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   Chapter 26 No.26

Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 11011

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Whatever effect the remonstrances of Thomas might or might not have upon the rest, Annie had heard enough to make her want to go to the missionar-kirk. For was it not plain that Thomas Crann knew something that she did not know? and where could he have learned it but at the said kirk? There must be something going on there worth looking into. Perhaps there she might learn just what she needed to know; for, happy as she was, she would have been much happier had it not been for a something-she could neither describe nor understand it-which always rose between her and the happiness. She did not lay the blame on circumstances, though they might well, in her case, have borne a part of it. Whatever was, to her was right; and she never dreamed of rebelling against her position. For she was one of those simple creatures who perceive at once that if they are to set anything right for themselves or other people, they must begin with their own selves, their inward being and life. So without knowing that George Macwha intended to be there, with no expectation of seeing Alec or Curly, and without having consulted any of the Bruce family, she found herself, a few minutes after the service had commenced, timidly peering through the inner door of the chapel, and starting back, with mingled shyness and awe, from the wide solemnity of the place. Every eye seemed to have darted upon her the moment she made a chink of light between the door and its post. How spiritually does every child-nature feel the solemnity of the place where people, of whatever belief or whatever intellectual rank, meet to worship God! The air of the temple belongs to the poorest meeting-room as much as to the grandest cathedral. And what added to the effect on Annie was, that the reputation of Mr Brown having drawn a great congregation to hear him preach that evening, she, peeping through the door, saw nothing but live faces; whereas Mr Cowie's church, to which she was in the habit of going, though much larger, was only so much the more empty. She withdrew in dismay to go up into the gallery, where, entering from behind, she would see fewer faces, and might creep unperceived into the shelter of a pew; for she felt "little better than one of the wicked" in having arrived late. So she stole up the awful stair and into the wide gallery, as a chidden dog might steal across the room to creep under the master's table. Not daring to look up, she went with noiseless difficulty down a steep step or two, and perched herself timidly on the edge of a seat, beside an old lady, who had kindly made room for her. When she ventured to lift her eyes, she found herself in the middle of a sea of heads. But she saw in the same glance that no one was taking any notice of her, which discovery acted wonderfully as a restorative. The minister was reading, in a solemn voice, a terrible chapter of denunciation out of the prophet Isaiah, and Annie was soon seized with a deep listening awe. The severity of the chapter was, however, considerably mollified by the gentleness of the old lady, who put into her hand a Bible, smelling sweetly of dried starry leaves and southernwood, in which Annie followed the reading word for word, feeling sadly condemned if she happened to allow her eyes to wander for a single moment from the book. After the long prayer, during which they all stood-a posture certainly more reverential than the sitting which so commonly passes for kneeling-and the long psalm, during which they all sat, the sermon began; and again for a moment Annie ventured to look up, feeling protected from behind by the back of the pew, which reached high above her head. Before her she saw no face but that of the minister, between which and her, beyond the front of the gallery, lay a gulfy space, where, down in the bottom, sat other listening souls, with upturned faces and eyes, unseen of Annie, all their regards converging upon the countenance of the minister. He was a thin-faced cadaverous man, with a self-severe saintly look, one to whom religion was clearly a reality, though not so clearly a gladness, one whose opinions?vague half-monstrous embodiments of truth-helped to give him a consciousness of the life which sprung from a source far deeper than his consciousness could reach. I wonder if one will ever be able to understand the worship of his childhood-that revering upward look which must have been founded on a reality, however much after experience may have shown the supposed grounds of reverence to be untenable. The moment Annie looked in the face of Mr Brown, she submitted absolutely; she enshrined him and worshipped him with an awful reverence. Nor to the end of her days did she lose this feeling towards him. True, she came to see that he was a man of ordinary stature, and that some of the religious views which he held in common with his brethren were dishonouring of God, and therefore could not be elevating to the creature. But when she saw these and other like facts, they gave her no shock-they left the reflex of the man in her mind still unspotted, unimpaired. How could this be? Simply because they left unaltered the conviction that this man believed in God, and that the desire of his own heart brought him into some real, however undefinable, relation to him who was yet nearer to him than that desire itself, and whose presence had caused its birth.

