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   Chapter 1 No.1

Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 6777

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The farm-yard was full of the light of a summer noontide. Nothing can be so desolately dreary as full strong sunlight can be. Not a living creature was to be seen in all the square inclosure, though cow-houses and stables formed the greater part of it, and one end was occupied by a dwelling-house. Away through the gate at the other end, far off in fenced fields, might be seen the dark forms of cattle; and on a road, at no great distance, a cart crawled along, drawn by one sleepy horse. An occasional weary low came from some imprisoned cow-or animal of the cow-kind; but not even a cat crossed the yard. The door of the barn was open, showing a polished floor, as empty, bright, and clean as that of a ball-room. And through the opposite door shone the last year's ricks of corn, golden in the sun.

Now, although a farm-yard is not, either in Scotland or elsewhere, the liveliest of places in ordinary, and still less about noon in summer, yet there was a peculiar cause rendering this one, at this moment, exceptionally deserted and dreary. But there were, notwithstanding, a great many more people about the place than was usual, only they were all gathered together in the ben-end, or best room of the house-a room of tolerable size, with a clean boarded floor, a mahogany table, black with age, and chairs of like material, whose wooden seats, and high, straight backs, were more suggestive of state than repose. Every one of these chairs was occupied by a silent man, whose gaze was either fixed on the floor, or lost in the voids of space. Each wore a black coat, and most of them were in black throughout. Their hard, thick, brown hands-hands evidently unused to idleness-grasped their knees, or, folded in each other, rested upon them. Some bottles and glasses, with a plate of biscuits, on a table in a corner, seemed to indicate that the meeting was not entirely for business purposes; and yet there were no signs of any sort of enjoyment. Nor was there a woman to be seen in the company.

Suddenly, at the open door, appeared a man whose shirt-sleeves showed very white against his other clothing which, like that of the rest, was of decent black. He addressed the assembly thus:

"Gin ony o' ye want to see the corp, noo's yer time."

To this offer no one responded; and, with a slight air of discomfiture, for he was a busy man, and liked bustle, the carpenter turned on his heel, and re-ascended the narrow stairs to the upper room, where the corpse lay, waiting for its final dismission and courted oblivion.

"I reckon they've a' seen him afore," he remarked, as he rejoined his companion. "Puir fallow! He's unco (uncouthly) worn. There'll no be muckle o' him to rise again."

"George, man, dinna jeest i' the face o' a corp," returned the other.

"Ye kenna whan yer ain turn may come."

"It's no disrespeck to the deid, Thamas. That ye ken weel eneuch. I was only pityin' the worn face o' him, leukin up there atween the buirds, as gin he had gotten what he wanted sae lang, and was thankin' heaven for that same. I jist dinna like to pit the lid ower him."

"Hoot! hoot! Lat the Lord luik efter his ain. The lid o' the coffin disna hide frae his een."

The last speaker was a stout, broad-shouldered man, a stonemason by trade, powerful, and somewhat asthmatic. He was regarded in the neighbourhood as a very religious man, but was more respec

ted than liked, because his forte was rebuke. It was from deference to him that the carpenter had assumed a mental position generating a poetic mood and utterance quite unusual with him, for he was a jolly, careless kind of fellow, well-meaning and good-hearted.

So together they lifted the last covering of the dead, laid it over him, and fastened it down. And there was darkness about the dead; but he knew it not, because he was full of light. For this man was one who, all his life, had striven to be better.

Meantime, the clergyman having arrived, the usual religious ceremonial of a Scotch funeral-the reading of the Word and prayer-was going on below. This was all that gave the burial any sacred solemnity; for at the grave the Scotch terror of Popery forbids any observance of a religious character. The voice of the reader was heard in the chamber of death.

"The minister's come, Thamas."

"Come or gang," said Thomas, "it's muckle the same. The word itsel' oot o' his mou' fa's as deid as chaff upo' clay. Honest Jeames there'll rise ance mair; but never a word that man says, wi' the croon o' 's heid i' the how o' 's neck, 'll rise to beir witness o' his ministrations."

"Hoot, Thamas! It's no for the likes o' me to flee i' your face-but jist say a fair word for the livin' ower the deid, ye ken."

"Na, na. It's fair words maks foul wark; and the wrath o' the Almichty maun purge this toon or a' be dune. There's a heap o' graceless gaeins on in't; and that puir feckless body, the minister, never gies a pu' at the bridle o' salvation, to haud them aff o' the scaur (cliff) o' hell."

The stone-mason generally spoke of the Almighty as if he were in a state of restrained indignation at the wrongs he endured from his children. If Thomas was right in this, then certainly he himself was one of his offspring. If he was wrong, then there was much well worth his unlearning.

The prayer was soon over, and the company again seated themselves, waiting till the coffin should be placed in the hearse, which now stood at the door.

"We'll jist draw the cork o' anither boatle," whispered a sharp-faced man to his neighbour.

And rising, he opened two bottles, and filled the glasses the second time with wine, red and white, which he handed to the minister first.

"Tak' a drappy mair, sir," he whispered in a coaxing, old-wivish tone; "it's a lang road to the kirkyard."

But the minister declining, most of the others followed his example. One after another they withdrew to the door, where the hearse was now laden with the harvest of the grave.

Falling in behind the body, they moved in an irregular procession from the yard. Outside, they were joined by several more in gigs and on horseback; and thus they crept, a curious train, away towards the resting-place of the dead.

It were a dreary rest, indeed, if that were their resting-place-on the side of a low hill, without tree or shrub to beautify it, or even the presence of an old church to seem to sanctify the spot. There was some long grass in it, though, clambering up as if it sought to bury the gravestones in their turn. And that long grass was a blessing. Better still, there was a sky overhead, in which men cannot set up any gravestones. But if any graveyard be the type of the rest expected by those left behind, it is no wonder they shrink from joining those that are away.

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