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Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 6378

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Now that Kate had got a companion, Alec never saw her alone. But he had so much the better opportunity of knowing her. Miss Warner was a nice, open-eyed, fair-faced English girl, with pleasant manners, and plenty of speech; and although more shy than Kate-English girls being generally more shy than Scotch girls-was yet ready enough to take her share in conversation. Between the two, Alec soon learned how ignorant he was in the things that most interest girls. Classics and mathematics were not very interesting to himself, and anatomy was not available. He soon perceived that they were both fond of poetry; but if it was not the best poetry, he was incapable of telling them so, although the few lessons he had had were from a better mistress than either of them, and with some better examples than they had learned to rejoice in.

The two girls had got hold of some volumes of Byron, and had read them together at school, chiefly after retiring to the chamber they shared together. The consequences were an unbounded admiration and a facility of reference, with the use of emotional adjectives. Alec did not know a single poem of that writer, except the one about the Assyrian coming down like a wolf on the fold.

Determined, however, not to remain incapable of sympathizing with them, he got copies of the various poems from the library of the college, and for days studied Byron and anatomy-nothing else. Like all other young men, he was absorbed, entranced, with the poems. Childe Harold he could not read, but the tales were one fairy region after another. Their power over young people is remarkable, but not more remarkable than the fact that they almost invariably lose this power over the individual, while they have as yet retained it over the race; for of all the multitude which does homage at the shrine of the poet few linger long, and fewer still, after the turmoil of life has yielded room for thought, renew their homage. Most of those who make the attempt are surprised-some of them troubled-at the discovery that the shrine can work miracles no more. The Byron-fever is in fact a disease belonging to youth, as the hooping-cough to childhood,-working some occult good no doubt in the end. It has its origin, perhaps, in the fact that the poet makes no demand either on the intellect or the conscience, but confines himself to friendly intercourse with those passions whose birth long precedes that of choice in their objects-whence a wealth of emotion is squandered. It is long before we discover that far richer feeling is the result of a regard bent on the profound and the pure.

Hence the chief harm the poems did Alec, consisted in the rousing of his strongest feelings towards imaginary objects of inferior excellence, with the necessary result of a tendency to measure the worth of the passions themselves by their strength alone, and not by their character-by their degree, and not by their kind. That they were the forge-bellows, supplying the blast of the imagination to the fire of love in which his life had begun to be remodelled, is not to be counted among their injurious influences.

He had never hitherto meddled with his own thoughts or f

eelings-had lived an external life to the most of his ability. Now, through falling in love, and reading Byron, he began to know the existence of a world of feeling, if not of thought; while his attempts at conversation with the girls had a condensing if not crystallizing influence upon the merely vaporous sensations which the poetry produced. All that was wanted to give full force to the other influences in adding its own, was the presence of the sultry evenings of summer, with the thunder gathering in the dusky air. The cold days and nights of winter were now swathing that brain, through whose aerial regions the clouds of passion, driven on many shifting and opposing winds, were hurrying along to meet in human thunder and human rain.

I will not weary my readers with the talk of three young people enamoured of Byron. Of course the feelings the girls had about him differed materially from those of Alec; so that a great many of the replies and utterances met like unskilful tilters, whose staves passed wide. In neither was the admiration much more than an uneasy delight in the vivid though indistinct images of pleasure raised by the magic of that "physical force of words" in which Byron excels all other English poets, and in virtue of which, I presume, the French persist in regarding Byron as our greatest poet, and in supposing that we agree with them.

Alec gained considerably with Kate from becoming able to talk about her favourite author, while she appeared to him more beautiful than ever-the changes in the conversation constantly bringing out new phases on her changeful countenance. He began to discover now what I have already ventured to call the fluidity of her expression; for he was almost startled every time he saw her, by finding her different from what he had expected to find her. Jean Paul somewhere makes a lamentation over the fact that girls will never meet you in the morning with the same friendliness with which they parted from you the night before. But this was not the kind of change Alec found. She behaved with perfect evenness to him, but always looked different, so that he felt as if he could never know her quite-which was a just conclusion, and might have been arrived at upon less remarkable though more important grounds. Occasionally he would read something of Byron's; and it was a delight to him such as he had never known before, to see Kate's strangely beautiful eyes flash with actual visible fire as he read, or cloud over with mist and fill slowly with the dew of feeling. No doubt he took more of the credit than belonged to him-which was greedy, seeing poor Byron had none of the pleasure.

Had it not been for the help Mr Cupples gave him towards the end of the session, he would have made a poor figure both in Greek and mathematics. But he was so filled with the phantasm of Kate Fraser, that, although not insensible of his obligation to Mr Cupples, he regarded it lightly; and, ready to give his life for a smile from Kate, took all his kindness, along with his drunken wisdom, as a matter of course.

And when he next saw Annie and Curly, he did not speak to them quite so heartily as on his former return.

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