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   Chapter 10 No.10

Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 11367

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Thus at home, if home it could be called, and at school, Annie's days passed-as most days pass-with family resemblance and individual difference wondrously mingled. She became interested in what she had to learn, if not from the manner in which it was presented to her comprehension, yet from the fact that she had to learn it. Happily or unhappily, too, she began to get used to the sight of the penal suffering of her schoolfellows. Nor had anything of the kind as yet visited her; for it would have been hard for even a more savage master than Mr Malison to find occasion, now that the first disabling influences had passed away, to punish the nervous, delicate, anxious little orphan, who was so diligent, and as quiet as a mouse that fears to awake a sleeping cat. She had a scared look too, that might have moved the heart of Malison even, if he had ever paid the least attention to the looks of children. For the absence of human companionship in bestial forms; the loss of green fields, free to her as to the winds of heaven, and of country sounds and odours; and an almost constant sense of oppression from the propinquity of one or another whom she had cause to fear, were speedily working sad effects upon her. The little colour she had died out of her cheek. Her face grew thin, and her blue eyes looked wistful and large out of their sulken cells. Not often were tears to be seen in them now, and yet they looked well acquainted with tears-like fountains that had been full yesterday. She never smiled, for there was nothing to make her smile.

But she gained one thing by this desolation: the thought of her dead father came to her, as it had never come before; and she began to love him with an intensity she had known nothing of till now. Her mother had died at her birth, and she had been her father's treasure; but in the last period of his illness she had seen less of him, and the blank left by his death had, therefore, come upon her gradually. Before she knew what it was, she had begun to forget. In the minds of children the grass grows very quickly over their buried dead. But now she learned what death meant, or rather what love had been; not, however, as an added grief: it comforted her to remember how her father had loved her; and she said her prayers the oftener, because they seemed to go somewhere near the place where her father was. She did not think of her father being where God was, but of God being where her father was.

The winter was drawing nearer too, and the days were now short and cold. A watery time began, and for many days together the rain kept falling without intermission. I almost think Annie would have died, but for her dead father to think about. On one of those rainy days, however, she began to find that it is in the nature of good things to come in odd ways. It had rained the whole day, not tamely and drizzingly, but in real earnest, dancing and rebounding from the pools, and raising a mist by the very "crash of water-drops." Now and then the school became silent, just to listen to the wide noise made by the busy cataract of the heavens, each drop a messenger of good, a sweet returning of earth's aspirations, in the form of Heaven's Amen! But the boys thought only of the fun of dabbling in the torrents as they went home; or the delights of net-fishing in the swollen and muddy rivers, when the fish no longer see their way, but go wandering about in perplexity, just as we human mortals do in a thick fog, whether of the atmosphere or of circumstance.

The afternoon was waning. It was nearly time to go; and still the rain was pouring and plashing around. In the gathering gloom there had been more than the usual amount of wandering from one part of the school to another, and the elder Bruce had stolen to a form occupied by some little boys, next to the one on which Annie sat with her back towards them. If it was not the real object of his expedition, at least he took the opportunity to give Annie a spiteful dig with his elbow; which, operating even more powerfully than he had intended, forced from her an involuntary cry. Now the master indulged in an occasional refinement of the executive, which consisted in this: he threw the tawse at the offender, not so much for the sake of hurting-although that, being a not infrequent result, may be supposed to have had a share in the intention-as of humiliating; for the culprit had to bear the instrument of torture back to the hands of the executioner. He threw the tawse at Annie, half, let us suppose, in thoughtless cruelty, half in evil jest. It struck her rather sharply, before she had recovered breath after the blow Bruce had given her. Ready to faint with pain and terror, she rose, pale as death, and staggered up to the master, carrying the tawse with something of the same horror she would have felt had it been a snake. With a grim smile, he sent her back to her seat. The moment she reached it her self-control gave way, and she burst into despairing, though silent tears. The desk was still shaking with her sobs, and some of the girls were still laughing at her grief, when a new occurrence attracted their attention. Through the noise of the falling rain a still louder rushing of water was heard, and the ears and eyes of all sought the source of the sound. Even Annie turned her wet cheeks and overflowing eyes languidly towards the door. Mr Malison went and opened it. A flood of brown water was pouring into the sunk passage already described. The grating by which the rain-torrent that flowed past the door should have escaped, had got choked, the stream had been dammed back, and in a few moments more the room itself would be

flooded. Perceiving this, the master hastily dismissed his pupils.

