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Alec Forbes of Howglen, by George Macdonald .. online

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Mary J. L. Mc Donald




"robert falconer," "david elginerod,"
"sir gibbie,"etc. etc.

* * * * a faith sincere
Drawn from the wisdom that begins with fear.

Wordsworth. — Second Evetutig Voluntary.





The farm-yard was full of tte light of a summer noontide.
Nothing can be so desolately dreary as full strong sunlight can
be. Not a living creature was to be seen in all the square in-
closure, though cow-houses and stables formed the greater part
of it, and one end was occupied by a dwelling-house. Away
through the gate at the other end, far off in fenced fields, might
be seen the dark forms of cattle ; and on a road, at no great
distance, a cart crawled along, drawn by one sleepy horse. An
occasional weary low came from some imprisoned cow — or
animal of the cow-kind ; but not even a cat crossed the yard.
The door of the barn was open, showing a polished floor, as
empty, bright, and clean as that of a ball-room. And through
the opposite door shone the last year's ricks of corn, golden in
the sun.

Now, although a farm-yard is not, either in Scotland or
elsewhere, the liveliest of places in ordinary, and still less about
noon in summer, yet there was a peculiar cause rendering this
one, at this moment, exceptionally deserted and dreary. But
there were, notwithstanding, a great many more people about
the place than was usual, only they were all gathered together
in the ben-end, or best room of the house — a room of tolerable
size, with a clean boarded floor, a mahogany table, black with
age, and chairs of like material, whose wooden seats, and high,
straight backs, were more suggestive of state than repose. Every
one of these chairs was occupied by a silent man, whose gaze
was either fixed on the floor, or lost in the voids of space. Each
wore a black coat, and most of them were in black throughout.
Their hard, thick, brown hands — hands evideutly imused to
idleness — ^grasped their knees, or, folded in each other, rested


upon them. Some bottles and glasses, with a plate of biscuits,
on a table in a corner, seemed to indicate that the meeting was
not entirely for business purposes ; and yet there were no signs
of any sort of enjoyment. Nor was there a woman to be seen
in the company.

Suddenly, at the open door, appeared a man whose shirt-
sleeves showed very white against his other clothing, which,
like that of the rest, was of decent black. He addressed the
assembly thus :

" Grin ony o' ye want to see the corp, iioo's yer time."

To this offer no one responded ; and, with a slight air of
'discomfiture, for he was a busy man, and liked bustle, the car-
penter turned en Ivs heel, and re-ascended the narrow stairs to
the upper room, where the corpse lay, waiting for its final dis-
irj-iiiSioa and courted oblivion.

"1 reckon they've a' seen him afore," he remarked, as he
rejoined his companion. " Puir fallow ! He's unco {uncoutlily)
worn. There'll no be muckle o' liim to rise again."

" George, man, dinna jeest i' the face o' a corp," returned
the other. " Te kenna whan yer ain turn may come."

" It's no disrespeck to the deid, Thamas. That ye ken weel
eneuch. I was only pityin' the worn face o' him, leukin up
there atween the buirds, as gin he had gotten what he wanted
sae lang, and was thankin' heaven for that same. I jist dinna
like to pit the lid ower him."

" Hoot ! hoot ! Lat the Lord luik efter his ain. The lid o'
the cofiin disna hide frae his een."

The last speaker was a stout, broad-shouldered man, a stone-
mason by trade, powerful, and somewhat asthmatic. He was
regarded in the neighbourhood as a very religious man, but was
more respected than liked, because his forte was rebuke. It was
from deference to him that the carpenter had assumed a mental
position generating a poetic mood and utter^ince quite unusual
with him, for he was a jolly, careless kind of fellow, well-mean-
ing and good-hearted.

So together they lifted the last covering of the dead, laid it
over him, and fastened it down. And there was darkness about
the dead ; but he knew it not, because he was full of light. Por
this man was one who, all his life, had striven to be better.

Meantime, the clergyman having arrived, the usual r^ ^■
ceremonial of a Scotcli funeral — the reading of the "Wo*
prayer — was going on below. This was all that gave lie Dunal
any sacred solemnity ; for at the grave the Scotch terror of
Popery forbids any observance of a religious cliaracter. The
voice of the reader was heard in the chamber of death.


" The minister's come, Thamas."

" Come or gang," said Thomas, " it's mucMe the same. The
word itsel' oot o' his mou' fa's as deid as chaif upo' clay.
Honest Jeames there'll rise ance mair ; but never a word that
man says, wi' the croon o' 's heid i' the how o' 's neck, '11 rise
to beir witness o' his ministrations."

