"Annie!" he called, opening the inner door, as he returned behind the counter.
Annie, who was up-stairs in her own room, immediately appeared.
"Annie," he said, "rin oot at the back door, and through the yard, and ower to Laurie Lumley's, and tell him to come ower to me direckly. Dinna come back withoot him. There's a guid bairn!"
He sent her upon this message, knowing well enough that the man had gone into the country that day, and that there was no one at his house who would be likely to know where he had gone. He hoped, therefore, that she would go and look for him in the town, and so be absent during her aunt's visit.
"Weel, Marget," he said, with his customary greeting, in which the foreign oil sought to overcome the home-bred vinegar, "hoo are ye the day?"
"Ow! nae that ill," answered Marget with a sigh.
"And hoo's Mr and Mistress Peterson?"
"Brawly. Hoo's Annie comin' on?"
"Nae that ill. She's some royt (riotous) jist."
He thought to please her by the remark, because she had been in the habit of saying so herself. But distance had made Annie dearer; and her aunt's nose took fire with indignation, as she replied:
"The lassie's weel eneuch. I saw naething o' the sort aboot her. Gin ye canna guide her, that's your wyte."
Bruce was abashed, but not confounded. He was ready in a moment.
"I never kent ony guid come o' bein' ower sair upo' bairns," said he. "She's as easy guidit as a coo gaein' hame at nicht, only ye maun jist lat her ken that ye're there, ye ken."
"Ow! ay," said Marget, a little nonplussed in her turn.
"Wad ye like to see her?"
"What ither did I come for?"
"Weel, I s' gang and luik for her."
He went to the back door, and called aloud: "Annie, yer auntie's here and wants to see ye."
"She'll be here in a minute," he said to Marget, as he re-entered the shop.
After a little more desultory conversation, he pretended to be surprised that she she did not make her appearance, and going once more to the door, called her name several times. He then pretended to search for her in the garden and all over the house, and returned with the news that she was nowhere to be seen.
"She's feared that ye're come to tak her wi' ye, and she's run awa oot aboot some gait. I'll sen' the laddies to luik for her."
"Na, na, never min'. Gin she disna want to see me, I'm sure I needna want to see her. I'll awa doon the toon," said Margaret, her face growing very red as she spoke.
She bustled out of the shop, too angry with Annie to say farewell to Bruce. She had not gone far, however, before Annie came running out of a narrow close, almost into her aunt's arms. But there was no refuge for her there.
"Ye little limmer!" cried Margaret, seizing her by the shoulder, "what gart ye rin awa'? I dinna want ye, ye brat!"
"I didna rin awa', Auntie."
"Robert Bruce cried on ye to come in, himsel'."
"It wis himsel' that sent me to Laurie Lumley's to tell him to come till him direckly."
Margaret could not make "head or tail" of it. But as Annie had never told her a lie, she could not doubt her. So taking time to think about it, she gave her some rough advice and a smooth penny, and went away on her errands. She was not long in coming to the conclusion that Bruce wanted to sunder her and the child; and this offended her so much, that she did not go near the shop for a long time. Thus Annie was forsaken, and Bruce had what he wanted.
He needed not have been so full of scheming, though. Annie never said a word to her aunt about their treatment of her. It is one of the marvels in the constitution of children, how much they will bear without complaining. Parents and guardians have no right to suppose that all is well in the nursery or school-room, merely from the fact that the children do not complain. Servants and tutors may be cruel, and children will be silent—partly, I presume, because they forget so soon.
But vengeance of a sort soon overtook Robert Bruce the younger; for the evil spirit in him, derived from no such remote ancestor as the king, would not allow him a long respite from evil-doing, even in school. He knew Annie better than his father, that she was not likely to complain of anything, and that the only danger lay in the chance of being discovered in the deed. One day when the master had left the room to confer with some visitor at the door, he spied Annie in the act of tying her shoe. Perceiving, as he believed, at a glance, that Alec Forbes was totally unobservant, he gave her an ignominious push from behind, which threw her out on her face in the middle of the floor. But Alec did catch sight of him in the very deed, was down upon him in a moment, and, having already proved that a box on the ear was of no lasting effect, gave him a downright good thrashing. He howled vigorously, partly from pain, partly in the hope that the same consequences as before would overtake Forbes; and therefore was still howling when Mr Malison re-entered.
"Robert Bruce, come up," bawled he, the moment he opened the door.
And Robert Bruce went up, and notwithstanding his protestations, received a second, and far more painful punishment from the master, who, perhaps, had been put out of temper by his visitor. But there is no good in speculating on that or any other possibility in the matter; for, as far at least as the boys could see, the master had no fixed principle as to the party on whom the punishment should fall. Punishment, in his eyes, was perhaps enough in itself. If he was capable of seeing that punishment, as he called it, falling on the wrong person, was not punishment, but only suffering, certainly he had not seen the value of the distinction.
If Bruce howled before, he howled tenfold now, and went home howling. Annie was sorry for him, and tried to say a word of comfort to him; but he repelled her advances with hatred and blows. As soon as he reached the shop he told his father that Forbes had beaten him without his having even spoken to him, which was as correct as it was untrue, and that the master had taken Forbes's part, and licked him over again, of which latter assertion there was proof enough on his person. Robert the elder was instantly filled with smouldering wrath, and from that moment hated Alec Forbes. For, like many others of low nature, he had yet some animal affection for his children, combined with an endless amount of partisanship on their behalf, which latter gave him a full right to the national motto of Scotland. Indeed, for nothing in the world but money, would he have sacrificed what seemed to him their interests.
A man must learn to love his children, not because they are his, but because they are children, else his love will be scarcely a better thing at last than the party-spirit of the faithful politician. I doubt if it will prove even so good a thing.
From this hatred to Alec Forbes came some small consequences at length. But for the present it found no outlet save in sneers and prophetic hints of an "ill hinner en'."
In her inmost heart Annie dedicated herself to the service of Alec Forbes. Nor was it long before she had an opportunity of helping him.
One Saturday the master made his appearance in black instead of white stockings, which was regarded by the scholars as a bad omen; and fully were their prognostications justified, on this occasion, at least. The joy of the half-holiday for Scotch boys and girls has a terrible weight laid in the opposite scale—I mean the other half of the day. This weight, which brings the day pretty much on a level with all other days, consists in a free use of the Shorter Catechism. This, of course, made them hate the Catechism, though I am not aware that that was of any great consequence, or much to be regretted. For my part, I wish the spiritual engineers who constructed it had, after laying the grandest foundation-stone that truth could afford them, glorified God by going no further. Certainly many a man would have enjoyed Him sooner, if it had not been for their work. But, alas! the Catechism was not enough, even of the kind. The tormentors of youth had gone further, and provided what they called Scripture proofs of the various assertions of the Catechism; a support of which it stood greatly in need. Alas! I say, for the boys and girls who had to learn these proofs, called texts of Scripture, but too frequently only morsels torn bleeding and shapeless from "the lovely form of the Virgin Truth!" For these tasks, combined with the pains and penalties which accompanied failure, taught them to dislike the Bible as well as the Catechism, and that was a matter of altogether different import.
Every Saturday, then, Murdoch Malison's pupils had to learn so many questions of the Shorter Catechism, with proofs from Scripture; and whoever failed in this task was condemmed to imprisonment for the remainder of the day, or, at least, till the task should be accomplished. The imprisonment was sometimes commuted for chastisement—or finished off with it, when it did not suit the convenience of the master to enforce the full term of a school-day. Upon certain Saturdays, moreover, one in each month, I think, a repetition was required of all the questions and proofs that had been, or ought to have been, learned since the last observance of the same sort.
Now the day in question was one of these of accumulated labour, and Alec Forbes only succeeded in bringing proof of his inability for the task, and was in consequence condemned "to be keepit in"—a trial hard enough for one whose chief delights were the open air and the active exertion of every bodily power.
Annie caught sight of his mortified countenance, the expression of which, though she had not heard his doom, so filled her with concern and indignation, that—her eyes and thoughts fixed upon him, at the other end of the class—she did not know when her turn came, but allowed the master to stand before her in bootless expectation. He did not interrupt her, but with a refinement of cruelty that ought to have done him credit in his own eyes, waited till the universal silence had at length aroused Annie to self-consciousness and a sense of annihilating confusion. Then, with a smile on his thin lips, but a lowering thunder-cloud on his brow, he repeated the question:
"What doth every sin deserve?"
Annie, bewildered, and burning with shame at finding herself the core of the silence—feeling is if her poor little spirit stood there naked to the scoffs and jeers around—could not recall a word of the answer given in the Catechism. So, in her bewilderment, she fell back on her common sense and experience, which, she ought to have known, had nothing to do with the matter in hand.
"What doth every sin deserve?" again repeated the tyrant.
"A lickin'," whimpered Annie, and burst into tears.
The master seemed much inclined to consider her condemned out of her own mouth, and give her a whipping at once; for it argued more than ignorance to answer a whipping, instead of the wrath and curse of God, &c., &c., as plainly set down in the Scotch Targum. But reflecting, perhaps, that she was a girl, and a little one, and that although it would be more gratification to him to whip her, it might be equal suffering to her to be kept in, he gave that side wave of his head which sealed the culprit's doom, and Annie took her place among the condemned, with a flutter of joy at her heart that Alec Forbes would not be left without a servant to wait upon him. A few more boys made up the unfortunate party, but they were all little ones, and so there was no companion for Forbes, who evidently felt the added degradation of being alone. The hour arrived; the school was dismissed; the master strode out, locking the door behind him; and the defaulters were left alone, to chew the bitter cud of ill-cooked Theology.
For some time a dreary silence reigned. Alec sat with his elbows on his desk, biting his nails, and gnawing his hands. Annie sat dividing her silent attention between her book and Alec. The other boys were, or seemed to be, busy with their catechisms, in the hope of getting out as soon as the master returned. At length Alec took out his knife, and began, for very vacancy, to whittle away at the desk before him. When Annie saw that, she crept across to his form, and sat down on the end of it. Alec looked up at her, smiled, and went on with his whittling. Annie slid a little nearer to him, and asked him to hear her say her catechism. He consented, and she repeated the lesson perfectly.
"Now let me hear you, Alec," she said.
"Na, thank ye, Annie. I canna say't. And I wonna say't for a' the dominies in creation."
