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Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 23060

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Thomas Crann was building a house; for he was both contractor-in a small way, it is true, not undertaking to do anything without the advance of a good part of the estimate-and day-labourer at his own job. Having arrived at the point in the process where the assistance of a carpenter was necessary, he went to George Macwha, whom he found at his bench, planing. This bench was in a work-shop, with two or three more benches in it, some deals set up against the wall, a couple of red cart-wheels sent in for repair, and the tools and materials of his trade all about. The floor was covered with shavings, or spales, as they are called by northern consent, which a poor woman was busy gathering into a sack. After a short and gruff greeting on the part of Crann, and a more cordial reply from Macwha, who ceased his labour to attend to his visitor, they entered on the business-question, which having been carefully and satisfactorily discussed, with the aid of various diagrams upon the half-planed deal, Macwha returned to his work, and the conversation took a more general scope, accompanied by the sounds of Macwha's busy instrument.

"A terrible laddie, that Sandy Forbes!" said the carpenter, with a sort of laugh in the whishk of his plane, as he threw off a splendid spale. "They say he's lickit the dominie, and 'maist been the deid o' him."

"I hae kent waur laddies nor Sandy Forbes," was Thomas's curt reply.

"Ow, deed ay! I ken naething agen the laddie. Him an' oor Willie's unco throng."

To this the sole answer Thomas gave was a grunt, and a silence of a few seconds followed before he spoke, reverting to the point from which they had started.

"I'm no clear but Alec micht hae committed a waur sin than thrashin' the dominie. He's a dour crater, that Murdoch Malison, wi' his fair face and his picket words. I doot the bairns hae the warst o' 't in general. And for Alec I hae great houpes. He comes o' a guid stock. His father, honest man, was ane o' the Lord's ain, although he didna mak' sic a stan' as, maybe, he ought to hae dune; and gin his mither has been jist raither saft wi' him, and gi'en him ower lang a tether, he'll come a' richt afore lang, for he's worth luikin efter."

"I dinna richtly unnerstan' ye, Thamas."

"I dinna think the Lord 'll tyne the grip o' his father's son. He's no convertit yet, but he's weel worth convertin', for there's guid stuff in him."

Thomas did not consider how his common sense was running away with his theology. But Macwha was not the man to bring him to book on that score. His only reply lay in the careless whishk whashk of his plane. Thomas resumed:

"He jist wants what ye want, Gleorge Macwha."

"What's that, Thamas?" asked George, with a grim attempt at a smile, as if to say: "I know what's coming, but I'm not going to mind it."

"He jist wants to be weel shaken ower the mou' o' the pit. He maun smell the brunstane o' the everlastin' burnin's. He's nane o' yer saft buirds, that ye can sleek wi' a sweyp o' yer airm; he's a blue whunstane that's hard to dress, but, anes dressed, it bides the weather bonnie. I like to work upo' hard stane mysel. Nane o' yer saft freestane, 'at ye cud cut wi' a k-nife, for me!"

"Weel, I daursay ye're richt, Thamas."

"And, forbye, they say he took a' his ain licks ohn said a word, and flew at the maister only whan he was gaein to lick the puir orphan lassie-Jeames Anderson's lassie, ye ken."

"Ow! ay. It's the same tale they a' tell. I hae nae doobt it's correck."

"Weel, lat him tak it, than, an' be thankfu'! for it's no more than was weel waured (spent) on him."

With these conclusive words, Thomas departed. He was no sooner out of the shop, than out started, from behind the deal boards that stood against the wall, Willie, the eldest hope of the house of Macwha, a dusky-skinned, black-eyed, curly-headed, roguish-looking boy, Alec Forbes's companion and occasional accomplice. He was more mischievous than Alec, and sometimes led him into unforeseen scrapes; but whenever anything extensive had to be executed, Alec was always the leader.

"What are ye hidin' for, ye rascal?" said his father. "What mischeef hae ye been efter noo?"

"Naething by ordinar'," was Willie's cool reply.

"What garred ye hide, than?"

