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   Chapter 38 No.38

Alec Forbes of Howglen By George MacDonald Characters: 16159

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Meantime, at Glamerton the winter passed very much like former winters to all but three-Mrs Forbes, Annie Anderson, and Willie Macwha. To these the loss of Alec was dreary. So they were in a manner compelled to draw closer together. At school, Curly assumed the protectorship of Annie which had naturally devolved upon him, although there was now comparatively little occasion for its exercise; and Mrs Forbes, finding herself lonely in her parlour during the long forenights, got into the habit of sending Mary at least three times a week to fetch her. This was not agreeable to the Bruce, but the kingly inheritor abode his hour; and Mrs Forbes had no notion of the amount of offence she gave by doing so.

That parlour at Howglen was to Annie a little heaven hollowed out of the winter. The warm curtains drawn, and the fire blazing defiantly,-the angel with the flaming sword to protect their Paradise from the frost, it was indeed a contrast to the sordid shop, and the rat-haunted garret.

After tea they took it in turns to work and to read. Mrs Forbes had never sought to satisfy the religious public as to the state of her mind, and so had never been led astray into making frantic efforts to rouse her own feelings; which is, in fact, to apply to them the hottest searing iron of all, next to that of sin. Hence her emotional touch remained delicate, and what she could understand she could feel. The good books she liked best were stories of the Scotch Covenanters and Worthies, whose example, however much of stiff-neckedness may have mingled with their devotion, was yet the best that Annie could have, inasmuch as they were simply martyrs-men who would not say yes when they ought to say no. Nor was Mrs Forbes too religious to enjoy the representation given of these Covenanters in Old Mortality. Her feelings found nothing repulsive in the book, although she never discovered the reason in the fact that Sir Walter's feelings were the same as her own, whatever his opinions might be, and had given the chief colour and tone to the representation of his characters. There were more books in the house than was usual even in that of a gentleman farmer; and several of Sir Walter's novels, besides some travels, and a little Scotch history, were read between them that winter. In poetry, Annie had to forage for herself. Mrs Forbes could lend her no guiding hand in that direction.

The bond between them grew stronger every day. Annie was to Mrs Forbes an outlet for her maternity, which could never have outlet enough without a girl as well as a boy to love; and Annie, in consequence, was surrounded by numberless holy influences, which, operating in a time when she was growing fast, had their full effect upon mind and body both. In a condition of rapid change, the mass is more yielding and responsive. One result in her was, that a certain sober grace, like that of the lovely dull-feathered hen-birds, began to manifest itself in her carriage and her ways. And this leads me to remark that her outward and visible feathers would have been dull enough had not Mrs Forbes come to her aid with dresses of her own, which they remade between them; for it will easily be believed that no avoidable outlay remained unavoided by the Bruces. Indeed, but for the feeling that she must be decent on Sundays, they would have let her go yet shabbier than she was when Mrs Forbes thus partially adopted her. Now that she was warmly and neatly dressed, she began to feel and look more like the lady-child she really was. No doubt the contrast was very painful when she returned from Mrs Forbes's warm parlour to sleep in her own garret, with the snow on the roof, scanty clothing on the bed, and the rats in the floor. But there are two sides to a contrast; and it is wonderful also how one gets through what one cannot get out of.

A certain change in the Bruce-habits, leading to important results for

Annie, must now be recorded.

Robert Bruce was making money, but not so fast as he wished. For his returns came only in small sums, although the profits were great. His customers were chiefly of the poorer classes of the town and the neighbourhood, who preferred his unpretending shop to the more showy establishments of some of his rivals. A sort of couthy, pauky, confidentially flattering way that he had with them, pleased them, and contributed greatly to keep them true to his counter. And as he knew how to buy as well as how to sell, the poor people, if they had not the worth of their money, had at least what was good of its sort. But, as I have said, although he was making haste to be rich, he was not succeeding fast enough. So he bethought him that the Missionar Kirk was getting "verra throng."

A month or two before this time, the Missionars had made choice of a very able man for their pastor-a man of genuine and strong religious feeling, who did not allow his theology to interfere with the teaching given him by God's Spirit more than he could help, and who, if he had been capable of making a party at all, would have made it with the poor against the rich. This man had gathered about him a large congregation of the lower classes of Glamerton; and Bruce had learned with some uneasiness that a considerable portion of his customers was to be found in the Missionar Kirk on Sundays, especially in the evenings. For there was a grocer amongst the Missionars, who, he feared, might draw some of his subjects away from their allegiance, seeing he must have a certain religious influence of which Robert was void, to bring to bear upon them. What therefore remained but that he too should join the congregation? For then he would not only retain the old, but have a chance of gaining new customers as well. So he took a week to think about it, a Sunday to hear Mr Turnbull in order that the change might not seem too abrupt, and a pew under the gallery before the next Sunday arrived; in which, five minutes before the hour, he and his family were seated, adding greatly to the consequence both of the place and of himself in the eyes of his Missionar customers.

