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Orphaned as a child, Annie's special friendship with Alec is a source of strength and security which sees them both through many difficulties in their nineteenth-century Scotland.
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The farm-yard was full of the 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 inclosure, 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 evidently unused 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:
"Gin ony o' ye want to see the corp, noo'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 carpenter turned on his heel, and re-ascended the narrow stairs to the upper room, where the corpse lay, waiting for its final dismission and courted oblivion.
"I reckon they've a' seen him afore," he remarked, as he rejoined his companion. "Puir fallow! He's unco (uncouthly) worn. There'll no be muckle o' him to rise again."
"George, man, dinna jeest i' the face o' a corp," returned the other. "Ye 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 coffin disna hide frae his een."
The last speaker was a stout, broad-shouldered man, a stonemason 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 utterance quite unusual with him, for he was a jolly, careless kind of fellow, well-meaning 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. For this man was one who, all his life, had striven to be better.
Meantime, the clergyman having arrived, the usual religious ceremonial of a Scotch funeral—the reading of the Word and prayer—was going on below. This was all that gave the burial any sacred solemnity; for at the grave the Scotch terror of Popery forbids any observance of a religious character. The voice of the reader was heard in the chamber of death.
"The minister's come, Thamas."
"Come or gang," said Thomas, "it's muckle the same. The word itsel' oot o' his mou' fa's as deid as chaff 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, 'll 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."
"Na, 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 haud 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 endured from his children. If Thomas was right in this, then certainly he himself was one of his offspring. 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 procession from the yard. Outside, they were joined by several more in gigs and 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 beautify 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 as if it sought to bury the gravestones in their turn. And that long grass was a blessing. Better still, there was a sky overhead, 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 away.
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 began 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 simultaneously 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 brackin' the cheirs he left ahin' him? Lat sit, an' gang an' luik for that puir, doited thing, Annie. Gin 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 hoose? 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 unhearing dead had so lately passed, she let the end of the call die away in a quaver, and, without repeating it, set off 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 length, 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, gathered 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 Broonie 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, Betty? 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," answered Betty; "but I hae no fear aboot her. She's a wise bairn."
"Ye're no the lassie's keeper, Betty. I see I maun seek her mysel'. Ye'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 Almichty 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 ance—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. For 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 indignation 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 very 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 more. 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 departed soul, which cannot be beyond the need of prayer, as the longings that 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 George Macwha, the wright, 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.
"Ye hae no richt to say sae, George," answered Thomas, "for ye hae never met it, an' foughten wi' 't. Ye hae never draan the soord o' the Lord and o' Gideon. Ye hae never broken the pitcher, to lat the lamp shine out, an' I doubt ye hae smo'red it by this time. And sae, whan the bridegroom comes, ye'll be ill-aff for a licht."
"Hoot, man! dinna speak sic awfu' things i' the verra kirkyard."
"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. Ye 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 believe that, Thamas Crann?"
"Na, na, George, man. Ye 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 ignorant, 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 Paceefic, or the Atlantic, to jine its oreeginal stump—wad it no? But supposin' the man had been born wantin' 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 convertit, an' hoo can ye unnerstan' the things o' the speerit? Aye jeerin', an' jeerin'!"
"Weel! weel! Thamas," rejoined Macwha, mollified in perceiving 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'thegither, as gang patchin' up the auld ane. Sae I s' twa 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 unwieldy 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 this history. One of the twain was a cousin of the deceased, already incidentally mentioned as taking some direction in the matter of refreshment. 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 theroot, 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 'daywerk')."
"Jeames Dow luikit weel after the farmin', though."
"Nae 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. "Ye'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?"
"Weel, Robert, 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 thinkin' mysel'; for, ye see, I hae a sma' family o' my ain to haud chowin' already."
"Nae doot—nae doot. But—"
"Ay, ay; I ken what ye wad say. I maunna a'thegither disregaird what fowk think, 'cause there's the chop (shop); an' gin I ance 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 or three micht gang by my door, and across to Jamie Mitchell's yonner."
"Do ye what's richt, Robert Bruce, and sae defy fowk and fairy."
"Na, na, that winna aye 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 bairns."
"Robert, whatever way ye decide, I houp it may be sic a deceesion as will admit o' yer castin' yer care upo' Him."
