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   Chapter 16 No.16

Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 15459

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The winter drew on-a season as different from the summer in those northern latitudes, as if it belonged to another solar system. Cold and stormy, it is yet full of delight for all beings that can either romp, sleep, or think it through. But alas for the old and sickly, in poor homes, with scanty food and firing! Little children suffer too, though the gift of forgetfulness does for them what the gift of faith does for their parents-helps them over many troubles, besides tingling fingers and stony feet. There would be many tracks of those small feet in the morning snow, leading away across the fresh-fallen clouds from the house and cottage doors; for the barbarity of morning-school, that is, an hour and a half of dreary lessons before breakfast, was in full operation at Glamerton.

The winter came. One morning, all the children awoke, and saw a white world around them. Alec jumped out of bed in delight. It was a sunny, frosty morning. The snow had fallen all night, with its own silence, and no wind had interfered with the gracious alighting of the feathery water. Every branch, every twig, was laden with its sparkling burden of down-flickered flakes, and threw long lovely shadows on the smooth featureless dazzle below. Away, away, stretched the outspread glory, the only darkness in it being the line of the winding river. All the snow that fell on it vanished, as death and hell shall one day vanish in the fire of God. It flowed on, black through its banks of white. Away again stretched the shine to the town, where every roof had the sheet that was let down from heaven spread over it, and the streets lay a foot deep in yet unsullied snow, soon, like the story of the ages, to be trampled, soiled, wrought, and driven with human feet, till, at last, God's strong sun would wipe it all away.

From the door opening into this fairy-land, Alec sprang into the untrodden space, as into a new America. He had discovered a world, without even the print of human foot upon it. The keen air made him happy; and the face of nature, looking as peaceful as the face of a dead man dreaming of heaven, wrought in him jubilation and leaping. He was at the school door before a human being had appeared in the streets of Glamerton. Its dwellers all lay still under those sheets of snow, which seemed to hold them asleep in its cold enchantment.

Before any of his fellows made their appearance, he had kneaded and piled a great heap of snowballs, and stood by his pyramid, prepared for the offensive. He attacked the first that came, and soon there was a troop of boys pelting away at him. But with his store of balls at his foot, he was able to pay pretty fairly for what he received; till, that being exhausted, he was forced to yield the unequal combat. By-and-by the little ones gathered, with Annie amongst them; but they kept aloof, for fear of the flying balls, for the boys had divided into two equal parties, and were pelting away at each other. At length the woman who had charge of the school-room, having finished lighting the fire, opened the door, and Annie, who was very cold, made a run for it, during a lull in the fury of the battle.

"Stop," cried Alec; and the balling ceased, that Annie, followed by a few others, might pass in safety through the midst of the combatants. One boy, however, just as Annie was entering, threw a ball after her. He missed her, but Alec did not miss him; for scarcely was the ball out of his hand when he received another, right between his eyes. Over he went, amidst a shout of satisfaction.

When the master appeared at the top of the lane the fight came to a close; and as he entered the school, the group round the fire broke up and dispersed. Alec, having entered close behind the master, overtook Annie as she went to her seat, for he had observed, as she ran into the school, that she was lame-indeed limping considerably.

"What's the maitter wi' ye, Annie?" he said. "What gars ye hirple?"

"Juno bitet me," answered Annie.

"Ay! Verra weel!" returned Alec, in a tone that had more meaning than the words.

Soon after the Bible-class was over, and they had all taken their seats, a strange quiet stir and excitement gradually arose, like the first motions of a whirlpool at the turn of the tide. The master became aware of more than the usual flitting to and fro amongst the boys, just like the coming and going which preludes the swarming of bees. But as he had little or no constructive power, he never saw beyond the symptoms. They were to him mere isolated facts, signifying present disorder.

"John Morison, go to your seat," he cried.

John went.

"Robert Rennie, go to your seat."

Robert went. And this continued till, six having been thus passed by, and a seventh appearing three forms from his own, the master, who seldom stood it so long, could stand it no longer. The tag was thrown, and a licking followed, making matters a little better from the master's point of view.

Now I will try to give, from the scholars' side, a peep of what passed.

As soon as he was fairly seated, Alec said in a low voice across the double desk to one of the boys opposite, calling him by his nickname,

"I say, Divot, do ye ken Juno?"

"Maybe no!" answered Divot. "But gin I dinna, my left leg dis."

"I thocht ye kent the shape o' her teeth, man. Jist gie Scrumpie there a dig i' the ribs."

"What are ye efter, Divot? I'll gie ye a cloot o' the lug," growled

Scrumpie.

