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   Chapter 31 No.31

Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 15710

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


At length the boat was calked, tarred, and painted.

One evening as Annie entered the workshop, she heard Curly cry,

"Here she is, Alec!"

and Alec answer,

"Let her come. I'm just done."

Alec stood at the stern of the boat, with a pot in one hand, and a paint-brush in the other; and, when Annie came near, she discovered to her surprise, and not a little to her delight, that he was just finishing off the last E of "THE BONNIE ANNIE."

"There," said he, "that's her name. Hoo de ye like it, Annie?"

Annie was too much pleased to reply. She looked at it for a while with a flush on her face: and then turning away, sought her usual seat on the heap of spales.

How much that one winter, with its dragons and its heroes, its boat-building and its rhymes, its discomforts at home and its consolations abroad, its threats of future loss, and comforts of present hope, had done to make the wild country child into a thoughtful little woman!

Now who should come into the shop at the moment but Thomas Crann!-the very man of all men not to be desired on the occasion; for the boys had contemplated a certain ceremony of christening, which they dared not carry out in the presence of the stone-mason; without which, however, George Macwha was very doubtful whether the little craft would prove a lucky one.-By common understanding they made no allusion to the matter, thus postponing it for the present.

"Ay! ay! Alec," said Thomas; "sae yer boat's bigget at last!"

He stood contemplating it for a moment, not without some hardly perceptible signs of admiration, and then said:

"Gin ye had her out upon a muckle water, do ye think ye wad jump oot ower the side o' her, gin the Saviour tauld ye, Alec Forbes?"

"Ay wad I, gin I war richt sure he wantit me."

"Ye wad stan' an' parley wi' him, nae doot?"

"I bude (behoved) to be richt sure it was his ain sel', ye ken, an' that he did call me."

"Ow ay, laddie! That's a' richt. Weel, I houp ye wad. I aye had guid houps o' ye, Alec, my man. But there may be sic a thing as loupin' into the sea o' life oot o' the ark o' salvation; an' gin ye loup in whan he doesna call ye, or gin ye getna a grip o' his han', whan he does, ye're sure to droon, as sure's ane o' the swine that ran heedlong in and perished i' the water."

Alec had only a dim sense of his meaning, but he had faith that it was good, and so listened in respectful silence. Surely enough of sacred as well as lovely sound had been uttered over the boat to make her faithful and fortunate!

The hour arrived at length when The Bonnie Annie was to be launched. It was one of a bright Saturday afternoon, in the month of May, full of a kind of tearful light, which seemed to say: "Here I am, but I go to-morrow!" Yet though there might be plenty of cold weather to come, though the hail might; fall in cart-loads, and the snow might lie thick for a day or two, there would be no more frozen waters, and the boughs would be bare and desolate no more. A few late primroses were peeping from the hollows damp with moss and shadow along the banks, and the trees by the stream were in small young leaf. There was a light wind full of memories of past summers and promises for the new one at hand, one of those gentle winds that blow the eyes of the flowers open, that the earth may look at the heaven. In the midst of this baby-waking of the world, the boat must glide into her new life.

Alec got one of the men on the farm to yoke a horse to bring the boat to the river. With the help of George she was soon placed in the cart, and Alec and Curly got in beside her. The little creature looked very much like a dead fish, as she lay jolting in the hot sun, with a motion irksome to her delicate sides, her prow sticking awkwardly over the horse's back, and her stern projecting as far beyond the cart behind. Thus often is the human boat borne painfully to the stream on which thereafter it shall glide contentedly through and out of the world.

When they had got about half-way, Alec said to Curly:

"I wonner what's come o' Annie, Curly? It wad be a shame to lainch the boat wantin' her."

"Deed it wad. I s' jist rin and luik after her, an' ye can luik efter the boat."

So saying, Curly was out of the cart with a bound. Away he ran over a field of potatoes, straight as the crow flies, while the cart went slowly on towards the Glamour.

"Whaur's Annie Anderson?" he cried, as he burst into Robert Bruce's shop.

"What's your business?" asked the Bruce-a question which evidently looked for no answer.

"Alec wants her."

"Weel, he will want her," retorted Robert, shutting his jaws with a snap, and grinning a smileless grin from ear to ear, like the steel clasp of a purse. By such petty behaviour he had long ago put himself on an equality with the young rascals generally, and he was no match for them on their own level.

