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A state of something like emotional stupefaction succeeded to the mental tumult of that evening when first Alec saw that his worst and wildest forebodings might be even already on the point of realization. The poor glimmer of hope that remained was only enough to show how terrible was the darkness around it. It was well for him that gratitude required of him some ministrations beyond those which he took out of his landlady's hands the moment he came in from college. His custom was to carry his books to the sick man's room, and wearily pretend, without even seeming, to be occupied with them. While thus unemployed he did not know how anxiously he was watched by the big blue eyes of his friend, shining like two fallen stars from the cavern of his bed. But, as I have said, he had more to do for him than merely to supply his few wants when he came home. For the patient's uneasiness about the books and the catalogue led him to offer not only to minister to the wants of the students in the middle of the day, but to spend an hour or two every evening in carrying on the catalogue. This engagement was a great relief to the pro-librarian, and he improved more rapidly thenceforth. Whether Alec's labour was lightened or not by the fact that he had a chance of seeing Kate pass the windows, I cannot tell, but I think any kind of emotion lightens labour. And I think the labour lightened his pain; and I know he was not so absorbed in his unhappiness, though at times the flashes of a keen agony broke from the dull cloud of his misery, as to perform the duties he had undertaken in a perfunctory manner. The catalogue made slow but steady progress. And so did the librarian.
"Mr Forbes," said Mr Fraser, looking at him kindly, one morning after the lecture, "you are a great stranger now. Won't you come and spend to-morrow evening with us? We are going to have a little party. It is my birthday, though I'm sure I don't know why an old man like me should have any birthdays. But it's not my doing. Kate found it out, and she would have a merry-making. I think myself after a man's forty, he should go back to thirty-nine, thirty-eight, and so on, indicating his progress towards none at all. That gives him a good sweep before he comes to two, one, nought. At which rate I shall be thirteen to-morrow."
The old man had rattled on as if he saw the cloud on Alec's face and would dispel it by kindness. I believe he was uneasy about him. Whether he divined the real cause of his gloom, or feared that he was getting into bad ways, I cannot tell.
He did not succeed, however, in dispelling the cloud; for the thought at this moment passing through Alec's mind was, that Kate had wanted the merry-making in order to have Beauchamp there. But with a feeling like that which makes one irritate a smarting wound, or urge on an aching tooth, he resolved to go and have his pain in earnest.
He was the first to arrive.
Kate was in the drawing-room at the piano, radiant in white--lovelier than ever. She rose and met him with some embarrassment, which she tried to cover under more than usual kindness. She had not wished Alec to be one of the company, knowing it would make him unhappy and her uncomfortable.
"Oh Kate!" said Alec, overpowered with her loveliness.
Kate took it for a reproach, and making no reply, withdrew her hand and turned away. Alec saw as she turned that all the light had gone out of her face. But that instant Beauchamp entered, and as she turned once more to greet him, the light flashed from her face and her eyes, as if her heart had been a fountain of rosy flame. Beauchamp was magnificent, the rather quiet tartan of his clan being lighted up with all the silver and jewels of which the dress admits. In the hilt of his dirk, in his brooch, and for buttons, he wore a set of old family topazes, instead of the commoner cairngorm, so that as he entered he flashed golden light from the dark green cloud of his tartan. Not observing Alec, he advanced to Kate with the confidence of an accepted lover; but some motion of her hand or glance from her eyes warned him in time. He looked round, started a little, and greeted him with a slight bow, of which Alec took no notice. He then turned to Kate and began to talk in a low tone, to which she listened with her head hanging like the topmost bell of a wild hyacinth. As he looked, the last sickly glimmer of Alec's hope died out in darkness. But he bore up in bitterness, and a demon awoke in him laughing. He saw the smooth handsome face, the veil of so much that was mean and wretched, bending over the loveliness he loved, yet the demon in him only laughed.