" Hoot, Thamas ! It's no for the likes o' me to flee i' your
face — but jist say a fair word for the livin' ower the deid, ye ken."

" ]S"a, na. It's fair words maks foul wark ; and the wrath
o' the Almichty maun purge this toon or a' be dune. There's
a heap o' graceless gaeins on in't ; and that puir feckless body,
the minister, never gies a pu' at the bridle o' salvation, to hand
them aff o' the scaur (cliff) o' hell."

The stone-mason generally spoke of the Almighty as if he
were in a state of restrained indignation at the wrongs he en-
dured from his children. If Thomas was right in this, then
certainly he himself was one of his otFspring. If he was wrong,
then there was much well worth his unlearning.

The prayer was soon over, and the company again seated
themselves, waiting till the coffin should be placed in the hearse,
which now stood at the door.

" We'll jist draw the cork o' anither boatle," whispered a
sharp-faced man to his neighbour.

And rising, he opened two bottles, and filled the glasses the
second time with wine, red and white, which he handed to the
minister first.

" Tak' a drappy mair, sir," he whispered in a coaxing, old-
wivish tone ; " it's a lang road to the kirkyard."

But the minister declining, most of the others followed his
example. One after another they withdrew to the door, where
the hearse was now laden with the harvest of the grave.

Falling in behind the body, they moved in an irregular pro-
cession from the yard. Outside, they were joined by several
more in gigs aad on horseback ; and thus they crept, a curious
train, away towards the resting-place of the dead.

It were a dreary rest, indeed, if that were their resting-
place — on the side of a low hill, without tree or shrub to beau-
tify it, or even the presence of an old church to seem to sanctify
the spot. There was some long grass in it, though, clambering
up- ° 'uf it- sought to bury the gravestones in their turn. And
that: ipng grass was a blessing. Better still, there was a sky
overhdiav, in which men cannot set up any gravestones. But if
any graveyard be the type of the rest expected by those left
behind, it is no wonder they shrink from joining those that are


When the last man had disappeared, the women, like those
of an eastern harem, began to come out. The first that entered
the deserted room was a hard-featured, reproachful-looking
woman, the sister of the departed. She instantly began to put
the place in order, as if she expected her turn to come on the
morrow. In a few moments more a servant appeared, and be-
gan to assist her. The girl had been crying, and the tears
would still come, in spite of her efforts to repress them. In
the vain attempt to dry her eyes with the corner of her apron,
she nearly dropped one of the chairs, which she was simultane-
ously dusting and restoring to its usual place. Her mistress
turned upon her with a kind of cold fierceness.

" Is that hoo ye shaw yer regaird to the deid, by braekin'
the cheirs he left ahin' him ? Lat sit, an' gang an' luik for
that puir, doited thing, Annie. Grin it had only been the
Almichty's will to hae ta'en her, an' left him, honest man ! "

" Dinna daur to say a word again' the bairn, mem. The
deid'll hear ye, an' no lie still."

" Supperstitious quean ! Gang an' do as I tell ye this
minute. What business hae ye to gang greetin aboot the
boose ? He was no drap's bluid o' yours ! "

To this the girl made no reply, but left the room in quest
of Annie. When she reached the door, she stood for a moment
on the threshold, and, putting her hand over her eyes, shouted
" Annie ! " But, apparently startled at the sound of her own
voice where the unheariug dead had so lately passed, she let
the end of the call die away in a quaver, and, without repeating
it, set ofli" to find the missing child by the use of her eyes alone.
First she went into the barn, and then through the barn into
the stack-yard, and then round the ricks one after another, and
then into the corn-loft ; but all without avail. At leugth, as
she was beginning to feel rather alarmed about the child, she
arrived, in the progress of her search, at the door of one of the
cow-houses. The moment she looked round the corner into
the stall next the door, she stood stock-still, with her mouth
wide open. This stall was occupied by a favourite cow — brown,
with large white spots, called therefore Brownie. Her manger
was full of fresh-cut grass ; and half-buried in this grass, at one
end of the manger, with her back against the wall, sat Annie,
holding one of the ears of the hornless Brownie with one hand
and stroking the creature's nose with the other.


She was a delicate child, about nine years old, with blue
eyes, half-full of tears, hair somewhere between dark and fair,
g:athered in a silk net, and a pale face, on which a faint moon-
like smile was glimmering. The old cow continued to hold her
nose to be stroked.

