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Winter had begun to withdraw his ghostly troops, and Glamerton began to grow warmer. Not half so many cold feet dangled from the cold legs of little children in the torturing churches; not half so many coughs tore the chests of the poor old men and women as they stooped over their little fires, with the blasts from door and window-sill in their ankles and the backs of their necks. Annie, who had been very happy all the time, began to be aware of something more at hand. A flutter scarcely recognizable, as of the wings of awaking delight, would stir her little heart with a sensation of physical presence and motion; she would find herself giving an involuntary skip as she walked along, and now and then humming a bit of a psalm tune. A hidden well was throbbing in the child's bosom. Its waters had been frozen by the winter; and the spring, which sets all things springing, had made it flow and swell afresh, soon to break bubbling forth. But her joy was gentle, for even when she was merriest, it was in a sobor, douce, and maidenly fashion, testifying that she had already walked with Sorrow, and was not afraid of her.
Robert Bruce's last strategical move against the community had been tolerably successful, even in his own eyes; and he was consequently so far satisfied with himself, that he could afford to be in good humour with other people. Annie came in for a share of this humour; and although she knew him too well to have any regard for him, it was yet a comfort to her to be on such terms with him as not to have to dread a bitter word every time she chanced to meet him. This comfort, however, stood on a sandy foundation; for the fact that an expected customer had not called upon the Saturday might be enough to set the acetous fermentation at work all the Sunday in the bosom of Robert Bruce.
At length, one bright day in the end of March, Alec came home, not the worse to friendly eyes for having been at college. He seemed the same cheery, active youth as before. The chief differences apparent were, that he had grown considerably, and that he wore a coat. The hat, at that time a necessary portion of the college costume, he had discarded, wearing his old cap in preference. There was likewise a certain indescribable alteration in tone and manner, a certain general crystallization and polish, which the same friends regarded as an indubitable improvement.
The day after his arrival, crossing the square of Glamerton, he spied, in a group of men talking together, his old friend, Thomas Crann. He went up and shook hands with him, and with Andrew Constable, the clothier.
"Has na he grown a lang chield?" said Andrew to Thomas, regarding Alec kindly.
"Humph!" returned Thomas, "he'll jist need the langer coffin."
Alec laughed; but Andrew said, "Hoot! hoot!"
Thomas and Alec walked away together. But scarcely a sentence had been exchanged before the stonemason, with a delicacy of perception of which his rough manner and horny hands gave no indication, felt that a film of separation had come between the youth and himself. Anxious to break through it, he said abruptly,
"Hoo's yer immortal pairt, Alec? Min' ye, there's a knowledge that worketh deith."
Alec laughed--not scornfully--but he laughed.
"Ye may lauch, Alec, but it's a sair trowth," said the mason.
Alec held out his hand, for here their way diverged. Thomas shook it kindly, but walked away gloomy. Arrived at home, he shut to his door, and went down on his knees by his bedside. When Jean came with his supper she found the door fast.
In order to prepare for the mathematical studies of the following year, Alec went to the school again in the morning of most days, Mr Malison being well able to render him all the assistance he required. The first time he made his appearance at the door, a silence as of death was the sign of his welcome; but a tumult presently arose, and discipline was for a time suspended. I am afraid he had a slight feeling of condescension, as he returned the kind greeting of his old companions.--Raise a housemaid to be cook, and she will condescend to the new housemaid.
Annie sat still, staring at her book, and turning red and pale alternately. But he took no notice of her, and she tried to be glad of it.
When school was over, however, he came up to her in the lane, and addressed her kindly.
But the delicate little maiden felt, as the rough stonemason had felt, that a change had passed over the old companion and friend. True, the change was only a breath--a mere shadow. Yet it was a measureless gulf between them. Annie went to her garret that night with a sense of sad privation.