There could be no better fun for most of the boys and some of the girls, than to wade through the dirty water. Many of the boys dashed through it at once, shoes and all; but some of the boys, and almost all the girls, took off their shoes and stockings. When Annie got a peep of the water, writhing and tumbling in the passage, it looked so ugly, that she shrunk from fording it, especially if she must go in with her bare feet. She could not tell what might be sweeping about in that filthy whirlpool. She was still looking at it as it kept rising, in pale perplexity and dismay, with the forgotten tears still creeping down her checks, when she was caught up from behind by a boy, who, with his shoes and stockings in one hand, now seated her on the other arm. She peeped timidly round to see who it was, and the brave brown eyes of Alec Forbes met hers, lighted by a kind, pitying smile. In that smile the cloudy sky of the universe gently opened, and the face of God looked out upon Annie. It gave her, for the moment, all that she had been dying for want of for many weeks-weeks long as years. She could not help it-she threw her arms round Alec Forbes's neck, laid her wet cheek against his, and sobbed as if her heart would break. She did not care for the Bruces, or the rats, or even the schoolmaster now. Alec clasped her tighter, and vowed in his heart that if ever that brute Malison lifted the tag to her, he would fly at his throat. He would have carried her all the way home, for she was no great weight; but as soon as they were out of the house Annie begged him to set her down so earnestly, that he at once complied, and, bidding her good night, ran home barefoot through the flooded roads.

The Bruces had gone on with the two umbrellas, one of which, more to her discomfort than protection, Annie had shared in coming to the school; so that she was very wet before she got home. But no notice was taken of the condition she was in; the consequence of which was a severe cold and cough, which however, were not regarded as any obstacles to her going to school the next day.

That night she lay awake for a long time, and when at last she fell asleep, she dreamed that she took Alec Forbes home to see her father-out the street and the long road; over the black moor, and through the fields; in at the door of the house, and up the stair to her father's room, where he lay in bed. And she told him how kind Alec had been to her, and how happy she was going to be now. And her father put his hand out of the bed, and laid it on Alec's head, and said: "Thank ye, Alec for being kind to my poor Annie." And then she cried, and woke crying-strange tears out of dreamland, half of delicious sorrow and half of trembling joy.

With what altered feelings she seated herself after the prayer, next day, and glanced round the room to catch a glimpse of her new friend! There he was, radiant as usual. He took no notice of her, and she had not expected that he would. But it was not long before he found out, now that he was interested in her, that her cousins were by no means friendly to her; for their seats were not far from the girl's quarter, and they took every sheltered opportunity of giving her a pinch or a shove, or of making vile grimaces at her.

In the afternoon, while she was busy over an addition sum which was more than usually obstinate, Robert came stealthily behind her, and, licking his hand, watched his opportunity, and rubbed the sum from her slate. The same moment he received a box on the ear, that no doubt filled his head with more noises than that of the impact. He yelled with rage and pain, and, catching sight of the administrator of justice as he was returning to his seat, bawled out in a tone of fierce complaint: "Sanny Forbes!"

"Alexander Forbes! come up," responded the voice of the master. Forbes not being a first-rate scholar, was not a favourite with him, for Mr Malison had no sense for what was fine in character or disposition. Had the name been that of one of his better Latin scholars, the cry of Bruce would most likely have passed unheeded.

"Hold up your hand," he said, without requesting or waiting for an explanation.

Alec obeyed. Annie gave a smothered shriek, and, tumbling from her seat, rushed up to the master. When she found herself face to face with the tyrant, however, not one word could she speak. She opened her mouth, but throat and tongue refused their offices, and she stood gasping. The master stared, his arm arrested in act to strike, and his face turned over his left shoulder, with all the blackness of his anger at Forbes lowering upon Annie. He stood thus for one awful moment, then motioning her aside with a sweep of his head, brought down the tawse upon the hand which Alec had continued to hold outstretched, with the vehemence of accumulated wrath. Annie gave a choking cry, and Alec, so violent was the pain, involuntarily withdrew his hand. But instantly, ashamed of his weakness, he presented it again, and received the remainder of his punishment without flinching. The master then turned to Annie; and finding her still speechless, gave her a push that nearly threw her on her face, and said,

"Go to your seat, Ann Anderson. The next time you do that I will punish you severely."

Annie sat down, and neither sobbed nor cried. But it was days before she recovered from the shock. Once, long after, when she was reading about the smothering of the princes in the Tower, the whole of the physical sensations of those terrible moments returned upon her, and she sprang from her seat in a choking agony.

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