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The tertians gave a supper at Luckie Cumstie's, and invited the magistrands. On such an occasion Beauchamp, with his high sense of his own social qualities, would not willingly be absent. When the hour arrived, he took his place near the head of the table.
After all the solid and a part of the liquid entertainment was over, Alec rose in the space between two toasts, and said:
"Mr Chairman and gentlemen, I propose, at my own proper cost, to provide something for your amusement."
Beauchamp and all stared at the speaker.
"It is to be regretted," Alec went on, "that students have no court of honour to which to appeal. This is the first opportunity I have had of throwing myself on the generosity of my equals, and asking them to listen to my story."
The interest of the company was already roused. All the heads about the long table leaned towards the speaker, and cries of hear, hear, arose in all directions. Alec then gave a brief statement of the facts of the encounter upon the bridge. This was the only part of his relations with Beauchamp which he chose to bring before the public; for the greater wrong of lying defamation involved his cousin's name. He told how Beauchamp had sought the encounter by deliberate insult, had used a weapon against an unarmed enemy, and then thrown him from the bridge.
"Now," he concluded, "all I ask of you, gentlemen, is to allow me the fair arena of your presence while I give this sneaking chieftain the personal chastisement which he has so richly merited at my hands."
Beauchamp had soon recovered his self-possession after the first surprise of the attack. He sat drinking his toddy all the time Alec spoke, and in the middle of his speech he mixed himself another tumbler. When Alec sat down, he rose, glanced round the assembly, bent his lip into its most scornful curves, and, in a clear, unwavering voice, said:
"Mr Chairman and gentlemen, I repel the accusation."
Alec started to his feet in wrath.
"Mr Forbes, sit down," bawled the chairman; and Alec obeyed, though with evident reluctance.
"I say the accusation is false," repeated Beauchamp. "I do not say that Mr Forbes consciously invented the calumny in order to take away my character: such an assertion would preclude its own credence. Nor do I venture to affirm that he never was stabbed, or thrown into the river. But I ask any gentleman who happens to be aware of Mr Forbes's devotions at the shrine of Father Lyaeus, which is the more likely--that a fellow-student should stab and throw him into the water, or that, as he was reeling home at midnight, the treacherous divinity of the bowl should have handed him over to the embrace of his brother deity of the river. Why then should even his imagination fix upon me as the source of the injury? Gentlemen, a foolish attachment to the customs of a long line of ancestors has led me into what I find for the first time to be a dangerous habit--that of wearing arms;--dangerous, I mean, to myself; for now I am wounded with my own weapon. But the real secret of the affair is--I am ashamed to say--jealousy. Mr Forbes knows what I say to be true--that a lady whom he loves prefers me to him."
"Don't bring her name in, you brute!" roared Alec, starting again to his feet, "or I'll tear your tongue out."
"You hear, gentlemen," said Beauchamp, and sat down.
A murmur arose. Heads gathered into groups. No one stood up. Alec felt with the deepest mortification that his adversary's coolness and his own violence had turned the scale against him. This conviction, conjoined with the embarrassment of not knowing how to say a word in his own defence without taking some notice of the close of his adversary's speech, fixed him to his seat. For he had not yet fallen so low as to be capable of even alluding to the woman he loved in such an assembly. He would rather abandon the field to his adversary.
Probably not many seconds had passed, but his situation was becoming intolerable, when a well-known voice rose clear above the confused murmur; and glancing to the lower end of the room, he saw Cosmo Cupples standing at the end of the table.
"I ken weel eneuch, gentlemen," he said, "that I hae no richt to be here. Ye a' ken me by the sicht o' the een. I'm a graduate o' this university, and at present your humble servant the librarian. I intrude for the sake o' justice, and I cast mysel' upo' your clemency for a fair hearin'."
