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Chapter 67

Soon after the commencement of the session, a panic seized the townspeople in consequence of certain reports connected with the school of anatomy, which stood by itself in a low neighbourhood. They were to the effect that great indignities were practised upon the remains of the subjects, that they were huddled into holes about the place, and so heedlessly, that dogs might be seen tearing portions from the earth. What truth there may have been at the root of these reports, I cannot tell; but it is probable they arose from some culpable carelessness of the servants. At all events, they were believed in the neighbourhood, occupied by those inhabitants of the city readiest to receive and dwell upon anything revolting. But what pushed the indignation beyond the extreme of popular endurance, was a second rumour, in the consternation occasioned by which the whole city shared: the resurrectionists were at their foul work, and the graveyard, the place of repose, was itself no longer a sanctuary! Whether the authorities of the medical school had not been guilty of indifference, contenting themselves with asking no questions about the source whence the means of prosecuting their art was derived, may be a question. But fear altogether outstripped investigation, and those even who professed unbelief, took precautions; whence the lights of the watchers of the dead might be seen twinkling, far into the morning, in the solemn places around the city churches; while many a poor creature who would have sold his wife's body for five pounds, was ready to tear a medical student to pieces on the mere chance that his scalpel had touched a human form stolen from the sacred enclosure.

Now whether Beauchamp, who had watched Alec in the same situation before, had anything to do with what follows I cannot tell; but his conduct then lays him open to suspicion now.

Alec, who found some escape if not relief from painful thought in the prosecution of his favourite study, was thus occupied one evening, no very unfrequent occurrence, by candlelight. He had almost reached a final understanding of the point in pursuit, when he was roused from his absorption by a yell outside. He had for some time previous heard a sound of gathering commotion, but had paid no attention to it. He started up from his stooping posture, and having blown out his candle, perceived by the lamps outside, that a crowd of faces, pale in the darkness, was staring through the high iron palisade which surrounded the school. They had seen his light, and were now watching for his coming out. He knew that upon the smallest additional excitement the locked gates and palisade would not keep them off more than half a minute; so he instantly barred the shutters, and betook himself to the porter's room. As he crossed the small open corner between the two doors, he heard the sough of their angry speech swelling and falling like a wind in the upper regions of the night; but they did not see him. Fortunately, there was a side door in the railing, seldom used, of which the key hung in the porter's room. By this door Alec let himself out, and relocked it. But the moment he turned to go home, he heard an urchin, who had peeped round a corner, screech to the crowd across the enclosure:

"He's oot at the back yett! He's oot at the back yett and awa'!"

Another yell arose, and the sounds of trampling feet.

Alec knew that his only chance lay in his heels, and took to them faithfully. Behind him came the crowd in hot pursuit. The narrow streets rang with their shouts of execration. Such curses could hardly be heard elsewhere in Europe. Alec, knowing most of the courts and passages, doubled on his pursuers in the hope of eluding them. But discovering that he had his instrument still in his hand, he stopped to put it down the bars of a grating, for a cut from it would have been most perilous, as he had been using it a day too soon; and before he had gained another turning, his pursuers were on his track and had caught sight of him. But Alec's wind and muscles were both good; and in five minutes more he was at the back entrance to his own lodging, having left the mob far behind him. He darted up to Mr Cupples, and as soon as he found breath enough, told him his adventure, saying with a laugh, as he concluded,

"It's a mercy there's as muckle o' me to the fore as can tell the tale!"

"Jist tak' ye tent, bantam," returned Mr Cupples, who had suddenly assumed a listening attitude, with his head on one side, "or ye mayna tell the neist. Hark!"

From far below arose the dull sound of many feet on the stone-stairs. Mr Cupples listened for a moment as if fascinated, then turning quietly in his chair, put the poker in the fire. Alec rose.

"Sit down, you fool!" cried Cupples; and Alec obeyed.

By this time the mob was thundering at the door of the flat below. And the fact that they knew where Alec lived adds to my suspicion of Beauchamp. The landlady wisely let them in, and for a few minutes they were busy searching the rooms. Then the noise of their feet was heard on the wooden stair leading up to the garret, whereupon Mr Cupples turned the poker in the fire, and said to Alec,

"Rin into that hole there, direckly."

He pointed with the red-hot poker to the door already mentioned as partly sunk in the slope of the ceiling, and then stuck the poker in the fire again. Alec pulled the door open, and entering closed it behind him. The next moment, guided by the light from under it, the foremost footsteps reached the door, and the same instant Mr Cupples appeared in it with his glowing weapon in his hand. Faces with flashing eyes filled the dark garret outside.

"What do ye want?" asked Mr Cupples.

"We want a resurrectioner 'at bides i' this hoose--a foul bane-pikin' doctor," answered a huge, black-faced smith.

"What do ye want wi' him?"

