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Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 9953

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

One afternoon, as Alec went home to dinner, he was considerably surprised to find Mr Malison leaning on one of the rails of the foot-bridge over the Glamour, looking down upon its frozen surface. There was nothing supernatural or alarming in this, seeing that, after school was over, Alec had run up the town to the saddler's, to get a new strap for one of his skates. What made the fact surprising was, that the scholars so seldom encountered the master anywhere except in school. Alec thought to pass, but the moment his foot was on the bridge the master lifted himself up, and faced round.

"Well, Alec," he said, "where have you been?"

"To get a new strap for my skatcher," answered Alec.

"You're fond of skating-are you, Alec?"

"Yes, sir."

"I used to be when I was a boy. Have you had your dinner?"

"No, sir."

"Then I suppose your mother has not dined, either?"

"She never does till I go home, sir."

"Then I won't intrude upon her. I did mean to call this afternoon."

"She will be very glad to see you, sir. Come and take a share of what there is."

"I think I had better not, Alec."

"Do, sir. I am sure she will make you welcome."

Mr Malison hesitated. Alec pressed him. He yielded; and they went along the road together.

I shall not have to show much more than half of Mr Malison's life-the school half, which, both inwardly and outwardly, was very different from the other. The moment he was out of the school, the moment, that is, that he ceased for the day to be responsible for the moral and intellectual condition of his turbulent subjects, the whole character-certainly the whole deportment-of the man changed. He was now as meek and gentle in speech and behaviour as any mother could have desired.

Nor was the change a hypocritical one. The master never interfered, or only upon the rarest occasions when pressure from without was brought to bear upon him, as in the case of Juno, with what the boys did out of school. He was glad enough to accept utter irresponsibility for that portion of his time; so that between the two parts of the day, as they passed through the life of the master, there was almost as little connection as between the waking and sleeping hours of a somnambulist.

But, as he leaned over the rail of the bridge, whither a rare impulse to movement had driven him, his thoughts had turned upon Alec Forbes and his antagonism. Out of school, he could not help feeling that the boy had not been very far wrong, however subversive of authority his behaviour had been; but it was not therefore the less mortifying to think how signally he had been discomfited by him. And he was compelled moreover to acknowledge to himself that it was a mercy that Alec was not the boy to follow up his advantage by heading-not a party against the master, but the whole school, which would have been ready enough to follow such a victorious leader. So there was but one way of setting matters right, as Mr Malison had generosity enough left in him to perceive; and that was, to make a friend of his adversary. Indeed there is that in the depths of every human breast which makes a reconciliation the only victory that can give true satisfaction. Nor was the master the only gainer by the resolve which thus arose in his mind the very moment before he felt Alec's tread upon the bridge.

They walked together to Howglen, talking kindly the whole way; to which talk, and most likely to which kindness between them, a little incident had contributed as well. Alec had that day rendered a passage of Virgil with a remarkable accuracy, greatly pleasing to the master, who, however, had no idea to what this isolated success was attributable. I forget the passage; but it had reference to the setting of sails, and Alec could not rest till he had satisfied himself about its meaning; for when we are once interested in anything, we want to see it nearer as often as it looms in sight. So he had with some difficulty cleared away the mists that clung about the words, till at length he beheld and understood the fact embodied in them.

Alec had never had praise from Mr Malison before-at least none that had made any impression on him-and he found it very sweet. And through the pleasure dawned the notion that perhaps he might be a scholar after all if he gave his mind to it. In this he was so far right: a fair scholar he might be, though a learned man he never could be, without developing an amount of will, and effecting a degree of self-conquest, sufficient for a Jesuit,-losing at the same time not only what he was especially made for knowing, but, in a great measure, what he was especially made for being. Few, however, are in danger of going so grievously against the intellectual impulses of their nature: far more are in danger of following them without earnestness, or if earnestly, then with the absorption of an eagerness only worldly.

Mrs Forbes, seeing the pleasure expressed on Alec's countenanc

e, received Mr Malison with more than the usual cordiality, forgetting when he was present before her eyes what she had never failed to think of with bitterness when he was only present to her mind.