"Hoot man! The General wants ye."

The General was Alec's nickname.

"What is't, General?"

"Do ye ken Juno?"

"Hang the bitch! I ken her ower weel. She took her denner aff o' ane o' my hips, ae day last year."

"Jist creep ower to Cadger there, and speir gin he kens Juno. Maybe he's forgotten her."

Cadger's reply was interrupted by the interference of the master, but a pantomimic gesture conveyed to the General sufficient assurance of the retentiveness of Cadger's memory in regard to Juno and her favours. Such messages and replies, notwithstanding more than one licking, kept passing the whole of the morning.

Now Juno was an animal of the dog kind, belonging to Robert Brace. She had the nose and the legs of a bull-dog, but was not by any means thorough-bred, and her behaviour was worse than her breed. She was a great favourite with her master, who ostensibly kept her chained in his back-yard for the protection of his house and property. But she was not by any means popular with the rising generation. For she was given to biting, with or without provocation, and every now and then she got loose-upon sundry of which occasions she had bitten boys. Complaint had been made to her owner, but without avail; for he only professed great concern, and promised she should not get loose again, which promise had been repeatedly broken. Various vows of vengeance had been made, and forgotten. But now Alec Forbes had taken up the cause of humanity and justice: for the brute had bitten Annie, and she could have given no provocation.

It was soon understood throughout the school that war was to be made upon Juno, and that every able-bodied boy must be ready when called out by the General. The minute they were dismissed, which, at this season of the year, took place at three o'clock, no interval being given for dinner, because there was hardly any afternoon, the boys gathered in a knot at the door.

"What are ye gaein' to do, General?" asked one.

"Kill her," answered Alec.

"What way?"

"Stane her to death, loons, like the man 'at brak the Sabbath."

"Broken banes for broken skins-eh? Ay!"

"The damned ill-faured brute, to bite Annie Anderson!"

"But there's nae stanes to be gotten i' the snaw, General

," said

Cadger.

"Ye gomeril! Ye'll get mair stanes nor ye'll carry, I doobt, up o' the side o' the toll-road yonner. Naething like road-metal!"

A confused chorus of suggestions and exclamations now arose, in the midst of which Willie Macwha, whose cognomen was Curly-pow, came up. He was not often the last in a conspiracy. His arrival had for the moment a sedative effect.

"Here's Curly! Here's Curly!"

"Weel, is't a' sattled?" asked he.

"She's condemned, but no execute yet," said Grumpie.

"Hoo are we to win at her?" asked Cadger.

"That's jist the pint," said Divot.

"We canna weel kill her in her ain yard," suggested Houghie.

"Na. We maun bide our time, an' tak her when she's oot aboot," said the

General.

"But wha's to ken that? an' hoo are we to gather?" asked Cadger, who seemed both of a practical and a despondent turn of mind.

"Noo, jist haud yer tongues, an' hearken to me," said Alec.

The excited assembly was instantly silent.

"The first thing," began Alec, "is to store plenty o' ammunition."

"Ay, ay, General."

"Haud yer tongues.-Whaur had we best stow the stanes, Curly?"

"In oor yard. They'll never be noticed there."

"That'll do. Some time the nicht, ye'll a' carry what stanes ye can get-an' min' they're o' a serviceable natur'-to Curly's yard. He'll be o' the ootluik for ye. An,' I say, Curly, doesna your riggin-stane owerluik the maist o' the toon?"

"Ay, General."

"Ye can see our hoose frae't-canna ye?"

"Ay."

"Weel, ye jist buy a twa three blue lichts. Hae ye ony bawbees?"

"Deil ane, General."

"Hae than, there's fower an' a bawbee for expenses o' the war."

"Thank ye, General."

"Ye hae an auld gun, haena' ye?"

"Ay have I; but she's nearhan' the rivin'."

"Load her to the mou', and lat her rive. We'll may be hear't. But haud weel oot ower frae her. Ye can lay a train, ye ken."

"I s' tak care o' that, General."

"Scrumpie, ye bide no that far frae the draigon's den. Ye jist keep yer ee-nae the crookit ane-upo' her ootgoins an' incomins; or raither, ye luik efter her comin oot, an' we'll a' luik efter her gaein in again. Jist mak a regiment o' yer ain to watch her, and bring ye word o' her proceedins. Ye can easy luik roun the neuk o' the back-yett, an' nobody be a hair the wiser. As sune as ever ye spy her lowse i' the yard be aff wi' ye to Willie Macwha. Syne, Curly, ye fire yer gun, and burn the blue lichts o' the tap o' the hoose; and gin I see or hear the signal, I'll be ower in seven minutes an' a half. Ilka ane o' ye 'at hears, maun luik efter the neist; and sae we'll a' gether at Curly's. Fess yer bags for the stanes, them 'at has bags."

