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   Chapter 39 No.39

Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 17585

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Responsive to Mr Cupples's last words uttered from the brink of the pit into which his spirit was sinking, and probably forgotten straightway, Alec knocked at his door upon the Sunday evening, and entered. The strange creature was sitting in the same position as before, looking as if he had not risen since he spoke those words. But there was an alteration in the place, a certain Sunday look about the room, which Alec could not account for. The same caricatures jested from the walls; the same tumbler of toddy was steaming on the table amidst the same litter of books and papers covered with the same dust and marked with the same circles from the bottoms of wet tumblers and glasses. The same cutty-clay, of enviable blackness, reposed between the teeth of Mr Cupples.

After he had been seated for a few moments, however, Alec all at once discovered the source of the reformation-look of the place: Mr Cupples had on a shirt-collar-clean and of imposing proportions. To this no doubt was attached a shirt, but as there was no further sign of its presence, it could not have affected the aspect of things. Although, however, this shirt-collar was no doubt the chief cause of the change of expression in the room, Alec, in the course of the evening, discovered further signs of improvement in the local morals; one, that the hearth had been cleared of a great heap of ashes, and now looked modest and moderate as if belonging to an old maid's cottage, instead of an old bachelor's garret; and another, that, upon the untidy table, lay an open book of divinity, a volume of Gurnall's Christian Armour namely, which I fear Mr Cupples had chosen more for its wit than its devotion. While making these discoveries, Alec chanced to observe-he was quick-eyed-that some of the dusty papers on the table were scrawled over with the first amorphous appearance of metrical composition. These moved his curiosity; for what kind of poetry could the most unpoetic-looking Mr Cupples produce from that great head of his with the lanky colourless hair?-But meantime we must return to the commencement of the interview.

"Ony mair Greek, laddie?" asked Mr Cupples.

"No, thank you, sir," answered Alec. "I only came to see you. You told me to come again to-night."

"Did I? Well, it may stand. But I protest against being made accountable for anything that fellow Cupples may choose to say when I'm not at home."

Here he emptied his glass of toddy, and filled it again from the tumbler.

"Shall I go away?" asked Alec, half bewildered.

"No, no; sit still. You're a good sort of innocent, I think. I won't give you any toddy though. You needn't look so greedy at it."

"I don't want any toddy, sir. I never drank a tumbler in my life."

"For God's sake," exclaimed Mr Cupples, with sudden energy, leaning forward in his chair, his blue eyes flashing on Alec-"for God's sake, never drink a drop.-Rainbows. Rainbows."

These last two words were spoken after a pause, and in a tone of sadness. Alec thought he was drunk again, and half rose to go.

"Dinna gang yet," said Mr Cupples, authoritatively. "Ye come at yer ain will: ye maun gang at mine.-Gin I cud but get a kick at that fellow Cupples! But I declare I canna help it. Gin I war God, I wad cure him o' drink. It's the verra first thing I wad do."

Alec could not help being shocked at the irreverence of the words. But the solemnity of Mr Cupples's face speedily dissipated the feeling. Suddenly changing his tone, he went on:

"What's your name?"

"Alec Forbes."

"Alec Forbes. I'll try to remember it. I seldom remember anybody's name, though. I sometimes forget my own. What was the fellow's name you thrashed the other day?"

"Patrick Beauchamp. I did not mention it before."

"The deevil it was!" exclaimed Mr Cupples, half-starting from his seat.

"Did ye gie him a richt thrashin'?"

"I think he had the worst of it. He gave in, any way."

"He comes of a bad lot! I know all about them. They're from Strathspey, where my father came from-at least his father was. If the young fellow turns out well, it'll be a wonder. I'll tell you all about them."

Mr Cupples here launched into a somewhat discursive account of Patrick Beauchamp's antecedents, indicating by its minuteness that there must have been personal relations of some kind between them or their families. Perhaps he glanced at something of the sort when he said that old Beauchamp was a hard man even for a lawyer. I will condense the story from the more diffuse conversational narrative, interrupted by question and remark on the part of Alec, and give it the shape of formal history.

