MoboReader > Literature > Alec Forbes of Howglen

   Chapter 9 No.9

Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 14449

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

"Noo, Annie, pit on yer bonnet, an' gang to the schuil wi' the lave (rest); an' be a good girrl."

This was the Bruce's parting address to Annie, before he left the kitchen for the shop, after breakfast and worship had been duly observed; and having just risen from his knees, his voice, as he stooped over the child, retained all the sanctity of its last occupation. It was a quarter to ten o'clock, and the school was some five minutes distant.

With a flutter of fearful hope, Annie obeyed. She ran upstairs, made herself as tidy, as she could, smoothed her hair, put on her bonnet, and had been waiting a long time at the door when her companions joined her. It was very exciting to look forward to something that might not be disagreeable.

As they went, the boys got one on each side of her in a rather sociable manner. But they had gone half the distance and not a word had been spoken, when Robert Bruce, junior, opened the conversation abruptly.

"Ye'll get it!" he said, as if he had been brooding upon the fact for some time, and now it had broken out.

"What'll I get?" asked Annie timidly, for his tone had already filled her with apprehension.

"Sic lickins," answered the little wretch, drawing back his lips till his canine teeth were fully disclosed, as if he gloated in a carnivorous sort of way over the prospect. "Wonna she, Johnnie?"

"Ay wull she," answered Johnnie, following his leader with confidence.

Annie's heart sank within her. The poor little heart was used to sinking now. But she said nothing, resolved, if possible, to avoid all occasion for "getting it."

Not another word was spoken before they reached the school, the door of which was not yet open. A good many boys and a few girls were assembled, waiting for the master, and filling the lane, at the end of which the school stood, with the sound of voices fluctuating through a very comprehensive scale. In general the school-door was opened a few minutes before the master's arrival, but on this occasion no one happened to have gone to his house to fetch the key, and the scholars had therefore to wait in the street. None of them took any notice of Annie; so she was left to study the outside of the school. It was a long, low, thatched building, of one story and a garret, with five windows to the lane, and some behind, for she could see light through. It had been a weaving-shop originally, full of hand-looms, when the trade in linen was more prosperous than it was now. From the thatch some of the night's frost was already dripping in slow clear drops. Past the door, which was in a line with the windows, went a gutter, the waters of which sank through a small grating a few steps further on. But there was no water running in it now.

Suddenly a boy cried out: "The maister's comin'!" and instantly the noise sunk to a low murmur. Looking up the lane, which rose considerably towards the other end, Annie saw the figure of the descending dominie. He was dressed in what seemed to be black, but was in reality gray, almost as good as black, and much more thrifty. He came down the hill swinging his arms, like opposing pendulums, in a manner that made the rapid pace at which he approached like a long slow trot. With the door-key in his hand, already pointed towards the key-hole, he went right through the little crowd, which cleared a wide path for him, without word or gesture of greeting on either side. I might almost say he swooped upon the door, for with one hand on the key, and the other on the latch, he seemed to wrench it open the moment he touched it. In he strode, followed at the heels by the troop of boys, big and little, and lastly by the girls-last of all, at a short distance, by Annie, like a motherless lamb that followed the flock, because she did not know what else to do. She found she had to go down a step into a sunk passage or lobby, and then up another step, through a door on the left, into the school. There she saw a double row of desks, with a clear space down the middle between the rows. Each scholar was hurrying to his place at one of the desks, where, as he arrived, he stood. The master already stood in solemn posture at the nearer end of the room on a platform behind his desk, prepared to commence the extempore prayer, which was printed in a kind of blotted stereotype upon every one of their brains. Annie had hardly succeeded in reaching a vacant place among the girls when he began. The boys were as still as death while the master prayed; but a spectator might easily have discovered that the chief good some of them got from the ceremony was a perfect command of the organs of sound; for the restraint was limited to those organs; and projected tongues, deprived of their natural exercise, turned themselves, along with winking eyes, contorted features, and a wild use of hands and arms, into the means of telegraphic despatches to all parts of the room, throughout the ceremony. The master, afraid of being himself detected in the attempt to combine prayer and vision, kept his "eyelids screwed together tight," and played the spy with his ears alone. The boys and girls, understanding the source of their security perfectly, believed that the eyelids of the master would keep faith with them, and so disported themselves without fear in the delights of dumb show.

As soon as the prayer was over they dropped, with no little noise and bustle, into their seats. But presently Annie was rudely pushed out of her seat by a hoydenish girl, who, arriving late, had stood outside the door till the prayer was over, and then entered unperceived during the subsequent confusion. Some little ones on the opposite form, however, liking the look of her, and so wishing to have her for a companion, made room for her beside them. The desks were double, so that the two rows at each desk faced each other.

"Bible-class come up," were the first words of the master, ringing through the room, and resounding awfully in Annie's ears.

A moment of chaos followed, during which all the boys and girls, considered capable of reading the Bible, were arranging themselves in one great crescent across the room in front of the master's desk. Each read a verse-neither more nor less-often leaving the half of a sentence to be taken up as a new subject in a new key; thus perverting what was intended as an assistance to find the truth into a means of hiding it-a process constantly repeated, and with far more serious results, when the words of truth fall, not into the hands of the incapable, but under the protection of the ambitious.

The chapter that came in its turn was one to be pondered over by the earnest student of human nature, not one to be blundered over by boys who had still less reverence for humanity than they had for Scripture. It was a good thing that they were not the sacred fountains of the New Testament that were thus dabbled in-not, however, that the latter were considered at all more precious or worthy; as Saturday and the Shorter Catechism would show.