"Tam Crann never sets ee upo' me, but he misca's me, an' I dinna like to be misca'd, mair nor ither fowk."

"Ye get nae mair nor ye deserve, I doobt," returned George. "Here, tak the chisel, and cut that beadin' into len'ths."

"I'm gaein' ower the water to speir efter Alec," was the excusatory rejoinder.

"Ay, ay! pot and pan!-What ails Alec noo?"

"Mr Malison's nearhan' killed him. He hasna been at the schuil this twa days."

With these words Willie bolted from the shop, and set off at full speed. The latter part of his statement was perfectly true.

The day after the fight, Mr Malison came to the school as usual, but with his arm in a sling. To Annie's dismay, Alec did not make his appearance.

It had of course been impossible to conceal his corporal condition from his mother; and the heart of the widow so yearned over the suffering of her son, though no confession of suffering escaped Alec's lips, that she vowed in anger that he should never cross the door of that school again. For three or four days she held immovably to her resolution, much to Alec's annoyance, and to the consternation of Mr Malison, who feared that he had not only lost a pupil, but made an enemy. For Mr Malison had every reason for being as smooth-faced with the parents as he always was: he had ulterior hopes in Glamerton. The clergyman was getting old, and Mr Malison was a licentiate of the Church; and although the people had no direct voice in the filling of the pulpit, it was very desirable that a candidate should have none but friends in the parish.

Mr Malison made no allusion whatever to the events of Monday, and things went on as usual in the school, with just one exception: for a whole week the tawse did not make its appearance. This was owing in part at least to the state of his hand; but if he had ever wished to be freed from the necessity of using the lash, he might have derived hope from the fact that somehow or other the boys were during this week no worse than usual. I do not pretend to explain the fact, and beg leave to refer it to occult meteorological influences.

As soon as school was over on that first day of Alec's absence, Annie darted off on the road to Howglen, where he lived, and never dropped into a walk till she reached the garden-gate. Fully conscious of the inferiority of her position, she went to the kitchen door. The door was opened to her knock before she had recovered breath enough to speak. The servant, seeing a girl with a shabby dress, and a dirty bonnet, from underneath which hung disorderly masses of hair-they would have glinted in the eye of the sun, but in the eye of the maid they looked only dusky and disreputable-for Annie was not kept so tidy on the interest of her money as she had been at the farm-the girl, I say, seeing this, and finding besides, as she thought, that Annie had nothing to say, took her for a beggar, and returning into the kitchen, brought her a piece of oat-cake, the common dole to the young mendicants of the time. Annie's face flushed crimson, but she said gently, having by this time got her runaway breath a little more under control,

"No, I thank ye; I'm no a beggar. I only wanted to ken hoo Alec was the day."

"Come in," said the girl, anxious to make some amends for her blunder, "and I'll tell the mistress."

Annie would gladly have objected, contenting herself with the maid's own account; but she felt rather than understood that there would be something undignified in refusing to face Alec's mother; so she followed the maid into the kitchen, and sat down on the edge of a wooden chair, like a perching bird, till she should return.

"Please, mem, here's a lassie wantin' to ken hoo Maister Alec is the day," said Mary, with the handle of the parlour door in her hand.

"That must be little Annie Anderson, mamma," said Alec, who was lying on the sofa very comfortable, considering what he had to lie upon.

It may be guessed at once that Scotch was quite discouraged at home.

Alec had told his mother all about the affair; and some of her friends from Glamerton, who likewise had sons at the school, had called and given their versions of the story, in which the prowess of Alec made more of than in his own account. Indeed, all his fellow-scholars except the young Bruces, sung his praises aloud; for, whatever the degree of their affection for Alec, every one of them hated the master-a terrible thought for him, if he had been able to appreciate it; but I do not believe he had any suspicion of the fact that he was the centre of converging thoughts of revengeful dislike. So the mother was proud of her boy-far prouder than she was willing for him to see: indeed, she put on the guise of the offended proprieties as much as she could in his presence, thus making Alec feel like a culprit in hers, which was more than she intended, or would have liked, could she have peeped into his mind. So she could not help feeling some interest in Annie, and some curiosity to see her. She had known James Anderson, her father, and he had been her guest more than once when he had called upon business. Everybody had liked him; and this general approbation was owing to no lack of character, but to his genuine kindness of heart. So Mrs Forbes was prejudiced in Annie's favour-but far more by her own recollections of the father, than by her son's representations of the daughter.