It may appear strange that they should behave so like lovers in the presence of any third person, much more in the presence of Alec. But Beauchamp had now made progress enough to secure his revenge of mortification; and for that, with the power which he had acquired over Kate's sensitive nature, he drew her into the sphere of his flaunted triumph, and made her wound Alec to the root of his vulnerable being. Had Alec then seen his own face, he would have seen upon it the sneer that he hated so upon that of Beauchamp. For all wickedness tends to destroy individuality, and declining natures assimilate as they sink.
Other visitors arrived, and Alec found a strange delight in behaving as if he knew of no hidden wound, and his mind were in a state of absolute neglige. But how would he meet the cold wind blowing over the desolate links?
Some music, and a good deal of provincial talk--not always less human and elevating than the metropolitan--followed. Beauchamp moderated his attentions to Kate; but Alec saw that it was in compliance with his desire that, though reluctant, she went a second time to the piano. The song she had just sung was insignificant enough; but the second was one of the ballads of her old Thulian nurse, and had the merit of an antique northern foundation at least, although it had evidently passed through the hands of a lowland poet before it had, in its present form, found its way northwards again to the Shetland Isles. The first tone of the ghostly music startled Alec, and would have arrested him even if the voice had not been Kate's.
"Sweep up the flure, Janet. Put on anither peat. It's a lown and starry nicht, Janet, And neither cauld nor weet.
And it's open hoose we keep the nicht For ony that may be oot. It's the nicht atween the Sancts and Souls, Whan the bodiless gang aboot
Set the chairs back to the wa', Janet; Mak' ready for quaiet fowk. Hae a' thing as clean as a win'in' sheet: They comena ilka ook.
There's a spale* upo' the flure, Janet; And there's a rowan-berry: Sweep them into the fire, Janet.-- They'll be welcomer than merry.
Syne set open the door, Janet-- Wide open for wha kens wha; As ye come benn to yer bed, Janet, Set it open to the wa'."
She set the chairs back to the wa', But ane made o' the birk; She sweepit the flure,--left that ae spale, A lang spale o' the aik.
The nicht was lowne, and the stars sat still, Aglintin' doon the sky; And the souls crap oot o' their mooly graves, A' dank wi' lyin' by.
She had set the door wide to the wa', And blawn the peats rosy reid; They war shoonless feet gaed oot and in, Nor clampit as they gaed.
Whan midnicht cam', the mither rase-- She wad gae see and hear. Back she cam' wi' a glowerin' face, And sloomin' wi' verra fear.
* A wood-shaving.
"There's ane o' them sittin' afore the fire! Janet, gang na to see: Ye left a chair afore the fire, Whaur I tauld ye nae chair sud be."
Janet she smiled in her mother's face: She had brunt the roddin reid; And she left aneath the birken chair The spale frae a coffin-lid.
She rase and she gaed butt the hoose, Aye steekin' door and door. Three hours gaed by or her mother heard Her fit upo' the floor.
But whan the grey cock crew, she heard The sound o' shoeless feet; Whan the red cock crew, she heard the door, And a sough o' wind and weet.
And Janet cam' back wi' a wan face, But never a word said she; No man ever heard her voice lood oot, It cam' like frae ower the sea.
And no man ever heard her lauch, Nor yet say alas or wae; But a smile aye glimmert on her wan face, Like the moonlicht on the sea.
And ilka nicht 'tween the Sancts and the Souls, Wide open she set the door; And she mendit the fire, and she left ae chair, And that spale upo' the floor.
And at midnicht she gaed butt the hoose, Aye steekin' door and door. Whan the reid cock crew, she cam' benn the hoose, Aye wanner than afore--
Wanner her face, and sweeter her smile; Till the seventh All Souls' eve. Her mother she heard the shoeless feet, Said "she's comin', I believe."
But she camna benn, and her mother lay; For fear she cudna stan'. But up she rase and benn she gaed, Whan the gowden cock had crawn.
And Janet sat upo' the chair, White as the day did daw; Her smile was a sunlight left on the sea, Whan the sun has gane awa'.