"But he'll lick ye, Alec; an' I 'canna bide it," said Annie, the tears beginning to fill her eyes.
"Weel, I'll try—to please you, Annie," said Alec, seeing that the little thing was in earnest.
How her heart bounded with delight! That great boy, so strong and so brave, trying to learn a lesson to please her!
But it would not do.
"I canna min' a word o' 't, Annie. I'm dreidfu' hungry, forbye. I was in a hurry wi' my brakfast the day. Gin I had kent what was comin', I wad hae laid in a better stock," he added, laughing rather drearily.
As he spoke he looked up; and his eyes wandered from one window to another for a few moments after he had ceased speaking.
"Na; it's no use," he resumed at last. "I hae eaten ower muckle for that, ony gait."
Annie was as pitiful over Alec's hunger as any mother over her child's. She felt it pure injustice that he should ever be hungry. But, unable to devise any help, she could only say,
"I dinna ken what ye mean, Alec."
"Whan I was na bigger than you, Annie, I could win oot at a less hole than that," answered he, and pointed to the open wooden pane in an upper corner of one the windows; "but I hae eaten ower muckle sin syne."
And he laughed again; but it was again an unsuccessful laugh.
Annie sprang to her feet.
"Gin ye could win throu that hole ance, I can win throu't noo, Alec. Jist haud me up a bit. Ye can lift me, ye ken."
And she looked up at him shyly and gratefully.
"But what will ye do when ye are oot, Annie?"
"Rin hame, and fess a loaf wi' me direckly."
"But Rob Bruce'll see yer heid atween yer feet afore he'll gie ye a loaf, or a mou'fu' o' cakes either; an' it's ower far to rin to my mither's. Murdoch wad be back lang or that."
"Jist help me oot, an' lea' the lave to me," said Annie, confidently. "Gin I dinna fess a loaf o' white breid, never lippen (trust) to me again."
The idea of the bread, always a rarity and consequent delicacy to Scotch country boys, so early in the century as the date of my story, was too much for Alec's imagination. He jumped up, and put his head out of one of those open panes to reconnoitre. He saw a woman approaching whom he knew.
"I say, Lizzie," he called.
The woman stopped.
"What's yer wull, Maister Alec?"
"Jist stan' there an' pu' this lassie oot. We're a' keepit in thegither, and nearhan' hungert."
"The Lord preserve 's! I'll gang for the key."
"Na, na; we wad hae to pay for that. Tak her oot—that's a' we want."
"He's a coorse crayter—that maister o' yours. I wad gang to see him hangt."
"Bide a wee; that'll come in guid time," said Alec, pseudo-prophetically.
"Weel I s' hae a pu' at the legs o' him, to help him to jeedgement; for he'll be the deith o' ane or twa o' ye afore lang."
"Never min' Murder Malison. Will ye tak oot the bit lassie?"
"Od will I! Whaur is she?"
Alec jumped down and held her up to the open pane, not a foot square. He told her to put her arms through first. Then between them they got her head through, whereupon Lizzie caught hold of her—so low was the school-room—and dragged her out, and set her on her feet. But alas, a window was broken in the process!
"Noo, Annie," cried Alec, "never min' the window. Rin."
She was off like a live bullet.
She scampered home prepared to encounter all dangers. The worst of them all to her mind was the danger of not succeeding, and of so breaking faith with Alec. She had sixpence of her own in coppers in her box,—the only difficulty was to get into the house and out again without being seen. By employing the utmost care and circumspection, she got in by the back or house door unperceived, and so up to her room. In a moment more the six pennies were in her hand, and she in the street; for she did not use the same amount of precaution in getting out again, not minding discovery so much now, if she could only have a fair start. No one followed her, however. She bolted into a baker's shop.
"A saxpenny-loaf," she panted out.
"Wha wants it?" asked the baker's wife.
"There's the bawbees," answered Annie, laying them on the counter.
The baker's wife gave her the loaf, with the biscuit which, from time immemorial, had always graced a purchase to the amount of sixpence; and Annie sped back to the school like a runaway horse to his stable.
As she approached, out popped the head of Alec Forbes. He had been listening for the sound of her feet. She held up the loaf as high as she could, and he stretched down as low as he could, and so their hands met on the loaf.
"Thank ye, Annie," said Alec with earnestness. "I shanna forget this. Hoo got ye't?"
"Never ye min' that. I didna steal't," answered Annie. "But I maun win in again," she added, suddenly awaking to that difficult necessity, and looking up at the window above her head.
"I'm a predestined idiot!" said Alec, with an impious allusion to the Shorter Catechism, as he scratched his helpless head. "I never thocht o' that."
It was clearly impossible.
"Ye'll catch't," said one of the urchins to Annie, with his nose flattened against the window.
The roses of Annie's face turned pale, but she answered stoutly,
"Weel! I care as little as the lave o' ye, I'm thinkin'."
By this time the "idiot" had made up his mind. He never could make up any other than a bull-headed mind.
"Rin hame, Annie," he said; "and gin Murder offers to lay a finger o' ye upo' Monday, I'll murder him. Faith! I'll kill him. Rin hame afore he comes and catches ye at the window."
"No, no, Alec," pleaded Annie.
"Haud yer tongue," interrupted Alec, "and rin, will ye?"
Seeing he was quite determined, Annie, though loath to leave him, and in terror of what was implied in the threats he uttered against the master and might be involved in the execution of them, obeyed him and walked leisurely home, avoiding the quarters in which there was a chance of meeting her gaoler.
She found that no one had observed her former visit; the only remarks made being some goody ones about the disgrace of being kept in.
When Mr Malison returned to the school about four o'clock, he found all quiet as death. The boys appeared totally absorbed in committing the Shorter Catechism, as if the Shorter Catechism was a sin, which perhaps it was not. But, to his surprise, which he pretended to be considerably greater than it really was, the girl was absent.
"Where is Ann Anderson?" were the first words he condescended to utter.
"Gane hame," cried two of the little prisoners.
"Gone home!" echoed the master in a tone of savage incredulity; although not only was it plain that she was gone, but he must have known well enough, from former experience, how her escape had been effected.
"Yes," said Forbes; "it was me made her go. I put her out at the window. And I broke the window," he added, knowing that it must soon be found out, "but I'll get it mended on Monday."
Malison turned as white as a sheet with venomous rage. Indeed, the hopelessness of the situation had made Alec speak with too much nonchalance.
Anxious to curry favour, the third youngster now called out,
"Sandy Forbes gart her gang an' fess a loaf o' white breid."
Of this bread, the wretched informer had still some of the crumbs sticking to his jacket—so vitiating is the influence of a reign of terror. The bread was eaten, and the giver might be betrayed in the hope of gaining a little favour with the tyrant.
"Alexander Forbes, come up."
Beyond this point I will not here prosecute the narrative.
Alec bore his punishment with great firmness, although there were few beholders, and none of them worth considering. After he had spent his wrath, the master allowed them all to depart without further reference to the Shorter Catechism.
The Sunday following was anything but a day of repose for Annie—she looked with such frightful anticipation to the coming Monday. Nor was the assurance with which Alec Forbes had sent her away, and which she was far from forgetting, by any means productive of unmingled consolation; for, in a conflict with such a power of darkness as Mr Malison, how could Alec, even if sure to be victorious as any knight of old story, come off without injury terrible and not to be contemplated! Yet, strange to tell—or was it really strange?—as she listened to the evening sermon, a sermon quietly and gently enforcing the fate of the ungodly, it was not with exultation at the tardy justice that would overtake such men as Murdock Malison or Robert Bruce, nor yet with pity for their fate, that she listened; but with anxious heart-aching fear for her friend, the noble, the generous Alec Forbes, who withstood authority, and was therefore in danger of hell-fire. About her own doom, speculation was uninteresting.
The awful morning dawned. When she woke, and the thought of what she had to meet came back on her, though it could hardly be said to have been a moment absent all night long, she turned, not metaphorically, but physically sick. Yet breakfast time would come, and worship did not fail to follow, and then to school she must go. There all went on as usual for some time. The Bible-class was called up, heard, and dismissed; and Annie was beginning to hope that the whole affair was somehow or other wrapt up and laid by. She had heard nothing of Alec's fate after she had left him imprisoned, and except a certain stoniness in his look, which a single glance discovered, his face gave no sign. She dared not lift her eyes from the spelling-book before her, to look in the direction of the master. No murderer could have felt more keenly as if all the universe were one eye, and that eye fixed on him, than Annie.
Suddenly the awful voice resounded through the school, and the words it uttered—though even after she heard them it seemed too terrible to be true—were,
"Ann Anderson, come up."
For a moment she lost consciousness—or at least memory. When she recovered herself, she found herself standing before the master. His voice seemed to have left two or three unanswered questions somewhere in her head. What they were she had no idea. But presently he spoke again, and, from the tone, what he said was evidently the repetition of a question—probably put more than once before.
"Did you, or did you not, go out at the window on Saturday?"
She did not see that Alec Forbes had left his seat, and was slowly lessening the distance between them and him.
"Yes," she answered, trembling from head to foot.
"Did you, or did you not, bring a loaf of bread to those who were kept in?"
"Where did you get it?"
"I bought it, sir."
"Where did you get the money?"
Of course every eye in the school was fixed upon her, those of her cousins sparkling with delight.
"I got it oot o' my ain kist, sir."
"Hold up your hand."
Annie obeyed, with a most pathetic dumb terror pleading in her face.
"Don't touch her," said Alec Forbes, stepping between the executioner and his victim. "You know well enough it was all my fault. I told you so on Saturday."
Murder Malison, as the boys called him, turned with the tawse over his shoulder, whence it had been on the point of swooping upon Annie, and answered him with a hissing blow over his down-bent head, followed by a succession of furious blows upon every part of his person, as it twisted and writhed and doubled; till, making no attempt at resistance, he was knocked down by the storm, and lay prostrate under the fierce lashes, the master holding him down with one foot, and laying on with the whole force of the opposite arm. At length Malison stopped, exhausted, and turning, white with rage, towards Annie, who was almost in a fit with agony, repeated the order:
"Hold up your hand."