"I ken a' aboot that, Andrew. But my opeenion upo' that text is jist this—that ilka vessel has to haud the fill o' 't, and what rins ower may be committed to Him, for ye can haud it no langer. Them that winna tak tent (care) 'll tak scathe. It's a sweer (lazy) thochtless way to gang to the Almichty wi' ilka fash. Whan I'm driven to ane mair, that ane sall aye be Him. Ye 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 connection 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 impossible references to his great namesake. Indeed, he wished everybody 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 widely-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 somewhere 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 affair for some time, she had no inclination to request a renewal. When 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 welcomed death rather than idleness. What 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 off by the daily attempt to deepen it, she gave herself up to the childish pleasures within her reach, without thinking of their approaching loss.
And why should Annie 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 afield, 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 neck, at all the less delightful that auntie was scolding at home? They would have been less delightful if she had thought of the future; but she thought only of the present joy; or rather she took it as it came, and let it play upon her, without thinking about it at all. And if she was late for one of her meals, for Annie had no very correct sense of the lapse of time, and auntie had declared she should go fasting, it was yet not without her connivance that rosy-faced Betty got the child the best of everything that was at hand, and put cream in her milk, and butter on her oat cake, Annie managing to consume everything with satisfaction, notwithstanding the hurdy-gurdy accompaniment of her aunt's audible reflections. And Brownie was always friendly; ever ready on any serious emergency, when auntie's temper was still less placid than usual, to yield a corner of her manger for a refuge to the child. And the cocks and hens, even the peacock and the turkey-cock, knew her perfectly, and would come when she called them, if not altogether out of affection for her, at least out of hope in her bounty; and she had not yet arrived at the painful wisdom of beginning to question motives—a wisdom which misleads more than it guides. She loved them, and that was enough for her. And she would ride the horses to water, sitting sideways on their broad backs like a barefooted lady; for Dowie had such respect for his little mistress, as he called her, that he would never let her get astride "like a laddie," however much she wanted to do so. And when the morning was wet, and the sound of the flails came to her from the barn, she would watch for the moment when her aunt's back would be turned, and then scurry across the yard, like a mouse to its hole; for auntie's first impulse was always to oppose whatever Annie desired. Once in the barn, she would bury herself like a mole in the straw, and listen to the unfailing metronome of the flails, till she would fall so fast asleep as to awake only when her uncomfortable aunt, believing that at last the awful something or other had happened to the royt lassie, dragged her out ignominiously by the heels. But the royt lassie was one of the gentlest of girls, what adventurousness she had being the result of faith, and not of hardihood.
And then came the delights of the harvest-field—soon to become great golden splendours to the memory. With the reapers she would remain from morning till night, sharing in their meals, and lightening their labour with her gentle frolic. Every day, after the noon-tide meal, she would go to sleep on the shady side of a stook, upon two or three sheaves which Dowie would lay down for her in a choice spot. Indeed the little mistress was very fond of sleep, and would go to sleep anywhere; this habit being indeed one of her aunt's chief grounds of complaint. For before hay-time, for instance, when the grass was long in the fields, if she came upon any place that took her fancy, she would tumble down at once, and show that she loved it by going to sleep upon it. Then it was no easy task to find her amidst the long grass that closed over her, as over a bird in its nest. But the fact was, this habit indicated a feebleness of constitution, to which sleep itself was the best restorative. And in the harvest-field, at least, no harm could come of it; for Dooie, as she always called him, watched her like a mother; so that sometimes when she awoke, she would find a second stook of ten sheaves, with a high-uplifted crowning pair above, built at right angles to the first, to shelter her from the sun which had peered round the corner, and would soon have stared her awake.
The only discomfort of the harvest-field was, that the sharp stubble forced her to wear shoes. But when the corn had all been carried home, and the potatoes had been dug up and heaped in warm pits against the winter, and the mornings and evenings grew cold, and, though still friendly to strong men and women, were rather too keen for delicate little Annie—she had to put on both shoes and stockings, which she did not like at all.
So with "gentle gliding," through a whole winter of ice and snow, through a whole spring of promises tardily fulfilled, through a summer of glory, and another autumn of harvest joy, the day drew on when they must leave the farm. And still to Annie it seemed as far off as ever.