Curly left the shop at once, and went round by the close into the garden, where he found Annie loitering up and down with the baby in her arms, and looking very weary. This was in fact the first time she had had to carry the baby, and it fatigued her dreadfully. Till now Mrs Bruce had had the assistance of a ragged child, whose father owed them money for groceries: he could not pay it, and they had taken his daughter instead. Long ago, however, she had slaved it out, and had at length gone back to school. The sun was hot, the baby was heavy, and Annie felt all arms and back-they were aching so with the unaccustomed drudgery. She was all but crying when Curly darted to the gate, his face glowing with his run, and his eyes sparkling with excitement.

"Come, Annie," cried he; "we're gaein' to lainch the boat."

"I canna, Curly; I hae the bairn to min'."

"Tak the bairn in til 'ts mither."

"I daurna."

"Lay't doon o' the table, an' rin."

"Na, na, Curly; I cudna do that. Puir little crater!"

"Is the beastie heavy?" asked Curly, with deceitful interest.

"Dreadfu'."

"Lat's try."

"Ye'll lat her fa'."

"Deed no. I'm no sae fusionless (pithless). Gie's a haud o' her."

Annie yielded her charge; but no sooner had Curly possession of the baby, than he bounded away with her out of the garden into the back yard adjoining the house. Now in this yard, just opposite the kitchen-window, there was a huge sugar-cask, which, having been converted into a reservoir, stood under a spout, and was at this moment half full of rain-water. Curly, having first satisfied himself that Mrs Bruce was at work in the kitchen, and therefore sure to see him, mounted a big stone that lay beside the barrel, and pretended to lower the baby into the water, as if trying how much she would endure with equanimity. In a moment, he received such a box on the ear that, had he not been prepared for it, he would in reality have dropped the child into the barrel. The same moment the baby was in its mother's arms, and Curly sitting at the foot of the barrel, nursing his head, and pretending to suppress a violent attack of weeping. The angry mother sped into the house with her rescued child.

No sooner had she disappeared than Curly was on his feet scudding back to Annie, who had been staring over the garden-gate in utter bewilderment at his behaviour. She could no longer resist his entreaties: off she ran with him to the banks of the Glamour, where they soon came upon Alec and the man in the act of putting the boat on the slip, which, in the present instance, was a groove hollowed out of a low part of the bank, so that she might glide in more gradually.

"Hurrah! There's Annie!" cried Alec.-"Come awa', Annie. Here's a glass o' whisky I got frae my mither to kirsten the boat. Fling't at the name o' her."

Annie did as she was desired, to the perfect satisfaction of all present, particularly of the long, spare, sinewy farm

-servant, who had contrived, when Alec's back was turned, to swallow the whisky and substitute Glamour water, which no doubt did equally well for the purposes of the ceremony. Then with a gentle push from all, the Bonnie Annie, slid into the Glamour, where she lay afloat in contented grace, as unlike herself in the cart as a swan waddling wearily to the water is unlike the true swan-self when her legs have no longer to support her weight, but to oar her along through the friendly upholding element.

"Isna she bonnie?" cried Annie in delight.

And indeed she was bonnie, in her green and white paint, lying like a great water-beetle ready to scamper over the smooth surface. Alec sprang on board, nearly upsetting the tiny craft. Then he held it by a bush on the bank while Curly handed in Annie, who sat down in the stern. Curly then got in himself, and Alec and him seized each an oar.

But what with their inexperience and the nature of the channel, they found it hard to get along. The river was full of great stones, making narrow passages, so that, in some parts, it was not possible to row. They knew nothing about the management of a boat, and were no more at ease than if they had been afloat in a tub. Alec being stronger in the arms than Curly, they went round and round for some time, as if in a whirlpool, with a timeless and grotesque spluttering and sprawling. At last they gave it up in weariness, and allowed the Bonnie Annie to float along the stream, taking care only to keep her off the rocks. Past them went the banks-here steep and stony, but green with moss where little trickling streams found their way into the channel; there spreading into low alluvial shores, covered with lovely grass, starred with daisies and buttercups, from which here and there rose a willow, whose low boughs swept the water. A little while ago, they had skated down its frozen surface, and had seen a snowy land shooting past them; now with an unfelt gliding, they floated down, and the green meadows dreamed away as if they would dream past them for ever.-Suddenly, as they rounded the corner of a rock, a great roar of falling water burst on their ears, and they started in dismay,

"The sluice is up!" cried Alec. "Tak' to yer oar, Curly."