But as he turned Alec bounded to his feet, his face glowing, and his eyes flashing, and getting round in front, sprang at the master's throat, just as the tawse was descending. Malison threw him off, and lifting his weapon once more, swept it with a stinging lash round his head and face. Alec, feeling that this was no occasion on which to regard the rules of fair fight, stooped his head, and rushed, like a ram, or a negro, full tilt against the pit of Malison's stomach, and doubling him up, sent him with a crash into the peat fire which was glowing on the hearth. In the attempt to save himself, he thrust his hand right into it, and Alec and Annie were avenged.
Alec rushed to drag him off the fire; but he was up before he reached him.
"Go home!" he bawled to the scholars generally, and sat down at his desk to hide his suffering.
For one brief moment there was silence. Then a tumult arose, a shouting, and holloing, and screeching, and the whole school rushed to the door, as if the devil had been after them to catch the hindmost. Strange uproar invaded the ears of Glamerton—strange, that is, at eleven o'clock in the forenoon of Monday—the uproar of jubilant freedom.
But the culprits, Annie and Alec, stood and stared at the master, whose face was covered with one hand, while the other hung helpless at his side. Annie stopped partly out of pity for the despot, and partly because Alec stopped. Alec stopped because he was the author of the situation—at least he never could give any better reason.
At length Mr Malison lifted his head, and made a movement towards his hat. He started when he saw the two standing there. But the moment he looked at them their courage failed them.
"Rin, Annie!" said Alec.
Away she bolted, and he after her, as well as he could, which was not with his usual fleetness by any means. When Annie had rounded a corner, not in the master's way home, she stopped, and looked back for Alec. He was a good many paces behind her; and then first she discovered the condition of her champion. For now that the excitement was over, he could scarcely walk, and evidence in kind was not wanting that from head to foot he must be one mass of wales and bruises. He put his hand on her shoulder to help him along, and made no opposition to her accompanying him as far as the gate of his mother's garden, which was nearly a mile from the town, on the further bank of one of the rivers watering the valley-plain in which Glamerton had stood for hundreds of years. Then she went slowly home, bearing with her the memory of the smile which, in spite of pain, had illuminated his tawse-waled cheeks, as she took her leave.
"Good-bye, dear Alec!" she had said.
"Good-bye, Annie dear," he had answered, with the smile; and she had watched him crawl into the house before she turned away.
When she got home, she saw at once, from the black looks of the Bruce, that the story, whether in its trite shape or not, had arrived before her.
Nothing was said, however, till after worship; when Bruce gave her a long lecture, as impressive as the creature was capable of making it, on the wickedness and certain punishment of "takin' up wi' ill loons like Sandy Forbes, wha was brakin' his mither's hert wi' his baad behaviour." But he came to the conclusion, as he confided to his wife that night, that the lassie "was growin' hardent already;" probably from her being in a state of too great excitement from the events of the day to waste a tear upon his lecture; for, as she said in the hearing of the rottans, when she went up to bed, she "didna care a flee for't." But the moment she lay down she fell to weeping bitterly over the sufferings of Alec. She was asleep in a moment after, however. If it had not been for the power of sleeping that there was in the child, she must long before now have given way to the hostile influences around her, and died.
There was considerable excitement about the hearths of Glamerton, generally, in consequence of the news of the master's defeat carried home by the children. For, although it was amazing how little of the doings at school the children were in the habit of reporting—so little, indeed, that this account involved revelations of the character and proceedings of Mr Malison which appeared to many of the parents quite incredible—the present occurrence so far surpassed the ordinary, and had excited the beholders so much, that they could not be quiet about it. Various were the judgments elicited by the story. The religious portion of the community seemed to their children to side with the master; the worldly—namely, those who did not profess to be particularly religious—all sided with Alec Forbes; with the exception of a fish-cadger, who had one son, the plague of his life.
Amongst the religious, there was, at least, one exception, too; but he had no children of his own, and had a fancy for Alec Forbes. That exception was Thomas Crann, the stone-mason.
Thomas Crann was building a house; for he was both contractor—in a small way, it is true, not undertaking to do anything without the advance of a good part of the estimate—and day-labourer at his own job. Having arrived at the point in the process where the assistance of a carpenter was necessary, he went to George Macwha, whom he found at his bench, planing. This bench was in a work-shop, with two or three more benches in it, some deals set up against the wall, a couple of red cart-wheels sent in for repair, and the tools and materials of his trade all about. The floor was covered with shavings, or spales, as they are called by northern consent, which a poor woman was busy gathering into a sack. After a short and gruff greeting on the part of Crann, and a more cordial reply from Macwha, who ceased his labour to attend to his visitor, they entered on the business-question, which having been carefully and satisfactorily discussed, with the aid of various diagrams upon the half-planed deal, Macwha returned to his work, and the conversation took a more general scope, accompanied by the sounds of Macwha's busy instrument.
"A terrible laddie, that Sandy Forbes!" said the carpenter, with a sort of laugh in the whishk of his plane, as he threw off a splendid spale. "They say he's lickit the dominie, and 'maist been the deid o' him."
"I hae kent waur laddies nor Sandy Forbes," was Thomas's curt reply.
"Ow, deed ay! I ken naething agen the laddie. Him an' oor Willie's unco throng."
To this the sole answer Thomas gave was a grunt, and a silence of a few seconds followed before he spoke, reverting to the point from which they had started.
"I'm no clear but Alec micht hae committed a waur sin than thrashin' the dominie. He's a dour crater, that Murdoch Malison, wi' his fair face and his picket words. I doot the bairns hae the warst o' 't in general. And for Alec I hae great houpes. He comes o' a guid stock. His father, honest man, was ane o' the Lord's ain, although he didna mak' sic a stan' as, maybe, he ought to hae dune; and gin his mither has been jist raither saft wi' him, and gi'en him ower lang a tether, he'll come a' richt afore lang, for he's worth luikin efter."
"I dinna richtly unnerstan' ye, Thamas."
"I dinna think the Lord 'll tyne the grip o' his father's son. He's no convertit yet, but he's weel worth convertin', for there's guid stuff in him."
Thomas did not consider how his common sense was running away with his theology. But Macwha was not the man to bring him to book on that score. His only reply lay in the careless whishk whashk of his plane. Thomas resumed:
"He jist wants what ye want, Gleorge Macwha."
"What's that, Thamas?" asked George, with a grim attempt at a smile, as if to say: "I know what's coming, but I'm not going to mind it."
"He jist wants to be weel shaken ower the mou' o' the pit. He maun smell the brunstane o' the everlastin' burnin's. He's nane o' yer saft buirds, that ye can sleek wi' a sweyp o' yer airm; he's a blue whunstane that's hard to dress, but, anes dressed, it bides the weather bonnie. I like to work upo' hard stane mysel. Nane o' yer saft freestane, 'at ye cud cut wi' a k-nife, for me!"
"Weel, I daursay ye're richt, Thamas."
"And, forbye, they say he took a' his ain licks ohn said a word, and flew at the maister only whan he was gaein to lick the puir orphan lassie—Jeames Anderson's lassie, ye ken."
"Ow! ay. It's the same tale they a' tell. I hae nae doobt it's correck."
"Weel, lat him tak it, than, an' be thankfu'! for it's no more than was weel waured (spent) on him."
With these conclusive words, Thomas departed. He was no sooner out of the shop, than out started, from behind the deal boards that stood against the wall, Willie, the eldest hope of the house of Macwha, a dusky-skinned, black-eyed, curly-headed, roguish-looking boy, Alec Forbes's companion and occasional accomplice. He was more mischievous than Alec, and sometimes led him into unforeseen scrapes; but whenever anything extensive had to be executed, Alec was always the leader.
"What are ye hidin' for, ye rascal?" said his father. "What mischeef hae ye been efter noo?"
"Naething by ordinar'," was Willie's cool reply.
"What garred ye hide, than?"
"Tam Crann never sets ee upo' me, but he misca's me, an' I dinna like to be misca'd, mair nor ither fowk."
"Ye get nae mair nor ye deserve, I doobt," returned George. "Here, tak the chisel, and cut that beadin' into len'ths."
"I'm gaein' ower the water to speir efter Alec," was the excusatory rejoinder.
"Ay, ay! pot and pan!—What ails Alec noo?"
"Mr Malison's nearhan' killed him. He hasna been at the schuil this twa days."
With these words Willie bolted from the shop, and set off at full speed. The latter part of his statement was perfectly true.
The day after the fight, Mr Malison came to the school as usual, but with his arm in a sling. To Annie's dismay, Alec did not make his appearance.
It had of course been impossible to conceal his corporal condition from his mother; and the heart of the widow so yearned over the suffering of her son, though no confession of suffering escaped Alec's lips, that she vowed in anger that he should never cross the door of that school again. For three or four days she held immovably to her resolution, much to Alec's annoyance, and to the consternation of Mr Malison, who feared that he had not only lost a pupil, but made an enemy. For Mr Malison had every reason for being as smooth-faced with the parents as he always was: he had ulterior hopes in Glamerton. The clergyman was getting old, and Mr Malison was a licentiate of the Church; and although the people had no direct voice in the filling of the pulpit, it was very desirable that a candidate should have none but friends in the parish.
Mr Malison made no allusion whatever to the events of Monday, and things went on as usual in the school, with just one exception: for a whole week the tawse did not make its appearance. This was owing in part at least to the state of his hand; but if he had ever wished to be freed from the necessity of using the lash, he might have derived hope from the fact that somehow or other the boys were during this week no worse than usual. I do not pretend to explain the fact, and beg leave to refer it to occult meteorological influences.
As soon as school was over on that first day of Alec's absence, Annie darted off on the road to Howglen, where he lived, and never dropped into a walk till she reached the garden-gate. Fully conscious of the inferiority of her position, she went to the kitchen door. The door was opened to her knock before she had recovered breath enough to speak. The servant, seeing a girl with a shabby dress, and a dirty bonnet, from underneath which hung disorderly masses of hair—they would have glinted in the eye of the sun, but in the eye of the maid they looked only dusky and disreputable—for Annie was not kept so tidy on the interest of her money as she had been at the farm—the girl, I say, seeing this, and finding besides, as she thought, that Annie had nothing to say, took her for a beggar, and returning into the kitchen, brought her a piece of oat-cake, the common dole to the young mendicants of the time. Annie's face flushed crimson, but she said gently, having by this time got her runaway breath a little more under control,
"No, I thank ye; I'm no a beggar. I only wanted to ken hoo Alec was the day."