One lovely evening in October, when the shadows were falling from the western sun, and the light that made them was as yellow as a marigold, and a keen little wind was just getting ready to come out and blow the moment the sun would be out of sight, Annie, who was helping to fasten up the cows for the night, drawing iron chains round their soft necks, saw a long shadow coming in at the narrow entrance of the yard. It came in and in; and was so long in coming in, that she began to feel as if it was something not quite cannie, and to fancy herself frightened. But, at length, she found that the cause of the great shadow was only a little man; and that this little man was no other than her father's cousin, Robert Bruce. Alas! how little a man may cast a great shadow!
He came up to Annie, and addressed her in the smoothest voice he could find, fumbling at the same time in his coat-pocket.
"Hoo are ye the nicht dawtie? Are ye verra weel? An' hoo's yer auntie?"
He waited for no reply to any of these questions, but went on.
"See what I hae brocht ye frae the chop."
So saying, he put into her hand about half-a-dozen sweeties, screwed up in a bit of paper. With this gift he left her, and walked on to the open door of the house, which, as a cousin, he considered himself privileged to enter unannounced even by a knock. He found the mistress of it in the kitchen, superintending the cooking of the supper.
"Hoo are ye the nicht, Marget?" he said, still in a tone of conciliatory smoothness, through which, however, he could not prevent a certain hardness from cropping out plentifully. "Ye're busy as usual, I see. Weel, the hand o' the diligent maketh rich, ye ken."
"That portion o' the Word maun be o' leemited application, I doot," returned Marget, as, withdrawing her hand from her cousin's, she turned again to the pot hanging over the fire. "No man daurs to say that my han' has not been the han' o' the diligent; but Guid kens I'm nane the richer."
"We maunna repine, Marget. Richt or wrang, it's the Lord's will."
"It's easy to you, Robert Bruce, wi' yer siller i' the bank, to speik that gait til a puir lone body like me, that maun slave for my bread whan I'm no sae young as I micht be. No that I'm like to dee o' auld age either."
"I haena sae muckle i' the bank as some folk may think; though what there is is safe eneuch. But I hae a bonny business doun yonner, and it micht be better yet. It's jist the land o' Goshen, only it wants a wheen mair tap-dressin'."
"Tak it frae the bank, than, Robert."
"The bank! said ye, Marget? I canna do that."
"And what for no?"
"'Cause I'm jist like the hens, Marget. Gin they dinna see ae egg i' the nest, they hae no hert to lay anither. I daurna meddle wi' the bank."
"Weel, lat sit than; an' lay awa' at yer leisur'. Hoo's the mistress?"
"No that weel, and no that ill. The faimily's rather sair upo' her. But I canna haud her oot o' the chop for a' that. She's like mysel'—she wad aye be turnin' a bawbee. But what are ye gaein to do yersel', Marget?"
"I'm gaein to my uncle and aunt—auld John Peterson and his wife. They're gey and frail noo, and they want somebody to luik efter them."
"Than ye're weel provided for; Praise be thankit! Marget."
"Ow, ay; nae doot," replied Marget, with bitterness, of which Bruce took no notice.
"And what's to come o' the bairnie?" pursued he.
"I maun jist get some dacent auld body i' the toon to tak' her in, and lat her gang to the schuil. It's time. The auld fowk wadna pit up wi' her a week."
"And what'll that cost ye, Marget?"
"I dinna ken. But the lassie's able to pay for her ain upbringin'."
"It's no far 'at a hunner and fifty'll gang i' thae times, woman. An' it's a pity to tak frae the prencipal. She'll be merryin' some day."
"Ow, 'deed, maybe. Bairns will be fules."
"Weel, end na ye pit it oot at five per cent., and there wad aye be something comin' o' 't? That wad be seven pun' ten i' the year, an' the bairnie micht amaist—no freely but nigh-han'—be broucht up upo' that."
Margaret lifted her head and looked at him.
"An' wha wad gie five per cent. for her bit siller, whan he can get it frae the bank, on guid security, for four an' a half?"
"Jist mysel', Marget. The puir orphan has naebody but you and me to luik till; an' I wad willin'ly do that muckle for her. I'll tell ye what—I'll gie her five per cent. for her siller; and for the bit interest, I'll tak her in wi' my ain bairns, an' she s' hae bit and sup wi' them, an' gang to the school wi' them, and syne—efter a bit—we'll see what comes neist."
