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Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 15797

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Hillo, bantam!" exclaimed Mr Cupples, to Alec entering his garret within an hour of his arrival in his old quarters, and finding the soul of the librarian still hovering in the steam of his tumbler, like one of Swedenborg's damned over the odour of his peculiar hell. As he spoke he emptied the glass, the custom of drinking from which, instead of from the tumbler itself-rendering it impossible to get drunk all at once-is one of the atonements offered by the Scotch to their tutelar god-Propriety.-"Come awa'. What are ye stan'in' there for, as gin ye warna at hame," he added, seeing that Alec lingered on the threshold. "Sit doon. I'm nae a'thegither sorry to see ye."

"Have you been to the country, Mr Cupples?" asked Alec, as he took a chair.

"The country! Na, I haena been i' the country. I'm a toon-snail. The country's for calves and geese. It's ower green for me. I like the gray stanes-weel biggit, to haud oot the cauld. I jist reverse the opingon o' the auld duke in Mr Shackspere;-for this my life

'Find trees in tongues, its running brooks in books,

Stones in sermons,--'

and I canna gang on ony farther wi' 't. The last's true ony gait. I winna gie ye ony toddy though."

"I dinna want nane."

"That's richt. Keep to that negation as an anchor o' the soul, sure and steadfast. There's no boddom to the sea ye'll gang doon in gin ye cut the cable that hauds ye to that anchor. Here's to ye!"

And again Mr Cupples emptied his glass.

"Hoo are ye prepared for yer mathematics?" he resumed.

"Middlin' only," answered Alec.

"I was doobtin' that. Sma' preparation does weel eneuch for Professor

Fraser's Greek; but ye'll fin' it's anither story wi' the mathematics.

Ye maun jist come to me wi' them as ye did wi' the Greek."

"Thank you, Mr Cupples," said Alec heartily. "I don't know how to repay you."

"Repay me! I want nae repayment. Only spier nae questons at me, and gang awa whan I'm drunk."

After all his summer preparation, Alec was still behind in mathematics; for while, with a distinct object in view, he was capable of much-without one, reading was a weariness to him. His medical studies, combining, as they did, in their anatomical branch, much to be learned by the eye and the hand with what was to be learned from books, interested him more and more.

One afternoon, intent upon a certain course of investigation, he remained in the dissecting room after the other students had gone, and worked away till it grew dark. He then lighted a candle, and worked on. The truth was unfolding itself gently and willingly. At last, feeling tired, he laid down his scalpel, dropped upon a wooden chair, and, cold as it was, fell fast asleep. When he awoke, the candle was bobbing in its socket, alternately lighting and shadowing the dead man on the table. Strange glooms were gathering about the bottles on the shelves, and especially about one corner of the room, where-but I must not particularize too much. It must be remembered that he had awaked suddenly, in a strange place, and with a fitful light. He confessed to Mr Cupples that he had felt a little uncomfortable-not frightened, but eerie. He was just going to rise and go home, when, as he stretched out his hand for his scalpel, the candle sunk in darkness, and he lost the guiding glitter of the knife. At the same moment, he caught a doubtful gleam of two eyes looking in at him from one of the windows. That moment the place became insupportable with horror. The vague sense of an undefined presence turned the school of science into a charnel-house. He started up, hurried from the room, feeling as if his feet took no hold of the floor and his back was fearfully exposed, locked the door, threw the key upon the porter's table, and fled. He did not recover his equanimity till he found himself in the long narrow street that led to his lodgings, lighted from many little shop-windows in stone gable and front.

By the time he had had his tea, and learned a new proposition of Euclid, the fright seemed to lie far behind him. It was not so far as he thought, however, for he started to his feet when a sudden gust of wind shook his windows. But then it was a still frosty night, and such a gust was not to be expected. He looked out. Far above shone the stars.

"How they sparkle in the frost!" he said, as if the frost reached them. But they did look like the essential life that makes snow-flakes and icy spangles everywhere-they were so like them, only they were of fire. Even snow itself must have fire at the heart of it.-All was still enough up there.

Then he looked down into the street, full of the comings and goings of people, some sauntering and staring, others hastening along. Beauchamp was looking in at the window of a second-hand book-shop opposite.

Not being able to compose himself again to his studies, he resolved, as he had not called on Mr Fraser for some time, and the professor had not been at the class that day, to go and inquire after him now.