"Come in," said the girl, anxious to make some amends for her blunder, "and I'll tell the mistress."
Annie would gladly have objected, contenting herself with the maid's own account; but she felt rather than understood that there would be something undignified in refusing to face Alec's mother; so she followed the maid into the kitchen, and sat down on the edge of a wooden chair, like a perching bird, till she should return.
"Please, mem, here's a lassie wantin' to ken hoo Maister Alec is the day," said Mary, with the handle of the parlour door in her hand.
"That must be little Annie Anderson, mamma," said Alec, who was lying on the sofa very comfortable, considering what he had to lie upon.
It may be guessed at once that Scotch was quite discouraged at home.
Alec had told his mother all about the affair; and some of her friends from Glamerton, who likewise had sons at the school, had called and given their versions of the story, in which the prowess of Alec made more of than in his own account. Indeed, all his fellow-scholars except the young Bruces, sung his praises aloud; for, whatever the degree of their affection for Alec, every one of them hated the master—a terrible thought for him, if he had been able to appreciate it; but I do not believe he had any suspicion of the fact that he was the centre of converging thoughts of revengeful dislike. So the mother was proud of her boy—far prouder than she was willing for him to see: indeed, she put on the guise of the offended proprieties as much as she could in his presence, thus making Alec feel like a culprit in hers, which was more than she intended, or would have liked, could she have peeped into his mind. So she could not help feeling some interest in Annie, and some curiosity to see her. She had known James Anderson, her father, and he had been her guest more than once when he had called upon business. Everybody had liked him; and this general approbation was owing to no lack of character, but to his genuine kindness of heart. So Mrs Forbes was prejudiced in Annie's favour—but far more by her own recollections of the father, than by her son's representations of the daughter.
"Tell her to come up, Mary," she said.
So Annie, with all the disorganization of school about her, was shown, considerably to her discomfort, into Mrs Forbes's dining-room.
There was nothing remarkable in the room; but to Annie's eyes it seemed magnificent, for carpet and curtains, sideboard and sofa, were luxuries altogether strange to her eyes. So she entered very timidly, and stood trembling and pale—for she rarely blushed except when angry—close to the door. But Alec scrambled from the sofa, and taking hold of her by both hands, pulled her up to his mother.
"There she is, mamma!" he said.
And Mrs Forbes, although her sense of the fitness of things was not gratified at seeing her son treat with such familiarity a girl so neglectedly attired, yet received her kindly and shook hands with her.
"How do you do, Annie?" she said.
"Quite well, I thank ye, mem," answered Annie, showing in her voice that she was owerawed by the grand lady, yet mistress enough of her manners not to forget a pretty modest courtesy as she spoke.
"What's gaein' on at the school the day, Annie?" asked Alec.
"Naething by ordidar," answered Annie, the sweetness of her tones contrasting with the roughness of the dialect. "The maister's a hantle quaieter than usual. I fancy he's a' the better behaved for's brunt fingers. But, oh, Alec!"
And here the little maiden burst into a passionate fit of crying.
"What's the matter, Annie," said Mrs Forbes, as she drew her nearer, genuinely concerned at the child's tears.
"Oh! mem, ye didna see hoo the maister lickit him, or ye wad hae grutten yersel'."
Tears from some mysterious source sprang to Mrs Forbes's eyes. But at the moment Mary opened the door, and said—
"Here's Maister Bruce, mem, wantin' to see ye."
"Tell him to walk up, Mary."
"Oh! no, no, mem; dinna lat him come till I'm out o' this. He'll tak' me wi' him," cried Annie.
Mary stood waiting the result.
"But you must go home, you know, Annie," said Mrs Forbes, kindly.
"Ay, but no wi' him," pleaded Annie.
From what Mrs Forbes knew of the manners and character of Bruce, she was not altogether surprised at Annie's reluctance. So, turning to the maid, she said—
"Have you told Mr Bruce that Miss Anderson is here?"
"Me tell him! No, mem. What's his business?"
"Mary, you forget yourself."
"Weel, mem, I canna bide him."
"Hold your tongue, Mary," said her mistress, hardly able to restrain her own amusement, "and take the child into my room till he is gone. But perhaps he knows you are here, Annie?"
"He canna ken that, mem. He jumps at things whiles, though, sharp eneuch."
"Well, well! We shall see."
So Mary led Annie away to the sanctuary of Mrs Forbes's bed-room.
But the Bruce was not upon Annie's track at all. His visit wants a few words of explanation.
Bruce's father had been a faithful servant to Mr Forbes's father, who held the same farm before his son, both having been what are called gentlemen-farmers. The younger Bruce, being anxious to set up a shop, had, for his father's sake, been assisted with money by the elder Forbes. This money he had repaid before the death of the old man, who had never asked any interest for it. More than a few years had not passed before Bruce, who had a wonderful capacity for petty business, was known to have accumulated some savings in the bank. Now the younger Forbes, being considerably more enterprising than his father, had spent all his capital upon improvements—draining, fencing, and such like—when a younger brother, to whom he was greatly attached, applied to him for help in an emergency, and he had nothing of his own within his reach wherewith to aid him. In this difficulty he bethought him of Bruce, to borrow from whom would not involve the exposure of the fact that he was in any embarrassment, however temporary—an exposure very undesirable in a country town like Glamerton.
After a thorough investigation of the solvency of Mr Forbes, and a proper delay for consideration besides, Bruce supplied him with a hundred pounds upon personal bond, at the usual rate of interest, for a certain term of years. Mr Forbes died soon after, leaving his affairs in some embarrassment in consequence of his outlay. Mrs Forbes had paid the interest of the debt now for two years; but, as the rent of the farm was heavy, she found this additional trifle a burden. She had good reason, however, to hope for better times, as the farm must soon increase its yield. Mr Bruce, on his part, regarded the widow with somewhat jealous eyes, because he very much doubted whether, when the day arrived, she would be able to pay him the money she owed him. That day was, however, not just at hand. It was this diversion of his resources, and not the moral necessity for a nest-egg, as he had represented the case to Margaret Anderson, which had urged him to show hospitality to Annie Anderson and her little fortune.
So neither was it anxiety for the welfare of Alec that induced him to call on Mrs Forbes. Indeed if Malison had killed him outright, he would have been rather pleased than otherwise. But he was in the habit of reminding the widow of his existence by all occasional call, especially when the time approached for the half-yearly payment of the interest. And now the report of Alec's condition gave him a suitable pretext for looking in upon his debtor, without, as he thought, appearing too greedy after his money.
"Weel, mem, hoo are ye the day?" said he, as he entered, rubbing his hands.
"Quite well, thank you, Mr Bruce. Take a seat."
"An' hoo's Mr Alec?"
"There he is to answer for himself," said Mrs Forbes, looking towards the sofa.
"Hoo are ye, Mr Alec, efter a' this?" said Bruce, turning towards him.
"Quite well, thank you," answered Alec, in a tone that did not altogether please either of the listeners.
"I thocht ye had been raither sair, sir," returned Bruce, in an acid tone.
"I've got a wale or two, that's all," said Alec.
"Weel, I houp it'll be a lesson to ye."
"To Mr Malison, you should have said, Mr Bruce. I am perfectly satisfied, for my part."
His mother was surprised to hear him speak like a grown man, as well as annoyed at his behaviour to Bruce, in whose power she feared they might one day find themselves to their cost. But she said nothing. Bruce, likewise, was rather nonplussed. He grinned a smile and was silent.
"I hear you have taken James Anderson's daughter into your family now, Mr Bruce."
"Ow, ay, mem. There was nobody to luik efter the bit lassie; sae, though I cud but ill affoord it, wi' my ain sma' faimily comin' up, I was jist in a mainner obleeged to tak' her, Jeames Anderson bein' a cousin o' my ain, ye ken, mem."
"Well, I am sure it was very kind of you and Mrs Bruce. How does the child get on?"
"Middlin', mem, middlin'. She's jist some ill for takin' up wi' loons."
Here he glanced at Alec, with an expression of successful spite. He certainly had the best of it now.
Alec was on the point of exclaiming "That's a lie," but he had prudence enough to restrain himself, perceiving that the contradiction would have a better chance with his mother if he delayed its utterance till after the departure of Bruce. So, meantime, the subject was not pursued. A little desultory conversation followed, and the visitor departed, with a laugh from between his teeth as he took leave of Alec, which I can only describe as embodying an I told you so sort of satisfaction.
Almost as soon as he was out of the house the parlour-door opened, and Mary brought in Annie. Mrs Forbes's eyes were instantly fixed on her with mild astonishment, and something of a mother's tenderness awoke in her heart towards the little maid-child. What would she not have given for such a daughter! During Bruce's call, Mary had been busy with the child. She had combed and brushed her thick brown hair, and, taken with its exceeding beauty, had ventured on a stroke of originality no one would have expected of her: she had left it hanging loose on her shoulders. Any one would think such an impropriety impossible to a Scotchwoman. But then she had been handling the hair, and contact with anything alters so much one's theories about it. If Mary had found it so, instead of making it so, she would have said it was "no dacent." But the hair gave her its own theory before she had done with it, and this was the result. She had also washed her face and hands and neck, made the best she could of her poor, dingy dress, and put one of her own Sunday collars upon her.
Annie had submitted to it all without question; and thus adorned, Mary introduced her again to the dining-room. Before Mrs Forbes had time to discover that she was shocked, she was captivated by the pale, patient face, and the longing blue eyes, that looked at her as if the child felt that she ought to have been her mother, but somehow they had missed each other. They gazed out of the shadows of the mass of dark brown wavy hair that fell to her waist, and there was no more any need for Alec to contradict Bruce's calumny. But Mrs Forbes was speedily recalled to a sense of propriety by observing that Alec too was staring at Annie with a mingling of amusement, admiration, and respect.
"What have you been about, Mary?" she said, in a tone of attempted reproof. "You have made a perfect fright of the child. Take her away."
When Annie was once more brought back, with her hair restored to its net, silent tears of mortification were still flowing down her cheeks.—When Annie cried, the tears always rose and flowed without any sound or convulsion. Rarely did she sob even.—This completed the conquest of Mrs Forbes's heart. She drew the little one to her, and kissed her, and Annie's tears instantly ceased to rise, while Mrs Forbes wiped away those still lingering on her face. Mary then went to get the tea, and Mrs Forbes having left the room for a moment to recover that self-possession, the loss of which is peculiarly objectionable to a Scotchwoman, Annie was left seated on a footstool before the bright fire, the shadows from which were now dancing about the darkening room, and Alec lay on the sofa looking at her. There was no great occasion for his lying on the sofa, but his mother desired it, and Alec had at present no particular objection.