To Margaret this seemed a very fair offer. It was known to all that the Bruce children were well-enough dressed for their station, and looked well-fed; and although Robert had the character of being somewhat mean, she did not regard that as the worst possible fault, or one likely to operate for the injury of the child. So she told her cousin that she would think about it; which was quite as much as he could have expected. He took his leave all but satisfied that he had carried his point, and not a little uplifted with his prospects.
For was it not a point worth carrying—to get both the money and the owner of it into his own hands? Not that he meant conscious dishonesty to Annie. He only rejoiced to think that he would thus satisfy any expectations that the public might have formed of him, and would enjoy besides a splendid increase of capital for his business; while he hoped to keep the girl upon less than the interest would come to. And then, if anything should happen to her—seeing she was not over vigorous—the result was worth waiting for; whereas—if she throve—he had sons growing up, one of whom might take a fancy to the heiress, and would have facilities for marrying her, &c. &c.; for Grocer Robert was as deep in his foresight and scheming as King Robert, the crowning triumph of whose intellect, in the eyes of his descendant, was the strewing of the caltrops on the field of Bannockburn.
But James Dow was ill-pleased when he heard of the arrangement—which was completed in due time. "For," said he, "I canna bide that Bruce. He's a naisty mean cratur. He wadna fling a bane till a dog, afore he had ta'en a pyke at it himsel'." He agreed, however, with his mistress, that it would be better to keep Annie in ignorance of her destiny as long as possible; a consideration which sprung from the fact that her aunt, now that she was on the eve of parting with her, felt a little delicate growth of tenderness sprouting over the old stone wall of her affection for the child, owing its birth, in part, to the doubt whether she would be comfortable in her new home.
A day that is fifty years off comes as certainly as if it had been in the next week; and Annie's feeling of infinite duration did not stop the sand-glass of Old Time. The day arrived when everything was to be sold by public roup. A great company of friends, neighbours, and acquaintances gathered; and much drinking of whisky-punch went on in the kitchen as well as in the room where, a few months before, the solemn funeral-assembly had met.
Little Annie speedily understood what all the bustle meant: that the day of desolation so long foretold by the Cassandra-croak of her aunt, had at length actually arrived, and that all the things she knew so well were vanishing from her sight for ever.
She was in the barn when the sound of the auctioneer's voice in the corn-yard made her look over the half-door and listen. Gradually the truth dawned upon her; and she burst into tears over an old rake which she had been accustomed to call hers, because she had always dragged it at hay-making. Then wiping her eyes hastily—for, partly from her aunt's hardness, she never could bear to be seen crying, even when a child—she fled to Brownie's stall, and burying herself in the manger, began weeping afresh. After a while, the fountain of tears was for the time exhausted, and she sat disconsolately gazing at the old cow feeding away, as if food were everything and a roup nothing at all, when footsteps approached the byre, and, to her dismay, two men, whom she did not know, came in, untied Brownie, and actually led her away from before her eyes. She still stared at the empty space where Brownie had stood,—stared like a creature stranded by night on the low coast of Death, before whose eyes in the morning the sea of Life is visibly ebbing away. At last she started up. How could she sit there without Brownie! Sobbing so that she could not breathe, she rushed across the yard, into the crowded and desecrated house, and up the stair to her own little room, where she threw herself on the bed, buried her eyes in the pillow, and, overcome with grief, fell fast asleep.
When she woke in the morning, she remembered nothing of Betty's undressing and putting her to bed. The dreadful day that was gone seemed only a dreadful dream, that had left a pain behind it. But when she went out, she found that yesterday would not stay amongst her dreams. Brownie's stall was empty. The horses were all gone, and many of the cattle. Those that remained looked like creatures forgotten. The pigs were gone, and most of the poultry. Two or three favourite hens were left, which auntie was going to take with her. But of all the living creatures she had loved, not one had been kept for Annie. Her life grew bitter with the bitterness of death.