Not knowing the will of the master, Annie had not dared to stand up with the class, although she could read very fairly. A few moments after it was dismissed she felt herself overs

hadowed by an awful presence, and, looking up, saw, as she had expected, the face of the master bending down over her. He proceeded to question her, but for some time she was too frightened to give a rational account of her acquirements, the best of which were certainly not of a kind to be appreciated by the master, even if she had understood them herself sufficiently to set them out before him. For, besides her aunt, who had taught her to read, and nothing more, her only instructors had been Nature, with her whole staff, including the sun, moon, and wind; the grass, the corn, Brownie the cow, and her own faithful subject, Dowie. Still, it was a great mortification to her to be put into the spelling-book, which excluded her from the Bible-class. She was also condemned to follow with an uncut quill, over and over again, a single straight stroke, set her by the master. Dreadfully dreary she found it, and over it she fell fast asleep. Her head dropped on her outstretched arm, and the quill dropped from her sleeping fingers-for when Annie slept she all slept. But she was soon roused by the voice of the master. "Ann Anderson!" it called in a burst of thunder to her ear; and she awoke to shame and confusion, amidst the titters of those around her.

Before the morning was over she was called up, along with some children considerably younger than herself, to read and spell. The master stood before them, armed with a long, thick strap of horse-hide, prepared by steeping in brine, black and supple with constant use, and cut into fingers at one end, which had been hardened in the fire.

Now there was a little pale-faced, delicate-looking boy in the class, who blundered a good deal. Every time he did so the cruel serpent of leather went at him, coiling round his legs with a sudden, hissing swash. This made him cry, and his tears blinded him so that he could not even see the words which he had been unable to read before. But he still attempted to go on, and still the instrument of torture went swish-swash round his little thin legs, raising upon them, no doubt, plentiful blue wales, to be revealed, when he was undressed for the night, to the indignant eyes of pitying mother or aunt, who would yet send him back to the school the next morning without fail.

At length either the heart of the master was touched by the sight of his sufferings and repressed weeping, or he saw that he was compelling the impossible; for he stayed execution, and passed on to the next, who was Annie.

It was no wonder that the trembling child, who could read very fairly, should yet, after such an introduction to the ways of school, fail utterly in making anything like coherence of the sentence before her. What she would have done, had she been left to herself, would have been to take the little boy in her arms and cry too. As it was, she struggled mightily with her tears, and yet she did not read to much better purpose than the poor boy, who was still busy wiping his eyes with his sleeves, alternately, for he never had had a handkerchief. But being a new-comer, and a girl to boot, and her long frock affording no facilities for this kind of incentive to learning, she escaped for the time.

It was a dreadful experience of life, though, that first day at school. Well might the children have prayed with David-"Let us fall now into the hand of the Lord, for his mercies are great; and let us not fall into the hand of man." And well might the children at many another school respond with a loud Amen!

At one o'clock they were dismissed, and went home to dinner, to return at three.

In the afternoon she was set to make figures on a slate. She made figures till her back ached. The monotony of this occupation was relieved only by the sight of the execution of criminal law upon various offending boys; for, as must be already partially evident, the master was a hard man, with a severe, if not an altogether cruel temper, and a quite savage sense of duty. The punishment was mostly in the form of pandies,-blows delivered with varying force, but generally with the full swing of the tag, as it was commonly called, thrown over the master's shoulder, and brought down with the whole strength of his powerful right arm upon the outstretched hand of the culprit. But there were other modes of punishment, of which the restraints of art would forbid the description, even if it were possible for any writer to conquer his disgust so far as to attempt it.

Annie shivered and quaked. Once she burst out crying, but managed to choke her sobs, if she could not hide her tears.

A fine-looking boy, three or four years older than herself, whose open countenance was set off by masses of dark brown hair, was called up to receive chastisement, merited or unmerited as the case might be; for such a disposition as that of Murdoch Malison must have been more than ordinarily liable to mistake. Justice, according to his idea, consisted in vengeance. And he was fond of justice. He did not want to punish the innocent, it is true; but I doubt whether the discovery of a boy's innocence was not a disappointment to him. Without a word of expostulation or defence, the boy held out his hand, with his arm at full length, received four stinging blows upon it, grew very red in the face, gave a kind of grotesque smile, and returned to his seat with the suffering hand sent into retirement in his trowsers-pocket. Annie's admiration of his courage as well as of his looks, though perhaps unrecognizable as such by herself, may have had its share with her pity in the tears that followed. Somehow or other, at all events, she made up her mind to bear more patiently the persecutions of the little Bruces, and, if ever her turn should come to be punished, as no doubt it would, whether she deserved it or not, to try to take the whipping as she had seen Alec Forbes take it. Poor Annie! If it should come to that-nervous organizations are so different!

At five, the school was dismissed for the day, not without another extempore prayer. A succession of jubilant shouts arose as the boys rushed out into the lane. Every day to them was a cycle of strife, suffering, and deliverance. Birth and death, with the life-struggle between, were shadowed out in it-with this difference, that the God of a corrupt Calvinism, in the person of Murdoch Malison, ruled that world, and not the God revealed in the man Christ Jesus. And most of them having felt the day more or less a burden, were now going home to heaven for the night.

Annie, having no home, was amongst the few exceptions. Dispirited and hopeless-a terrible condition for a child-she wondered how Alec Forbes could be so merry. But he had had his evil things, and they were over; while hers were all about her still. She had but one comfort left-that no one would prevent her from creeping up to her own desolate garret, which was now the dreary substitute for Brownie's stall. Thither the persecuting boys were not likely to follow her. And if the rats were in that garret, so was the cat; or at least the cat knew the way to it. There she might think in peace about some things about which she had never before seemed to have occasion to think.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top