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   Chapter 23 No.23

Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 10713

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


A rapid thaw set in, and up through the vanishing whiteness dawned the dark colours of the wintry landscape. For a day or two the soft wet snow lay mixed with water over all the road. After that came mire and dirt. But it was still so far off spring, that nobody cared to be reminded of it yet. So when, after the snow had vanished, a hard black frost set in, it was welcomed by the schoolboys at least, whatever the old people and the poor people, and especially those who were both old and poor, may have thought of the change. Under the binding power of this frost, the surface of the slow-flowing Glamour and of the swifter Wan-Water, were once more chilled and stiffened to ice, which every day grew thicker and stronger. And now, there being no coverlet of snow upon it, the boys came out in troops, in their iron-shod shoes and their clumsy skates, to skim along those floors of delight that the winter had laid for them. To the fishes the ice was a warm blanket cast over them to keep them from the frost. But they must have been dismayed at the dim rush of so many huge forms above them, as if another river with other and awful fishes had buried theirs. Alec and Willie left their boat-almost for a time forgot it-repaired their skates, joined their school-fellows, and shot along the solid water with the banks flying past them. It was strange to see the banks thus from the middle surface of the water. All was strange about them; and the delight of the strangeness increased the delight of the motion, and sent the blood through their veins swift as their flight along the frozen rivers.

For many afternoons and into the early nights, Alec and Curly held on the joyful sport, and Annie was for the time left lonely. But she was neither disconsolate nor idle. The boat was a sure pledge for them. To the boat and her they must return. She went to the shop still, now and then, to see George Macwha, who, of an age beyond the seduction of ice and skates, kept on steadily at his work. To him she would repeat a ballad or two, at his request, and then go home to increase her stock. This was now a work of some difficulty, for her provision of candles was exhausted, and she had no money with which to buy more. The last candle had come to a tragical end. For, hearing steps approaching her room one morning, before she had put it away in its usual safety in her box, she hastily poked it into one of the holes in the floor and forgot it. When she sought it at night, it was gone. Her first dread was that she had been found out; but hearing nothing of it, she concluded at last that her enemies the rottans had carried it off and devoured it.

"Deil choke them upo' the wick o' 't!" exclaimed Curly, when she told him the next day, seeking a partner in her grief.

But a greater difficulty had to be encountered. It was not long before she had exhausted her book, from which she had chosen the right poems by insight, wonderfully avoiding by instinct the unsuitable, without knowing why, and repelled by the mere tone.

She thought day and night where additional pabulum might be procured, and at last came to the resolution of applying to Mr Cowie the clergyman. Without consulting any one, she knocked on an afternoon at Mr Cowie's door.

"Cud I see the minister?" she said to the maid.

"I dinna ken. What do you want?" was the maid's reply.

But Annie was Scotch too, and perhaps perceived that she would have but a small chance of being admitted into the minister's presence if she communicated the object of her request to the servant. So she only replied,

"I want to see himsel', gin ye please."

"Weel, come in, and I'll tell him. What's yer name?"

"Annie Anderson"

"Whaur do ye bide?"

"At Mr Bruce's, i' the Wast Wynd."

The maid went, and presently returning with the message that she was to "gang up the stair," conducted her to the study where the minister sat-a room, to Annie's amazement, filled with books from the top to the bottom of every wall. Mr Cowie held out his hand to her, and said,

"Well, my little maiden, what do you want?"

"Please, sir, wad ye len' me a sang-buik?"

"A psalm-book?" said the minister, hesitatingly, supposing he had not heard aright, and yet doubting if this could be the correction of his auricular blunder.

"Na, sir; I hae a psalm-buik at hame. It's a sang-buik that I want the len' o'."

Now the minister was one of an old school-a very worthy kind-hearted man, with nothing of what has been called religious experience. But he knew what some of his Lord's words meant, and amongst them certain words about little children. He had a feeling likewise, of more instinctive origin, that to be kind to little children was an important branch of his office. So he drew Annie close to him, as he sat in his easy-chair, laid his plump cheek against her thin white one, and said in the gentlest way:

"And what do you want a song-book for, dawtie?"

"To learn bonnie sangs oot o', sir. Dinna ye think they're the bonniest things in a' the warl',-sangs, sir?"

For Annie had by this time learned to love ballad-verse above everything but Alec and Dowie.

"And what kind o' sangs do ye like?" the clergyman asked, instead of replying.

"I like them best that gar ye greit, sir."

