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   Chapter 8 No.8

Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 13337

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

She woke early, rose, and dressed herself. But there was no water for her to wash with, and she crept down-stairs to look for help in this her first need. Nobody, however, was awake. She looked long and wistfully at the house-door, but seeing that she could not open it, she went back to her room. If she had been at home, she would soon have had a joyous good-morrow from the burst of fresh wind meeting her as she lifted the ready latch, to seek the companionship of yet earlier risers than herself; but now she was as lonely as if she had anticipated the hour of the resurrection, and was the little only one up of the buried millions. All that she had left of that home was her box, and she would have betaken herself to a desolate brooding over its contents; but it had not been brought up, and neither could she carry it up herself, nor would she open it in the kitchen where it stood. So she sat down on the side of her bed, and gazed round the room. It was a cheerless room. At home she had had chequered curtains to her bed: here there were none of any kind; and her eyes rested on nothing but bare rafters and boards. And there were holes in the roof and round the floor, which she did not like. They were not large, but they were dreadful. For they were black, nor did she know where they might go to. And she grew very cold.

At length she heard some noise in the house, and in her present mood any human noise was a sound of deliverance. It grew; was presently enriched by the admixture of baby-screams, and the sound of the shop-shutters being taken down; and at last footsteps approached her door. Mrs Bruce entered, and finding her sitting dressed on her bed, exclaimed:

"Ow! ye call dress yersel! can ye?"

"Ay, weel that," answered Annie, as cheerily as she could. "But," she added, "I want some water to wash mysel' wi'."

"Come doon to the pump, than," said Mrs Bruce.

Annie followed her to the pump, where she washed in a tub. She then ran dripping into the house for a towel, and was dried by the hands of Mrs Bruce in her dirty apron.-This mode of washing lasted till the first hoar-frost, after which there was a basin to be had in the kitchen, with plenty of water and not much soap.

By this time breakfast was nearly ready, and in a few minutes more, Mrs Bruce called Mr Bruce from the shop, and the children from the yard, and they all sat round the table in the kitchen-Mr Bruce to his tea and oat-cake and butter-Mrs Bruce and the children to badly-made oatmeal porridge and sky-blue milk. This quality of the milk was remarkable, seeing they had cows of their own. But then they sold milk. And if any customer had accused her of watering it, Mrs Bruce's best answer would have been to show how much better what she sold was than what she retained; for she put twice as much water in what she used for her own family-with the exception of the portion destined for her husband's tea, whose two graces were long and strong enough for a better breakfast. But then his own was good enough.

There were three children, two boys with great jaws-the elder rather older than Annie-and a very little baby. After Mr Bruce had prayed for the blessing of the Holy Spirit upon their food, they gobbled down their breakfasts with all noises except articulate ones. When they had finished-that is, eaten everything up-the Bible was brought; a psalm was sung, after a fashion not very extraordinary to the ears of Annie, or, indeed, of any one brought up in Scotland; a chapter was read-it happened to tell the story of Jacob's speculations in the money-market of his day and generation; and the exercise concluded with a prayer of a quarter of an hour, in which the God of Jacob especially was invoked to bless the Bruces, His servants, in their basket and in their store, and to prosper the labours of that day in particular. The prayer would have been longer, but for the click of the latch of the shop-door, which brought it to a speedier close than one might have supposed even Mr Bruce's notions of decency would have permitted. And almost before the Amen was out of his month, he was out of the kitchen.

When he had served the early customer, he returned, and sitting down, drew Annie towards him-between his knees, in fact, and addressed her with great solemnity.

"Noo, Annie," said he, "ye s' get the day to play yersel'; but ye maun gang to the school the morn. We can hae no idle fowk i' this hoose, sae we maun hae nae words aboot it."

Annie was not one to make words about that or anything. She was only too glad to get away from him. Indeed the prospect of school, after what she had seen of the economy of her home, was rather enticing. So she only answered,

"Verra weel, sir. Will I gang the day?"

Whereupon, finding her so tractable, Mr Bruce added, in the tone of one conferring a great favour, and knowing that he did so,

"Ye can come into the shop for the day, and see what's gaein on. Whan ye're a muckle woman, ye may be fit to stan' ahin' the coonter some day yersel'-wha kens?"

Robert Bruce regarded the shop as his Bannockburn, where all his enemies, namely customers, were to be defeated, that he might be enriched with their spoils. It was, therefore, a place of so great interest in his eyes, that he thought it must be interesting to everybody else. And, indeed, the permission did awake some ill-grounded expectations in the mind of Annie.

She followed him into the shop, and saw quite a fabulous wealth of good things around her; of which, however, lest she should put forth her hand and take, the militant eyes of Robert Bruce never ceased watching her, with quick-recurring glances, even while he was cajoling some customer into a doubtful purchase.

Long before dinner-time arrived, she was heartily sick of the monotony of buying and selling in which she had no share. Not even a picture-book was taken down from the window for her to look at; so that she soon ceased to admire even the picture-books-a natural result of the conviction that they belonged to a sphere above her reach. Mr Bruce, on the other hand, looked upon them as far below the notice of his children, although he derived a keen enjoyment from the transference, by their allurements, of the half-pence of other children from their pockets into his till.

"Naisty trash o' lees," he remarked, apparently for Annie's behoof, as he hung the fresh bait up in his window, after two little urchins, with bawbees to spend, had bought a couple of the radiant results of literature and art combined. "Naisty trash o' lees-only fit for dirrty laddies and lassies."

