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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.
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