"Tell her to come up, Mary," she said.

So Annie, with all the disorganization of school about her, was shown, considerably to her discomfort, into Mrs Forbes's dining-room.

There was nothing remarkable in the room; but to Annie's eyes it seemed magnificent, for carpet and curtains, sideboard and sofa, were luxuries altogether strange to her eyes. So she entered very timidly, and stood trembling and pale-for she rarely blushed except when angry-close to the door. But Alec scrambled from the sofa, and taking hold of her by both hands, pulled her up to his mother.

"There she is, mamma!" he said.

And Mrs Forbes, although her sense of the fitness of things was not gratified at seeing her son treat with such familiarity a girl so neglectedly attired, yet received her kindly and shook hands with her.

"How do you do, Annie?" she said.

"Quite well, I thank ye, mem," answered Annie, showing in her voice that she was owerawed by the grand lady, yet mistress enough of her manners not to forget a pretty modest courtesy as she spoke.

"What's gaein' on at the school the day, Annie?" asked Alec.

"Naething by ordidar," answered Annie, the sweetness of her tones contrasting with the roughness of the dialect. "The maister's a hantle quaieter than usual. I fancy he's a' the better behaved for's brunt fingers. But, oh, Alec!"

And here the little maiden burst into a passionate fit of crying.

"What's the matter, Annie," said Mrs Forbes, as she drew her nearer, genuinely concerned at the child's tears.

"Oh! mem, ye didna see hoo the maister lickit him, or ye wad hae grutten yersel'."

Tears from some mysterious source sprang to Mrs Forbes's eyes. But at the moment Mary opened the door, and said-

"Here's Maister Bruce, mem, wantin' to see ye."

"Tell him to walk up, Mary."

"Oh! no, no,

mem; dinna lat him come till I'm out o' this. He'll tak' me wi' him," cried Annie.

Mary stood waiting the result.

"But you must go home, you know, Annie," said Mrs Forbes, kindly.

"Ay, but no wi' him," pleaded Annie.

From what Mrs Forbes knew of the manners and character of Bruce, she was not altogether surprised at Annie's reluctance. So, turning to the maid, she said-

"Have you told Mr Bruce that Miss Anderson is here?"

"Me tell him! No, mem. What's his business?"

"Mary, you forget yourself."

"Weel, mem, I canna bide him."

"Hold your tongue, Mary," said her mistress, hardly able to restrain her own amusement, "and take the child into my room till he is gone. But perhaps he knows you are here, Annie?"

"He canna ken that, mem. He jumps at things whiles, though, sharp eneuch."

"Well, well! We shall see."

So Mary led Annie away to the sanctuary of Mrs Forbes's bed-room.

But the Bruce was not upon Annie's track at all. His visit wants a few words of explanation.

Bruce's father had been a faithful servant to Mr Forbes's father, who held the same farm before his son, both having been what are called gentlemen-farmers. The younger Bruce, being anxious to set up a shop, had, for his father's sake, been assisted with money by the elder Forbes. This money he had repaid before the death of the old man, who had never asked any interest for it. More than a few years had not passed before Bruce, who had a wonderful capacity for petty business, was known to have accumulated some savings in the bank. Now the younger Forbes, being considerably more enterprising than his father, had spent all his capital upon improvements-draining, fencing, and such like-when a younger brother, to whom he was greatly attached, applied to him for help in an emergency, and he had nothing of his own within his reach wherewith to aid him. In this difficulty he bethought him of Bruce, to borrow from whom would not involve the exposure of the fact that he was in any embarrassment, however temporary-an exposure very undesirable in a country town like Glamerton.

