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   Chapter 20 No.20

Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 15649

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The spirit of mischief had never been so thoroughly aroused in the youth of Glamerton as it was this winter. The snow lay very deep, while almost every day a fresh fall added to its depth, and this rendered some of their winter-amusements impossible; while not many of them had the imagination of Alec Forbes to suggest new ones. At the same time the cold increased, and strengthened their impulses to muscular exertion.

"Thae loons are jist growin' perfect deevils," said Charlie Chapman, the wool-carder, as he bolted into his own shop, with the remains of a snowball melting down the back of his neck. "We maun hae anither constable to haud them in order."

The existing force was composed of one long-legged, short-bodied, middle-aged man, who was so slow in his motions, apparently from the weight of his feet, which were always dragging behind him, that the boys called him Stumpin' Steenie (dim. for "Stephen"), and stood in no more awe of him than they did of his old cow-which, her owner being a widower, they called Mrs Stephen-when she went up the street, hardly able to waddle along for the weight of her udder. So there was some little ground for the wool-carder's remark. How much a second constable would have availed, however, is doubtful.

"I never saw sic widdiefows!" (gallows-birds), chimed in a farmer's wife who was standing in the shop. "They had a tow across the Wast Wynd i' the snaw, an' doon I cam o' my niz, as sure's your name's Charles Chapman-and mair o' my legs oot o' my coats, I doobt, than was a'thegither to my credit."

"I'm sure ye can hae no rizzon to tak' shame o' your legs, gude wife," was the gallant rejoinder; to which their owner replied, with a laugh:

"They warna made for public inspection, ony gait."

"Hoot! hoot! Naebody saw them. I s' warran' ye didna lie lang! But thae loons-they're jist past a'! Heard ye hoo they saired Rob Bruce?"

"Fegs! they tell me they a' but buried him alive."

"Ow! ay. But it's a later story, the last."

"It's a pity there's no a dizzen or twa o' them in Awbrahawm's boasom.-What did they till him neist?"

Here Andrew Constable dropped in, and Chapman turned towards him with the question:

"Did ye hear, Mr Constable, what the loons did to Robert Bruce the nicht afore last?"

"No. What was that? They hae a spite at puir Rob, I believe."

"Weel, it didna look a'thegither like respeck, I maun alloo.-I was stannin' at the coonter o' his shop waitin' for an unce o' sneeshin'; and Robert he was servin' a bit bairnie ower the coouter wi' a pennyworth o' triacle, when, in a jiffey, there cam' sic a blast, an' a reek fit to smore ye, oot o' the bit fire, an' the shop was fu' o' reek, afore ye could hae pitten the pint o' ae thoom upo' the pint o' the ither. 'Preserve's a'!' cried Rob; but or he could say anither word, butt the house, scushlin in her bauchles, comes Nancy, rinnin', an' opens the door wi' a scraich: 'Preserve's a'!' quo' she, 'Robert, the lum's in a low!' An' fegs! atween the twa reeks, to sunder them, there was nothing but Nancy hersel. The hoose was as fu' as it cud haud, frae cellar to garret, o' the blackest reek 'at ever crap oot o' coal. Oot we ran, an' it was a sicht to see the crater wi' his lang neck luikin' up at the chimleys. But deil a spark cam' oot o' them-or reek either, for that maitter. It was easy to see what was amiss. The loons had been o' the riggin, and flung a han'fu' o' blastin' powther down ilka smokin' chimley, and syne clappit a divot or a truf upo' the mou' o' 't. Deil ane o' them was in sicht, but I doobt gin ony o' them was far awa'. There was naething for't but get a ladder, and jist gang up an' tak aff the pot-lids. But eh! puir Robert was jist rampin' wi' rage! No 'at he said muckle, for he daur hardly open his mou' for sweerin'; and Robert wadna sweer, ye ken; but he was neither to haud nor bin'."

"What laddies war they, Charles, do ye ken?" asked Andrew.

"There's a heap o' them up to tricks. Gin I haena the rheumateese screwin' awa' atween my shoothers the nicht it wonna be their fau'ts; for as I cam' ower frae the ironmonger's there, I jist got a ba' i' the how o' my neck, 'at amaist sent me howkin' wi' my snoot i' the snaw. And there it stack, and at this preceese moment it's rinnin' doon the sma' o' my back as gin 't war a burnie doon a hillside. We maun hae mair constables!"

"Hoot! toot! Charles. Ye dinna want a constable to dry yer back. Gang to the gudewife wi' 't," said Andrew, "she'll gie ye a dry sark. Na, na. Lat the laddies work it aff. As lang's they haud their han's frae what doesna belang to them, I dinna min' a bit ploy noo and than. They'll noo turn oot the waur men for a pliskie or twa."