Beauchamp's mother was the daughter of a Highland chief, whose pedigree went back to an Irish king of date so remote that his existence was doubtful to every one not personally interested in the extraction. Mrs Beauchamp had all the fierceness without much of the grace belonging to the Celtic nature. Her pride of family, even, had not prevented her from revenging herself upon her father, who had offended her, by running away with a handsome W.S., who, taken with her good looks, and flattered by the notion of overcoming her pride, had found a conjunction of circumstances favourable to the conquest. It was not long, however, before both repented of the step. That her father should disown her was not of much consequence in any point of view, but that nobody in Edinburgh would admit her claims to distinction-which arose from the fact that they were so unpleasantly asserted that no one could endure herself-did disgust her considerably; and her annoyance found vent in abuse of her husband for having failed to place her in the sphere to which she had a just claim. The consequence was, that he neglected her; and she sat at home brooding over her wrongs, despising and at length hating her husband, and meditating plans of revenge as soon as her child should be born. At length, within three months after the birth of Patrick, she found that he was unfaithful to her, and immediately demanded a separate maintenance. To this her husband made no further objection than policy required. But when she proceeded to impose an oath upon him that he would never take her child from her, the heart of the father demurred. Whereupon she swore that, if ever he made the attempt, she would poison the child rather than that he should succeed. He turned pale as death, and she saw that she had gained her point. And, indeed, the woman was capable of anything to which she had made up her mind-a power over one's self and friends not desirable except in view of such an object as that of Lady Macbeth. But Mrs Beauchamp, like her, considered it only a becoming strength of spirit, and would have despised herself if she had broken one resolution for another indubitably better. So her husband bade her farewell, and made no lamentation except over the probable result of such training as the child must receive at the hands of such a mother. She withdrew to a country town not far from the Moray Frith, where she might live comfortably on her small income, be a person of some consideration, and reap all the advantages of the peculiar facilities which the place afforded for the education of her boy, whom she would mould and model after her own heart.

"So you see, Mr-I forget yer name-Forbes? yes, Forbes, if the rascal takes after his mother, you have made a dangerous enemy," said Mr Cupples, in conclusion.

Alec laughed.

"I advise you," resumed Mr Cupples, "to keep a gleg ee in yer heid, though-seriously. A body may lauch ower aften. It winna do to gang glowerin' at rainbows. They're bonnie things, but they're nae brig-backs. Gin ye lippen to them, ye'll be i' the water in a cat-loup."

Alec was beginning to enter into the humour of the man.

"I see something like poetry lying about the table, Mr Cupples," said he, with a sly allusion to the rainbows. "Would you let me look at it?"

Mr Cupples glanced at him sharply; but replied immediately:

"Broken bits o' them! And the rainbows cast (lose colour) awfu', ance ye tak' the key-stane oot o' them. Lat them sit up there, brigs (bridges) ower naething, wi' nae road upo' the tap o' them, like the stane brig o' Drumdochart efter the spate (flood). Haud yer han's and yer een aff o' them, as I tellt ye afore.-Ay, ay, ye can luik at thae screeds gin ye like. Only dinna say a word to me aboot ony o' them. And tak' warnin' by them yersel, never to write ae word o' poetry, to haud ye frae rivin'."

"Sma' fear o' that!" returned Alec, laughing.

"Weel, I houp sae.-Ye can mak a kirk an' a mill o' them, gin ye like. They hae lain there lang eneuch. Noo, haud yer tongue. I'm gaein to fill my pipe again, afore I burn oot the dottle. I winna drink mair the nicht, caus

e it's the Sabbath, and I'm gaein to read my buik."

So saving, he proceeded to get the dottle out of his pipe, by knocking it on the hob; while Alec took up the paper that lay nearest. He found it contained a fragment of a poem in the Scotch language; and, searching amongst the rest of the scattered sheets, he soon got the whole of it together.