"I wadna like to be gran' fowk," mused Annie aloud, for getting that she was not alone.
"We're no gran' fowk, Annie," said Alec.
"Ay are ye," returned Annie, persistently.
"Weel, what for wadna ye like it?"
"Ye maun be aye feared for blaudin' things."
"Mamma wad tell ye a different story," rejoined Alec laughing. "There's naething here to blaud (spoil)."
Mrs Forbes returned. Tea was brought in. Annie comported herself like a lady, and, after tea, ran home with mingled feelings of pleasure and pain. For, notwithstanding her assertion that she would not like to be "gran' fowk," the kitchen fire, small and dull, the smelling shop, and her own dreary garret-room, did not seem more desirable from her peep into the warmth and comfort of the house at Howglen.
Questioned as to what had delayed her return from school, she told the truth; that she had gone to ask after Alec Forbes, and that they had kept her to tea.
"I tauld them that ye ran efter the loons!" said Bruce triumphantly. Then stung with the reflection that he had not been asked to stay to tea, he added: "It's no for the likes o' you, Annie, to gang to gentlefowk's hooses, makin' free whaur ye're no wantit. Sae dinna lat me hear the like again."
But it was wonderful how Bruce's influence over Annie, an influence of distress, was growing gradually weaker. He could make her uncomfortable enough; but as to his opinion of her, she had almost reached the point of not caring a straw for that. And she had faith enough in Alec to hope that he would defend her from whatever Bruce might have said against her.
Whether Mary had been talking in the town, as is not improbable, about little Annie Anderson's visit to her mistress, and so the story of the hair came to be known, or not, I cannot tell; but it was a notable coincidence that a few days after, Mrs Bruce came to the back-door, with a great pair of shears in her hand, and calling Annie, said:
"Here, Annie! Yer hair's ower lang. I maun jist clip it. It's giein ye sair een."
"There's naething the maitter wi' my een," said Annie gently.
"Dinna answer back. Sit doon," returned Mrs Bruce, leading her into the kitchen.
Annie cared very little for her hair, and well enough remembered that Mrs Forbes had said it made a fright of her; so it was with no great reluctance that she submitted to the operation. Mrs Bruce chopped it short off all round. As, however, this permitted what there was of it to fall about her face, there being too little to confine in the usual prison of the net, her appearance did not bear such marks of deprivation, or, in other and Scotch words, "she didna luik sae dockit," as might have been expected.
Her wavy locks of rich brown were borne that night, by the careful hand of Mrs Bruce, to Rob Guddle, the barber. Nor was the hand less careful that brought back their equivalent in money. With a smile to her husband, half loving and half cunning, Mrs Bruce dropped the amount into the till.
Although Alec Forbes was not a boy of quick receptivity as far as books were concerned, and therefore was no favourite with Mr Malison, he was not by any means a common or a stupid boy. His own eyes could teach him more than books could, for he had a very quick observation of things about him, both in what is commonly called nature and in humanity. He knew all the birds, all their habits, and all their eggs. Not a boy in Glamerton could find a nest quicker than he, or when found treated it with such respect. For he never took young birds, and seldom more than half of the eggs. Indeed he was rather an uncommon boy, having, along with more than the usual amount of activity even for a boy, a tenderness of heart altogether rare in boys. He was as familiar with the domestic animals and their ways of feeling and acting as Annie herself. Anything like cruelty he detested; and yet, as occasion will show, he could execute stern justice. With the world of men around him, he was equally conversant. He knew the characters of the simple people wonderfully well; and took to Thomas Crann more than to any one else, notwithstanding that Thomas would read him a long lecture sometimes. To these lectures Alec would listen seriously enough, believing Thomas to be right; though he could never make up his mind to give any after attention to what he required of him.
The first time Alec met Thomas after the affair with the dominie, was on the day before he was to go back to school; for his mother had yielded at last to his entreaties. Thomas was building an addition to a water-mill on the banks of the Glamour not far from where Alec lived, and Alec had strolled along thither to see how the structure was going on. He expected a sharp rebuke for his behaviour to Mr Malison, but somehow he was not afraid of Thomas, and was resolved to face it out. The first words Thomas uttered, however, were:
"Weel, Alec, can ye tell me what was the name o' King Dawvid's mither?"
"I cannot, Thomas," answered Alec. "What was it?"
"Fin' ye that oot. Turn ower yer Bible. Hae ye been back to the school yet?"
"No. I'm gaein the morn."
"Ye're no gaein to strive wi' the maister afore nicht, are ye?"
"I dinna ken," answered Alec. "Maybe he'll strive wi' me.—But ye ken, Thomas," he continued, defending himself from what he supposed Thomas was thinking, "King Dawvid himsel' killed the giant."
"Ow! ay; a' richt. I'm no referrin' to that. Maybe ye did verra richt. But tak care, Alec—" here Thomas paused from his work, and turning towards the boy with a trowelful of mortar in his hand, spoke very slowly and solemnly—"tak ye care that ye beir no malice against the maister. Justice itsel," dune for the sake o' a private grudge, will bunce back upo' the doer. I hae little doobt the maister'll be the better for't; but gin ye be the waur, it'll be an ill job, Alec, my man."
"I hae no ill-will at him, Thomas."
"Weel, jist watch yer ain hert, and bewaur ye o' that. I wad coonsel ye to try and please him a grainie mair nor ordinar'. It's no that easy to the carnal man, but ye ken we ought to crucify the auld man, wi' his affections and lusts."
"Weel, I'll try," said Alec, to whom it was not nearly so difficult as Thomas imagined. His man apparently was not very old yet.
And he did try; and the master seemed to appreciate his endeavours, and to accept them as a peace-offering, thus showing that he really was the better for the punishment he had received.
It would be great injustice to Mr Malison to judge him by the feeling of the present day. It was the custom of the time and of the country to use the tawse unsparingly; for law having been, and still, in a great measure, being, the highest idea generated of the divine by the ordinary Scotch mind, it must be supported, at all risks even, by means of the leather strap. In the hands of a wise and even-tempered man, no harm could result from the use of this instrument of justice; but in the hands of a fierce-tempered and therefore changeable man, of small moral stature, and liable to prejudices and offence, it became the means of unspeakable injury to those under his care; not the least of which was the production, in delicate natures, of doubt and hesitancy, sometimes deepening into cowardice and lying.
Mr Malison had nothing of the childlike in himself, and consequently never saw the mind of the child whose person he was assailing with a battery of excruciating blows. A man ought to be able to endure grief suffering wrongfully, and be none the worse; but who dares demand that of a child? Well it is for such masters that even they are judged by the heart of a father, and not by the law of a king, that worst of all the fictions of an ignorant and low theology. And if they must receive punishment, at least it will not be the heartless punishment which they inflicted on the boys and girls under their law.
Annie began to be regarded as a protegee of Alec Forbes, and as Alec was a favourite with most of his schoolfellows, and was feared where he was not loved, even her cousins began to look upon her with something like respect, and mitigate their persecutions. But she did not therefore become much more reconciled to her position; for the habits and customs of her home were distasteful to her, and its whole atmosphere uncongenial. Nor could it have been otherwise in any house where the entire anxiety was, first, to make money, and next, not to spend it. The heads did not in the least know that they were unkind to her. On the contrary, Bruce thought himself a pattern of generosity if he gave her a scrap of string; and Mrs Bruce, when she said to inquiring gossips "The bairn's like ither bairns—she's weel eneuch," thought herself a pattern of justice or even of forbearance. But both were jealous of her, in relation to their own children; and when Mrs Forbes sent for her one Saturday, soon after her first visit, they hardly concealed their annoyance at the preference shown her by one who was under such great obligation to the parents of other children every way superior to her whose very presence somehow or other made them uncomfortable.
The winter drew on—a season as different from the summer in those northern latitudes, as if it belonged to another solar system. Cold and stormy, it is yet full of delight for all beings that can either romp, sleep, or think it through. But alas for the old and sickly, in poor homes, with scanty food and firing! Little children suffer too, though the gift of forgetfulness does for them what the gift of faith does for their parents—helps them over many troubles, besides tingling fingers and stony feet. There would be many tracks of those small feet in the morning snow, leading away across the fresh-fallen clouds from the house and cottage doors; for the barbarity of morning-school, that is, an hour and a half of dreary lessons before breakfast, was in full operation at Glamerton.
The winter came. One morning, all the children awoke, and saw a white world around them. Alec jumped out of bed in delight. It was a sunny, frosty morning. The snow had fallen all night, with its own silence, and no wind had interfered with the gracious alighting of the feathery water. Every branch, every twig, was laden with its sparkling burden of down-flickered flakes, and threw long lovely shadows on the smooth featureless dazzle below. Away, away, stretched the outspread glory, the only darkness in it being the line of the winding river. All the snow that fell on it vanished, as death and hell shall one day vanish in the fire of God. It flowed on, black through its banks of white. Away again stretched the shine to the town, where every roof had the sheet that was let down from heaven spread over it, and the streets lay a foot deep in yet unsullied snow, soon, like the story of the ages, to be trampled, soiled, wrought, and driven with human feet, till, at last, God's strong sun would wipe it all away.
From the door opening into this fairy-land, Alec sprang into the untrodden space, as into a new America. He had discovered a world, without even the print of human foot upon it. The keen air made him happy; and the face of nature, looking as peaceful as the face of a dead man dreaming of heaven, wrought in him jubilation and leaping. He was at the school door before a human being had appeared in the streets of Glamerton. Its dwellers all lay still under those sheets of snow, which seemed to hold them asleep in its cold enchantment.
Before any of his fellows made their appearance, he had kneaded and piled a great heap of snowballs, and stood by his pyramid, prepared for the offensive. He attacked the first that came, and soon there was a troop of boys pelting away at him. But with his store of balls at his foot, he was able to pay pretty fairly for what he received; till, that being exhausted, he was forced to yield the unequal combat. By-and-by the little ones gathered, with Annie amongst them; but they kept aloof, for fear of the flying balls, for the boys had divided into two equal parties, and were pelting away at each other. At length the woman who had charge of the school-room, having finished lighting the fire, opened the door, and Annie, who was very cold, made a run for it, during a lull in the fury of the battle.