After a thorough investigation of the solvency of Mr Forbes, and a proper delay for consideration besides, Bruce supplied him with a hundred pounds upon personal bond, at the usual rate of interest, for a certain term of years. Mr Forbes died soon after, leaving his affairs in some embarrassment in consequence of his outlay. Mrs Forbes had paid the interest of the debt now for two years; but, as the rent of the farm was heavy, she found this additional trifle a burden. She had good reason, however, to hope for better times, as the farm must soon increase its yield. Mr Bruce, on his part, regarded the widow with somewhat jealous eyes, because he very much doubted whether, when the day arrived, she would be able to pay him the money she owed him. That day was, however, not just at hand. It was this diversion of his resources, and not the moral necessity for a nest-egg, as he had represented the case to Margaret Anderson, which had urged him to show hospitality to Annie Anderson and her little fortune.

So neither was it anxiety for the welfare of Alec that induced him to call on Mrs Forbes. Indeed if Malison had killed him outright, he would have been rather pleased than otherwise. But he was in the habit of reminding the widow of his existence by all occasional call, especially when the time approached for the half-yearly payment of the interest. And now the report of Alec's condition gave him a suitable pretext for looking in upon his debtor, without, as he thought, appearing too greedy after his money.

"Weel, mem, hoo are ye the day?" said he, as he entered, rubbing his hands.

"Quite well, thank you, Mr Bruce. Take a seat."

"An' hoo's Mr Alec?"

"There he is to answer for himself," said Mrs Forbes, looking towards the sofa.

"Hoo are ye, Mr Alec, efter a' this?" said Bruce, turning towards him.

"Quite well, thank you," answered Alec, in a tone that did not altogether please either of the listeners.

"I thocht ye had been raither sair, sir," returned Bruce, in an acid tone.

"I've got a wale or two, that's all," said Alec.

"Weel, I houp it'll be a lesson to ye."

"To Mr Malison, you should have said, Mr Bruce. I am perfectly satisfied, for my part."

His mother was surprised to hear him speak like a grown man, as well as annoyed at his behaviour to Bruce, in whose power she feared they might one day find themselves to their cost. But she said nothing. Bruce, likewise, was rather nonplussed. He grinned a smile and was silent.

"I hear you have taken James Anderson's daughter into your family now,

Mr Bruce."

"Ow, ay, mem. There was nobody to luik efter the bit lassie; sae, though I cud but ill affoord it, wi' my ain sma' faimily comin' up, I was jist in a mainner obleeged to tak' her, Jeames Anderson bein' a cousin o' my ain, ye ken, mem."

"Well, I am sure it was very kind of you and Mrs Bruce. How does the child get on?"

"Middlin', mem, middlin'. She's jist some ill for takin' up wi' loons."

Here he glanced at Alec, with an expression of successful spite. He certainly had the best of it now.

Alec was on the point of exclaiming "That's a lie," but he had prudence enough to restrain himself, perceiving that the contradiction would have a better chance with his mother if he delayed its utterance till after the departure of Bruce. So, meantime, the subject was not pursued. A little desultory conversation followed, and the visitor departed, with a laugh from between his teeth as he took leave of Alec, which I can only describe as embodying an I told you so sort of satisfaction.

Almost as soon as he was out of the house the parlour-door opened, and Mary brought in Annie. Mrs Forbes's eyes were instantly fixed on her with mild astonishment, and something of a mother's tenderness awoke in her heart towards the little maid-child. What would she not have given for such a daughter! During Bruce's call, Mary had been busy with the child. She had combed and brushed her thick brown hair, and, taken with its exceeding beauty, had ventured on a stroke of originality no one would have expected of her: she had left it hanging loose on her shoulders. Any one would think such an impropriety impossible to a Scotchwoman. But then she had been handling the hair, and contact with anything alters so much one's theories about it. If Mary had found it so, instead of making it so, she would have said it was "no dacent." But the hair gave her its own theory before she had done with it, and this was the result. She had also washed her face and hands and neck, made the best she could of her poor, dingy dress, and put one of her own Sunday collars upon her.

