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   Chapter 12 No.12

Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 13494

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


In her inmost heart Annie dedicated herself to the service of Alec

Forbes. Nor was it long before she had an opportunity of helping him.

One Saturday the master made his appearance in black instead of white stockings, which was regarded by the scholars as a bad omen; and fully were their prognostications justified, on this occasion, at least. The joy of the half-holiday for Scotch boys and girls has a terrible weight laid in the opposite scale-I mean the other half of the day. This weight, which brings the day pretty much on a level with all other days, consists in a free use of the Shorter Catechism. This, of course, made them hate the Catechism, though I am not aware that that was of any great consequence, or much to be regretted. For my part, I wish the spiritual engineers who constructed it had, after laying the grandest foundation-stone that truth could afford them, glorified God by going no further. Certainly many a man would have enjoyed Him sooner, if it had not been for their work. But, alas! the Catechism was not enough, even of the kind. The tormentors of youth had gone further, and provided what they called Scripture proofs of the various assertions of the Catechism; a support of which it stood greatly in need. Alas! I say, for the boys and girls who had to learn these proofs, called texts of Scripture, but too frequently only morsels torn bleeding and shapeless from "the lovely form of the Virgin Truth!" For these tasks, combined with the pains and penalties which accompanied failure, taught them to dislike the Bible as well as the Catechism, and that was a matter of altogether different import.

Every Saturday, then, Murdoch Malison's pupils had to learn so many questions of the Shorter Catechism, with proofs from Scripture; and whoever failed in this task was condemmed to imprisonment for the remainder of the day, or, at least, till the task should be accomplished. The imprisonment was sometimes commuted for chastisement-or finished off with it, when it did not suit the convenience of the master to enforce the full term of a school-day. Upon certain Saturdays, moreover, one in each month, I think, a repetition was required of all the questions and proofs that had been, or ought to have been, learned since the last observance of the same sort.

Now the day in question was one of these of accumulated labour, and Alec Forbes only succeeded in bringing proof of his inability for the task, and was in consequence condemned "to be keepit in"-a trial hard enough for one whose chief delights were the open air and the active exertion of every bodily power.

Annie caught sight of his mortified countenance, the expression of which, though she had not heard his doom, so filled her with concern and indignation, that-her eyes and thoughts fixed upon him, at the other end of the class-she did not know when her turn came, but allowed the master to stand before her in bootless expectation. He did not interrupt her, but with a refinement of cruelty that ought to have done him credit in his own eyes, waited till the universal silence had at length aroused Annie to self-consciousness and a sense of annihilating confusion. Then, with a smile on his thin lips, but a lowering thunder-cloud on his brow, he repeated the question:

"What doth every sin deserve?"

Annie, bewildered, and burning with shame at finding herself the core of the silence-feeling is if her poor little spirit stood there naked to the scoffs and jeers around-could not recall a word of the answer given in the Catechism. So, in her bewilderment, she fell back on her common sense and experience, which, she ought to have known, had nothing to do with the matter in hand.

"What doth every sin deserve?" again repeated the tyrant.

"A lickin'," whimpered Annie, and burst into tears.

The master seemed much inclined to consider her condemned out of her own mouth, and give her a whipping at once; for it argued more than ignorance to answer a whipping, instead of the wrath and curse of God, &c., &c., as plainly set down in the Scotch Targum. But reflecting, perhaps, that she was a girl, and a little one, and that although it would be more gratification to him to whip her, it might be equal suffering to her to be kept in, he gave that side wave of his head which sealed the culprit's doom, and Annie took her place among the condemned, with a flutter of joy at her heart that Alec Forbes would not be left without a servant to wait upon him. A few more boys made up the unfortunate party, but they were all little ones, and so there was no companion for Forbes, who evidently felt the added degradation of being alone. The hour arrived; the school was dismissed; the master strode out, locking the door behind him; and the defaulters were left alone, to chew the bitter cud of ill-cooked Theology.