As soon as dinner was over Alec rushed off to the river, leaving his mother and the master together. Mrs Forbes brought out the whisky-bottle, and Mr Malison, mixing a tumbler of toddy, filled a wine-glass for his hostess.

"We'll make a man of Alec some day yet," said he, giving an ill-considered form to his thoughts.

"'Deed!" returned Mrs Forbes, irritated at the suggestion of any difficulty in the way of Alec's ultimate manhood, and perhaps glad of the opportunity of speaking her mind-"'Deed! Mr Malison, ye made a bonnie munsie (monsieur) o' him a month ago. It wad set ye weel to try yer hand at makin' a man o' him noo."

Had Alec been within hearing, he would never have let his mother forget this speech. For had not she, the immaculate, the reprover, fallen herself into the slough of the vernacular? The fact is, it is easier to speak the truth in a patois, for it lies nearer to the simple realities than a more conventional speech.

I do not however allow that the Scotch is a patois in the ordinary sense of the word. For had not Scotland a living literature, and that a high one, when England could produce none, or next to none-I mean in the fifteenth century? But old age, and the introduction of a more polished form of utterance, have given to the Scotch all the other advantages of a patois, in addition to its own directness and simplicity.

For a moment the dominie was taken aback, and sat reddening over his toddy, which, not daring even to taste it, he went on stirring with his toddy-ladle. For one of the disadvantages of a broken life is, that what a person may do with a kind of conscience in the one part, he feels compelled to blush for in the other. The despotism exercised in the school, even though exercised with a certain sense of justice and right, made the autocrat, out of school, cower before the parents of his helpless subjects. And this quailing of heart arose not merely from the operation of selfish feelings, but from a deliquium that fell upon his principles, in consequence of their sudden exposure to a more open atmosphere. But with a sudden perception that his only chance was to throw himself on the generosity of a woman, he said:

"Well, ma'am, if you had to keep seventy boys and girls quiet, and hear them their lessons at the same time, perhaps you would find yourself in danger of doing in haste what you might repent at leisure."

"Weel, weel, Mr Malison, we'll say nae mair aboot it. My laddie's nane the waur for't noo; and I hope ye will mak a man o' him some day, as ye say."

"He translated a passage of Virgil to-day in a manner that surprised me."

"Did he though? He's not a dunce, I know; and if it weren't for that stupid boat he and William Macwha are building, he might be made a scholar of, I shouldn't wonder. George should have more sense than encourage such a waste of time and money. He's always wanting something or other for the boat, and I confess I can't find in my heart to refuse him, for, whatever he may be at school, he's a good boy at home, Mr Malison."

But the schoolmaster did not reply at once, for a light had dawned upon him: this then was the secret of Alec's translation-a secret in good sooth worth his finding out. One can hardly believe that it should have been to the schoolmaster the first revelation of the fact that a practical interest is the strongest incitement to a theoretical acquaintance. But such was the case. He answered after a moment's pause-

"I suspect, ma'am, on the contrary, that the boat, of which I had heard nothing till now, was Alec's private tutor in the passage of Virgil to which I have referred."

"I don't understand you, Mr Malison."

"I mean, ma'am, that his interest in his boat made him take an interest in those lines about ships and their rigging. So the boat taught him to translate them."

"I see, I see."

"And that makes me doubt, ma'am, whether we shall be able to make him learn anything to good purpose that he does not take an interest in."

"Well, what do you think he is fit for, Mr Malison? I should like him to be able to be something else than a farmer, whatever he may settle down to at last."

Mrs Forbes thought, whether wisely or not, that as long as she was able to manage the farm, Alec might as well be otherwise employed. And she had ambition for her son as well. But the master was able to make no definite suggestion. Alec seemed to have no special qualification for any profession; for the mechanical and constructive faculties had alone reached a notable development in him as yet. So after a long talk, his mother and the schoolmaster had come no nearer than before to a determination of what he was fit for. The interview, however, restored a good understanding between them.

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