In the afternoon, her aunt came up to her room, where she sat in tearful silence, and telling her that she was going to take her into the town, proceeded, without further explanation, to put all her little personal effects into an old hair-trunk, which Annie called her own. Along with some trifles that lay about the room, she threw into the bottom of the box about a dozen of old books, which had been on the chest of drawers since long before Annie could remember. She, poor child, let her do as she pleased, and asked no questions; for the shadow in which she stood was darkening, and she did not care what came next. For an hour the box stood on the floor like a coffin, and then Betty came, with red eyes and a red nose, and carried it downstairs. Then auntie came up again, dressed in her Sunday clothes. She put on Annie's best frock and bonnet—adorning the victim for sacrifice—at least, so Annie's face would have suggested—and led her down to the door. There stood a horse and cart. In the cart was some straw, and a sack stuffed with hay. As auntie was getting into the cart, Betty rushed out from somewhere upon Annie, caught her up, kissed her in a vehement and disorderly manner, and before her mistress could turn round in the cart, gave her into James Dow's arms, and vanished with strange sounds of choking. Dowie thought to put her in with a kiss, for he dared not speak; but Annie's arms went round his neck, and she clung to him sobbing—clung till she roused the indignation of auntie, at the first sound of whose voice, Dowie was free, and Annie lying in the cart, with her face buried in the straw. Dowie then mounted in front, with his feet on the shaft; the horse—one Annie did not know—started off gently; and she was borne away helpless to meet the unknown.
And the road was like the going. She had often been upon it before, but it had never looked as it did now. The first half-mile went through fields whose crops were gone. The stubble was sticking through the grass, and the potato stalks, which ought to have been gathered and burnt, lay scattered about all over the brown earth. Then came two miles of moorland country, high, and bleak, and barren, with hillocks of peat in all directions, standing beside the black holes whence they had been dug. These holes were full of dark water, frightful to look at; while along the side of the road went deep black ditches half-full of the same dark water. There was no danger of the cart getting into them, for the ruts were too deep to let the wheels out; but it jolted so dreadfully from side to side, as it crawled along, that Annie was afraid every other moment of being tilted into one of the frightful pools. Across the waste floated now and then the cry of a bird, but other sound there was none in this land of drearihead. Next came some scattered and ragged fields, the skirts of cultivation, which seemed to draw closer and closer together, while the soil grew richer and more hopeful, till, after two miles more, they entered the first straggling precincts of the grey market-town.
By this time the stars were shining clear in the cold, frosty sky, and candles or train-oil lamps were burning in most of the houses; for all these things took place long before gas had been heard of in those quarters. A few faces were pressed close to the window-panes as the cart passed; and some rather untidy women came to the house-doors to look. And they spoke one to another words which, though inaudible through the noise of the cart, were yet intelligible enough to Annie, with her own forebodings to interpret the expression of their faces.
"That'll be little Annie Anderson," they said. "She's gaein hame to bide wi' her cousin, Robert Bruce, up i' the Wast Wynd. Puir wee lassie!"
For, on the way, Annie had been informed of her destination.
But she was too miserable already, because of leaving her old home, to care much to what new one she was going. Had it not been for the absorption of this grief, she could not have been indifferent to the prospect of going to live with her cousin, although her dislike to him had never assumed a more active form than that of wishing to get away from him, as often as he came near her.
The cart stopped at Bruce's shop-door. It looked a heavy door, although the upper half was of glass—in small panes. Dowie got down and went into the shop; and before he returned Annie had time to make some listless observations. The house was a low one, although of two stories, built of grey stone, and thatched. The heavy door was between two windows belonging to the shop, in each of which burned a single tallow candle, revealing to the gaze of Annie, in all the enhancing mystery of candlelight, what she could not but regard as a perfect mine of treasures. For besides calico and sugar, and all the multifarious stock in the combined trades of draper and grocer, Robert Bruce sold penny toys, and halfpenny picture-books, and all kinds of confectionery which had been as yet revealed to the belated generations of Glamerton.
But she had not to contemplate these wonders long from the outside; for Bruce came to the door, and, having greeted his cousin and helped her down, turned to take Annie. Dowie had been before him, however, and now held the pale child silent in his arms. He carried her into the shop, and set her down on a sack that stood outside the counter, leaning against it. He then went back to his horse's head.
The sack made no bad seat, for it was half-full of turnip-seed; and upon it Annie sat, and drearily surveyed the circumstances.
Auntie was standing in the middle of the shop. Bruce was holding the counter open, and inviting her to enter.
"Ye'll come in and tak a cup o' tay, efter yer journey, Marget?" said he.
"Na, I thank ye, Robert Bruce. Jeames and I maun jist turn and gae hame again. There's a hantle to look efter yet, and we maunna neglec' oor wark. The hoose-gear's a' to be roupit the morn."
Then turning to Annie, she said:
"Noo, Annie, lass, ye'll be a guid bairn, and do as ye're tell't. An' min' and no pyke the things i' the chop."
