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Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 16347

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

My story must have shown already that, although several years younger than Alec, Annie had much more character and personality than he. Alec had not yet begun to look realities in the face. The very nobility and fearlessness of his nature had preserved him from many such actions as give occasion for looking within and asking oneself whereto things are tending. Full of life and restless impulses to activity, all that could properly be required of him as yet was that the action into which he rushed should be innocent, and if conventionally mischievous, yet actually harmless. Annie, comfortless at home, gazing all about her to see if there was a rest anywhere for her, had been driven by the outward desolation away from the window of the world to that other window that opens on the regions of silent being where God is, and into which when his creatures enter, or even look, the fountain of their life springs aloft with tenfold vigour and beauty. Alec, whose home was happy, knew nothing of that sense of discomfort which is sometimes the herald of a greater need. But he was soon to take a new start in his intellectual relations; nor in those alone, seeing the change was the result of a dim sense of duty. The fact of his not being a scholar to the mind of Murdoch Malison, arose from no deficiency of intellectual power, but only of intellectual capacity-for the indefinite enlargement of which a fitting excitement from without is alone requisite.

The season went on, and the world, like a great flower afloat in space, kept opening its thousandfold blossom. Hail and sleet were things lost in the distance of the year-storming away in some far-off region of the north, unknown to the summer generation. The butterflies, with wings looking as if all the flower-painters of fairyland had wiped their brushes upon them in freakful yet artistic sport, came forth in the freedom of their wills and the faithful ignorance of their minds. The birds, the poets of the animal creation-what though they never get beyond the lyrical!-awoke to utter their own joy, and awake like joy in others of God's children. The birds grew silent, because their history laid hold upon them, compelling them to turn their words into deeds, and keep eggs warm, and hunt for worms. The butterflies died of old age and delight. The green life of the earth rushed up in corn to be ready for the time of need. The corn grew ripe, and therefore weary, hung its head, died, and was laid aside for a life beyond its own. The keen sharp old mornings and nights of autumn came back as they had come so many thousand times before, and made human limbs strong and human hearts sad and longing. Winter would soon be near enough to stretch out a long forefinger once more, and touch with the first frosty shiver some little child that loved summer, and shrunk from the cold.

One evening in early autumn, when the sun, almost on the edge of the horizon, was shining right in at the end of one of the principal streets, filling its whole width with its glory of molten roses, all the shopkeepers were standing in their doors. Little groups of country people, bearing a curious relation to their own legs, were going in various directions across the square. Loud laughter, very much like animal noises, now and then invaded the ear; but the sound only rippled the wide lake of the silence. The air was perfumed with the scent of peat fires and the burning of weeds and potato-tops. There was no fountain to complete the harmony, but the intermittent gushes from the spout of the great pump in the centre of the square were no bad substitute. At all events, they supplied the sound of water, without which Nature's orchestra is not full.

Wattie Sim, the watchmaker, long and lank, with grey bushy eyebrows meeting over his nose, wandered, with the gait of a heedless pair of compasses, across from his own shop to Redford the bookseller's, at whose door a small group was already gathered.

"Well, Wattie," said Captain Clashmach, "how goes the world with you?"

"Muckle the same's wi' yersel', Captain, and the doctor there," answered Wattie with a grin. "Whan the time's guid for ither fowk, it's but sae sae for you and me. I haena had a watch come in for a haill ook (week)."

"Hoo de ye accoont for that, Mr Sim?" asked a shoemaker who stood near without belonging to the group.

"It's the ile, man, the ile. Half the mischeef o' watches is the ile."

"But I don't see," said the doctor, "how that can be, Sim."

"Weel, ye see, sir," answered Wattie-and the words seemed somehow to have come tumbling silently down over the ridge of his nose, before he caught them in his mouth and articulated them-"ye see, sir, watches is delicat things. They're not to be traitet like fowk's insides wi' onything 'at comes first. Gin I cud jist get the middle half-pint oot o' the hert o' a hogsheid o' sperm ile, I wad I sud keep a' yer watches gaein like the verra universe. But it wad be an ill thing for me, ye ken. Sae maybe a' thing's for the best efter a'.-Noo, ye see, i' this het weather, the ile keeps fine an' saft, and disna clog the warks.-But losh preserves a'! What's that?"

Staring up the street towards the sunset, which coloured all their faces a red bronze, stood a group of townsfolk, momently increasing, from which, before Wattie's party could reach it, burst a general explosion of laughter. It was some moments, however, before they understood what was the matter, for the great mild sun shone full in their eyes. At length they saw, as if issuing from the huge heavy orb, a long dark line, like a sea-serpent of a hundred joints, coming down the street towards them, and soon discovered that it was a slow procession of animals. First came Mistress Stephen, Stumpin Steenie the policeman's cow, with her tail at full stretch behind her. To the end of her tail was tied the nose of Jeames Joss the cadger's horse-a gaunt sepulchral animal, which age and ill-treatment had taught to move as if knees and hocks were useless refinements in locomotion. He had just enough of a tail left to tie the nose of another cow to; and so, by the accretion of living joints, the strange monster lengthened out into the dim fiery distance.