Along this part of the bank, some twenty feet above them, ran a mill-race, which a few yards lower down communicated by means of a sluice with the river. This sluice was now open, for, from the late rains, there was too much water; and the surplus rushed from the race into the Glamour in a foaming cataract. Annie seeing that the boys were uneasy, got very frightened, and, closing her eyes, sat motionless. Louder and louder grew the tumult of the waters, till their sound seemed to fall in a solid thunder on her brain. The boys tried hard to row against the stream, but without avail. Slowly and surely it carried them down into the very heart of the boiling fall; for on this side alone was the channel deep enough for the boat, and the banks were too steep and bare to afford any hold. At last, the boat drifting stern foremost, a torrent of water struck Annie, and tumbled into the boat as if it would beat out the bottom of it. Annie was tossed about in fierce waters, and ceased to know anything. When she came to herself, she was in an unknown bed, with the face of Mrs Forbes bending anxiously over her. She would have risen, but Mrs Forbes told her to lie still, which indeed Annie found much more pleasant.

As soon as they got under the fall the boat had filled and foundered. Alec and Curly could swim like otters, and were out of the pool at once. As they went down, Alec had made a plunge to lay hold of Annie, but had missed her. The moment he got his breath, he swam again into the boiling pool, dived, and got hold of her; but he was so stupefied by the force of the water falling upon him and beating him down, that he could not get out of the raging depth-for here the water was many feet deep-and as he would not leave his hold of Annie, was in danger of being drowned. Meantime Curly had scrambled on shore and climbed up to the mill-race, where he shut down the sluice hard. In a moment the tumult had ceased, and Alec and Annie were in still water. In a moment more he had her on the bank, apparently lifeless, whence he carried her home to his mother in terror. She immediately resorted to one or two of the usual restoratives, and was presently successful.

As soon as she had opened her eyes, Alec and Curly hurried off to get out their boat. They met the miller in an awful rage; for the sudden onset of twice the quantity of water on his overshot wheel, had set his machinery off as if it had been bewitched, and one old stone, which had lost its iron girdle, had flown in pieces, to the frightful danger of the miller and his men.

"Ye ill-designed villains!" cried he at a venture, "what gart ye close the sluice? I s' learn ye to min' what ye're aboot. Deil tak' ye for rascals!"

And he seized one in each brawny hand.

"Annie Anderson was droonin' aneath the waste-water," answered Curly promptly.

"The Lord preserve 's!" said the miller, relaxing his hold "Hoo was that? Did she fa' in?"

The boys told him the whole story. In a few minutes more the back-fall was again turned off, and the miller was helping them to get their boat out. The Bonnie Annie was found uninjured. Only the oars and stretchers had floated down the stream, and were never heard of again.

Alec had a terrible scolding from his mother for getting Annie into such mischief. Indeed Mrs Forbes did not like the girl's being so much with her son; but she comforted herself with the probability that by and by Alec would go to college, and forget her. Meantime, she was very kind to Annie, and took her home herself, in order to excuse her absence, the blame of which she laid entirely on Alec, not knowing that thereby she greatly aggravated any offence of which Annie might have been guilty. Mrs Bruce solemnly declared her conviction that a judgment had fallen upon her for Willie Macwha's treatment of her baby.

"Gin I hadna jist gotten a glimp o' him in time, he wad hae drooned the bonny infant afore my verra een. It's weel waured on them!"

It did not occur to her that a wet skin was so very moderate a punishment for child-murder, that possibly there had been no connection between them.

This first voyage of the Bonnie Annie may seem a bad beginning; but I am not sure that most good ends have not had such a bad beginning. Perhaps the world itself may be received as a case in point. Alec and Curly went about for a few days with a rather subdued expression. But as soon as the boat was refitted, they got George Macwha to go with them for cockswain; and under his instructions, they made rapid progress in rowing and sculling. Then Annie was again their companion, and, the boat being by this time fitted with a rudder, had several lessons in steering, in which she soon became proficient. Many a moonlight row they had on the Glamour; and many a night after Curly and Annie had gone home, would Alec again unmoor the boat, and drop down the water alone, letting the banks go dreaming past him-not always sure that he was not dreaming himself, and would not suddenly awake and find himself in his bed, and not afloat between heaven and earth, with the moon above and the moon below him. I think it was in these seasons that he began first to become aware of a certain stillness pervading the universe like a law; a stillness ever being broken by the cries of eager men, yet ever closing and returning with gentleness not to be repelled, seeking to infold and penetrate with its own healing the minds of the noisy children of the earth. But he paid little heed to the discovery then, for he was made for activity, and in activity he found his repose.

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