"But gin ye dinna see or hear, for it's a lang road, General?" interposed Cadger.

"Gin I'm no at your yard, Curly, in saiven minutes an' a half, sen' Linkum efter me. He's the only ane o' ye 'at can rin. It's a' that he can do, but he does't weel.-Whan Juno's ance oot, she's no in a hurry in again."

The boys separated and went home in a state of excitement, which probably, however, interfered very little with their appetites, seeing it was moderated in the mean time by the need and anticipation of their dinners.

The sun set now between two and three o'clock, and there were long forenights to favour the plot. Perhaps their hatred of the dog would not have driven them to such extreme measures, even although she had bitten Annie Anderson, had her master been a favourite, or even generally respected. But Alec knew well enough that the townsfolk were not likely to sympathize with Bruce on the ill-treatment of his cur.

When the dinner and the blazing fire had filled him so full of comfort that he was once more ready to encounter the cold, Alec could stay in the house no longer.

"Where are you going, Alec?" said his mother.

"Into the garden, mamma."

"What can you want in the garden-full of snow?"

"It's just the snow I want, mamma. It won't keep."

And, in another moment, he was under the clear blue night-heaven, with the keen frosty air blowing on his warm cheek, busy with a wheelbarrow and a spade, slicing and shovelling in the snow. He was building a hut of it, after the fashion of the Esquimaux hut, with a very thick circular wall, which began to lean towards its own centre as soon as it began to rise. This hut he had pitched at the foot of a flag-staff on the green-?lawn would be too grand a word for the hundred square feet in front of his mother's house, though the grass which lay beneath the snowy carpet was very green and lovely grass, smooth enough for any lawn. In summer Alec had quite revelled in its greenness and softness, as he lay on it reading the Arabian Nights and the Ettrick Shepherd's stories: now it was "white with the whiteness of what is dead;" for is not the snow just dead water? The flag-staff he had got George Macwha to erect for him, at a very small outlay; and he had himself fitted it with shrouds and a cross-yard, and signal halliards; for he had always a fancy for the sea, and boats, and rigging of all sorts. And he had a great red flag, too, which he used to hoist on special occasions-?on market-days and such like; and often besides when a good wind blew. And very grand it looked, as it floated in the tide of the wind.

Often he paused in his work, and turned-?and oftener without raising himself he glanced towards the town; but no signal burned from the ridge of Curly's house, and he went on with his labour. When called in to tea, he gave a long wistful look townwards, but saw no sign. Out again he went, but no blue fire rejoiced him that night with the news that Juno was ranging the streets; and he was forced to go to bed at last, and take refuge from his disappointment in sleep.

The next day he strictly questioned all his officers as to the manner in which they had fulfilled their duty, and found no just cause of complaint.

"In future," he said to Curly, with the importance of one who had the affairs of boys and dogs upon his brain?-so that his style rose into English?-"in future, Curly, you may always know I am at home when you see the red flag flying from my flag-staff."

"That's o' sma' service, General, i' the lang forenichts. A body canna see freely so far."

"But Linkum wad see't fleein', lang or he wan to the yett (gate)."

"It wad flee nae mair nor a deid deuke i' this weather. It wad be frozen as stiff's a buird."

"Ye gowk! Do ye think fowk wash their flags afore they hing them oot, like sarks or sheets? Dinna ye be ower clever, Curly, my man."

Whereupon Curly shut up.

******

"What are you in such a state about, Alec?" asked his mother.

"Nothing very particular, mamma," answered Alec, ashamed of his want of self-command.

"You've looked out at the window twenty times in the last half-hour," she persisted.

"Curly promised to burn a blue light, and I wanted to see if I could see it."

Suspecting more, his mother was forced to be content with this answer.

But that night was also passed without sight or sound. Juno kept safe in her barrel, little thinking of the machinations against her in the wide snow-covered country around. Alec finished the Esquimaux hut, and the snow falling all night, the hut looked the next morning as if it had been there all the winter. As it seemed likely that a long spell of white weather had set in, Alec resolved to extend his original plan, and carry a long snow passage, or covered vault, from the lattice-window of a small closet, almost on a level with the ground, to this retreat by the flag-staff. He was hard at work in the execution of this project, on the third night, or rather late afternoon: they called it forenight there.

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