When Mrs Stephen reached the square, she turned to lead her train diagonally across it, for in that direction lay her home. Moved by the same desire, the cadger's horse wanted to go in exactly the opposite direction. The cow pulled the one way, and the horse pulled the other; but the cow, having her head free, had this advantage over the horse, which was fast at both ends. So he gave in, and followed his less noble leader. Cow after horse, and horse after cow, with a majority of cows, followed, to the number of twenty or so; after which the joints began to diminish in size. Two calves were at the tail of the last cow, a little Highland one, with a sheep between them. Then came a goat belonging to Charles Chapman the wool-carder, the only goat in the place, which as often as the strain on his own tail slackened, made a butt at that of the calf in front of him. Next came a diminishing string of disreputable dogs, to the tail of the last of which was fastened the only cat the inventors of this novel pastime had been able to catch. At her tail followed-alas!-Andrew Truffey's white rabbit, whose pink eyes, now fixed and glazed, would no more delight the imagination of the poor cripple; and whose long furry hind legs would never more bang the ground in sovereign contempt, as he dared pursuit; for the dull little beast, having, with the stiffneckedness of fear, persisted in pulling against the string that tied him to the tail of Widow Wattles's great tom-cat, was now trailed ignominiously upon his side, with soiled fur and outstretched neck-the last joint, and only dead one, of this bodiless tail.

Before Mistress Stephen had reached her home, and just as the last link of the chain had appeared on the square, the mirth was raised to a yet higher pitch by the sudden rush of several women to the rescue, who had already heard the news of the ignominious abduction of their honoured kye, and their shameful exposu

re to public ridicule. Each made for her own four-footed property.

"Guid preserve's, Hawkie! are ye come to this?" cried Lucky Lapp, as she limped, still and ever lame with rheumatism, towards the third member of the procession. "Gin I had the loon that did it," she went on, fumbling, with a haste that defeated itself, at the knot that bound Hawkie's nose to the tail of the cadger's horse-"gin I had the loon 'at did it, I wad ding the sowl oot o' his wame, the villain!"

"Losh! it's my ain cat, as weel's my ain coo." screamed Lucky Wattles in twofold indignation. "Gin I cud but redd (comb) the scoonrel's heid wi' your cleuks, Baudrons!" she added, as she fondled the cat passionately, "he wadna be in sic a doom's hurry to han'le ye again, Is' wad (wager)."

By this time Stumpin' Steenie, having undone his cow's tail, was leading her home amid shouts of laughter.

"Pit her i' the lock-up, Steenie. She's been takin' up wi' ill loons," screeched an urchin.

"Haud yer ill tongue, or I s' tak' you up, ye rascal," bawled Steenie.

"Ye'll hae to saiddle Mistress Stephen afore ye can catch me, Stumpin'


Steenie, inflamed with sudden wrath, forsook the cow, and made an elephantine rush at the offender, who vanished in the crowd, and thus betrayed the constable to another shout of laughter.

While the laugh was yet ringing, the burly figure of the stonemason appeared, making his way by the momentum of great bulk and slow motion to the front of the crowd. Without a word to any one, he drew a knife from his pocket, and proceeded to cut every cord that bound the helpless animals, the people staring silent all the while.

It was a sight to see how the dogs scampered off in the delight of their recovered freedom. But the rabbit lay where the cat had left him. Thomas took it with some sign of tenderness, and holding it up in his huge hand, put the question to the crowd in general.

"Wha's aucht this?"

"It's cripple Truffey's?" piped a shrill little voice.

"Tell him 'at I'll account for't," rejoined Thomas, and putting the animal in his pocket, departed.

He took the nearest way to George Macwha's workshop, where he found Alec and Curly, as he had expected, busy or appearing to be busy about something belonging to their boat. They looked considerably hotter, however, than could be accounted for by their work. This confirmed Thomas's suspicions.

"A fine ploy yon for a young gentleman, Alec!" said he.

"What ploy, Thomas?" asked Alec, with attempted innocence.

"Ye ken weel eneuch what ploy I mean, man."

"Weel, supposin' I do-there's nae that muckle hairm dune, to mak' a wark aboot, surely, Thomas."

"Ca' ye that no hairm?" rejoined Thomas, pulling the dead rabbit out of his pocket, and holding it up by the ears. "Ca' ye that no hairm?" he repeated.

Alec stared in dismay. Thomas well knew his regard for animals, and had calculated upon it.