But her pain sprung from a source hardly so deep as that of the stonemason. For the change she found in Alec was chiefly of an external kind, and if she had a vague feeling of a deeper change, it had scarcely yet come up into her consciousness. When she saw the young gentleman her heart sank within her. Her friend was lost; and a shape was going about, as he did, looking awfully like the old Alec, who had carried her in his arms through the invading torrent. Nor was there wanting, to complete the bewilderment of her feeling, a certain additional reverence for the apparition, which she must after all regard as a further development of the same person.
Mrs Forbes never asked her to the house now, and it was well for her that her friendship with Tibbie Dyster had begun. But as she saw Alec day after day at school, the old colours began to revive out of the faded picture--for to her it was a faded picture, although new varnished. And when the spring had advanced a little, the boat was got out, and then Alec could not go rowing in the Bonnie Annie without thinking of its godmother, and inviting her to join them. Indeed Curly would not have let him forget her if he had been so inclined; for he felt that she was a bond between him and Alec, and he loved Alec the more devotedly that the rift between their social positions had begun to show itself. The devotion of the schoolboy to his superior in schoolboy arts had begun to change into something like the devotion of the clansman to his chief--not the worst folly the world has known--in fact not a folly at all, except it stop there: many enthusiasms are follies only because they are not greater enthusiasms. And not unfrequently would an odd laugh of consciousness between Annie and Curly, unexpectedly meeting, reveal the fact that they were both watching for a peep or a word of Alec.
In due time the harvest came; and Annie could no more keep from haunting the harvest than the crane could keep from flying south when the summer is over. She watched all the fields around Glamerton; she knew what response each made to the sun, and which would first be ripe for the reaping; and the very day that the sickle was put in, there was Annie to see and share in the joy. How mysterious she thought those long colonnades of slender pillars, each supporting its own waving comet-head of barley! Or when the sun was high, she would lie down on the ground, and look far into the little forest of yellow polished oat-stems, stretching away and away into the unseen--alas, so soon to fall, and leave a naked commonplace behind! If she were only small enough to go wandering about in it, what wonders might she not discover!--But I forget that I am telling a story, and not writing a fairy-tale.--Unquestioned as uninvited, she was, as she had often been before, one of the company of reapers, gatherers, binders, and stookers, assembled to collect the living gold of the earth from the early fields of the farm of Howglen. Sadly her thoughts went back to the old days when Dowie was master of the field, and she was Dowie's little mistress. Not that she met with anything but kindness--only it was not the kindness she had had from Dowie. But the pleasure of being once more near Alec almost made up for every loss. And he was quite friendly, although, she must confess, not quite so familiar as of old. But that did not matter, she assured herself.
The labourers all knew her, and themselves took care that she should have the portion of their food which her assistance had well earned, and which was all her wages. She never refused anything that was offered her, except money. That she had taken only once in her life--from Mr Cowie, whom she continued to love the more dearly for it, although she no longer attended his church.
But again the harvest was safely lodged, and the sad old age of the year sank through rains and frosts to his grave.
The winter came and Alec went.
He had not been gone a week when Mrs Forbes's invitations re-commenced; and, as if to make up for the neglect of the summer, they were more frequent than before. No time was so happy for Annie as the time she spent with her. She never dreamed of accusing her of fickleness or unevenness, but received whatever kindness she offered with gratitude. And, this winter, she began to make some return in the way of household assistance.
One day, while searching in the lumber-room for something for Mrs Forbes, she came upon a little book lying behind a box. It was damp and swollen and mouldy, and the binding was decayed and broken. The inside was dingy and spotted with brown spots, and had too many f's in it, as she thought. Yet the first glance fascinated her. It had opened in the middle of L'Allegro. Mrs Forbes found her standing spell-bound, reading the rhymed poems of the man whose blank-verse, two years before, she had declined as not what poetry ought to be. I have often seen a child refuse his food, and, after being compelled to eat one mouthful, gladly devour the whole. In like manner Annie, having once tasted Milton's poetry, did not let it go till she had devoured even the Paradise Lost, of which when she could not make sense, she at least made music-the chords of old John Milton's organ sounding through his son's poetry in the brain of a little Scotch lassie who never heard an organ in her life.
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