Now, although Alec had but little acquaintance with verse, he was able, thanks to Annie Anderson, to enjoy a ballad very heartily; and there was something in this one which, associating itself in his mind with the strange being before him, moved him more than he could account for. It was called


As I was walkin' on the strand,

I spied an auld man sit

On ane auld rock; and aye the waves

Cam washin' to its fit.

And aye his lips gaed mutterin',

And his ee was dull and blae.

As I cam near, he luik'd at me,

But this was a' his say:

"Robbie and Jeannie war twa bonnie bairns,

And they played thegither upo' the shore:

Up cam the tide 'tween the mune and the sterns,

And pairtit the twa wi' an eerie roar."

What can the auld man mean, quo' I,

Sittin' upo' the auld rock?

The tide creeps up wi' moan and cry,

And a hiss 'maist like a mock.

The words he mutters maun be the en'

O' a weary dreary sang-

A deid thing floatin' in his brain,

That the tide will no lat gang.

"Robbie and Jeannie war twa bonnie bairns,

And they played thegither upo' the shore:

Up cam the tide 'tween the mune and the sterns,

And pairtit the twa wi' an eerie roar."

What pairtit them, auld man? I said;

Did the tide come up ower strang?

'Twas a braw deith for them that gaed,

Their troubles warna lang.

Or was ane ta'en, and the ither left-

Ane to sing, ane to greet?

It's sair, richt sair, to be bereft,

But the tide is at yer feet.

"Robbie and Jeannie war twa bonnie bairns,

And they played thegither upo' the shore:

Up cam the tide 'tween the mune and the sterns,

And pairtit the twa wi' an eerie roar."

Maybe, quo' I, 'twas Time's gray sea,

Whase droonin' 's waur to bide;

But Death's a diver, seekin' ye

Aneath its chokin' tide.

And ye'll luik in ane anither's ee

Triumphin' ower gray Time.

But never a word he answered me,

But ower wi' his dreary chime-

"Robbie and Jeannie war twa bonnie bairns,

And they played thegither upo' the shore:

Up cam the tide 'tween the mune and the sterns,

And pairtit the twa wi' an eerie roar."

Maybe, auld man, said I, 'twas Change

That crap atween the twa?

Hech! that's a droonin' awfu' strange,

Ane waur than ane and a'.

He spak nae mair. I luik't and saw

That the auld lips cudna gang.

The tide unseen took him awa-

Left me to end his sang:

"Robbie and Jeannie war twa bonnie bairns,

And they played thegither upo' the shore:

Up cam the tide 'tween the mune and the sterns,

And tuik them whaur pairtin' shall be no more."

Before he had finished reading, the refrain had become so familiar to Alec, that he unconsciously murmured the last, changed as it was from the preceding form, aloud. Mr Cupples looked up from Gurnall uneasily, fidgeted in his chair, and said testily:

"A' nonsense! Moonshine and rainbows! Haud yer tongue! The last line's a' wrang."

He then returned with a determined air to the consideration of his Christian Armour, while Alec, in whom the minor tone of the poem had greatly deepened the interest he felt in the writer, gazed at him in a bewilderment like that one feels when his eyes refuse to take their proper relation to the perspective before them. He could not get those verses and Mr Cupples into harmony. Not daring to make any observation, however, he sat with the last leaf still in his hand, and a reverential stare upon his face, which at length produced a remarkable effect upon the object of it. Suddenly lifting his eyes-

"What are ye glowerin' at me for?" he exclaimed, flinging his book from him, which, missing the table, fell on the floor on the further side of it. "I'm neither ghaist nor warlock. Damn ye! gang oot, gin ye be gaun to stick me throu and throu wi' yer een, that gait."

"I beg your pardon, Mr Cupples. I didn't mean to be rude," said Alec humbly.