He chose for his text these words of the Psalmist: "The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that for

get God." His sermon was less ponderous in construction and multitudinous in division than usual; for it consisted simply of answers to the two questions: "Who are the wicked?" and "What is their fate?" The answer to the former question was, "The wicked are those that forget God;" the answer to the latter, "The torments of everlasting fire." Upon Annie the sermon produced the immediate conviction that she was one of the wicked, and that she was in danger of hell-fire. The distress generated by the earlier part of the sermon, however, like that occasioned by the chapter of prophecy, was considerably mitigated by the kindness of an unknown hand, which, appearing occasionally over her shoulder from behind, kept up a counteractive ministration of peppermint lozenges. But the representations grew so much in horror as the sermon approached its end, that, when at last it was over, and Annie drew one long breath of exhaustion, hardly of relief, she became aware that the peppermint lozenge which had been given her a quarter of an hour before, was lying still undissolved in her mouth.

What had added considerably to the effect of the preacher's words, was that, in the middle of the sermon, she had, all at once, caught sight of the face of George Macwha diagonally opposite to her, his eyes looking like ears with the intensity of his listening. Nor did the rather comical episode of the snuffing of the candles in the least interfere with the solemnity of the tragic whole. The gallery was lighted by three coron? of tallow candles, which, persisting in growing long-nosed and dim-sighted, had, at varying periods, according as the necessity revealed itself to a certain half-witted individual of the congregation, to be snodded laboriously. Without losing a word that the preacher uttered, Annie watched the process intently. What made it ludicrous was, that the man, having taken up his weapon with the air of a pious executioner, and having tipped the chandelier towards him, began, from the operation of some occult sympathy, to open the snuffers and his own mouth simultaneously; and by the time the black devouring jaws of the snuffers had reached their full stretch, his own jaws had become something dragonlike and hideous to behold-when both shut with a convulsive snap. Add to this that he was long-sighted and often missed a candle several times before he succeeded in snuffing it, whereupon the whole of the opening and shutting process had to be repeated, sometimes with no other result than that of snuffing the candle out, which had then to be pulled from its socket and applied to the next for re-illumination. But nothing could be farther from Annie's mood than a laugh or even a smile, though she gazed as if she were fascinated by the snuffers, which were dreadfully like one of the demons in a wood-cut of the Valley of the Shadow of Death in the Pilgrim's Progress without boards, which had belonged to her father.

When all had ceased-when the prayer, the singing, and the final benediction were over, Annie crept out into the dark street as if into the Outer Darkness. She felt the rain falling upon something hot, but she hardly knew that it was her own cheeks that were being wetted by the heavy drops. Her first impulse was to run to Alec and Curly, put her arms about their necks, and entreat them to flee from the wrath to come. But she could not find them to-night. She must go home. For herself she was not much afraid; for there was a place where prayer was heard as certainly as at the mercy-seat of old-a little garret room namely, with holes in the floor, out of which came rats; but with a door as well, in at which came the prayed-for cat.

But alas for poor Annie and her chapel-going! As she was creeping slowly up from step to step in the dark, the feeling came over her that it was no longer against rats, nor yet against evil things dwelling in the holes and corners of a neglected human world, that she had to pray. A spiritual terror was seated on the throne of the universe, and was called God-and to whom should she pray against it? Amidst the darkness, a deeper darkness fell.

She knelt by her bedside, but she could not lift up her heart; for was she not one of them that forget God? and was she not therefore wicked? and was not God angry with her every day? Was not the fact that she could not pray a certain proof that she was out of God's favour, and counted unworthy of his notice?

But there was Jesus Christ: she would cry to him. But did she believe in him? She tried hard to convince herself that she did; but at last she laid her weary head on the bed, and groaned in her young despair. At the moment a rustling in the darkness broke the sad silence with a throb of terror. She started to her feet. She was exposed to all the rats in the universe now, for God was angry with her, and she could not pray. With a stifled scream she darted to the door, and half tumbled down the stair in an agony of fear.

"What gars ye mak sic a din i' the hoose o' the Sawbath nicht?" screamed Mrs Bruce.

But little did Annie feel the reproof. And as little did she know that the dreaded rats had this time been the messengers of God to drive her from a path in which lies madness.

She was forced at length to go to bed, where God made her sleep and forget him, and the rats did not come near her again that night.

Curly and Alec had been in the chapel too, but they were not of a temperament to be disturbed by Mr Brown's discourse.

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