" Is na Broouie a fine coo, Betty ? " said the child, as the
maid went on staring at her. " Puir Broonie ! Naebody
mindit me, an' sae I cam to you, Broonie."

And she laid her cheek, white, smooth, and thin, against the
broad, flat, hairy forehead of the friendly cow. Then turning
again to Betty, she said —

" Dinna tell auntie whaur I am, Betty. Lat me be. I'm
best here wi' Broonie."

Betty said never a word, but returned to her mistress.

" Whaur's the bairn, Bettv ? At some mischeef or ither,
I'll wad."

"Hoot! mem, the bairn's weel eneuch. Bairns maunna be
followed like carr {calves).'"

" Whaur is she ? "

" I canna jist doonricht exackly tak upo' me to say," an-
swered Betty ; " but I ,hae no fear aboot her. She's a wise

" Te're no the lassie's keeper, Betty. I see I maun seek
her mysel'. Te're aidin' an' abettin' as usual."

So saying. Auntie Meg went out to look for her niece. It
was some time before the natural order of her search brought
her at last to the byre. By that time Annie was almost asleep in
the grass, which the cow was gradually pulling away from
under her. Through the open door the child could see the
sunlight lying heavy upon the hot stones that paved the yard ;
but in here it was so dark-shadowy and cool, and the cow was
such good, kindly company, and she was so safe hidden from
auntie, as she thought — for no one had ever found her there
before, and she knew Betty would not tell — that, as I say, she
was nearly asleep with comfort, half-buried in Brownie's dinner.

But she was roused all at once to a sense of exposure and
insecurity. She looked up, and at the same moment the hawk-
nose of her aunt came round the door-cheek. Auntie's temper
was none the better than usual that it had pleased the AlmicJity
to take the brother whom she loved, and to leave behind the
child whom she regarded as a painful responsibility. And now
with her small, fierce eyes, and her big, thin nose — both red
with suppressed crying — she did not dawn upon the sense of
Annie as an embodiment of the maternity of the universe.

" Ye plaguesome brat ! " cried Auntie ; " there has Betty


been seekin' ye, and I hae been seekin' ye, far an' near, i' the
verra rottan-holes ; an' here ye are, on yer ain father's buryin'
day, that comes but auce — takin' up wi' a coo."

But the causes of Annie's preference of the society of
Brownie to that of Auntie might have been tolerably clear to
an onlooker, without word spoken. Tor to Annie and her
needs, notwithstanding the humble four-footedness of Brownie,
there was in her large mild eyes, and her- hairy, featureless
face, all nose and no nose, more of the divine than in the human
form of Auntie Meg. And there was something of an indigna-
tion quite human in the way the cow tossed her bound head
and neck towards the woman that darkened the door, as if
warning her off her premises. But without a word of reply,
Annie rose, flung her arms around Brownie's head, kissed the
white star on her forehead, disengaged herself from the grass,
and got out of the manger. Auntie seized her hand with a
rough action, but not ungentle grasp, and led her away to the
house. The stones felt verv hot to her little bare feet.


By this time the funeral was approaching the churchyard at
a more rapid pace ; for the pedestrians had dropped away one
by one, on diverging roads, or had stopped and retraced their
steps. But as they drew near the place, the slow trot subsided
into a slow walk once moi*e. To an English eye the whole
mode would have appeared barbarous. But if the carved and
gilded skulls and cross-bones on the hearse were ill-conceived,
at least there were no awful nodding plumes to make death
hideous with yet more of cloudy darkness ; and one of the
panels showed, in all the sunshine that golden rays could yield,
the Resurrection of the Lord — the victory over the grave.
And, again, when they stopped at the gate of the churchyard,
they were the hands of friends and neighbours, and not those
of cormorant undertakers and obscene mutes, that bore the
dead man to his grave. And, once more, if the only rite they
observed, when the body had settled into its ' place of decay,
was the silent uncovering of the head, as a last token of respect
and farewell, it may be suggested that the Church of England
herself, in all her beautiful service, has no prayer for the de-
parted soul, which cannot be beyond the need of prayer, as the


longings tliat follow it into the region of the Unknown, are not
beyond its comfort.

Before the grave was quite filled the company had nearly
gone. Thomas Crann, the stone-mason, and Greorge Macwha,
the icriglit, alone remained behind, for they had some charge
over the arrangements, and were now taking a share in covering
the grave. At length the last sod was laid upon the mound,
and stamped into its place, where soon the earth's broken surface
would heal, as society would flow together again, closing over
the place that had known the departed, and would know him no
more. Then Thomas and George sat down, opposite to each
other, on two neighbouring tombstones, and wiping their brows,
gave each a sigh of relief, for the sun was hot and oppressive.