This being accorded by general acclamation,
"Gentlemen," he resumed, "I stan' afore ye wi' a sair hert. I hae occupied the position o' tutor to Mr Forbes; for, as Sir Pheelip Sidney says in a letter to his brither Rob, wha was efterwards Yerl o' Leicester upo' the demise o' Robert Dudley, 'Ye may get wiser men nor yersel' to converse wi' ye and instruck ye, in ane o' twa ways--by muckle ootlay or muckle humility.' Noo, that laddie was ane o' the finest naturs I ever cam' across, and his humility jist made it a pleesur to tak' chairge o' 'm baith mentally and morally. That I had a sair doon come whan he took to the drink, I am forced to confess. But I aye thocht he was strauchtforet, notwithstandin' the whusky. I wasna prepared for sic a doonfa' as this.--I maun jist confess, Mr Cheerman, that I heard him throu' the crack o' the door-cheek. And he broucht sic deevilich accusations--"
"Mr Cupples!" cried Alec.
"Haud yer tongue, Alec Forbes, and lat this company hear me. Ye appealed to the company yersel' first o' a'.--I say hoo cud he bring sic deevilich accusations against a gentleman o' sic birth and breedin' and accomplishments as the Laird o' Chattachan!--Maybe the Laird wad jist condescend to say whaur he was upo' the nicht in queston; for gin we cud get the rampaugin' misguidit laddie ance fairly into the yard, wi' the yetts steekit (gates closed), he wad see that leein' wadna serve his turn."
Alec was in chaotic confusion. Notwithstanding the hard words Mr Cupples had used, he could ill believe that he had turned his enemy. He had behaved very badly to Mr Cupples, but was Mr Cupples one to revenge himself?
Mr Cupples had paused with his eyes resting on Beauchamp. He, without rising, replied carelessly:
"Really, sir, I do not keep a register of my goings and comings. I might have done so had I known its importance. I have not even been informed when the occurrence is said to have taken place."
"I can gie your memory a prod upo' the dates, sir. For I ken weel the nicht whan Alec Forbes cam' hame wi' a lang and a deep cut upo' the ootside o' 's left airm atween the shouther an' the elbuck. I may weel remember 't to my grief; for though he cam' hame as sober as he was drippin' weet--I hae oor guidwife's testimony to that--he gaed oot again, and whan he cam' hame ance mair, he was the waur o' drink for the first time sin' ever I kent him. Noo, sir, it a' took place the same day that ye cam' to the leebrary, and tuik awa' wi' ye a novell ca'd Aiken Drum. I tauld ye it wad ill repay ye, for it was but a fule thing. And I remember 't the better that I was expeckin' Alec Forbes in ilka minute, and I was feared for a collieshangie (outbreak) atween ye."
"I remember all about that night perfectly, now you call it to my recollection. I went straight home, and did not go out again--I was so taken up with Aiken Drum."
"I tell't ye sae!" cried Cupples, triumphantly. "Wha wadna tak' the word o' The MacChattachan? There's sma' profit in addin' my testimony to the weight o' that; but I wad jist like to tell this company, Mr Cheerman and gentlemen, hoo I cam' to ken mair aboot the affair nor my frien' Alec Forbes is awar' o'. That same efternoon, I expeckit him i' the leebrary as I hae said, and whan he didna come, I took my hat--that was about a half-hoor efter the laird left me--and gaed oot to luik for him. I gaed ower the links; for my man had the profitless habit at that time, whilk he's gien up for a mair profitless still, o' stravaguin' aboot upo' the seashore, wi' 's han's in 's pooches, and his chin reposin' upo' the third button o' 's waistcoat--all which bears hard upo' what the laird says aboot's jealousy. The mune was jist risin' by the time I wan to the shore, but I saw no sign o' man or woman alang that dreary coast. I was jist turnin' to come hame again, whan I cam' upo' tracks i' the weet san'. And I kent the prent o' the fit, and I followed it on to the links again, and sae I gaed back at my leisure. And it was sic a bonny nicht, though the mune wasna that far up, drivin' lang shaidows afore her, that I thocht I wad jist gang ance ower the brig and back again, and syne maybe turn into Luckie Cumstie's here. But afore I wan to the brig, whan I was i' the shaidow o' Baillie Bapp's hoose, I heard sic a scushlin' and a shochlin' upo' the brig! and I saw something gang reelin' aboot; and afore I cud gaither my wits and rin foret, I heard an awfu' splash i' the water; and by gangs somebody wi' lang quaiet strides, and never saw me. He had on the kilts and the lave o' the fandangles. And he turned into the quadrangle, and throu't he gaed and oot at the corner o' 't. I was close ahint him--that is, I was into the quadrangle afore he was oot o' 't. And I saw the sacrist come oot at the door o' the astronomical tooer jist afore the Hielanman turned the neuk o' 't. And I said to Thomson, says I, 'Wha was that gaed by ye, and oot the back gait?' And says he, 'It was Maister Beauchamp.' 'Are ye sure o' that?' says I. 'As sure's deith,' says he. Ye ken William's phrase, gentlemen."