Alec had never till now heard her sing really. Wild music and eerie ballad together filled and absorbed him. He was still gazing at her lovely head, when the last wailing sounds of the accompaniment ceased, and her face turned round, white as Janet's. She gave one glance of unutterable feeling up into Beauchamp's face, and hiding her own in her handkerchief, sobbed out, "You would make me sing it!" and left the room.
Alec's heart swelled with indignant sympathy. But what could he do? The room became insupportable the moment she had quitted it, and he made his way to the door. As he opened it, he could not help glancing at Beauchamp. Instead of the dismay he expected, he saw triumph on his pale countenance, and in the curl of his scarred lip.--He flew frantic from the house. The sky was crowded with the watchings of starry eyes. To his fancy, they were like Beauchamp's, and he hated them. Seeking refuge from their gaze, he rushed to the library, and threw himself on a heap of foreign books, which he had that morning arranged for binding. A ghostly glimmer from the snow, and the stars overhead, made the darkness thinner about the windows; but there was no other light in the place; and there he lay, feeling darker within than the night around him. Kate was weeping in her room; that contemptible ape had wounded her; and instead of being sorry for it, was rejoicing in his power. And he could not go to her; she would receive no comfort from him.
It was a bitter hour. Eternity must be very rich to make up for some such hours.
He had lain a long time with his face down upon the books, when he suddenly started and listened. He heard the sound of an opening door, but not of the door in ordinary use. Thinking it proceeded from some thievish intent, he kept still. There was another door, in a corner, covered with books, but it was never opened at all. It communicated with a part of the buildings of the quadrangle which had been used for the abode of the students under a former economy. It had been abandoned now for many years, as none slept any longer within the walls of the college. Alec knew all this, but he did not know that there was also a communication between this empty region and Mr Fraser's house; or that the library had been used before as a tryst by Beauchamp and Kate.
The door closed, and the light of a lantern flashed to the ceiling. Wondering that such a place should excite the cupidity of housebreakers, yet convinced that such the intruders were, Alec moved gently into the embrasure of one of the windows, against the corner of which abutted a screen of book-shelves. A certain light rustling, however, startled him into doubt, and the doubt soon passed into painful conviction.
"Why were you so unkind, Patrick?" said the voice of Kate. "You know it kills me to sing that ballad. I cannot bear it."
"Why should you mind singing an old song your nurse taught you?"
"My nurse learned it from my mother. Oh Patrick! what would my mother say if she knew that I met you this way? You shouldn't ask me. You know I can refuse you nothing; and you should be generous."
Alec could not hear his answer, and he knew why. That scar on his lip! Kate's lips there!
Of course Alec ought not to have listened. But the fact was, that, for the time, all consciousness of free will and capability of action had vanished from his mind. His soul was but a black gulf into which poured the Phlegethontic cataract of their conversation.
"Ah, yes, Patrick! Kisses are easy. But you hurt me terribly sometimes. And I know why. You hate my cousin, poor boy!--and you want me to hate him too. I wonder if you love me as much as he does!--or did; for surely I have been unkind enough to cure him of loving me. Surely you are not jealous of him?"
"Jealous of him!--I should think not!"
Human expression could have thrown no more scorn into the word.
"But you hate him."
"I don't hate him. He's not worth hating--the awkward steer!--although I confess I have cause to dislike him, and have some gratification in mortifying him. But he's not a pleasant subject to me."
"His mother has been very kind to me. I wish you would make it up with him for my sake, Patrick. He may be uncouth and awkward--I don't know--but that's no reason for hating him. I love you so that I could love anybody that loved you. You don't know how I love you, Patrick--though you are unkind sometimes. The world used to look so cold, and narrow, and grey; but now there is a flush like sunset over everything, and I am so happy! Patrick, don't make me do things before my cousin that will hurt him."
Alec knew that she pressed closer to Beauchamp, and offered him her face.
"Listen, my Kate," said Beauchamp. "I know there are things you cannot bear to hear; but you must hear this."
"No, no, not now!" answered Kate, shuddering.
Alec knew how she looked--saw her with the eyes of his memory as she had looked once or twice--and listened unconscious of any existence but that of hearing.