For some time a dreary silence reigned. Alec sat with his elbows on his desk, biting his nails, and gnawing his hands. Annie sat dividing her silent attention between her book and Alec. The other boys were, or seemed to be, busy with their catechisms, in the hope of getting out as soon as the master returned. At length Alec took out his knife, and began, for very vacancy, to whittle away at the desk before him. When Annie saw that, she crept across to his form, and sat down on the end of it. Alec looked up at her, smiled, and went on with his whittling. Annie slid a little nearer to him, and asked him to hear her say her catechism. He consented, and she repeated the lesson perfectly.

"Now let me hear you, Alec," she said.

"Na, thank ye, Annie. I canna say't. And I wonna say't for a' the dominies in creation."

"But he'll lick ye, Alec; an' I 'canna bide it," said Annie, the tears beginning to fill her eyes.

"Weel, I'll try-to please you, Annie," said Alec, seeing that the little thing was in earnest.

How her heart bounded with delight! That great boy, so strong and so brave, trying to learn a lesson to please her!

But it would not do.

"I canna min' a word o' 't, Annie. I'm dreidfu' hungry, forbye. I was in a hurry wi' my brakfast the day. Gin I had kent what was comin', I wad hae laid in a better stock," he added, laughing rather drearily.

As he spoke he looked up; and his eyes wandered from one window to another for a few moments after he had ceased speaking.

"Na; it's no use," he resumed at last. "I hae eaten ower muckle for that, ony gait."

Annie was as pitiful over Alec's hunger as any mother over her child's. She felt it pure injustice that he should ever be hungry. But, unable to devise any help, she could only say,

"I dinna ken what ye mean, Alec."

"Whan I was na bigger than you, Annie, I could win oot at a less hole than

that," answered he, and pointed to the open wooden pane in an upper corner of one the windows; "but I hae eaten ower muckle sin syne."

And he laughed again; but it was again an unsuccessful laugh.

Annie sprang to her feet.

"Gin ye could win throu that hole ance, I can win throu't noo, Alec.

Jist haud me up a bit. Ye can lift me, ye ken."

And she looked up at him shyly and gratefully.

"But what will ye do when ye are oot, Annie?"

"Rin hame, and fess a loaf wi' me direckly."

"But Rob Bruce'll see yer heid atween yer feet afore he'll gie ye a loaf, or a mou'fu' o' cakes either; an' it's ower far to rin to my mither's. Murdoch wad be back lang or that."

"Jist help me oot, an' lea' the lave to me," said Annie, confidently. "Gin I dinna fess a loaf o' white breid, never lippen (trust) to me again."

The idea of the bread, always a rarity and consequent delicacy to Scotch country boys, so early in the century as the date of my story, was too much for Alec's imagination. He jumped up, and put his head out of one of those open panes to reconnoitre. He saw a woman approaching whom he knew.

"I say, Lizzie," he called.

The woman stopped.

"What's yer wull, Maister Alec?"

"Jist stan' there an' pu' this lassie oot. We're a' keepit in thegither, and nearhan' hungert."

"The Lord preserve 's! I'll gang for the key."

"Na, na; we wad hae to pay for that. Tak her oot-that's a' we want."

"He's a coorse crayter-that maister o' yours. I wad gang to see him hangt."

"Bide a wee; that'll come in guid time," said Alec, pseudo-prophetically.

"Weel I s' hae a pu' at the legs o' him, to help him to jeedgement; for he'll be the deith o' ane or twa o' ye afore lang."

"Never min' Murder Malison. Will ye tak oot the bit lassie?"

"Od will I! Whaur is she?"

Alec jumped down and held her up to the open pane, not a foot square. He told her to put her arms through first. Then between them they got her head through, whereupon Lizzie caught hold of her-so low was the school-room-and dragged her out, and set her on her feet. But alas, a window was broken in the process!

"Noo, Annie," cried Alec, "never min' the window. Rin."