"Weel, cut yer stick, I hae eneuch o' ye for ae nicht. I canna stan' glowerin' een, especially i' the heids o' idiots o' innocents like you."

I am sorry to have to record what Alec learned from the landlady afterwards, that Mr Cupples went to bed that night, notwithstanding it was the Sabbath, more drunk than she had ever known him. Indeed he could not properly be said to have gone to bed at all, for he had tumbled on the counter-pane in his clothes and clean shirt-collar; where she had found him fast asleep the next morning, with Gurnall's Christian Armour terribly crumpled under him.

"But," said Alec, "what is Mr Cupples?"

"That's a queston he cudna weel answer ye himsel'," was the reply. "He does a heap o' things; writes for the lawyers whiles; buys and sells queer buiks; gies lessons in Greek and Hebrew-but he disna like that-he canna bide to be contred, and laddies is gey contresome; helps onybody that wants help i' the way o' figures-whan their buiks gang wrang ye ken, for figures is some ill for jummlin'. He's a kin' o' librarian at yer ain college i' the noo, Mr Forbes. The auld man's deid, and Mr Cupples is jist doin' the wark. They winna gie him the place-'cause he has an ill name for drink-but they'll get as muckle wark oot o' him as gin they did, and for half the siller. The body hauds at onythiug weel eneuch a' day, but the minute he comes hame, oot comes the tappit hen, and he jist sits doon and drinks till he turns the warl upo' the tap o' 'm."

The next day, about noon, Alec went into the library, where he found Mr Cupples busy re-arranging the books and the catalogue, both of which had been neglected for years. This was the first of many visits to the library, or rather to the librarian.

There was a certain mazy sobriety of demeanour about Mr Cupples all day long, as if in the presence of such serious things as books he was bound to be upon his good behaviour, and confine his dissipation to taking snuff in prodigious quantities. He was full of information about books, and had, besides, opinions concerning them, which were always ready to assume quaint and decided expression. For instance: one afternoon, Alec having taken up Tristram Shandy and asked him what kind of a book it was, the pro-librarian snatched it from his hands and put it on the shelf again, answering:

"A pailace o' dirt and impidence and speeeritual stink. The clever deevil had his entrails in his breest and his hert in his belly, and regairdet neither God nor his ain mither. His lauchter's no like the cracklin' o' thorns unner a pot, but like the nicherin' o' a deil ahin' the wainscot. Lat him sit and rot there!"

Asking him another day what sort of poet Shelley was, Alec received the answer:

"A bonny cratur, wi' mair thochts nor there was room for i' the bit heid o' 'm. Consequently he gaed staiggerin' aboot as gin he had been tied to the tail o' an inveesible balloon. Unco licht heidit, but no muckle hairm in him by natur'."

He never would remain in the library after the day began to ebb. The moment he became aware that the first filmy shadow had fallen from the coming twilight, he caught up his hat, locked the door, gave the key to the sacrist, and hurried away.

The friendly relation between the two struck its roots deeper and deeper during the session, and Alec bade him good-bye with regret.

Mr Cupples was a baffled poet trying to be a humourist-baffled-not by the booksellers or the public-for such baffling one need not have a profound sympathy-but baffled by his own weakness, his incapacity for assimilating sorrow, his inability to find or invent a theory of the universe which should show it still beautiful despite of passing pain, of checked aspiration, of the ruthless storms that lay waste the Edens of men, and dissolve the high triumph of their rainbows. He had yet to learn that through "the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to," man becomes capable of the blessedness to which all the legends of a golden age point. Not finding, when he most needed it, such a theory even in the New Testament-for he had been diligently taught to read it awry-Mr Cupples took to jesting and toddy; but, haunting the doors of Humour, never got further than the lobby.

With regard to Patrick Beauchamp, as far as Alec could see, his dignity had succeeded in consoling itself for the humiliation it had undergone, by an absolute and eternal renunciation of all knowledge of Alec Forbes's existence.

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