" Hech ! it's a weary warl," said George.

"Te hae no richt to say sae, George," answered Thomas,
" for ye hae never met it, an' foughten wi' 't. Te hae never
draan the soord o' the Lord and o' Gideon. Te hae never
broken the pitcher, to lat the lamp shine out, an' I doubt ye hae
emo'red it by this time. And sae, whan the bridegroom comes,
ye'Ubeill-afffor alicht."

" Hoot, man ! dinna speak sic awfu' things i' the verra kirk-

" Better hear them i' the kirkyard than at the closed door,
George ! "

" Weel, but," rejoined Macwha, anxious to turn the current
of the conversation, which he found unpleasantly personal, " jist
tell me honestly, Thamas Crann, do ye believe, wi' a' yer heart
an' sowl, that the deid man — Gude be wi' him! — "

" No prayin' for the deid i' my hearin', George ! As the tree
falleth, so it shall lie."

" Weel ! weel ! I didna mean onything."

" That I verily believe. Te seldom do ! "

" But I jist want to speir," resumed George, with some
asperity, getting rather nettled at his companion's persistent
discourtesy, " gin ye believe that Jeames Anderson here, honest
man, aneath our feet, crumblin' awa', as ye ken, and no ae spoke
o' his wheel to the fore, or lang, to tell what his cart was like —
do ye believe that his honest face will, ae day, pairt the mouls,
an' come up again, jist here, i' the face o' the light, the verra
same as it vanished whan we pat the lid ower him ? Do ye be-
lieve that, Thamas Crann ? "

"Na, na, George, man. Te ken little what ye're busiest
sayin'. It'll be a glorifeed body that he'll rise wi'. It's sown
in dishonour, and raised in glory. Hoot ! hoot ! ye are ignor-
ant, man ! "


Macwha got more nettled still at his tone of superiority.

" Wad it be a glorifeed timmer-leg he rase wi', gin he had
been buried wi' a timmer-leg ? " asked he.

" His ain leg wad be buried some gait."

" Ow ay ! nae doubt. An' it wad come happin' ower the
Paceetic, or the Atlantic, to jine its oreeginal stump — wad it no?
But supposin' the man had been born wantiii' a leg — eh,
Thamas ? "

"George! George!" said Thomas, with great solemnity,
" luik ye efter yer sowl, an' the Lord'ill luik after yer body,
legs an' a' ! Man, ye' re no couvertit, an' hoo can ye unnerstan'
the things o' the speerit ? Aye jeerin', an' jeerin' ! "

" Weel ! weel ! Thamas," rejoined Macwha, mollified in per-
ceiving that he had not had altogether the worst in the tilt of
words ; " I wad only tak' the leeberty o' thinkin' that, when He
was aboot it, the Almighty micht as weel mak' a new body a'the-
gither, as gang patchin' up the auld ane. Sae I s' awa hame."

" Mind ye yer immortal pairt, George," said Thomas, with a
final thrust, as he likewise rose to go home with him on the box
of the hearse.

" Gin the Lord tak's sic guid care o' the body, Thamas,"
retorted Macwha, with less of irreverence than appeared in his
words, " maybe he winna objec' to gie a look to my puir soul as
weel ; for they say it's worth a hantle mair. I wish he wad, for
he kens better nor me hoo to set aboot the job."

So saying, he strode briskly over the graves and out of the
churchyard, leaving Thomas to follow as fast as suited his un-
wieldy strength.


Meantime another conversation was going on in one of the
gigs, as it bore two of the company from the place of tombs,
which will serve a little for the purposes of tliia history. One
of the twain was a cousin of the deceased, already incidentally
mentioned as taking some direction in the matter of refresh-
ment. His name was no less than Robert Bruce. The other was
called Andrew Constable, and was a worthy elder of the kirk.

'■ Weel, Robert," began the latter, after they had jogged on
in silence for half a mile or so, " what's to be done wi' little
Annie Anderson and her Auntie Meg, noo that the douce man's
gane hame, an' left them thcroot, as't war ? "


" They canna hae that muckle to the fore efter the doctor an'
a' 's sattled for."

" It's no to be thought. It's lang sin' ever he wrought a
day's darg {contracted from ^ dai/iverh^^.'"

" Jeames Dow luikit weel after the farmin', though."

" N^ae doot. He's a guid servant that, to ony man he ca's
master. But there canna be muckle siller to the fore."

A pause followed.