She was off like a live bullet.

She scampered home prepared to encounter all dangers. The worst of them all to her mind was the danger of not succeeding, and of so breaking faith with Alec. She had sixpence of her own in coppers in her box,-the only difficulty was to get into the house and out again without being seen. By employing the utmost care and circumspection, she got in by the back or house door unperceived, and so up to her room. In a moment more the six pennies were in her hand, and she in the street; for she did not use the same amount of precaution in getting out again, not minding discovery so much now, if she could only have a fair start. No one followed her, however. She bolted into a baker's shop.

"A saxpenny-loaf," she panted out.

"Wha wants it?" asked the baker's wife.

"There's the bawbees," answered Annie, laying them on the counter.

The baker's wife gave her the loaf, with the biscuit which, from time immemorial, had always graced a purchase to the amount of sixpence; and Annie sped back to the school like a runaway horse to his stable.

As she approached, out popped the head of Alec Forbes. He had been listening for the sound of her feet. She held up the loaf as high as she could, and he stretched down as low as he could, and so their hands met on the loaf.

"Thank ye, Annie," said Alec with earnestness. "I shanna forget this.

Hoo got ye't?"

"Never ye min' that. I didna steal't," answered Annie. "But I maun win in again," she added, suddenly awaking to that difficult necessity, and looking up at the window above her head.

"I'm a predestined idiot!" said Alec, with an impious allusion to the Shorter Catechism, as he scratched his helpless head. "I never thocht o' that."

It was clearly impossible.

"Ye'll catch't," said one of the urchins to Annie, with his nose flattened against the window.

The roses of Annie's face turned pale, but she answered stoutly,

"Weel! I care as little as the lave o' ye, I'm thinkin'."

By this time the "idiot" had made up his mind. He never could make up any other than a bull-headed mind.

"Rin hame, Annie," he said; "and gin Murder offers to lay a finger o' ye upo' Monday, I'll murder him. Faith! I'll kill him. Rin hame afore he comes and catches ye at the window."

"No, no, Alec," pleaded Annie.

"Haud yer tongue," interrupted Alec, "and rin, will ye?"

Seeing he was quite determined, Annie, though loath to leave him, and in terror of what was implied in the threats he uttered against the master and might be involved in the execution of them, obeyed him and walked leisurely home, avoiding the quarters in which there was a chance of meeting her gaoler.

She found that no one had observed her former visit; the only remarks made being some goody ones about the disgrace of being kept in.

When Mr Malison returned to the school about four o'clock, he found all quiet as death. The boys appeared totally absorbed in committing the Shorter Catechism, as if the Shorter Catechism was a sin, which perhaps it was not. But, to his surprise, which he pretended to be considerably greater than it really was, the girl was absent.

"Where is Ann Anderson?" were the first words he condescended to utter.

"Gane hame," cried two of the little prisoners.

"Gone home!" echoed the master in a tone of savage incredulity; although not only was it plain that she was gone, but he must have known well enough, from former experience, how her escape had been effected.

"Yes," said Forbes; "it was me made her go. I put her out at the window. And I broke the window," he added, knowing that it must soon be found out, "but I'll get it mended on Monday."

Malison turned as white as a sheet with venomous rage. Indeed, the hopelessness of the situation had made Alec speak with too much nonchalance.

Anxious to curry favour, the third youngster now called out,

"Sandy Forbes gart her gang an' fess a loaf o' white breid."

Of this bread, the wretched informer had still some of the crumbs sticking to his jacket-so vitiating is the influence of a reign of terror. The bread was eaten, and the giver might be betrayed in the hope of gaining a little favour with the tyrant.

"Alexander Forbes, come up."

Beyond this point I will not here prosecute the narrative.

Alec bore his punishment with great firmness, although there were few beholders, and none of them worth considering. After he had spent his wrath, the master allowed them all to depart without further reference to the Shorter Catechism.

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