"Stop," cried Alec; and the balling ceased, that Annie, followed by a few others, might pass in safety through the midst of the combatants. One boy, however, just as Annie was entering, threw a ball after her. He missed her, but Alec did not miss him; for scarcely was the ball out of his hand when he received another, right between his eyes. Over he went, amidst a shout of satisfaction.
When the master appeared at the top of the lane the fight came to a close; and as he entered the school, the group round the fire broke up and dispersed. Alec, having entered close behind the master, overtook Annie as she went to her seat, for he had observed, as she ran into the school, that she was lame—indeed limping considerably.
"What's the maitter wi' ye, Annie?" he said. "What gars ye hirple?"
"Juno bitet me," answered Annie.
"Ay! Verra weel!" returned Alec, in a tone that had more meaning than the words.
Soon after the Bible-class was over, and they had all taken their seats, a strange quiet stir and excitement gradually arose, like the first motions of a whirlpool at the turn of the tide. The master became aware of more than the usual flitting to and fro amongst the boys, just like the coming and going which preludes the swarming of bees. But as he had little or no constructive power, he never saw beyond the symptoms. They were to him mere isolated facts, signifying present disorder.
"John Morison, go to your seat," he cried.
"Robert Rennie, go to your seat."
Robert went. And this continued till, six having been thus passed by, and a seventh appearing three forms from his own, the master, who seldom stood it so long, could stand it no longer. The tag was thrown, and a licking followed, making matters a little better from the master's point of view.
Now I will try to give, from the scholars' side, a peep of what passed.
As soon as he was fairly seated, Alec said in a low voice across the double desk to one of the boys opposite, calling him by his nickname,
"I say, Divot, do ye ken Juno?"
"Maybe no!" answered Divot. "But gin I dinna, my left leg dis."
"I thocht ye kent the shape o' her teeth, man. Jist gie Scrumpie there a dig i' the ribs."
"What are ye efter, Divot? I'll gie ye a cloot o' the lug," growled Scrumpie.
"Hoot man! The General wants ye."
The General was Alec's nickname.
"What is't, General?"
"Do ye ken Juno?"
"Hang the bitch! I ken her ower weel. She took her denner aff o' ane o' my hips, ae day last year."
"Jist creep ower to Cadger there, and speir gin he kens Juno. Maybe he's forgotten her."
Cadger's reply was interrupted by the interference of the master, but a pantomimic gesture conveyed to the General sufficient assurance of the retentiveness of Cadger's memory in regard to Juno and her favours. Such messages and replies, notwithstanding more than one licking, kept passing the whole of the morning.
Now Juno was an animal of the dog kind, belonging to Robert Brace. She had the nose and the legs of a bull-dog, but was not by any means thorough-bred, and her behaviour was worse than her breed. She was a great favourite with her master, who ostensibly kept her chained in his back-yard for the protection of his house and property. But she was not by any means popular with the rising generation. For she was given to biting, with or without provocation, and every now and then she got loose—upon sundry of which occasions she had bitten boys. Complaint had been made to her owner, but without avail; for he only professed great concern, and promised she should not get loose again, which promise had been repeatedly broken. Various vows of vengeance had been made, and forgotten. But now Alec Forbes had taken up the cause of humanity and justice: for the brute had bitten Annie, and she could have given no provocation.
It was soon understood throughout the school that war was to be made upon Juno, and that every able-bodied boy must be ready when called out by the General. The minute they were dismissed, which, at this season of the year, took place at three o'clock, no interval being given for dinner, because there was hardly any afternoon, the boys gathered in a knot at the door.
"What are ye gaein' to do, General?" asked one.
"Kill her," answered Alec.
"Stane her to death, loons, like the man 'at brak the Sabbath."
"Broken banes for broken skins—eh? Ay!"
"The damned ill-faured brute, to bite Annie Anderson!"
"But there's nae stanes to be gotten i' the snaw, General," said Cadger.
"Ye gomeril! Ye'll get mair stanes nor ye'll carry, I doobt, up o' the side o' the toll-road yonner. Naething like road-metal!"
A confused chorus of suggestions and exclamations now arose, in the midst of which Willie Macwha, whose cognomen was Curly-pow, came up. He was not often the last in a conspiracy. His arrival had for the moment a sedative effect.
"Here's Curly! Here's Curly!"
"Weel, is't a' sattled?" asked he.
"She's condemned, but no execute yet," said Grumpie.
"Hoo are we to win at her?" asked Cadger.
"That's jist the pint," said Divot.
"We canna weel kill her in her ain yard," suggested Houghie.
"Na. We maun bide our time, an' tak her when she's oot aboot," said the General.
"But wha's to ken that? an' hoo are we to gather?" asked Cadger, who seemed both of a practical and a despondent turn of mind.
"Noo, jist haud yer tongues, an' hearken to me," said Alec.
The excited assembly was instantly silent.
"The first thing," began Alec, "is to store plenty o' ammunition."
"Ay, ay, General."
"Haud yer tongues.—Whaur had we best stow the stanes, Curly?"
"In oor yard. They'll never be noticed there."
"That'll do. Some time the nicht, ye'll a' carry what stanes ye can get—an' min' they're o' a serviceable natur'—to Curly's yard. He'll be o' the ootluik for ye. An,' I say, Curly, doesna your riggin-stane owerluik the maist o' the toon?"
"Ye can see our hoose frae't—canna ye?"
"Weel, ye jist buy a twa three blue lichts. Hae ye ony bawbees?"
"Deil ane, General."
"Hae than, there's fower an' a bawbee for expenses o' the war."
"Thank ye, General."
"Ye hae an auld gun, haena' ye?"
"Ay have I; but she's nearhan' the rivin'."
"Load her to the mou', and lat her rive. We'll may be hear't. But haud weel oot ower frae her. Ye can lay a train, ye ken."
"I s' tak care o' that, General."
"Scrumpie, ye bide no that far frae the draigon's den. Ye jist keep yer ee—nae the crookit ane—upo' her ootgoins an' incomins; or raither, ye luik efter her comin oot, an' we'll a' luik efter her gaein in again. Jist mak a regiment o' yer ain to watch her, and bring ye word o' her proceedins. Ye can easy luik roun the neuk o' the back-yett, an' nobody be a hair the wiser. As sune as ever ye spy her lowse i' the yard be aff wi' ye to Willie Macwha. Syne, Curly, ye fire yer gun, and burn the blue lichts o' the tap o' the hoose; and gin I see or hear the signal, I'll be ower in seven minutes an' a half. Ilka ane o' ye 'at hears, maun luik efter the neist; and sae we'll a' gether at Curly's. Fess yer bags for the stanes, them 'at has bags."
"But gin ye dinna see or hear, for it's a lang road, General?" interposed Cadger.
"Gin I'm no at your yard, Curly, in saiven minutes an' a half, sen' Linkum efter me. He's the only ane o' ye 'at can rin. It's a' that he can do, but he does't weel.—Whan Juno's ance oot, she's no in a hurry in again."
The boys separated and went home in a state of excitement, which probably, however, interfered very little with their appetites, seeing it was moderated in the mean time by the need and anticipation of their dinners.
The sun set now between two and three o'clock, and there were long forenights to favour the plot. Perhaps their hatred of the dog would not have driven them to such extreme measures, even although she had bitten Annie Anderson, had her master been a favourite, or even generally respected. But Alec knew well enough that the townsfolk were not likely to sympathize with Bruce on the ill-treatment of his cur.
When the dinner and the blazing fire had filled him so full of comfort that he was once more ready to encounter the cold, Alec could stay in the house no longer.
"Where are you going, Alec?" said his mother.
"Into the garden, mamma."
"What can you want in the garden—full of snow?"
"It's just the snow I want, mamma. It won't keep."
And, in another moment, he was under the clear blue night-heaven, with the keen frosty air blowing on his warm cheek, busy with a wheelbarrow and a spade, slicing and shovelling in the snow. He was building a hut of it, after the fashion of the Esquimaux hut, with a very thick circular wall, which began to lean towards its own centre as soon as it began to rise. This hut he had pitched at the foot of a flag-staff on the green—lawn would be too grand a word for the hundred square feet in front of his mother's house, though the grass which lay beneath the snowy carpet was very green and lovely grass, smooth enough for any lawn. In summer Alec had quite revelled in its greenness and softness, as he lay on it reading the Arabian Nights and the Ettrick Shepherd's stories: now it was "white with the whiteness of what is dead;" for is not the snow just dead water? The flag-staff he had got George Macwha to erect for him, at a very small outlay; and he had himself fitted it with shrouds and a cross-yard, and signal halliards; for he had always a fancy for the sea, and boats, and rigging of all sorts. And he had a great red flag, too, which he used to hoist on special occasions—on market-days and such like; and often besides when a good wind blew. And very grand it looked, as it floated in the tide of the wind.
Often he paused in his work, and turned—and oftener without raising himself he glanced towards the town; but no signal burned from the ridge of Curly's house, and he went on with his labour. When called in to tea, he gave a long wistful look townwards, but saw no sign. Out again he went, but no blue fire rejoiced him that night with the news that Juno was ranging the streets; and he was forced to go to bed at last, and take refuge from his disappointment in sleep.
The next day he strictly questioned all his officers as to the manner in which they had fulfilled their duty, and found no just cause of complaint.
"In future," he said to Curly, with the importance of one who had the affairs of boys and dogs upon his brain—so that his style rose into English—"in future, Curly, you may always know I am at home when you see the red flag flying from my flag-staff."
"That's o' sma' service, General, i' the lang forenichts. A body canna see freely so far."
"But Linkum wad see't fleein', lang or he wan to the yett (gate)."
"It wad flee nae mair nor a deid deuke i' this weather. It wad be frozen as stiff's a buird."
"Ye gowk! Do ye think fowk wash their flags afore they hing them oot, like sarks or sheets? Dinna ye be ower clever, Curly, my man."
Whereupon Curly shut up.
"What are you in such a state about, Alec?" asked his mother.
"Nothing very particular, mamma," answered Alec, ashamed of his want of self-command.
"You've looked out at the window twenty times in the last half-hour," she persisted.