The fact was, none of the boys would have dreamed of interfering with Andrew Constable. Everybody respected him; not because he was an elder of the kirk, but because he was a good-tempered, kindly, honest man; or to sum up all in one word-a douce chield-by which word douce is indicated every sort of propriety of behaviour-a virtue greatly esteemed by the Scotch. This adjective was universally applied to Andrew.

While Alec was confined to the house, he had been busy inventing all kinds of employments for the period of the snow. His lessons never occupied much of his thoughts, and no pains having yet been taken to discover in what direction his tastes inclined him, he had of course to cater for himself. The first day of his return, when school was over, he set off rejoicing in his freedom, for a ramble through the snow, still revolving what he was to do next; for he wanted some steady employment with an end in view. In the course of his solitary walk, he came to the Wan Water, the other river that flowed through the wide valley-and wan enough it was now with its snow-sheet over it! As he stood looking at its still, dead face, and lamenting that the snow lay too deep over the ice to admit of skating, by a sudden reaction, a summer-vision of the live water arose before him; and he thought how delightful it would be to go sailing down the sparkling ripples, with the green fields all about him, and the hot afternoon sun over his head. That would be better even than scudding along it on his skates. His next thought was at once an idea and a resolve. Why should he not build a boat? He would build a boat. He would set about it directly.-Here was work for the rest of the winter!

His first step must be to go home and have his dinner; his next-to consult George Macwha, who had been a ship-carpenter in his youth. He would run over in the evening before George should have dropped work, and commit the plan to his judgment.

In the evening, then, Alec reached the town, on his way to George Macwha. It was a still lovely night, clear and frosty, with-yes, there were-millions of stars overhead. Away in the north, the streamers were shooting hither and thither, with marvellous evanescence and re-generation. No dance of goblins could be more lawless in its grotesqueness than this dance of the northern lights in their ethereal beauty, shining, with a wild ghostly changefulness and feebleness, all colours at once; now here, now there, like a row of slender organ-pipes, rolling out and in and along the sky. Or they might have been the chords of some gigantic stringed instrument, which chords became visible only when mighty hands of music struck their keys and set them vibrating; so that, as the hands swept up and down the Titanic key-board, the chords themselves seemed to roll along the heavens, though in truth some vanished here and others appeared yonder. Up and down they darted, and away and back-and always in the direction he did not expect them to take. He thought he heard them crackle, and he stood still to listen; but he could not be sure that it was not the

snow sinking and crisping beneath his feet. All around him was still as a world too long frozen: in the heavens alone was there motion. There this entrancing dance of colour and shape went on, wide beneath, and tapering up to the zenith! Truly there was revelry in heaven! One might have thought that a prodigal son had just got home, and that the music and the dancing had begun, of which only the far-off rhythmic shine could reach the human sense; for a dance in heaven might well show itself in colour to the eyes of men.-Alec went on till the lights from the windows of the town began to throw shadows across the snow. The street was empty. From end to end nothing moved but an occasional shadow. As he came near to Macwha's shop, he had to pass a row of cottages which stood with their backs to a steep slope. Here too all was silent as a frozen city. But when he was about opposite the middle of the row, he heard a stifled laugh, and then a kind of muffled sound as of hurrying steps, and, in a moment after, every door in the row was torn open, and out bolted the inhabitants-here an old woman, halting on a stick as she came, there a shoemaker, with last and awl in his hands, here a tailor with his shears, and there a whole family of several trades and ages. Every one rushed into the middle of the road, turned right round and looked up. Then arose such a clamour of tongues, that it broke on the still air like a storm.

"What's ado, Betty?" asked Alec of a decrepit old creature, bent almost double with rheumatism, who was trying hard to see something or other in the air or on the roof of her cottage.

But before she could speak, the answer came in another form, addressing itself to his nose instead of his ears. For out of the cottages floated clouds of smoke, pervading the air with a variety of scents-of burning oak-bark, of burning leather-cuttings, of damp fire-wood and peat, of the cooking of red herrings, of the boiling of porridge, of the baking of oat-cake, &c., &c. Happily for all the inhabitants, "thae deevils o' loons" had used no powder here.

But the old woman, looking round when Alec spoke, and seeing that he was one of the obnoxious school-boys, broke out thus:

"Gang an' tak the divot (turf) aff o' my lum, Alec, there's a good laad! Ye sudna play sic tricks on puir auld bodies like me, near brackin' in twa wi' the rheumateeze. I'm jist greetin' wi' the reek i' my auld een."

And as she spoke she wiped her eyes with her apron.

Alec did not wait to clear himself of an accusation so gently put, but was on the roof of Luckie Lapp's cottage before she had finished her appeal to his generosity. He took the "divot aff o' her lum" and pitched it half way down the brae, at the back of the cottage. Then he scrambled from one chimney to the other, and went on pitching the sods down the hill. At length two of the inhabitants, who had climbed up at the other end of the row, met him, and taking him for a repentant sinner at best, made him prisoner, much to his amusement, and brought him down, protesting that it was too bad of gentle-folk's sons to persecute the poor in that way.