" What think ye noo, Andrew ? " recommenced Bruce.
" Te're weel kent for an honest an' a langheided man. Do ye
think that folk wad expec' onything o' me gin the warst cam to
the warst ? "

" AYeel, Hobert, I dinna think there's muckle guid in luikin'
to what fowk micht or micht not expec' o' ye."

"That's jist what I was thiukin' mysel' ; for, ye see, I hae
a sma' family o' my ain to baud chowin' already."

"Nae doot — nae doot. But — "

" Ay, ay ; I ken what ye wad say. I maunna a'thegitber
disregaird what fowk think, 'cause there's the chop (shop) ; an'
gin I auce got — no to say an ill name, but jist the wind o' no
being sae considerate as I micht hae been, there's no sayin' but
twa cc three micht gang by my door, and across to Jamie Mit-
chell's yonner."

" Do ye what's richt, Eobert Bruce, and sae defy fowk and

" jNTa, na, that winna of/e work. A body maun tak' care o'
their ain, else wha's to do't ? "

""Weel," rejoined Andrew with a smile, for he understood
Bruce well enough, although he pretended to have mistaken his
meaning — " weel, gin the bairnie falls to you, nae doot ye maun
take chairge o' her."

"I dinna mean Jeames Anderson's bairns — I mean my ain

" Eobert, whatever way ye decide, I houp it may be sic a
deceesion as will admit o' yer castin' yer care upo' HimJ"

" I ken a' aboot that, Andrew. But my opeenion upo' that
text is jist this — that ilka vessel has to baud the fill o' 't, and
what rins ower may be committed to Him, for ye can baud it
no langer. Them that winna tak tent {care) '11 tak scathe.
It's a sweer Qazy) thochtless way to gang to the Almichty wi'
ilka fash. AVhan I'm driven to ane mair, that ane sail aye be
Him. Te min' the story about my namesake and the spidder ? "

" Ay, weel eneuch," answered Andrew.

But he did not proceed to remark that he could see no con-
nection between that story and the subject in hand, for Bruce's


question did not take him by surprise, it being well understood
that he was in the habit of making all possible and some impos-
sible references to his great namesake. Indeed, he wished every-
body to think, though he seldom ventured to assert it plainly,
that he was lineally descended from the king. Nor did Andrew
make further remark of any sort with regard to the fate of
Annie or the duty of Bruce, for he saw that his companion
wanted no advice — only some talk, and possibly some sympathy
with his perplexity as to what the world might think of him.
But with this perplexity Andrew could accord him very little
sympathy indeed ; for he could not take much interest in the
buttressing of a reputation which he knew to be already quite
undermined by widelj^-reported acts of petty meanness and
selfishness. Nor was this fact much to be wondered at, if his
principles were really those which he had so openly advocated.
Indeed, Andrew knew well that it would be a bad day for poor
Annie when she came under Bruce's roof, and therefore sincerely
hoped that Auntie Meg might find some way of managing so as
to avoid parting with the child ; for he knew, too, that, though
her aunt was fierce and hard, she had yet a warm spot some-
where about her heart.

Margaret Anderson had known perfectly well for some time
that she and Annie must part before long. The lease of the
farm would expire at the close of the autumn of next year ; and
as it had been rather a losing afiair for some time, she had no
inclination to request a renewal. AVhen her brother's debts
should be paid, there would not remain, even after the sale of
the stock, more than a hundred and fifty pounds. For herself,
she believed she must go into service — which would hurt her
pride more than it would alter her position, for her hands had
done far more of the necessary labour than those of the maid
who assisted her. Indeed, in her proudest mood, she would
have w^elcomed death rather than idleness. AVhat was to become
of Annie she did not yet see.

Meantime there remained for the child just a year more of
the native farm, with all the varieties of life which had been so
dear to her. Auntie Meg did not spare to put her in mind of
the coming change ; but it seemed to Annie so long in coming
that it never would come. The impression was worn oiF by the
daily attempt to deepen it, she gave herself up to the childish
pleasures within her reach, without thinking of their approach-
ing loss.



AsD why should Anuie think of the future? The future
was not : the present was — and full of delights. If she did
not receive much tenderness from auntie, at least she was not
afraid of her. The pungency of her temper was but as the salt
and vinegar which brought out the true flavour of the other
numberless pleasures around her. Were her excursions far a-
lield, perched aloft on Dowie's shoulder, and holding on by the
top of his head, or clinging to his back with her arms round his

Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldAlec Forbes of Howglen, by George Macdonald .. → online text (page 1 of 43)