"Curly promised to burn a blue light, and I wanted to see if I could see it."
Suspecting more, his mother was forced to be content with this answer.
But that night was also passed without sight or sound. Juno kept safe in her barrel, little thinking of the machinations against her in the wide snow-covered country around. Alec finished the Esquimaux hut, and the snow falling all night, the hut looked the next morning as if it had been there all the winter. As it seemed likely that a long spell of white weather had set in, Alec resolved to extend his original plan, and carry a long snow passage, or covered vault, from the lattice-window of a small closet, almost on a level with the ground, to this retreat by the flag-staff. He was hard at work in the execution of this project, on the third night, or rather late afternoon: they called it forenight there.
"What can that be, mem, awa ower the toon there?" said Mary to her mistress, as in passing she peeped out of the window, the blind of which Alec had drawn up behind the curtain.
"What is it, Mary?"
"That's jist what I dinna ken, mem. It canna be the rory-bories, as Alec ca's them. It's ower blue.—It's oot.—It's in agin.—It's no canny.—And, preserves a'! it's crackin' as weel," cried Mary, as the subdued sound of a far-off explosion reached her.
This was of course no other than the roar of Curly's gun in the act of bursting and vanishing; for neither stock, lock, nor barrel was ever seen again. It left the world like a Norse king on his fire-ship. But, at the moment, Alec was too busy in the depths of his snow-vault to hear or see the signals.
By-and-by a knock came to the kitchen door, Mary went and opened it.
"Alec's at hame, I ken," said a rosy boy, almost breathless with past speed and present excitement.
"Hoo ken ye that, my man?" asked Mary.
"'Cause the flag's fleein'. Whaur is he?"
"Gin ye ken sae muckle aboot him already, ye can jist fin' him to yersel'!"
"The bick's oot!" panted Linkum.
But Mary shut the door.
"Here's a job!" said Linkum to himself. "I canna gang throu a steekit door. And there's Juno wi' the rin o' the haill toun. Deil tak her!"
But at the moment he heard Alec whistling a favourite tune, as he shovelled away at the snow.
"General!" cried Linkum, in ecstasy.
"Here!" answered Alec, flinging his spade twenty feet from him, and bolting in the direction of the call. "Is't you, Linkum?"
"She's oot, General."
"Deil hae her, gin ever she wins in again, the curst worryin' brute! Did ye gang to Curly?"
"Ay did I. He fired the gun, and brunt three blue lichts, and waited seven minutes and a half; and syne he sent me for ye, General."
"Confoon' 't," cried Alec, and tore through shrubbery and hedge, the nearest way to the road, followed by Linkum, who even at full speed was not a match for Alec. Away they flew like the wind, along the well-beaten path to the town, over the footbridge that crossed the Glamour, and full speed up the hill to Willie Macwha, who, with a dozen or fifteen more, was anxiously waiting for the commander. They all had their book-bags, pockets, and arms filled with stones lately broken for mending the turnpike road, mostly granite, but partly whinstone and flint. One bag was ready filled for Alec.
"Noo," said the General, in the tone of Gideon of old, "gin ony o' ye be fleyt at the brute, jist gang hame."
"Ay! ay! General."
But nobody stirred, for those who were afraid had slunk away the moment they saw Alec coming up the hill, like the avenger of blood.
"Wha's watchin' her?"
"Doddles, Gapy, and Goat."
"Whaur was she last seen?"
"Takin' up wi' anither tyke on the squaure."
"Doddles 'll be at the pump, to tell whaur's the ither twa and the tyke."
"Come along, then. This is hoo ye're to gang. We maunna a' gang thegither. Some o' ye—you three—doon the Back Wynd; you sax, up Lucky Hunter's Close; and the lave by Gowan Street; an' first at the pump bides for the lave."
"Hoo are we to mak the attack, General?"
"I'll gie my orders as the case may demand," said Alec.
And away they shot.
The muffled sounds of the feet of the various companies as they thundered past upon the snow, roused the old wives dozing over their knitting by their fires of spent oak-bark; and according to her temper would be the remark with which each startled dame turned again to her former busy quiescence:—"Some mischeef o' the loons!" "Some ploy o' the laddies!" "Some deevilry o' thae rascals frae Malison's school!"
They reached the square almost together, and found Doddles at the pump; who reported that Juno had gone down the inn-yard, and Gapey and Goat were watching her. Now she must come out to get home again, for there was no back-way; so by Alec's orders they dispersed a little to avoid observation, and drew gradually between the entrance of the inn-yard, and the way Juno would take to go home.
The town was ordinarily lighted at night with oil lamps, but moonlight and snow had rendered them for some time unnecessary.
"Here she is! Here she is!" cried several at once in a hissing whisper of excitement. "Lat at her!"
"Haud still!" cried Alec. "Bide till I tell ye. Dinna ye see there's Lang Tam's dog wi' her, an' he's done naething. Ye maunna punish the innocent wi' the guilty."
A moment after the dogs took their leave of each other, and Juno went, at a slow slouching trot, in the direction of her own street.
"Close in!" cried Alec.
Juno found her way barred in a threatening manner, and sought to pass meekly by.
"Lat at her, boys!" cried the General.
A storm of stones was their answer to the order; and a howl of rage and pain burst from the animal. She turned; but found that she was the centre of a circle of enemies.
"Lat at her! Haud at her!" bawled Alec.
And thick as hail the well-aimed stones flew from practised hands; though of course in the frantic rushes of the dog to escape, not half of them took effect. She darted first at one and then at another, snapping wildly, and meeting with many a kick and blow in return.
The neighbours began to look out at their shop-doors and their windows; for the boys, rapt in the excitement of the sport, no longer laid any restraint upon their cries. Andrew Constable, the clothier, from his shop-door; Rob Guddle, the barber, from his window, with his face shadowed by Annie's curls; Redford, the bookseller, from the top of the stairs that led to his shop; in short, the whole of the shopkeepers on the square of Glamerton were regarding this battle of odds. The half-frozen place looked half-alive. But none of the good folks cared much to interfere, for flying stones are not pleasant to encounter. And indeed they could not clearly make out what was the matter.—In a minute more, a sudden lull came over the hubbub. They saw all the group gather together in a murmuring knot.
The fact was this. Although cowardly enough now, the brute, infuriated with pain, had made a determined rush at one of her antagonists, and a short hand-to-teeth struggle was now taking place, during which the stoning ceased.
"She has a grip o' my leg," said Alec quietly; "and I hae a grip o' her throat. Curly, pit yer han' i' my jacket-pooch, an' tak' oot a bit towie ye'll fin' there."
Curly did as he was desired, and drew out a yard and a half of garden-line.
"Jist pit it wi' ae single k-not roon' her neck, an' twa three o' ye tak' a haud at ilka en', and pu' for the life o' ye!"
They hauled with hearty vigour, Juno's teeth relaxed their hold of Alec's calf; in another minute her tongue was hanging out her mouth, and when they ceased the strain she lay limp on the snow. With a shout of triumph, they started off at full speed, dragging the brute by the neck through the street. Alec essayed to follow them; but found his leg too painful; and was forced to go limping home.
When the victors had run till they were out of breath, they stopped to confer; and the result of their conference was that in solemn silence they drew her home to the back gate, and finding all still in the yard, deputed two of their company to lay the dead body in its kennel.
Curly and Linkum drew her into the yard, tumbled her into her barrel, which they set up on end, undid the string, and left Juno lying neck and tail together in ignominious peace.
"Before Alec reached home his leg had swollen very much, and was so painful that he could hardly limp along; for Juno had taken no passing snap, but a great strong mouthful. He concealed his condition from his mother for that night; but next morning his leg was so bad, that there was no longer a possibility of hiding the fact. To tell a lie would have been so hard for Alec, that he had scarcely any merit in not telling one. So there was nothing for it but confession. His mother scolded him to a degree considerably beyond her own sense of the wrong, telling him he would get her into disgrace in the town as the mother of a lawless son, who meddled with other people's property in a way little better than stealing.
"I fancy, mamma, a loun's legs are aboot as muckle his ain property as the tyke was Rob Bruce's. It's no the first time she's bitten half a dizzen legs that were neither her ain nor her maister's."
Mrs Forbes could not well answer this argument; so she took advantage of the fact that Alec had, in the excitement of self-defence, lapsed into Scotch.
"Don't talk so vulgarly to me, Alec," she said; "keep that for your ill-behaved companions in the town."
"They are no worse than I am, mamma. I was at the bottom of it."
"I never said they were," she answered.
But in her heart she thought if they were not, there was little amiss with them.
Alec was once more condemned to the sofa, and Annie had to miss him, and wonder what had become of him. She always felt safe when Alec was there, and when he was not she grew timid; although whole days would sometimes pass without either speaking to the other. But before the morning was over she learned the reason of his absence.
For about noon, when all was tolerably harmonious in the school, the door opened, and the face of Robert Bruce appeared, with gleaming eyes of wrath.
"Guid preserve's!" said Scrumpie to his next neighbour. "Sic a hidin' as we s' a' get! Here's Rob Bruce! Wha's gane and tell't him?"
But some of the gang of conspirators, standing in a class near the door, stared in horror. Amongst them was Curly. His companions declared afterwards that had it not been for the strength of the curl, his hair would have stood upright. For, following Bruce, led in fact by a string, came an awful apparition—Juno herself, a pitiable mass of caninity—looking like the resuscitated corpse of a dog that had been nine days buried, crowded with lumps, and speckled with cuts, going on three legs, and having her head and throat swollen to a size past recognition.
"She's no deid efter a'! Deil tak' her! for he's in her," said Doddles.
"We haena killed her eneuch," said Curly.
"I tell't ye, Curly! Ye had little ado to lowse the tow. She wad ha' been as deid afore the mornin' as Lucky Gordon's cat that ye cuttit the heid aff o'," said Linkum.
"Eh! but she luiks bonnie!" said Curly, trying to shake off his dismay. "Man, we'll hae't a' to do ower again. Sic fun!"
But he could not help looking a little rueful when Linkum expressed a wish that they were themselves well through with their share of the killing.
And now the storm began to break. The master had gone to the door and shaken hands with his visitor, glancing a puzzled interrogation at the miserable animal in the string, which had just shape enough left to show that it was a dog.