"Luik at the puir thing wi' its bonny reid een closed for ever! It's a mercy to think 'at there's no lemin' and lowin' (blazing and flaming) future in store for hit, puir mappy (bunny)!"

"Hoot, hoot, Thamas, man! Isna that bein' richteous overmuch, as oor minister wad say?"

The question came in the husky voice of Peter Whaup, the blacksmith, who was now discovered leaning in over the half-door of the shop.

"And wha's your minister, Peter, my man?" retorted Thomas, with some acrimony.

"Mr Cooie, as ye weel ken, Thamas."

"I thoucht as muckle. The doctrine savours o' the man, Peter. There's no fear o' him or ony o' his followers bein' richteous over-much."

"Weel, ye ken, that's naething but a rabbit i' yer han'. It wad hae been worried some day. Hoo cam' 't by 'ts deith?"

"I didna mean to kill't. 'Twas a' for fun, ye ken," said Alec, addressing Thomas.

"There's a heap o' fun," answered Thomas with solemnity, "that carries deith i' the tail o' 't. Here's the puir cripple laddie's rabbit as deid's a herrin', and him at hame greetin' his een oot, I daursay."

Alec caught up his cap and made for the door.

"I'll gang and see him. Curly, wha has ony rabbits to sell?"

"Doddles's cleckit aboot a month ago."

"Whaur does Doddles bide?"

"I'll lat ye see."

The boys were hurrying together from the shop, when Thomas caught Alec by the arm.

"Ye canna restore the rabbit, Alec."

"Hoot! Thamas, ae rabbit's as guid's anither," interposed the smith, in a tone indicating disapprobation, mingled with a desire to mollify.

"Ay-to them 'at cares for neither. But there's sic a thing as a human election, as weel's a divine ane; an' ane's no the same's anither, ance it's a chosen ane."

"Weel, I pity them 'at the Lord has no pity upo'," sighed the smith, with a passing thought of his own fits of drinking.

"Gang ye and try him. He may hae pity upo' you-wha kens?" said Thomas, as he followed Alec, whom he had already released, out of the shop.

"Ye see, Alec," he resumed in a low voice, when they were in the open air-Curly going on before them, "it's time 'at ye was growin' a man, and pittin' awa' childish things. Yer mither 'll be depen'in' upo' you, or lang, to haud things gaein'; and ye ken gin ye negleck yer chance at the school, yer time'll no come ower again. Man, ye sud try to do something for conscience-sake. Hae ye learnt yer lessons for the morn, noo?"

"No, Thomas. But I will. I'm jist gaein' to buy a pair o' rabbits to

Truffey; and syne I'll gang hame."

"There's a guid lad. Ye'll be a comfort till yer mither some day yet."

With these words, Thomas turned and left them.

There had been a growing, though it was still a vague sense, in Alec's mind, that he was not doing well; and this rebuke of Thomas Crann brought it full into the light of his own consciousness. From that day he worked better. Mr Malison saw the change, and acknowledged it. This reacted on Alec's feeling for the master; and during the following winter he made three times the progress he had made in any winter preceding.

For the sea of summer ebbed away, and the rocky channels of the winter appeared, with its cold winds, its ghost-like mists, and the damps and shiverings that cling about the sepulchre in which Nature lies sleeping. The boat was carefully laid up, across the rafters of the barn, well wrapped in a shroud of tarpaulin. It was buried up in the air; and the Glamour on which it had floated so gaily, would soon be buried under the ice. Summer alone could bring them together again-the one from the dry gloom of the barn, the other from the cold seclusion of its wintry hebetude.

Meantime Mrs Forbes was somewhat troubled in her mind as to what should be done with Alec; and she often talked with the schoolmaster about him. Herself of higher birth, socially considered, than her husband, she had the ambition that her son should be educated for some profession. Now in Scotland education is more easily got than almost anything else; and whether there might be room for the exercise of the profession afterwards, was a matter of less moment to Mrs Forbes, seeing she was not at all willing that the farm which had been in her husband's family for hundreds of years, should pass into the hands of strangers, and Alec himself had the strongest attachment to the ancestral soil; for to be loved it is not necessary that land should be freehold. At length his increased diligence, which had not escaped her observation, and was testified to by Mr Malison, confirmed her determination that he should at least go to college. He would be no worse a farmer for having an A.M. after his name; while the curriculum was common to all the professions. So it was resolved that, in the following winter, he should compete for a bursary.

The communication that his fate lay in that direction roused Alec still more. Now that an ulterior object rendered them attractive, he turned his attention to the classics with genuine earnestness; and, on a cloudy day in the end of October, found himself on the box-seat of the Royal Mail, with his trunk on the roof behind him, bound for a certain city whose advantages are not confined to the possession of a university.

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