This change was a source of much pleasure to Annie. For although she found the service more wearisome than good Mr Cowie's, lasting as it did about three quarters of an hour longer and the sermon was not invariably of a kind in which she could feel much interest, yet, occasionally, when Mr Turnbull was in his better moods, and testified of that which he had himself seen and known, the honest heart of the maiden recognized the truth, and listened absorbed. The young Bruces, for their parts, would gladly have gone to sleep, which would perhaps have been the most profitable use to which they could put the time; but they were kept upright and in a measure awake, by the constant application, "spikewise," of the paternal elbow, and the judicious administration, on the part of the mother, of the unfailing peppermint lozenges, to which in the process of ages a certain sabbatical character has attached itself. To Annie, however, no such ministration extended, for it would have been downright waste, seeing she could keep awake without it.

One bright frosty morning, the sermon happening to have no relation to the light around or within them, but only to the covenant made with Abraham-such a legal document constituting the only reliable protection against the character, inclinations, and duties of the Almighty, whose uncovenanted mercies are of a very doubtful nature-Annie, neither able to enter into the subject, nor to keep from shivering with the cold, tried to amuse herself with gazing at one brilliant sun-streak on the wall, which she had discovered to be gradually shortening itself, and retreating towards the window by which it had entered. Wondering how far it would have moved before the sermon was over, and whether it would have shone so very bright if God had made no covenant with Abraham, she was earnestly watching it pass from spot to spot, and from cobweb to cobweb, as if already it fled before the coming darkness of the long winter ni

ght, when she caught a glimpse of a very peculiar countenance turned in the same direction-that is, not towards the minister, but towards this travelling light. She thought the woman was watching it as well as she, and wondered whether she too was hoping for a plate of hot broth as soon as the sunbeam had gone a certain distance-broth being the Sunday fare with the Bruces-and, I presume, with most families in Scotland. The countenance was very plain, seamed and scarred as if the woman had fallen into the fire when a child; and Annie had not looked at her two seconds, before she saw that she was perfectly blind. Indeed she thought at first that she had no eyes at all; but as she kept gazing, fascinated with the strangeness and ugliness of the face, she discovered that the eyelids, though incapable of separating, were inconstant motion, and that a shrunken eye-ball underneath each kept rolling and turning ever, as if searching for something it could not find. She saw too that there was a light on the face, a light which came neither from the sun in the sky, nor the sunbeam on the wall, towards which it was unconsciously turned. I think it must have been the heavenly bow itself, shining upon all human clouds-a bow that had shone for thousands of ages before ever there was an Abraham, or a Noah, or any other of our faithless generation, which will not trust its God unless he swear that he will not destroy them. It was the ugliest face. But over it, as over the rugged channel of a sea, flowed the transparent waves of a heavenly delight.

When the service was over, almost before the words of the benediction had left the minister's lips, the people, according to Scotch habit, hurried out of the chapel, as if they could not possibly endure one word more. But Annie, who was always put up to the top of the pew, because there, by reason of an intruding pillar, it required a painful twist of the neck to see the minister, stood staring at the blind woman as she felt her way out of the chapel. There was no fear of putting her out by staring at her. When, at length, she followed her into the open air, she found her standing by the door, turning her sightless face on all sides, as if looking for some one and trying hard to open her eyes that she might see better. Annie watched her, till, seeing her lips move, she knew, half by instinct, that she was murmuring, "The bairn's forgotten me!" Thereupon she glided up to her and said gently:

"If ye'll tell me whaur ye bide, I s' tak ye hame."

"What do they ca' you, bairn?" returned the blind woman, in a gruff, almost manlike voice, hardly less unpleasant to hear than her face was to look at.

"Annie Anderson," answered Annie.

"Ow, ay! I thoucht as muckle. I ken a' aboot ye. Gie's a haud o' yer han'. I bide i' that wee hoosie down at the brig, atween the dam and the Glamour, ye ken. Ye'll haud me aff o' the stanes?"

"Ay will I." answered Annie confidently.