"You must, Kate, and you shall," said Beauchamp. "You asked me only yesterday how I came by that scar on my lip. I will tell you. I rebuked that cousin of yours for unmanly behaviour in the dissecting-room, the very first time he entered it. He made no reply; but when we came out, he struck me."
The icy mood passed away, and such a glow of red anger rushed through Alec's veins, that he felt as if the hot blast from molten metal were playing upon his face. That Kate should marry such a man! The same moment he stood in the light of the lantern, with one word on his lips:
Beauchamp's hand sprang to the hilt of his dirk. Alec laughed with bitter contempt.
"Pooh!" he said; "even you will not say I am a coward. Do if you dare!"
After her first startled cry, Kate had stood staring and trembling. Beauchamp's presence of mind returned. He thrust his half-drawn dirk into its sheath, and with a curl of the scarred lip, said coldly--
"Lying," retorted Alec.
"Well, I must say," returned Beauchamp, assuming his most polished tone, "that this kind of conversation is at least unusual in the presence of a lady."
Without making him any reply, Alec turned to Kate.
"Kate," he said, "I swear to you that I struck him only after fair warning, after insult to myself, and insult to the dead. He did not know that I was able to give him the chastisement he deserved."
I doubt if Kate heard any of this speech. She had been leaning against a book-case, and from it she now slipped sideways to the floor.
"You brute!" said Beauchamp. "You will answer to me for this."
"When you please," returned Alec. "Meantime you will leave this room, or I will make you."
"Go to the devil!" said Beauchamp, again laying his hand on his dirk.
"You can claim fair play no more than a wolf," said Alec, keeping his eye on his enemy's hand. "You had better go. I have only to ring this bell and the sacrist will be here."
"That is your regard for your cousin! You would expose her to the servants!"
"I will expose her to anything rather than to you. I have held my tongue too long."
"And you will leave her lying here?"
"You will leave her lying here."
"That is your revenge, is it?"
"I want no revenge even on you, Beauchamp. Go."
"I will neither forestall nor forget mine," said Beauchamp, as he turned and went out into the quadrangle.
When Alec came to think about it, he could not understand the ease of his victory. He did not know what a power their first encounter had given him over the inferior nature of Beauchamp, in whom the animal, unsupported by the moral, was cowed before the animal in Forbes, backed by the sense of right.
And above all things Beauchamp hated to find himself in an awkward position, which certainly would have been his case if Alec had rung for the sacrist. Nor was he capable of acting well on the spur of any moment. He must have plans: those he would carry out remorselessly.--So he went away to excogitate further revenge. But he was in love with Kate just enough to be uneasy as to the result of Alec's interview with her.
Returning to Kate, Alec found her moaning. He supported her head as she had done for him in that old harvest field, and chafed her chilly hands. Before her senses had quite returned, she began to talk, and, after several inarticulate attempts, her murmured words became plain.
"Never mind, dear," she said; "the boy is wild. He doesn't know what he says. Oh, Patrick, my heart is aching with love to you. It is good love, I know; and you must be kind to me, and not make me do what I don't like to do. And you must forgive my poor cousin, for he did not mean to tell lies. He fancies you bad, because I love you so much more than him. But you know I can't help it, and I daresay he can't either."
Alec felt as if a green flame were consuming his brain. And the blood surged so into his head and eyes, that he saw flashes of fire between him and Kate. He could not remain in such a false position, with Kate taking him for her lover. But what an awful shock it would be to her when she discovered the truth! How was it to be avoided? He must get her home before she recovered quite. For this there was but one chance, and that lay in a bold venture. Mr Fraser's door was just across a corner of the quadrangle. He would carry her to her own room. The guests must be gone, and it was a small household, so that the chance of effecting it undiscovered was a good one. He did effect it; in three minutes more he had laid her on her own bed, had rung her bell, and had sped out of the house as fast and as quietly as he could.
His gratification at having succeeded in escaping Kate's recognition, bore him up for a little, but before he reached home his heart felt like a burnt-out volcano.