A smile of peculiar import glimmered over Bruce's face at the sound of this injunction. Annie made no reply, but stared at Mr Bruce, and sat staring.
"Good-bye to ye, Annie!" said her aunt, and roused her a little from her stupor.
She then gave her a kiss—the first, as far as the child knew, that she had ever given her—and went out. Bruce followed her out, and Dowie came in. He took her up in his arms, and said:
"Good-bye to ye, my bonnie bairn. Be a guid lass, and ye'll be ta'en care o'. Dinna forget that. Min' and say yer prayers."
Annie kissed him with all her heart, but could not reply. He set her down again, and went out. She heard the harness rattle, and the cart go off. She was left sitting on the sack.
Presently Mr Bruce came in, and passing behind his counter, proceeded to make an entry in a book. It could have been no order from poor, homeless Margaret. It was, in fact, a memorandum of the day and the hour when Annie was set down on that same sack—so methodical was he! And yet it was some time before he seemed to awake to the remembrance of the presence of the child. Looking up suddenly at the pale, weary thing, as she sat with her legs hanging lifelessly down the side of the sack, he said—pretending to have forgotten her—
"Ow, bairn, are ye there yet?"
And going round to her, he set her on the floor, and leading her by the hand through the mysterious gate of the counter, and through a door behind it, called in a sharp decided tone:
"Mother, ye're wanted!"
Thereupon a tall, thin, anxious-looking woman appeared, wiping her hands in her apron.
"This is little Miss Anderson," said Bruce, "come to bide wi's. Gie her a biscuit, and tak' her up the stair till her bed."
As it was the first, so it was the last time he called her Miss Anderson, at least while she was one of his household.—Mrs Bruce took Annie by the hand in silence, and led her up two narrow stairs, into a small room with a skylight. There, by the shine of the far-off stars, she undressed her. But she forgot the biscuit; and, for the first time in her life, Annie went supperless to bed.
She lay for a while trying to fancy herself in Brownie's stall among the grass and clover, and so get rid of the vague fear she felt at being in a strange place without light, for she found it unpleasant not to know what was next her in the dark. But the fate of Brownie and of everything she had loved came back upon her; and the sorrow drove away the fear, and she cried till she could cry no longer, and then she slept. It is by means of sorrow, sometimes, that He gives his beloved sleep.
She woke early, rose, and dressed herself. But there was no water for her to wash with, and she crept down-stairs to look for help in this her first need. Nobody, however, was awake. She looked long and wistfully at the house-door, but seeing that she could not open it, she went back to her room. If she had been at home, she would soon have had a joyous good-morrow from the burst of fresh wind meeting her as she lifted the ready latch, to seek the companionship of yet earlier risers than herself; but now she was as lonely as if she had anticipated the hour of the resurrection, and was the little only one up of the buried millions. All that she had left of that home was her box, and she would have betaken herself to a desolate brooding over its contents; but it had not been brought up, and neither could she carry it up herself, nor would she open it in the kitchen where it stood. So she sat down on the side of her bed, and gazed round the room. It was a cheerless room. At home she had had chequered curtains to her bed: here there were none of any kind; and her eyes rested on nothing but bare rafters and boards. And there were holes in the roof and round the floor, which she did not like. They were not large, but they were dreadful. For they were black, nor did she know where they might go to. And she grew very cold.
At length she heard some noise in the house, and in her present mood any human noise was a sound of deliverance. It grew; was presently enriched by the admixture of baby-screams, and the sound of the shop-shutters being taken down; and at last footsteps approached her door. Mrs Bruce entered, and finding her sitting dressed on her bed, exclaimed:
"Ow! ye call dress yersel! can ye?"
"Ay, weel that," answered Annie, as cheerily as she could. "But," she added, "I want some water to wash mysel' wi'."
"Come doon to the pump, than," said Mrs Bruce.
Annie followed her to the pump, where she washed in a tub. She then ran dripping into the house for a towel, and was dried by the hands of Mrs Bruce in her dirty apron.—This mode of washing lasted till the first hoar-frost, after which there was a basin to be had in the kitchen, with plenty of water and not much soap.