Mr Fraser lived in the quadrangle of the college; but in the mood Alec was in, nothing would do him so much good as a walk in the frost. He was sure of a welcome from the old man; for although Alec gave but little attention to Greek now, Mr Fraser was not at all dissatisfied with him, knowing that he was doing his best to make himself a good doctor. His friendliness towards him had increased; for he thought he saw in him noble qualities; and now that he was an old man, he delighted to have a youth near him with whose youthfulness he could come into harmonious contact. It is because the young cannot recognize the youth of the aged, and the old will not acknowledge the experience of the young, that they repel each other.

Alec was shown into the professor's drawing-room. This was unusual. The professor was seated in an easy-chair, with one leg outstretched before him.

"Excuse me, Mr Forbes," he said, holding out his left hand without rising. "I am laid up with the gout-I don't know why. The port wine my grandfather drunk, I suppose. I never drink it. I'm afraid it's old age. And yon's my nurse.-Mr Forbes, your cousin, Kate, my dear."

Alec started. There, at the other side of the fire, sat a girl, half smiling and half blushing as she looked up from her work. The candles between them had hid her from him. He advanced, and she rose and held out her hand. He was confused; she was perfectly collected, although the colour rose a little more in her cheek. She might have been a year older than Alec.

"So you are a cousin of mine, Mr Forbes!" she said, when they were all seated by the blazing fire-she with a piece of plain work in her hands, he with a very awkward nothing in his, and the professor contemplating his swathed leg on the chair before him.

"So your uncle says," he answered, "and I am very happy to believe him.

I hope we shall be good friends."

Alec was recovering himself.

"I hope we shall," she responded, with a quick, shy, asking glance from her fine eyes.

Those eyes were worth looking into, if only as a study of colour. They were of many hues marvellously blended. I think grey and blue and brown and green were all to be found in them. Their glance rather discomposed Alec. He had not learned before that ladies' eyes are sometimes very discomposing. Yet he could not keep his from wandering towards them; and the consequence was that he soon lost the greater part of his senses. After sitting speechless for some moments, and feeling as if he had been dumb for as many minutes, he was seized by a horrible conviction that if he remained silent an instant longer, he would be driven to do or say something absurd. So he did the latter at once by bursting out with the stupid question,

"What are you working at?"

"A duster," she answered instantly-this time without looking up.

Now the said duster was of the fi

nest cambric; so that Alec could not help seeing that she was making game of him. This banished his shyness, and put him on his mettle.

"I see," he said, "when I ask questions, you-"

"Tell lies," she interposed, without giving him time even to hesitate; adding,

"Does your mother answer all your questions, Mr Forbes?"

"I believe she does-one way or other."

"Then it is sometimes the other way? Is she nice?"

"Who?" returned Alec, surprised into doubt.

"Your mother."

"She's the best woman in the world," he answered with vehemence, almost shocked at having to answer such a question.

"Oh! I beg your pardon," returned Kate, laughing; and the laugh curled her lip, revealing very pretty teeth, with a semi-transparent pearly-blue shadow in them.

"I am glad she is nice," she went on. "I should like to know her. Mothers are not always nice. I knew a girl at school whose mother wasn't nice at all."

She did not laugh after this childish speech, but let her face settle into perfect stillness-sadness indeed, for a shadow came over the stillness. Mr Fraser sat watching the two with his amused old face, one side of it twitching in the effort to suppress the smile which sought to break from the useful half of his mouth. His gout could not have been very bad just then.

"I see, Katie, what that long chin of yours is thinking," he said.

"What is my chin thinking, uncle?" she asked.

"That uncles are not always nice either. They snub little girls, sometimes, don't they?"

"I know one who is nice, all except one naughty leg."

She rose, as she said this, and going round to the back of his chair, leaned over it, and kissed his forehead. The old man looked up to her gratefully.

"Ah, Katie!" he said, "you may make game of an old man like me. But don't try your tricks on Mr Forbes there. He won't stand them."

Alec blushed. Kate went back to her seat, and took up her duster again.

Alec was a little short-sighted, though he had never discovered it till now. When Kate leaned over her uncle's chair, near which he was sitting, he saw that she was still prettier than he had thought her before.-There are few girls who to a short-sighted person look prettier when they come closer; the fact being that the general intent of the face, which the generalizing effect of the shortness of the sight reveals, has ordinarily more of beauty in it than has yet been carried out in detail; so that, as the girl approaches, one face seems to melt away, and another, less beautiful, to dawn up through it.