Meantime Mr Cupples had been fretting over his absence, for he had come to depend very much upon Alec. At last he had rung the bell, knowing that Mrs Leslie was out, and that it would be answered by a dirty girl in nailed shoes turned down at the heel; she would be open to a bribe. Nor did she need much persuasion besides. Off she ran with his empty bottle, to get it filled at the grocer's over the way.
When Alec came home, he found his friend fast asleep in bed, the room smelling strongly of toddy, and the bottle standing on the table beside the empty tumbler. Faint in body, mind, and spirit, as if from the sudden temptation of an unholy power, he caught up the bottle. The elixir mortis flowed gurgling from the narrow neck into the tumbler which Mr Cupples had lately emptied. Heedless and reckless, he nearly filled it, and was just lifting it to his lips, when a cry half-moulded into a curse rang from the bed, and the same instant the tumbler was struck from his hand. It flew in fragments against the grate, and the spirit rushed in a roaring flame of demoniacal wrath up the chimney.
"Damn you!" half-shrieked, half-panted Mr Cupples in his night-shirt, at Alec's elbow, still under the influence of the same spirit he had banned on its way to Alec Forbes's empty house--"damn you, bantam! ye've broken my father's tumler. De'il tak' ye for a vaigabon'! I've a guid min' to thraw the neck o' ye!"
Seeing Mr Cupples was only two-thirds of Alec's height, and one-half of his thickness, the threat, as he then stood, was rather ludicrous. Miserable as he was, Alec could not help laughing.
"Ye may lauch, bantam! but I want no companion in hell to cast his damnation in my teeth. Gin ye touch that bottle again, faith, I'll brain ye, and sen' ye into the ither warl' withoot that handle at least for Sawtan to catch a grip o' ye by. And there may be a handle somewhaur o' the richt side o' ye for some saft-hertit angel to lay han' upo' and gie ye a lift whaur ye ill deserve to gang, ye thrawn buckie! Efter a' that I hae said to ye!--Damn ye!"
Alec burst into a loud roar of laughter. For there was the little man standing in his shirt, shaking a trembling fist at him, stammering with eagerness, and half-choked with excitement.
"Gang to yer bed, Mr Cupples, or ye'll tak' yer deith o' cauld. Luik here."
And Alec seized the bottle once more. Mr Cupples flew at him, and would have knocked the bottle after the glass, had not Alec held it high above his reach, exclaiming,
"Toots, man! I'm gaein' to pit it intil its ain neuk. Gang ye to yer bed, and lippen to me."
"Ye gie me yer word, ye winna pit it to yer mou'?"
"I do," answered Alec.
The same moment Mr Cupples was floundering on the bed in a perplexed attempt to get under the bed-clothes. A violent fit of coughing was the consequence of the exertion.
"Ye're like to toom yer ain kist afore ye brain my pan, Mr Cupples," said Alec.
"Haud yer tongue, and lat me host (cough) in peace," panted Mr Cupples.
When the fit was over, he lay still, and stared at Alec. Alec had sat down in Mr Cupples's easy-chair, and was staring at the fire.
"I see," muttered Mr Cupples. "This'll do no longer. The laddie's gaein' to the dogs for want o' bein' luikit efter. I maun be up the morn. It's thae wimmen! thae wimmen! Puir things! they canna aye help it; but, de'il tak' them for bonnie oolets! mony's the fine laddie they drive into the cluiks o' auld Horney. Michtna some gran' discovery be made in Pheesiology, to enable the warl' to gang on wantin' them? But, Lord preserve me! I wad hae naething left worth greetin' aboot!"
He hid his face in the bed-clothes.
Alec hearing part of this muttered discourse, had grown attentive, but there was nothing more forthcoming. He sat for a little, staring helplessly into the fire. The world was very blank and dismal.
Then he rose to go to bed; for Mr Cupples did not require him now. Finding him fast asleep under the bed-clothes, he made him as comfortable as he could. Then he locked the closet where the whisky was, and took the key with him.
Their mutual care in this respect was comical.
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