"What are ye stan'in' jawin' there for? Haud oot o' the gait. Gin he bena in your box, what's the odds o' oor luikin' in't?"

"Haud a quaiet sough, my man," answered Cupples, raising the point of the worn old weapon, the fervency of whose whiteness had already dimmed to a dull scaly red, "or I s' lat ye ken' at I'm i' my ain hoose. My certy! but this'll gang throu ye as gin ye war sae mony kegs o' saut butter!"

And he gave a flourish with his rapier--the crowd yielding a step before it--as he asked once more--

"What do ye want wi' him?"

"To ca the sowl oot o' the wame o' the deil's buckie o' him," said a limping ostler.

"I s' pang the mou' o' him wi' the hip o' a corp," cried a pale-faced painter, who seemed himself to belong to the injured fraternity of corpses.

A volley of answers too horrible for record, both in themselves and in the strange devilry of their garnish of oaths, followed. Mr Cupples did not flinch a step from his post. But, alas! his fiery sword had by this time darkened into an iron poker, and the might of its enchantment vanished as the blackness usurped its glow. He was just going to throw it away, and was stretching out his other hand for his grandfather's broadsword, which he had put in the corner by the door ready to replace it, when a long arm, with a fist at the end of it, darted from between the heads in front of him, hurled him across the room, and laid him bleeding and senseless on his own hearth. The poker flew from his hand as he fell. The crowd rushed in after him, upset his table, broke open the door that protected his precious books, and with one vigorous kick from the blacksmith's apprentice, sent in the door of Alec's retreat. But at that moment Alec was contemplating the crowd below from a regal seat between two red chimney-pots.

For as soon as he had drawn-to the door of the closet, instead of finding darkness, he became aware of moonshine, coming through a door that led out upon the roof. This he managed to open, and found himself free of the first floor of the habitable earth, the cat-walk of the world. As steady in foot and brain as any sailor, he scrambled up the roof, seated himself as I have said, and gave himself up to the situation. A sort of stubby underwood of chimney-pots grew all about him out of red and blue ridges. Above him the stars shone dim in the light of the moon, which cast opal tints all around her on the white clouds; and beneath him was a terrible dark abyss, full of raging men, dimly lighted with lamps. Cavernous clefts yawned in all directions, in the side of which lived men and women and children. What a seething of human emotions was down there! Would they ever be sublimed out of that torture-pit into the pure air of the still heaven, in which the moon rode like the very throne of peace?

Alec had gone through enough of trouble already to be able to feel some such passing sympathy for the dwellers in the city below. But the sounds of search in the closet recalled him to a sense of his position. If his pursuers looked out at the door, they would see him at once. He was creeping round to the other side of the chimney to cower in its shadow, when a sudden bellow from the street apprized him that the movement had discovered him to the crowd. Presently stones came flying about the chimneys, and a busy little demon bounded into the house to tell the ringleaders that he was on the roof. He therefore slid down the slope away from the street, and passed on to the roof of the next house, and thence to the third.

Arriving at a dingy dormer window, he found that it opened with ease, admitting him into a little room crowded with dusty books and cobwebs. He knew then that he was in the territorial outskirts of a certain second-hand bookseller, with whom he had occasional dealings. He closed the window, and sat down upon a pile of neglected volumes. The moon shining through the clouded window revealed rows of books all about him, of which he could not read even the names. But he was in no want of the interest they might have afforded him. His thoughts turned to Kate. She always behaved to him so that he felt both hurt and repelled, and found it impossible to go to her so often as he would. Yet now when seated in the solitude of this refuge, his thoughts went back to her tenderly; for to her they always returned like birds to their tree, from all the regions whither the energetic dispersion of Mr Cupples might have scattered them for their pickings of intellectual crumbs. Now, however, it was but as to a leafless wintry tree, instead of a nest bowered in green leaves. Yet he was surprised to find that he was not ten times more miserable; the fact being that, as he had no reason to fear that she preferred any one else, there was plenty of moorland space left for Hope to grow upon. And Alec's was one of those natures that sow Hope everywhere. All that such need is room to sow. Take that away and they are desperate. Alec did not know what advantage Beauchamp had been taking of the Professor's invitation to visit him.

After a time the tumult in the street gradually died away, and Alec thought he might venture to return to Mr Cupples. Clambering back over the roofs, he entered, and found the inner door of the closet broken from its hinges. As he moved it aside, a cry of startled fear discovered that his landlady was in the room.

"Guid preserve's, Mr Forbes!" she cried; "whaur come ye frae, and what hae ye been aboot, to raise the haill toon upo' ye? I trust ye hae nae legs or airms o' a cauld corp aboot ye. The fowk i' the back streets canna bide that. An' I winna alloo 't i' my hoose. Jist luik at puir Mr Cupples here."