He stood on the watch in his shop like a great s

pider that ate children; and his windows were his web.

They dined off salt herrings and potatoes-much better fare than bad porridge and watered milk. Robert Bruce the younger, who inherited his father's name and disposition, made faces at Annie across the table as often as he judged it prudent to run the risk of discovery; but Annie was too stupefied with the awful change to mind it much, and indeed required all the attention she had at command, for the arrest of herring bones on their way to her throat.

After dinner, business was resumed in the shop, with at least the resemblance of an increase of vigour, for Mrs Bruce went behind the counter, and gave her husband time to sit down at the desk to write letters and make out bills. Not that there was much of either sort of clerkship necessary; but Bruce, like Chaucer's Man of Law, was so fond of business, that he liked to seem busier than he was. As it happened to be a half-holiday, Annie was sent with the rest of the children into the garden to play up and down the walks.

"An' min'," said Bruce, "an' haud oot ower frae the dog."

In the garden Annie soon found herself at the mercy of those who had none.

It is marvellous what an amount of latent torment there is in boys, ready to come out the moment an object presents itself. It is not exactly cruelty. The child that tears the fly to pieces does not represent to himself the sufferings the insect undergoes; he merely yields to an impulse to disintegrate. So children, even ordinarily good children, are ready to tease any child who simply looks teasable, and so provokes the act. Now the Bruces were not good children, as was natural; and they despised Annie because she was a girl, and because she had no self-assertion. If she had shown herself aggressively disagreeable, they would have made some attempt to conciliate her; but as it was, she became at once the object of a succession of spiteful annoyances, varying in intensity with the fluctuating invention of the two boys. At one time they satisfied themselves with making grimaces of as insulting a character as they could produce; at another they rose to the rubbing of her face with dirt, or the tripping up of her heels. Their persecution bewildered her, and the resulting stupefaction was a kind of support to her for a time; but at last she could endure it no longer, being really hurt by a fall, and ran crying into the shop, where she sobbed out,

"Please, sir, they winna lat me be."

"Dinna come into the chop wi' yer stories. Mak' it up amo' yersels."

"But they winna mak' it up."

Robert Bruce rose indignant at such an interruption of his high calling, and went out with the assumption of much parental grandeur. He was instantly greeted with a torrent of assurances that Annie had fallen, and then laid the blame upon them; whereupon he turned sternly to her, and said-

"Annie, gin ye tell lees, ye'll go to hell."

But paternal partiality did not prevent him from reading them also a lesson, though of a quite different tone.

"Mind, boys," he said, in a condescending whine, "that poor Annie has neither father nor mither; an' ye maun be kind till her."

He then turned and left them for the more important concerns within-doors; and the persecution recommenced, though in a somewhat mitigated form. The little wretches were perfectly unable to abstain from indulging in a pleasure of such intensity. Annie had indeed fallen upon evil days.

I am thus minute in my description of her first day, that my reader, understanding something similar of many following days, may be able to give due weight to the influence of other events, when, in due time, they come to be recorded. But I must not conclude the account without mentioning something which befell her at the close of the same day, and threatened to be productive of yet more suffering.

After worship, the boys crawled away to bed, half-asleep already; or, I should rather say, only half-awake from their prayers. Annie lingered.

"Can ye no tak' aff yer ain claes, as weel as pit them on, Annie?" asked Mrs Bruce.

"Ay, weel eneuch. Only I wad sair like a bittie o' can'le," was Annie's trembling reply, for she had a sad foreboding instinct now.

"Can'le! Na, na, bairn," answered Mrs Bruce. "Ye s' get no can'le here. Ye wad hae the hoose in a low (flame) aboot oor lugs (ears). I canna affoord can'les. Ye can jist mak' a can'le o' yer han's, and fin (feel) yer gait up the twa stairs. There's thirteen steps to the firs, and twal to the neist."

With choking heart, but without reply, Annie went.

Groping her way up the steep ascent, she found her room without any difficulty. As it was again a clear, starlit night, there was light enough for her to find everything she wanted; and the trouble at her heart kept her imagination from being as active as it would otherwise have been, in recalling the terrible stories of ghosts and dead people with which she was far too familiar. She soon got into bed, and, as a precautionary measure, buried her head under the clothes before she began to say her prayers, which, under the circumstances, she had thought she might be excused for leaving till she had lain down. But her prayers were suddenly interrupted by a terrible noise of scrambling and scratching and scampering in the very room beside her.

"I tried to cry oot," she said afterwards, "for I kent 'at it was rottans; but my tongue booed i' my mou' for fear, and I cudna speak ae word."

The child's fear of rats amounted to a frenzied horror. She dared not move a finger. To get out of bed with those creatures running about the room was as impossible as it was to cry out. But her heart did what her tongue could not do-cried out with a great and bitter cry to one who was more ready to hear than Robert and Nancy Bruce. And what her heart cried was this:

"O God, tak care o' me frae the rottans."

There was no need to send an angel from heaven in answer to this little one's prayer: the cat would do. Annie heard a scratch and a mew at the door. The rats made one frantic scramble and were still.

"It's pussy!" she cried, recovering the voice for joy that had failed her for fear.

Fortified by her arrival, and still more by the feeling that she was a divine messenger sent to succour her because she had prayed, she sprang out of bed, darted across the room, and opened the door to let her in. A few moments and she was fast asleep, guarded by God's angel, the cat, for whose entrance she took good care ever after to leave the door ajar.

There are ways of keeping the door of the mind also, ready as it is to fall to, ajar for the cat.

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