"I'm verra sorry, Maister Malison, to come to you wi' my complaints," said Bruce; "but jist luik at the puir dumb animal! She cudna come hersel', an' sae I bude to bring her. Stan' still, ye brute!"
For Juno having caught sight of some boy-legs, through a corner of one eye not quite bunged up, began to tug at the string with feeble earnestness—no longer, however, regarding the said legs as made for dogs to bite, but as fearful instruments of vengeance, in league with stones and cords. So the straining and pulling was all homewards. But her master had brought her as chief witness against the boys, and she must remain where she was.
"Eh, lass!" he said, hauling her back by the string; "gin ye had but the tongue o' the prophet's ass, ye wad sune pint out the rascals that misguided and misgrugled ye that gait. But here's the just judge that'll gie ye yer richts, and that wi'oot fee or reward.—Mr Malison, she was ane o' the bonniest bicks ye cud set yer ee upo'—"
A smothered laugh gurgled through the room.
—"till some o' your loons—nae offence, sir—I ken weel eneuch they're no yours, nor a bit like ye—some o' your peowpils, sir, hae jist ca'd (driven) the sowl oot o' her wi' stanes."
"Whaur does the sowl o' a bitch bide?" asked Goat, in a whisper, of his neighbour.
"De'il kens," answered Gapey; "gin it binna i' the boddom o' Rob Bruce's wame."
The master's wrath, ready enough to rise against boys and all their works, now showed itself in the growing redness of his face. This was not one of his worst passions—in them, he grew white—for the injury had not been done to himself.
"Can you tell me which of them did it?"
"No, sir. There maun hae been mair nor twa or three at it, or she wad hae worried them. The best-natered beast i' the toon!"
"William Macwha," cried Malison.
Willie ascended to the august presence. He had made up his mind that, seeing so many had known all about it, and some of them had turned cowards, it would be of no service to deny the deed.
"Do you know anything about this cruelty to the poor dog, William?" said the master.
Willie gave a Scotchman's answer, which, while evasive, was yet answer and more.
"She bet me, sir."
"When? While you were stoning her?"
"No, sir. A month ago."
"Ye're a leein' vratch, Willie Macwha, as ye weel ken i' yer ain conscience!" cried Bruce. "She's the quaietest, kin'list beast 'at ever was wholpit. See, sir; jist luik ye here. She'll lat me pit my han' in her mou', an' tak' no more notice nor gin it was her ain tongue."
Now whether it was that the said tongue was still swollen and painful, or that Juno, conscious of her own ill deserts, disapproved of the whole proceeding, I cannot tell; but the result of this proof of her temper was that she made her teeth meet through Bruce's hand.
"Damn the bitch!" he roared, snatching it away with the blood beginning to flow.
A laugh, not smothered this time, billowed and broke through the whole school; for the fact that Bruce should be caught swearing, added to the yet more delightful fact that Juno had bitten her master, was altogether too much.
"Eh! isna't weel we didna kill her efter a'?" said Curly.
"Guid doggie!" said another, patting his own knee, as if to entice her to come and be caressed.
"At him again, Juno!" said a third.
"I'll gie her a piece the neist time I see her," said Curly.
Bruce, writhing with pain, and mortified at the result of his ocular proof of Juno's incapability of biting, still more mortified at having so far forgotten himself as to utter an oath, and altogether discomfited by the laughter, turned away in confusion.
"It's a' their wyte, the baad boys! She never did the like afore. They hae ruined her temper," he said, as he left the school, following Juno, which was tugging away at the string as if she had been a blind man's dog.
"Well, what have you to say for yourself, William?" said Malison.
"She began 't, sir."
This best of excuses would not, however, satisfy the master. The punishing mania had possibly taken fresh hold upon him. But he would put more questions first.
"Who besides you tortured the poor animal?"
Curly was silent. He had neither a very high sense of honour, nor any principles to come and go upon; but he had a considerable amount of devotion to his party, which is the highest form of conscience to be found in many.
"Tell me their names, sir?"
Curly was still silent.
But a white-headed urchin, whom innumerable whippings, not bribes, had corrupted, cried out in a wavering voice:
"Sanny Forbes was ane o' them; an' he's no here, 'cause Juno worried him."
The poor creature gained little by his treachery; for the smallest of the conspirators fell on him when school was over, and gave him a thrashing, which he deserved more than ever one of Malison's.
But the effect of Alec's name on the master was talismanic. He changed his manner at once, sent Curly to his seat, and nothing more was heard of Juno or her master.
The opposite neighbours stared across, the next morning, in bewildered astonishment, at the place where the shop of Robert Bruce had been wont to invite the public to enter and buy. Had it been possible for an avalanche to fall like a thunderbolt from the heavens, they would have supposed that one had fallen in the night, and overwhelmed the house. Door and windows were invisible, buried with the rude pavement in front beneath a mass of snow. Spades and shovels in boys' hands had been busy for hours during the night, throwing it up against the house, the door having first been blocked up with a huge ball, which they had rolled in silence the whole length of the long street.
Bruce and his wife slept in a little room immediately behind the shop, that they might watch over their treasures; and Bruce's first movement in the morning was always into the shop to unbolt the door and take down the shutters. His astonishment when he looked upon a blank wall of snow may be imagined. He did not question that the whole town was similarly overwhelmed. Such a snow-storm had never been heard of before, and he thought with uneasy recollection of the oath he had uttered in the school-room; imagining for a moment that the whole of Glamerton lay overwhelmed by the divine wrath, because he had, under the agony of a bite from his own dog, consigned her to a quarter where dogs and children are not admitted. In his bewilderment, he called aloud:
"Nancy! Robbie! Johnnie! We're a' beeriet alive!"
"Preserve's a', Robert! what's happent?" cried his wife, rushing from the kitchen.
"I'm no beeriet, that I ken o'," cried Robert the younger, entering from the yard.
His father rushed to the back-door, and, to his astonishment and relief, saw the whole world about him. It was a private judgment, then, upon him and his shop. And so it was—a very private judgment. Probably it was the result of his meditations upon it, that he never after carried complaints to Murdoch Malison.
Alec Forbes had nothing to do with this revenge. But Bruce always thought he was at the bottom of it, and hated him the more. He disliked all loons but his own; for was not the spirit of loons the very antipodes to that of money-making? But Alec Forbes he hated, for he was the very antipode to Robert Bruce himself. Mrs Bruce always followed her husband's lead, being capable only of two devotions—the one to her husband and children, the other to the shop.—Of Annie they highly and righteously disapproved, partly because they had to feed her, and partly because she was friendly with Alec. This disapproval rose into dislike after their sons had told them that it was because Juno had bitten her that the boys of the school, with Alec for a leader, had served her as they had. But it was productive of no disadvantage to her; for it could not take any active form because of the money-bond between them, while its negative operation gave rise chiefly to neglect, and so left her more at liberty, to enjoy herself as she could after her own fashion.
For the rest of Juno's existence, the moment she caught sight of a boy she fled as fast as her four bow-legs would carry her, not daring even to let her tail stick out behind her, lest it should afford a handle against her.
When Annie heard that Alec had been bitten she was miserable. She knew his bite must be worse than hers, or he would not be kept at home. Might she not venture to go and see him again? The modesty of a maidenly child made her fear to intrude; but she could not constrain her feet from following the path to his house. And as it was very dusk, what harm could there be in going just inside the gate, and on to the green? Through the parlour windows she saw the fire burning bright, and a shadow moving across the walls and the ceiling; but she could not make up her mind to knock at the door, for she was afraid of Mrs Forbes, notwithstanding her kindness. So she wandered on—for here there was no dog—wondering what that curious long mound of snow, with the round heap at the end, by the flag-staff, could be? What could Alec have made it for? Examining it closely all along, she came to the end of it next the house, and looking round, saw that it was hollow. Without a moment's thought, for she had no fear of Alec, she entered. The passage was dark, but she groped her way, on and on, till she came to the cell at the end. Here a faint ghostly light glimmered; for Alec had cleared a small funnel upwards through the roof, almost to the outside, so that a thin light filtered through a film of snow. This light being reflected from the white surface of the cave, showed it all throbbing about her with a faint bluish white, ever and anon whelmed in the darkness and again glimmering out through its folds. She seated herself on a ledge of snow that ran all round the foundation. It was not so cold here as in the outer air, where a light frosty wind was blowing across the world of snow. And she had not sat long, before, according to her custom when left to herself, she fell fast asleep.
Meantime Alec, his mother having gone to the town, was sitting alone, finishing, by the light of the fire, the last of a story. At length the dreariness of an ended tale was about him, and he felt the inactivity to which he had been compelled all day no longer tolerable. He would go and see how his snow-chamber looked by candlelight. His mother had told him not to go out; but that, he reasoned, could hardly be called going out, when there was not more than a yard of open air to cross. So he got a candle, was out of the window in a moment, notwithstanding his lameness, and crept through the long vault of snow towards the inmost recess. As he approached the end he started. Could he believe his eyes? A figure was there—motionless—dead perhaps. He went on—he went in—and there he saw Annie, leaning against the white wall, with her white face turned up to the frozen ceiling. She might have been the frost-queen, the spirit that made the snow, and built the hut, and dwelt in it; for all the powers that vivify nature must be children. The popular imagination seems to have caught this truth, for all the fairies and gnomes and goblins, yes, the great giants too, are only different sizes, shapes, and characters of children. But I have wandered from Alec's thoughts into my own. He knew it was Annie, and no strange creature of the elements. And if he had not come, she might have slept on till her sleep was too deep for any voice of the world to rouse her.
It was, even then, with difficulty that he woke her. He took hold of her hands, but she did not move. He sat down, took her in his arms, spoke to her—got frightened and shook her, but she would not open her eyes. Her long dark eyelashes sloped still upon her white cheek, like the low branches of a cedar upon the lawn at its foot. But he knew she was not dead yet, for he could feel her heart beating. At length she lifted her eyelids, looked up in his face, gave a low happy laugh, like the laugh of a dreaming child, and was fast asleep again in a moment.
Alec hesitated no longer. He rose with her in his arms, carried her into the parlour, and laid her down on the rug before the fire, with a sofa-pillow under her head. There she might have her sleep out. When Mrs Forbes came home she found Alec reading, and Annie sleeping by the fireside. Before his mother had recovered from her surprise, and while she was yet staring at the lovely little apparition, Alec had the first word.