Annie had submitted to it all without question; and thus adorned, Mary introduced her again to the dining-room. Before Mrs Forbes had time to discover that she was shocked, she was captivated by the pale, patient face, and the longing blue eyes, that looked at her as if the child felt that she ought to have been her mother, but somehow they had missed each other. They gazed out of the shadows of the mass of dark brown wavy hair that fell to her waist, and there was no more any need for Alec to contradict Bruce's calumny. But Mrs Forbes was speedily recalled to a sense of propriety by observing that Alec too was staring at Annie with a mingling of amusement, admiration, and respect.

"What have you been about, Mary?" she said, in a tone of attempted reproof. "You have made a perfect fright of the child. Take her away."

When Annie was once more brought back, with her hair restored to its net, silent tears of mortification were still flowing down her cheeks.-When Annie cried, the tears always rose and flowed without any sound or convulsion. Rarely did she sob even.-This completed the conquest of Mrs Forbes's heart. She drew the little one to her, and kissed her, and Annie's tears instantly ceased to rise, while Mrs Forbes wiped away those still lingering on her face. Mary then went to get the tea, and Mrs Forbes having left the room for a moment to recover that self-possession, the loss of which is peculiarly objectionable to a Scotchwoman, Annie was left seated on a footstool before the bright fire, the shadows from which were now dancing about the darkening room, and Alec lay on the sofa looking at her. There was no great occasion for his lying on the sofa, but his mother desired it, and Alec had at present no particular objection.

"I wadna like to be gran' fowk," mused Annie aloud, for getting that she was not alone.

"We're no gran' fowk, Annie," said Alec.

"Ay are ye," returned Annie, persistently.

"Weel, what for wadna ye like it?"

"Ye maun be aye feared for blaudin' things."

"Mamma wad tell ye a different story," rejoined Alec laughing. "There's naething here to blaud (spoil)."

Mrs Forbes returned. Tea was brought in. Annie comported herself like a lady, and, after tea, ran home with mingled feelings of pleasure and pain. For, notwithstanding her assertion that she would not like to be "gran' fowk," the kitchen fire, small and dull, the smelling shop, and her own dreary garret-room, did not seem more desirable from her peep into the warmth and comfort of the house at Howglen.

Questioned as to what had delayed her return from school, she told the truth; that she had gone to ask after Alec Forbes, and that they had kept her to tea.

"I tauld them that ye ran efter the loons!" said Bruce triumphantly. Then stung with the reflection that he had not been asked to stay to tea, he added: "It's no for the likes o' you, Annie, to gang to gentlefowk's hooses, makin' free whaur ye're no wantit. Sae dinna lat me hear the like again."

But it was wonderful how Bruce's influence over Annie, an influence of distress, was growing gradually weaker. He could make her uncomfortable enough; but as to his opinion of her, she had almost reached the point of not caring a straw for that. And she had faith enough in Alec to hope that he would defend her from whatever Bruce might have said against her.

Whether Mary had been talking in the town, as is not improbable, about little Annie Anderson's visit to her mistress, and so the story of the hair came to be known, or not, I cannot tell; but it was a notable coincidence that a few days after, Mrs Bruce came to the back-door, with a great pair of shears in her hand, and calling Annie, said:

"Here, Annie! Yer hair's ower lang. I maun jist clip it. It's giein ye sair een."

"There's naething the maitter wi' my een," said Annie gently.

"Dinna answer back. Sit doon," returned Mrs Bruce, leading her into the kitchen.

Annie cared very little for her hair, and well enough remembered that Mrs Forbes had said it made a fright of her; so it was with no great reluctance that she submitted to the operation. Mrs Bruce chopped it short off all round. As, however, this permitted what there was of it to fall about her face, there being too little to confine in the usual prison of the net, her appearance did not bear such marks of deprivation, or, in other and Scotch words, "she didna luik sae dockit," as might have been expected.

Her wavy locks of rich brown were borne that night, by the careful hand of Mrs Bruce, to Rob Guddle, the barber. Nor was the hand less careful that brought back their equivalent in money. With a smile to her husband, half loving and half cunning, Mrs Bruce dropped the amount into the till.

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