By this time breakfast was nearly ready, and in a few minutes more, Mrs Bruce called Mr Bruce from the shop, and the children from the yard, and they all sat round the table in the kitchen—Mr Bruce to his tea and oat-cake and butter—Mrs Bruce and the children to badly-made oatmeal porridge and sky-blue milk. This quality of the milk was remarkable, seeing they had cows of their own. But then they sold milk. And if any customer had accused her of watering it, Mrs Bruce's best answer would have been to show how much better what she sold was than what she retained; for she put twice as much water in what she used for her own family—with the exception of the portion destined for her husband's tea, whose two graces were long and strong enough for a better breakfast. But then his own was good enough.
There were three children, two boys with great jaws—the elder rather older than Annie—and a very little baby. After Mr Bruce had prayed for the blessing of the Holy Spirit upon their food, they gobbled down their breakfasts with all noises except articulate ones. When they had finished—that is, eaten everything up—the Bible was brought; a psalm was sung, after a fashion not very extraordinary to the ears of Annie, or, indeed, of any one brought up in Scotland; a chapter was read—it happened to tell the story of Jacob's speculations in the money-market of his day and generation; and the exercise concluded with a prayer of a quarter of an hour, in which the God of Jacob especially was invoked to bless the Bruces, His servants, in their basket and in their store, and to prosper the labours of that day in particular. The prayer would have been longer, but for the click of the latch of the shop-door, which brought it to a speedier close than one might have supposed even Mr Bruce's notions of decency would have permitted. And almost before the Amen was out of his month, he was out of the kitchen.
When he had served the early customer, he returned, and sitting down, drew Annie towards him—between his knees, in fact, and addressed her with great solemnity.
"Noo, Annie," said he, "ye s' get the day to play yersel'; but ye maun gang to the school the morn. We can hae no idle fowk i' this hoose, sae we maun hae nae words aboot it."
Annie was not one to make words about that or anything. She was only too glad to get away from him. Indeed the prospect of school, after what she had seen of the economy of her home, was rather enticing. So she only answered,
"Verra weel, sir. Will I gang the day?"
Whereupon, finding her so tractable, Mr Bruce added, in the tone of one conferring a great favour, and knowing that he did so,
"Ye can come into the shop for the day, and see what's gaein on. Whan ye're a muckle woman, ye may be fit to stan' ahin' the coonter some day yersel'—wha kens?"
Robert Bruce regarded the shop as his Bannockburn, where all his enemies, namely customers, were to be defeated, that he might be enriched with their spoils. It was, therefore, a place of so great interest in his eyes, that he thought it must be interesting to everybody else. And, indeed, the permission did awake some ill-grounded expectations in the mind of Annie.
She followed him into the shop, and saw quite a fabulous wealth of good things around her; of which, however, lest she should put forth her hand and take, the militant eyes of Robert Bruce never ceased watching her, with quick-recurring glances, even while he was cajoling some customer into a doubtful purchase.
Long before dinner-time arrived, she was heartily sick of the monotony of buying and selling in which she had no share. Not even a picture-book was taken down from the window for her to look at; so that she soon ceased to admire even the picture-books—a natural result of the conviction that they belonged to a sphere above her reach. Mr Bruce, on the other hand, looked upon them as far below the notice of his children, although he derived a keen enjoyment from the transference, by their allurements, of the half-pence of other children from their pockets into his till.
"Naisty trash o' lees," he remarked, apparently for Annie's behoof, as he hung the fresh bait up in his window, after two little urchins, with bawbees to spend, had bought a couple of the radiant results of literature and art combined. "Naisty trash o' lees—only fit for dirrty laddies and lassies."
He stood on the watch in his shop like a great spider that ate children; and his windows were his web.
They dined off salt herrings and potatoes—much better fare than bad porridge and watered milk. Robert Bruce the younger, who inherited his father's name and disposition, made faces at Annie across the table as often as he judged it prudent to run the risk of discovery; but Annie was too stupefied with the awful change to mind it much, and indeed required all the attention she had at command, for the arrest of herring bones on their way to her throat.
After dinner, business was resumed in the shop, with at least the resemblance of an increase of vigour, for Mrs Bruce went behind the counter, and gave her husband time to sit down at the desk to write letters and make out bills. Not that there was much of either sort of clerkship necessary; but Bruce, like Chaucer's Man of Law, was so fond of business, that he liked to seem busier than he was. As it happened to be a half-holiday, Annie was sent with the rest of the children into the garden to play up and down the walks.
"An' min'," said Bruce, "an' haud oot ower frae the dog."
In the garden Annie soon found herself at the mercy of those who had none.
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