At every answer, she looked up in his face with her open clear blue ey

es. And the minister began to love her not merely because she was a child, but because she was this child.

"Do ye sing them?" he asked, after a little pause of pleased gazing into the face of the child.

"Na, na; I only say them. I dinna ken the tunes o' them."

"And do you say them to Mr Bruce?"

"Mr Bruce, sir! Mr Bruce wad say I was daft. I wadna say a sang to him, sir, for-for-for a' the sweeties i' the shop."

"Well, who do you say them to?"

"To Alec Forbes and Willie Macwha. They're biggin a boat, sir; and they like to hae me by them, as they big, to say sangs to them. And I like it richt weel."

"It'll be a lucky boat, surely," said the minister, "to rise to the sound of rhyme, like some old Norse war-ship."

"I dinna ken, sir," said Annie, who certainly did not know what he meant.

Now the minister's acquaintance with any but the classic poets was very small indeed; so that, when he got up and stood before his book-shelves, with the design of trying what he could do for her, he could think of nobody but Milton.

So he brought the Paradise Lost from its place, where it had not been disturbed for years, and placing it before her on the table, for it was a quarto copy, asked her if that would do. She opened it slowly and gently, with a reverential circumspection, and for the space of about five minutes, remained silent over it, turning leaves, and tasting, and turning, and tasting again. At length, with one hand resting on the book, she turned to Mr Cowie, who was watching with much interest and a little anxiety the result of the experiment, and said gently and sorrowfully:

"I dinna think this is the richt buik for me, sir. There's nae sang in't that I can fin' out. It gangs a' straucht on, and never turns or halts a bit. Noo ye see, sir, a sang aye turns roun', and begins again, and afore lang it comes fairly to an en', jist like a day, sir, whan we gang to oor beds an' fa' asleep. But this hauds on and on, and there's no end till't ava (at all). It's jist like the sun that 'never tires nor stops to rest.'"

"'But round the world he shines,'" said the clergyman, completing the quotation, right good-humouredly, though he was somewhat bewildered; for he had begun to fall a-marvelling at the little dingy maiden, with the untidy hair and dirty frock, who had thoughts of her own, and would not concede the faculty of song to the greatest of epic poets.

Doubtless if he had tried her with some of the short poems at the end of the Paradise Regained, which I doubt if he had ever even read, she would at least have allowed that they were not devoid of song. But it was better perhaps that she should be left free to follow her own instincts. The true teacher is the one who is able to guide those instincts, strengthen them with authority, and illuminate them with revelation of their own fundamental truth. The best this good minister could do was not to interfere with them. He was so anxious to help her, however, that, partly to gain some minutes for reflection, partly to get the assistance of his daughters, he took her by the hand, and led her to the dining-room, where tea was laid for himself and his two grown-up girls. She went without a thought of question or a feeling of doubt; for however capable she was of ordering her own way, nothing delighted her more than blind submission, wherever she felt justified in yielding it. It was a profound pleasure to her not to know what was coming next, provided some one whom she loved did. So she sat down to tea with the perfect composure of submission to a superior will. It never occurred to her that she had no right to be there; for had not the minister himself led her there? And his daughters were very kind and friendly. In the course of the meal, Mr Cowie having told them the difficulty he was in, they said that perhaps they might be able to find what she wanted, or something that might take the place of it; and after tea, one of them brought two volumes of ballads of all sorts, some old, some new, some Scotch, some English, and put them into Annie's hands, asking her if that book would do. The child eagerly opened one of the volumes, and glanced at a page: It sparkled with the right ore of ballad-words. The Red, the colour always of delight, grew in her face. She closed the book as if she could not trust herself to look at it while others were looking at her, and said with a sigh:

"Eh, mem! Ye wonna lippen them baith to me?"

"Yes, I will," said Miss Cowie. "I am sure you will take care of them."

"That-I-will," returned Annie, with an honesty and determination of purpose that made a great impression upon Mr Cowie especially. And she ran home with a feeling of richness of possession such as she had never before experienced.

Her first business was to scamper up to her room, and hide the precious treasures in her kist, there to wait all night, like the buried dead, for the coming morning.

When she confessed to Mr Bruce that she had had tea with the minister, he held up his hands in the manner which commonly expresses amazement; but what the peculiar character or ground of the amazement might be remained entirely unrevealed, for he said not a word to elucidate the gesture.

The next time Annie went to see the minister it was on a very different quest from the loan of a song-book.

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