Mr Cupples lay on the bed, with his head bound in a bloody bandage. He had fallen upon the fender, and a bad cut had been the consequence. He held out his hand to Alec, and said feebly,

"Bantam, I thocht ye had yer neck thrawn or this time. Hoo, the muckle deil! did ye win oot o' their grips?"

"By playin' the cat a wee," answered Alec.

"It's the first time," remarked Mr Cupples, "I ever kent I had a door to the lift (sky). But faith! the sowl o' me was nearhan' gaein' out at this new ane i' my ain riggin. Gin it hadna been for the guidwife here, 'at cam' up, efter the clanjamfrie had taen themsel's aff, an' fand me lying upo' the hearthstane, I wad hae been deid or noo. Was my heid aneath the grate, guidwife?"

"Na, nae freely that, Mr Cupples; but the blude o' 't was. And ye maun jist haud yer tongue, and lie still. Mr Forbes, ye maun jist come doon wi' me; for he winna haud's tongue's lang's ye're there. I'll jist mak' a cup o' tay till him."

"Tay, guidwife! Deil slocken himsel' wi yer tay! Gie me a sook o' the tappit hen."

"'Deed, Mr Cupples, ye s' hae neither sook nor sipple o' that spring."

"Ye rigwiddie carlin!" grinned the patient.

"Gin ye dinna haud yer tongue, I'll gang for the doctor."

"I'll fling him doon the stair.--Here's doctor eneuch!" he added, looking at Alec. "Gie me half a glaiss, nate."

"Never a glaiss nor glaiss sall ye hae frae my han', Mr Cupples. It wad be the deid o' ye. And forbye, thae ill-faured gutter-partans (kennel-crabs) toomed the pig afore they gaed. And guid faith! it was the only wise-like thing they did. Fess the twa halves o' 't, Mr Forbes, an' lat him see 't wi' the een o' misbelief."

"Gang oot o' my chaumer wi' yer havers," cried Mr Cupples, "and lea' me wi' Alec Forbes. He winna deave me wi' his clash."

"'Deed, I'll no lea' twa sic fules thegither. Come doon the stair direckly, Mr Forbes."

Alec saw that it was better to obey. He went up on the sly in the course of the evening, however, but peeping in and seeing that he slept, came down again. He insisted upon sitting up with him though, to which, after repeated vows of prudence and caution, their landlady consented.

He was restless and feverish during the night. Alec gave him some water. He drank it eagerly. A flash of his humour broke through the cloud of his suffering as he returned the tumbler.

"Eh, man! that's gran' tipple," he said. "Hoo do ye ca' 't?"

In the morning he was better; but quite unable to rise. The poor fellow had very little blood for ordinary organic purposes, and the loss of any was a serious matter to him.

"I canna lift my heid, Alec," he said. "Gin that thrawn wife wad hae but gien me a drappy o' whusky, I wad hae been a' richt."

"Jist lie ye still, Mr Cupples," said Alec. "I winna gang to the class the day. I'll bide wi' you."

"Ye'll do nae sic thing. What's to come o' the buiks forbye, wantin' you or me to luik efter them? An' the senawtus'll be sayin' that I got my heid clured wi' fa'in' agen the curbstane."

"I'll tell them a' aboot it, ane efter anither o' them."

"Ay; jist do sae. Tell them a' aboot it. It wad brak my hert to pairt wi' the buiks afore I got them pitten in dacent order. Faith! I wadna lie still i' my coffin. I wad be thrawin' and turnin', and curfufflin' a' my win'in' sheet, sae that I wadna be respectable whan I bude to get up again. Sae ye maunna lat them think that I'm ower drucken for the buiks to keep company wi', ye ken."

Alec promised to do all he could to keep such a false conclusion from entering the minds of the senatus, and, satisfied that he would best serve the interests of Mr Cupples by doing so at once, set off for college, to call on the professors before lectures.

The moment he was out of the room, Mr Cupples got out of bed, and crawled to the cupboard. To his mortification, however, he found that what his landlady had said was in the main true; for the rascals had not left a spoonful either in the bottle which he used as a decanter, or in the store-bottle called the tappit (crested) hen by way of pre-eminence. He drained the few drops which had gathered from the sides of the latter, for it was not in two halves as she had represented, and crawled back to bed. A fresh access of fever was the consequence of the exertion. It was many days before he was able to rise.

After the morning-classes were over, Alec went to tell Mr Fraser, the only professor whom he had not already seen, about his adventure, and the consequences of the librarian's generous interference.

"I was uneasy about you, Mr Forbes," said the professor, "for I heard from your friend Beauchamp that you had got into a row with the blackguards, but he did not know how you had come off."

His friend Beauchamp! How did he know about it? And when could he have told Mr Fraser?--But Kate entered, and Alec forgot Beauchamp. She hesitated, but advanced and held out her hand. Alec took it, but felt it tremble in his with a backward motion as of reluctance, and he knew that another thickness of the parting veil had fallen between her and him.