"I didn't do it," said Alec.

"Dinna lee," was the curt rejoinder.

"I'm no leein'."

"Wha did it, than?"

"I can guiss; an' it shanna happen again, gin I can help it."

"Tell's wha did it, than."

"I wonno say names."

"He's ane o' them."

"The foul thief tak him! I s' gie him a hidin'," said a burly sutor (shoemaker) coming up. "Thae loons are no to be borne wi' ony langer."

And he caught Alec by the arm.

"I didn't do it," persisted Alec.

"Wha killed Rob Bruce's dog?" asked the sutor, squeezing Alec's arm to point the question.

"I did," answered Alec; "and I will do yours the same guid turn, gin he worries bairns."

"And quite richt, too!" said the sutor's wife. "Lat him gang, Donal.

I'll be boun' he's no ane o' them."

"Tell's a' aboot it, than. Hoo cam ye up there?"

"I gaed up to tak the divot aff o' Lucky Lapp's lum. Spier at her. Ance up I thocht I micht gie the lave o' ye a gude turn, and this is a' I get for't."

"Weel, weel! Come in and warm ye, than," said the shoemaker, convinced at last.

So Alec went in and had a chat with them, and then went on to George

Macwha's.

The carpenter took to his scheme at once. Alec was a fair hand at all sorts of tool-work; and being on the friendliest terms with Macwha, it was soon arranged that the keel should be laid in the end of the workshop, and that, under George's directions, and what help Willie chose to render, Alec should build his boat himself. Just as they concluded these preliminaries, in came Willie, wiping some traces of blood from his nose. He made a pantomimic gesture of vengeance at Alec.

"What hae ye been efter noo, laddie?" asked his father.

"Alec's jist gien me a bluidy nose," said Willie.

"Hoo cam' that aboot? Ye weel deserved it, I hae nae doobt. Jist gie him anither whan he wants it, Alec."

"What do ye mean, Curly?" asked Alec in amazement.

"Yon divot 'at ye flang aff o' Luckie Lapp's riggin'," said Curly, "cam' richt o' the back o' my heid, as I lay o' the brae, and dang the blude oot at my niz. That's a'.-Ye'll preten' ye didna see me, nae doobt."

"I say, Curly," said Alec, putting his arm round his shoulders, and leading him aside, "we maun hae nae mair o' this kin' o' wark. It's a dam't shame! Do ye see nae differ atween chokin' an ill-faured tyke an' chokin' a puir widow's lum?"

"'Twas only for fun."

"It's ill fun that baith sides canna lauch at, Curly."

"Rob Bruce wasna lauchin' whan he brocht the bick to the schuil, nor yet whan he gaed hame again."

"That was nae fun, Curly. That was doonricht earnest."

"Weel, weel, Alec; say nae mair aboot it."

"No more I will. But gin I was you, Curly, I wad tak Lucky a seck o' spales the morn."

"I'll tak them the nicht, Alec.-Father, hae ye an auld seck ony gait?"

"There's ane up i' the laft. What want ye wi' a seck?"

But Curly was in the loft almost before the question had left his father's lips. He was down again in a moment, and on his knees filling the sack with shavings and all the chips he could find.

"Gie's a han' up wi't, Alec," he said.

And in a moment more Curly was off to Widow Lapp with his bag of firing.

"He's a fine chield that Willie o' yours, George," said Alec to the father. "He only wants to hae a thing weel pitten afore him, an' he jist acts upo' 't direckly.

"It's weel he maks a cronie o' you, Alec. There's a heap o' mischeef in him. Whaur's he aff wi thae spells?"

Alec told the story, much to the satisfaction of George, who could appreciate the repentance of his son; although he was "nane o' the unco guid" himself. From that day he thought more of his son, and of Alec as well.

"Noo, Curly," said Alec, as soon as he re-appeared with the empty sack, "yer father's gaein to lat me big a boat, an' ye maun help me."

"What's the use o' a boat i' this weather?" said Curly.

"Ye gomeril!" returned his father; ye never luik an inch afore the pint o' yer ain neb. Ye wadna think o' a boat afore the spring; an' haith! the summer wad be ower, an' the water frozen again, afore ye had it biggit. Luik at Alec there. He's worth ten o' you.

"I ken that ilka bit as weel's ye do, father. Jist set's aff wi' 't, father."

"I canna attend till't jist i' the noo; but I s' set ye aff wi' 't the morn's nicht."

So here was an end to the troubles of the townsfolks from the loons, and without any increase of the constabulary force; for Curly being withdrawn, there was no one else of sufficiently inventive energy to take the lead, and the loons ceased to be dangerous to the peace of the community. Curly soon had both his head and his hands quite occupied with boat-building.

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