Beauchamp's nonchalance had disappeared for some time. When his own name came out, his cheeks grew deathly pale, and thin from the falling of his jaw. Cupples, watching him, went on.
"As sune's I was sure o' my man, I saw what a damned idiot I was to rin efter him. And back I flew to the brig. I kent full weel wha the ither man bude to be. It could be nane but my ain Alec Forbes; for I sweir to ye, gentlemen, I hae watched The MacChattachan watchin' Alec Forbes mair nor twa or three times sin' Alec throosh him for bein' foul-mou'd i' the face o' the deid."
By this time Beauchamp, having swallowed the rest of his tumbler at a gulp, had recovered a little. He rose with defiance on his face.
"Dinna lat him gang, gentlemen," cried Cupples, "till I tell ye ae ither God's trowth.--I ran back to the brig, as hard's my legs cud carry me, consolin' mysel' wi' the reflection that gin Alec had na been sair hurtit i' the scuffle, there was no fear o' him. For I heard him fa' clean into the water, and I kent ye micht as sune droon a herrin as Alec Forbes. I ran richt to the mids' o' the brig and there was the black heid o' him bobbin' awa' doon the water i' the hert o' the munelicht. I'm terrible lang-sichtit, gentlemen. I canna sweir that I saw the face o' 'm, seein' the back o' 's heid was to me; but that it was Alec Forbes, I hae no more doobt than o' my ain existence. I was jist turnin', nearhan' the greetin', for I lo'ed the laddie weel, whan I saw something glintin' bonnie upo' the parapet o' the brig. And noo I beg to restore't till'ts richtful owner. Wad ye pass't up the table, gentlemen. Some o' ye will recogneeze't as ane o' the laird's bonnie cairngorum-buttons."
Handing the button to the man nearest him, Mr Cupples withdrew into a corner, and leaned his back against the wall. The button made many a zigzag from side to side of the table, but Beauchamp saw the yellow gleam of it coming nearer and nearer. It seemed to fascinate him. At last bursting the bonds of dismay, the blood rushed into his pale face, and he again moved to go:
"A conspiracy, gentlemen!" he cried. "You are all against me. I will not trouble you longer with my presence. I will bide my time."
"Stop a moment, Mr Beauchamp," said the chairman--the pale-faced son of a burly ploughman--rising. "Your departure will scarcely satisfy us now. Gentlemen, form yourselves in a double row, and grace the exit of a disgrace. I leave it to yourselves to kick him or not as you may think proper. But I think myself the way is to be merciful to the confounded. Better leave him to his own conscience."
Beauchamp's hand, following its foolish habit, fell upon the hilt of his dirk.
"Draw that dirk one inch," said the chairman hastily, clenching his fist, "and I'll have you thrown on Luckie Cumstie's midden."
Beauchamp's hand dropped. The men formed as directed.
"Now," said the chairman sternly.
And Beauchamp without a word marched down the long avenue white as a ghost, and looking at nobody. Each made him a low bow as he passed, except the wag of the tertians, who turned his back on him and bowed to the universe in general. Mr Cupples was next the door, and bowed him out. Alec alone stood erect. He could not insult him.