"Will you stay and take tea with us?" asked the professor. "You never come to see us now."

Alec stammered out an unintelligible excuse.

"Your friend Beauchamp will be here," continued Mr Fraser.

"I fear Mr Beauchamp is no friend of mine," said Alec.

"Why do you think that? He speaks very kindly of you--always."

Alec made no reply. Ugly things were vaguely showing themselves through a fog.

Kate left the room.

"You had better stay," said the old man kindly.

"I was up all night with Mr Cupples," answered Alec, longing to be alone that he might think things out, "and I am anxious about him. I should be quite uneasy if I did stay--thank you, Mr Fraser."

"Ah! well; your excuse is a good one," answered the old man. And they parted.

Alec went home with such a raging jealousy in his heart, that he almost forgot Mr Cupples, and scarcely cared how he might find him. For this was the first time he had heard of any acquaintance between the professor and Beauchamp. And why should Kate hesitate to shake hands with him? He recalled how her hand had trembled and fluttered on his arm when he spoke of the red stain on the water; and how she had declined to shake hands with him when he told her that he had come from the dissecting-room. And the conviction seized him that Beauchamp had been working on her morbid sensitiveness to his disadvantage--taking his revenge on him, by making the girl whom he worshipped shrink from him with irrepressible loathing.

And in the lulls of his rage and jealousy, he had some glimpses into Kate's character. Not that he was capable of thinking about it; but flashes of reality came once and again across the vapours of passion. He saw too that her nerves came, as it were, nearer the surface than those of other people, and that thence she was exposed to those sudden changes of feeling which had so often bewildered him. And now that delicate creature was in the hands of Beauchamp--a selfish and vulgar-minded fellow! That he whom he had heard insult a dead woman, and whom he had chastised for it, should dare to touch Kate! His very touch was defilement. But what could he do? Alas! he could only hate. And what was that, if Kate should love! But she could not love him already. He would tell her what kind of a person he was. But she would not believe him, and would set it down to jealousy. And it would be mean to tell her. Was Kate then to be left to such a fate without a word of warning? He would tell her, and let her despise him.--And so the storm raged all the way home. His only comfort lay in saying over and over again that Kate could not be in love with him yet.

But if he had seen Kate, that same evening, looking up into Beauchamp's face with a beauty in her own such as he had never beheld there, a beauty more than her face could hold, and overflowing in light from her eyes, he would have found this poor reed of comfort break in his hand and pierce his heart. Nor could all his hatred have blinded him to the fact that Beauchamp looked splendid--his pale face, with its fine, regular, clear-cut features, reflecting the glow of hers, and his Highland dress setting off to full advantage his breadth of shoulders and commanding height. Kate had at last found one to whom she could look up, in whom she could trust!

He had taken her by storm, and yet not without well-laid schemes. For instance, having discovered her admiration of Byron, instead of setting himself, like Alec, to make himself acquainted with that poet, by which he could have gained no advantage over her, he made himself her pupil, and listened to everything she had to say about Byron as to a new revelation. But, at the same time, he began to study Shelley; and, in a few days, was able to introduce, with sufficient application, one or two passages gathered from his pages. Now, to a mind like that of Kate, with a strong leaning to the fantastic and strange, there was that in Shelley which quite overcrowed Byron. She listened with breathless wonder and the feeling that now at last she had found a poet just to her mind, who could raise visions of a wilder beauty than had ever crossed the horizon of her imagination. And the fountain whence she drank the charmed water of this delight was the lips of that grand youth, all nobleness and devotion. And how wide his reading must be, seeing he knew a writer so well, of whom she had scarcely heard!

Shelley enabled Beauchamp to make the same discovery, with regard to Kate's peculiar constitution, on the verge of which Alec had lingered so long. For upon one occasion, when he quoted a few lines from the Sensitive Plant--if ever there was a Sensitive Plant in the human garden, it was Kate--she turned "white with the whiteness of what is dead," shuddered, and breathed as if in the sensible presence of something disgusting. And the cunning Celt perceived in this emotion not merely an indication of what he must avoid, but a means as well of injuring him whose rival he had become for the sake of injury. Both to uncle and niece he had always spoken of Alec in familiar and friendly manner; and now, he would occasionally drop a word or two with reference to him and break off with a laugh.

"What do you mean, Mr Beauchamp?" said Kate on one of these occasions.

"I was only thinking how Forbes would enjoy some lines I found in Shelley yesterday."

"What are they?"

"Ah, I must not repeat them to you. You would turn pale again, and it would kill me to see your white face."

Whereupon Kate pressed the question no further, and an additional feeling of discomfort associated itself with the name of Alec Forbes.

George MacDonald