"I could gang my lane, but I'm growin some auld noo, and I'm jist raither feared for fa'in'."

"What garred ye think it was me-I never spak till ye afore?" asked

Annie, as they walked on together.

"Weel, it's jist half guissin', an' half a kin' o' jeedgment-pittin things thegither, ye ken, my bairn. Ye see, I kent a' the bairns that come to oor kirk weel eneuch already. I ken the word and amaist the fit o' them. And I had heard tell 'at Maister Bruce was come to oor kirk. Sae when a lassie spak till me 'at I never saw afore, I jist a kin' o' kent 'at it bude to be yersel'."

All this was spoken in the same harsh voice, full of jars, as if ever driving against corners, and ready to break into a hoarse whisper. But the woman held Annie's hand kindly, and yielded like a child to her guidance which was as careful as that of the angel that led Peter.

It was a new delight to Annie to have some one to whom she a child could be a kind of mother, towards whom she could fulfil a woman's highest calling-that of ministering unto; and it was with something of a sacred pride that she led her safe home, through the snowy streets, and down the steep path that led from the level of the bridge, with its three high stone arches, to the little meadow where her cottage stood. Before they reached it, the blind woman, whose name was Tibbie (Isobel) Dyster, had put many questions to her, and without asking one indiscreet, had yet, by her gift for fitting and fusing things in the retort of her own brain, come to a tolerably correct knowledge of her character, circumstances, and history.

As soon as they entered the cottage, Tibbie was entirely at her ease. The first thing she did was to lift the kettle from the fire, and feel the fire with her hands in order to find out in what condition it was. She would not allow Annie to touch it: she could not trust the creature that had nothing but eyes to guide her, with such a delicate affair. Her very hands looked blind and trying to see, as, with fine up-curved tips, they went wandering over the tops of the live peats. She re-arranged them, put on some fresh pieces, blew a little at them all astray and to no purpose, was satisfied, coughed, and sank upon a chair, to put her bonnet off. Most women of her station wore only a mutch or close cap, but Tibbie wore a bonnet with a brilliantly gay ribbon, so fond was she of bright colours, although she had nothing but the testimony of others, vague enough ere it succeeded in crossing the dark distances of her brain, as to the effect of those even with which she adorned her own person. Her room was very bare, but as clean as it was possible for room to be. Her bed was in the wall which divided it from the rest of the house, and this one room was her whole habitation. The other half of the cottage was occupied by an old cripple, nearly bedridden, to whose many necessities Tibbie used to minister. The eyes of the one and the legs of the other worked in tolerable harmony; and if they had a quarrel now and then, it was no greater than gave a zest to their intercourse. These particulars, however, Annie did not learn till afterwards.

She looked all about the room, and seeing no sign of any dinner for Tibbie, was reminded thereby that her own chance had considerably diminished.

"I maun awa hame," she said with a sigh.

"Ay, lassie; they'll be bidin' their denner for ye."

"Na, nae fear o' that," answered Annie, adding with another little sigh, "I doot there winna be muckle o' the broth to the fore or I win hame."

"Weel jist bide, bairn, an' tak' a cup o' tay wi' me. It's a' 'at I hae to offer ye. Will ye bide?"

"Maybe I wad be i' yer gait," objected Annie feebly.

"Na, na; nae fear o' that. Ye'll read a bit to me efterhin."

"Ay will I."

And Annie stayed all the afternoon with Tibbie, and went home with the Bruces after the evening service. This was the beginning of her acquaintance with Tibbie Dyster.

It soon grew into a custom for Annie to take Tibbie home from the chapel-a custom which the Bruces could hardly have objected to, had they been so inclined. But they were not so inclined, for it saved the broth-that is, each of them got a little more in consequence, and Annie's absence was therefore a Sabbath blessing.

Much as she was neglected at home, however, Annie was steadily gaining a good reputation in the town. Old men said she was a gude bairn, and old women said she was a douce lassie; while those who enjoyed finding fault more than giving praise, turned their silent approbation of Annie into expressions of disapproval of the Bruces-"lattin' her gang like a beggar, as gin she was no kith or kin o' theirs, whan it's weel kent whase heifer Rob Bruce is plooin' wi'."

But Robert nevertheless grew and prospered all day, and dreamed at night that he was the king, digging the pits for the English cavalry, and covering them again with the treacherous turf. Somehow the dream never went further. The field and the kingship would vanish and he only remain, the same Robert Bruce, the general dealer, plotting still, but in his own shop.

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