But, as I have said, this was not Alec's experience with Kate; for, whatever it might indicate, she looked prettier when she came nearer. He found too that her great mass of hair, instead of being, as he had thought, dull, was in reality full of glints and golden hints, as if she had twisted up a handful of sunbeams with it in the morning, which, before night, had faded a little, catching something of the duskiness and shadowiness of their prison. One thing more he saw-that her hand-she rested it on the back of the dark chair, and so it had caught his eye-was small and white; and those were all the qualities Alec was as yet capable of appreciating in a hand. Before she got back to her seat, he was very nearly in love with her. I suspect that those generally who fall in love at first sight have been in love before. At least such was Romeo's case. And certainly it was not Alec's. Yet I must confess, if he had talked stupidly before, he talked worse now; and at length went home with the conviction that he had made a great donkey of himself.

As he walked the lonely road, and the street now fast closing its windows and going to sleep, he was haunted by a very different vision from that which had accompanied him a few hours ago. Then it was the dead face of a man, into which his busy fancy had reset the living eyes that he had seen looking in at the window of the dissecting room; now it was the lovely face of his new-found cousin, possessing him so that he could fear nothing. Life had cast out death. Love had cast out fear.

But love had cast out more. For he found, when he got home, that he could neither read nor think. If Kate could have been conscious of its persistent intrusion upon Alec's thoughts, and its constant interruption of his attempts at study, she would have been ashamed of that pretty face of hers, and ready to disown it for its forwardness. At last, he threw his book to the other end of the room, and went to bed, where he found it not half so difficult to go to sleep as it had been to study.

The next day things went better; for he was not yet so lost that a night's rest could do him no good. But it was fortunate that there was no Greek class, and that he was not called up to read Latin that day. For the anatomy, he was in earnest about that; and love itself, so long as its current is not troubled by opposing rocks, will not disturb the studies of a real student-much.

As he left the dissecting-room, he said to himself that he would just look in and see how Mr Fraser was. He was shown into the professor's study.

Mr Fraser smiled as he entered with a certain grim comicality which

Alec's conscience interpreted into: "This won't do, my young man."

"I hope your gout is better to-day, sir," he said, sending his glance wide astray of his words.

"Yes, I thank you, Mr Forbes," answered Mr Fraser, "it is better. Won't you sit down?"

Warned by that smile, Alec was astute enough to decline, and presently took his leave. As he shut the study door, however, he thought he would just peep into the dining-room, the door of which stood open opposite. There she was, sitting at the table, writing.

"Who can that letter be to?" thought Alec. But it was early days to be jealous.

"How do you do, Mr Forbes?" said Kate, holding out her hand.

Could it be that he had seen her only yesterday? Or was his visual memory so fickle that he had forgotten what she was like? She was so different from what he had been fancying her!

The fact was merely this-that she had been writing to an old friend, and her manner for the time, as well as her expression, was affected by her mental proximity to that friend;-so plastic-so fluent even-was her whole nature. Indeed Alec was not long in finding out that one of her witcheries was, that she was never the same. But on this the first occasion, the alteration in her bewildered him.

"I am glad to find your uncle better," he said.

"Yes.-You have seen him, then?"

"Yes. I was very busy in the dissecting-room, till-"

He stopped; for he saw her shudder.

"I beg your pardon," he hastened to substitute.-"We are so used to those things, that-"

"Don't say a word more about it, please," she said hastily. Then, in a vague kind of way-"Won't you sit down?"

"No, thank you. I must go home," answered Alec, feeling that she did not want him. "Good night," he added, advancing a step.

"Good night, Mr Forbes," she returned in the same vague manner, and without extending her hand.

Alec checked himself, bowed, and went with a feeling of mortification, and the resolution not to repeat his visit too soon.

She interfered with his studies notwithstanding, and sent him wandering in the streets, when he ought to have been reading at home. One bright moonlight night he found himself on the quay, and spying a boat at the foot of one of the stairs, asked the man in it if he was ready for a row. The man agreed. Alec got in, and they rowed out of the river, and along the coast to a fishing village where the man lived, and whence Alec walked home. This was the beginning of many such boating excursions made by Alec in the close of this session. They greatly improved his boatmanship, and strengthened his growing muscles. The end of the winter was mild, and there were not many days unfit for the exercise.

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