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   Chapter 37 No.37

Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 8678

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The encounter fortunately took place upon a Friday, so that the combatants had both Saturday and Sunday, with the deodand of a slight fine for being absent from chapel, to recover appearances. Alec kept to the house both days, and read hard at his medical and anatomical books. His landlady took charge of his eye, and ministered to it with assiduity and discretion, asking no questions, and courting no confidences, only looking at him comically now and then out of gray motherly eyes, that might have been trusted with the universe. She knew the ways of students. In the course of one of the dressings, she said:

"Ye'll be thinkin' lang (ennuy?), Mr Forbes, at haein' to bide i' the hoose wi' that blackamoor ee o' yours. Hoo dinna ye gang up the stair to Mr Cupples, and hae a lauch wi' him?"

"I didna ken ye had onybody up the stair. Wha's Mr Cupples?"

"Weel, he kens that best himsel! But he's a gey queer ane. He's a terrible scholar though, fowk says-gran' at the Greek, and rael bonny on the mathewmawtics. Only ye maunna be fleyt (frightened) at him."

"I'm easy fleyt," said Alec, with a laugh. "But I wad like to see him."

"Gang up, than, and chap at the garret door upo' yer left han'."

"But what reason am I to gie him for disturbin' him?" asked Alec.

"Ow nane ava. Jist tak' a moufu' o' Greek wi' ye to speir the richt meanin' o', gin ye maun hae a rizzon."

"That will do just first-rate," said Alec; "for here I have been puzzling over a sentence for the last half hour with nobody but this dim-sighted ghost of a Schrevelius to help me out with it. I'll go directly. But I look such a blackguard with this game eye!"

The landlady laughed.

"You'll sune forget that whan ye see Mr Cupples."

To the dismay of his nurse, Alec pulled the bandage off his eye, and amidst her expostulations caught up his book, and rushing away, bounded up the garret stairs, which ascended outside the door of the flat. At the top, he found himself under the bare roof, with only boards and slates between him and the clouds. The landing was lighted by a skylight, across which diligent and undisturbed spiders had woven their webs for years. He stood for a moment or two, puzzled as to which door he ought to assail, for all the doors about looked like closet-doors, leading into dingy recesses. At last, with the aid of his nose, he made up his mind, and knocked.

"Come in," cried a voice of peculiar tone. It reminded Alec of something he could not at all identify, which was not wonderful, seeing it was of itself, heard once before, that it reminded him. It was the same voice which, as he walked to the debate, the first night, had warned him not to look at rainbows.

He opened the door and entered.

"What do you want?" said the voice, its source almost invisible in the thick fumes of genuine pigtail, through which it sent cross odours of as genuine Glenlivat.

"I want you to help me with a bit of Homer, if you please, Mr

Cupples-?I'm not up to Homer yet."

"Do ye think I hae naething ither to do than to grin' the grandur o' an auld haythen into spunemate for a young sinner like you?"

"Ye dinna ken what I'm like, Mr Cupples," returned Alec, remembering his landlady's injunction not to be afraid of him.

"Come athort the reek, and lat's luik at ye."

Alec obeyed, and found the speaker seated by the side of a little fire, in an old easy-chair covered with horsehair; and while undergoing his scrutiny, took his revenge in kind. Mr Cupples was a man who might have been of almost any age from five-and-twenty to fifty-at least, Alec's experience was insufficient for the task of determining to what decade of human years he belonged. He was a little man, in a long black tail-coat much too large, and dirty gray trousers. He had no shirt-collar visible, although a loose rusty stock revealed the whole of his brown neck. His hair, long, thin, fair, and yet a good deal mingled with grey, straggled about over an uncommonly high forehead, which had somehow the neglected and ruinous look of an old bare tower no ivy had beautified. His ears stood far out from his great head. His nose refuses to be described. His lips were plentiful and loose; his chin was not worth mentioning; his eyes were rather large, beautifully formed, bright, and blue. His hand, small, delicately sha

ped, and dirty, grasped, all the time he was examining Alec, a tumbler of steaming toddy; while his feet, in list slippers of different colours, balanced themselves upon the fender[.]

"You've been fighting, you young rascal!" said Mr Cupples, in a tone of authority, the moment he had satisfied himself about Alec's countenance. "That won't do. It's not respectable."

And he gave the queerest unintelligible grin.

Alec found himself strangely attracted to him, and impelled-a feeling not unfrequent with him-to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

"The world itself isn't the most respectable planet in the system, Mr Cupples," said he; "and no honest inhabitant of it can be always respectable either."

Mr Cupples chuckled and laughed groggily, muttering somewhere in his chest-

"You young dog! there's stuff in you!" Then composing himself a little, he said aloud: "Tell me all about it directly."

Alec obeyed, and, not without emotion, gave Mr Cupples the whole history of the affair.

"Damn you!" remarked Mr Cupples in a husky voice, as he held out a trembling hand to Alec, "you're one of the right sort. I'll do anything for you I can. Where's your Homer?"

So saying, he rose with care and went towards a cupboard in the corner. His pipe had been so far interrupted during their conversation, that Alec was now able, by the light of the tallow candle, to see the little garret room, with its ceiling on one side sloping nearly to the floor, its walls begrimed with smoke, and the bare plaster covered with grotesque pencil-drawings-caricatures of Homeric heroes in the guise of schoolboys, polemic clergymen of the city in the garb of fish-wives militant, and such like. A bed and a small chest of drawers stood under the slope of the roof, and the rest of the room was occupied by a painted table covered with papers, and a chair or two. An old broadsword leaned against the wall in a corner. A half-open cupboard revealed bottles, glasses, and a dry-looking cheese. To the corresponding cupboard, on the other side of the fire, which had lost a corner by the descent of the roof, Mr Cupples now dragged his slippers, feeling in his waistcoat pocket, as he went, for the key.-There was another door still, partly sunk in the slope of the ceiling.

When he opened the cupboard, a dusky glimmer of splendid bindings filling the whole recess, shone out upon the dingy room. From a shelf he took a volume of Homer, bound in vellum, with red edges-a copy of far greater value than Alec had knowledge of books to understand-and closing the door again, resumed his seat in the easy-chair. Having found the passage, he read it through aloud in a manner which made Homer for the first time sound like poetry in Alec's ears, and almost revealed the hidden significance. Then pouncing at once upon the shadowy word which was the key to the whole, he laid open the construction and meaning in one sentence of explanation.

"Thank you! thank you!" exclaimed Alec. "I see it all now as plain as

English."

"Stop, stop, my young bantam!" said Mr Cupples. "Don't think you're going to break into my privacy and get off with the booty so cheaply. Just you construe the whole sentence to me."

Alec did so tolerably well; for the passage was only an easy extract, the class not having reached Homer yet. Mr Cupples put several questions to him, which gave him more insight into Greek than a week's work in the class would have done, and ended with a small lecture suggested by the passage, drinking away at his toddy all the time. The lecture and the toddy ended together. Turning his head aside, where it lay back in the horse-hair chair, he said sleepily:

"Go away-I don't know your name.-Come and see me to-morrow night. I'm drunk now."

Alec rose, made some attempt at thanks, received no syllable of reply, and went out, closing the door behind him, and leaving Mr Cupples to his dreams.

His countenance had not made much approximation to respectability before the Monday. He therefore kept it as well as he could out of Mr Fraser's sight, to whom he did not wish to give explanations to the prejudice of any of his fellow-students. Mr Fraser, however, saw his black eye well enough, but was too discreet to ask questions, and appeared quite unaware of the transitory blemish.

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