a little man, who had apparently followed him out of the public-house. His hands were in the pockets of his trowsers, and the wind was blowing about the tails of his old dress-coat.
Nor was Alec too far gone to recognize him.
"You, Mr Cupples!" he exclaimed. "I didna expect to see you here."
"I never was across the door-sill o' sic a place afore," said Mr Cupples, "nor, please God, will either you or me ever cross sic a door-sill again."
"Hooly, hooly, Mr Cupples! Speak for ane at a time. I'm gaein in this minute. Luckie Cumstie turned on the caller air ower sune for me."
"Man!" said Cupples, laying hold of Alec's coat, "think that ye hae a mither. Ilka word that ye hear frae a worthless woman is an affront to yer mither."
"Dinna stan' preachin' to me. I'm past that."
"Alec, ye'll wiss to God ye hadna, whan ye come to marry a bonnie wife."
It was a true but ill-timed argument. Alec flared up wildly.
"Wife!" he cried, "there's no wife for me. Haud oot o' my gait. Dinna ye see I hae been drinkin'? And I winna be contred."
"Drinkin'!" exclaimed Mr Cupples. "Little ye ken aboot drinkin'. I hae drunken three times as muckle as you. And gin that be ony argument for me haudin' oot o' your gait, it's mair argument yet for you to haud oot o' mine. I sweir to God I winna stan' this ony langer. Ye're to come hame wi' me frae this mou' o' hell and ugsome (frightful) deith. It gangs straucht to the everlastin' burnin's. Eh, man! to think nae mair o' women nor that!"
And the brave little man placed himself right between Alec and the door, which now opened half-way, showing several peering and laughing faces.
But the opposition of Mr Cupples had increased the action of the alcohol upon Alec's brain, and he blazed up in a fury at the notion of being made a laughter to the women. He took one step towards Mr Cupples, who had restored his hands to his pockets and backed a few paces towards the door of the house, to guard against Alec's passing him.
"Haud oot o' my gait, or I'll gar ye," he said fiercely.
"I will not," answered Mr Cupples, and lay senseless on the stones of the court.
Alec strode into the house, and the door closed behind him.
By slow degrees Mr Cupples came to himself. He was half dead with cold, and his head was aching frightfully. A pool of blood lay on the stones already frozen. He crawled on his hands and knees, till he reached a wall, by which he raised and steadied himself. Feeling along this wall, he got into the street; but he was so confused and benumbed that if a watchman had not come up, he would have died on some doorstep. The man knew him and got him home. He allowed both him and his landlady to suppose that his condition was the consequence of drink; and so was helped up to his garret and put to bed.
All the night during which Isie Constable lay dreaming of racks, pincers, screws, and Alec Forbes, the snow was busy falling outside, shrouding the world once more; so that next day the child could not get out upon any pretence. Had she succeeded in escaping from the house, she might have been lost in the snow, or drowned in the Glamour, over which there was as yet only a rude temporary bridge to supply the place of that which had been swept away. But although very uneasy at the obstruction of her projects, she took good care to keep her own counsel.—The snow was very obstinate to go. At length, after many days, she was allowed to go out with stockings over her shoes, and play in the garden. No sooner was she alone, than she darted out of the garden by the back-gate, and before her mother missed her, was crossing the Glamour. She had never been so far alone, and felt frightened; but she pushed bravely forward.
Mrs Forbes and Annie Anderson were sitting together when Mary put her head in at the door and told her mistress that the daughter of Mr Constable, the clothier, wanted to see her.
"Why, she's a mere infant, Mary!" exclaimed Mrs Forbes.
"'Deed is she, mem; but she's nane the less doon the stair i' the kitchie. Ye wad hae seen her come yersel' but she's ower wee. Ye cudna get a glimp o' her ower the edge o' the snaw i' the cuttin' doon to the yett. Hoo her fowk cud lat her oot! She's a puir wee white-faced elf o' a crater, but she's byous auld-farrand and wise-like, and naething will do but she maun see yersel', mem."
"Bring her up, Mary. Poor little thing! What can she want?"
Presently Isie entered the room, looking timidly about her.
"Well, my dear, what do you want?"
"It's aboot Alec, mem," said Isie, glancing towards Annie.
"Well, what about him?" asked Mrs Forbes, considerably bewildered, but not fearing bad news from the mouth of such a messenger.
"Hae ye heard naething aboot him, mem?"
"Nothing particular. I haven't heard from him for a fortnight."
"That's easy accoontit for, mem."
"What do you mean, my dear? Speak out."
"Weel, mem, the way I heard it was raither particlar, and I wadna like a'body to ken."
Here she glanced again at Annie.
"You needn't be afraid of Annie Anderson," said Mrs Forbes smiling. "What is it?"
"Weel, mem, I didna richtly ken. But they hae ta'en him intil a dreidfu' place, and whether they hae left a haill inch o' skin upon's body, is mair nor I can tell; but they hae rackit him, and pu'd o' 's nails aff, maybe them a', and—"
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Mrs Forbes, with a most unusual inclination to hysterics, seeing something terrible peep from behind the grotesque report of Isie, "what do you mean, child?"
"I'm tellin' ye't as I heard it, mem. I houp they haena brunt him yet. Ye maun gang and tak' him oot o' their han's."
"Whose hands, child? Who's doing all this to him?"
"They stan' aboot the corners o' the streets, mem, in muckle toons, and they catch a haud o' young laads, and they trail them awa' wi' them, and they jist torment the life oot o' them. They say they're women; but I dinna believe that. It's no possible. They maun be men dressed up in women's claes."
Was it a great relief to the mother's heart to find that the childish understanding of Isie had misinterpreted and misrepresented? She rose and left the room, and her troubled step went to and fro overhead. And the spirit of Annie was troubled likewise. How much she understood, I cannot determine; but I believe that a sense of vague horror and pity overwhelmed her heart. Yet the strength of her kindness forced her to pay some attention to the innocent little messenger of evil.
"Whaur heard ye a' that, Isie, dear?"
"I heard my father and my mither gaein' on lamentin' ower him efter I was i' my bed, and they thocht I was asleep. But gin Mistress Forbes winna tak' him awa', I'll gang and tell a' the ministers in Glamerton, and see whether they winna raise the toon."
Annie stared in amazement at the wee blue-eyed wizened creature before her speaking with the decision of a minor prophet.
"Is the child here still?" said Mrs Forbes with some asperity as she re-entered the room. "I must go by the mail this afternoon, Annie."
"That's richt, mem," said Isie. "The suner the better, I'm sure. He mayna be deid yet."
"What a very odd child!" said Mrs Forbes.
"Wouldn't it be better to write first, ma'am?" suggested Annie.
Before Mrs Forbes could reply, the white mutch of Mrs Constable appeared over the top of the snow that walled the path. She was in hot pursuit of her child, whose footsteps she had traced. When shown into the dining-room, she rushed up to her, and caught her to her bosom, crying,
"Ye ill-contrived smatchit! What hae ye been aboot, rinnin' awa' this gait? I wonner ye wasna droont i' the Glamour."
"I don't see what better you could expect of your own child, Mrs Constable, if you go spreading reports against other people's children," said Mrs Forbes bitterly.
"It's a lee whaever said sae," retorted Mrs Constable fiercely. "Wha tell't ye that?"
"Where else could your child have heard such reports, then?"
"Isie! Isie! My poor wee bairn! What hae ye been aboot to tak' awa' yer mither's gude name?"
And she hugged the child closer yet.