Beauchamp's feelings I do not care to analyze. As he passes from that room, he passes from my history.--I do not think a man with such an unfavourable start, could arrive at the goal of repentance in this life.
"Mr Cupples," cried the chairman, "will you oblige us by spending the rest of the evening with us?"
"You do me mair honour nor I deserve, sir," replied Mr Cupples; "but that villain Alec Forbes has cost me sae muckle in drink to haud my hert up, that I winna drink in his company. I micht tak' ower muckle and disgrace mysel' forbye. Good nicht to ye a', gentlemen, and my best thanks."
So saying, Mr Cupples left the room before Alec could get near him with a word or a sign of gratitude. But sorry and ashamed as he was, his spirits soon returned. Congratulation restored him to his worse self; and ere long he felt that he had deserved well of the community. The hostess turned him out with the last few at midnight, for one of the professors was provost; and he went homewards with another student, who also lived in the new town.
The two, however, not having had enough of revelry yet, turned aside into a lane, and thence up a court leading to a low public-house, which had a second and worse reputation. Into this Alec's companion went. Alec followed. But he was suddenly seized in the dark, and ejected with violence. Recovering himself from his backward stagger into the court, he raised his arm to strike. Before him stood a little man, who had apparently followed him out of the public-house. His hands were in the pockets of his trowsers, and the wind was blowing about the tails of his old dress-coat.
Nor was Alec too far gone to recognize him.
"You, Mr Cupples!" he exclaimed. "I didna expect to see you here."
"I never was across the door-sill o' sic a place afore," said Mr Cupples, "nor, please God, will either you or me ever cross sic a door-sill again."
"Hooly, hooly, Mr Cupples! Speak for ane at a time. I'm gaein in this minute. Luckie Cumstie turned on the caller air ower sune for me."
"Man!" said Cupples, laying hold of Alec's coat, "think that ye hae a mither. Ilka word that ye hear frae a worthless woman is an affront to yer mither."
"Dinna stan' preachin' to me. I'm past that."
"Alec, ye'll wiss to God ye hadna, whan ye come to marry a bonnie wife."
It was a true but ill-timed argument. Alec flared up wildly.
"Wife!" he cried, "there's no wife for me. Haud oot o' my gait. Dinna ye see I hae been drinkin'? And I winna be contred."
"Drinkin'!" exclaimed Mr Cupples. "Little ye ken aboot drinkin'. I hae drunken three times as muckle as you. And gin that be ony argument for me haudin' oot o' your gait, it's mair argument yet for you to haud oot o' mine. I sweir to God I winna stan' this ony langer. Ye're to come hame wi' me frae this mou' o' hell and ugsome (frightful) deith. It gangs straucht to the everlastin' burnin's. Eh, man! to think nae mair o' women nor that!"
And the brave little man placed himself right between Alec and the door, which now opened half-way, showing several peering and laughing faces.
But the opposition of Mr Cupples had increased the action of the alcohol upon Alec's brain, and he blazed up in a fury at the notion of being made a laughter to the women. He took one step towards Mr Cupples, who had restored his hands to his pockets and backed a few paces towards the door of the house, to guard against Alec's passing him.
"Haud oot o' my gait, or I'll gar ye," he said fiercely.
"I will not," answered Mr Cupples, and lay senseless on the stones of the court.
Alec strode into the house, and the door closed behind him.
By slow degrees Mr Cupples came to himself. He was half dead with cold, and his head was aching frightfully. A pool of blood lay on the stones already frozen. He crawled on his hands and knees, till he reached a wall, by which he raised and steadied himself. Feeling along this wall, he got into the street; but he was so confused and benumbed that if a watchman had not come up, he would have died on some doorstep. The man knew him and got him home. He allowed both him and his landlady to suppose that his condition was the consequence of drink; and so was helped up to his garret and put to bed.
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