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During all this time, Annie had seen scarcely anything of her aunt Margaret Anderson. Ever since Bruce had offended her, on the occasion of her first visit, she had taken her custom elsewhere, and had never even called to see her niece. Annie had met her several times in the street, and that was all. Hence, on one of the fine afternoons of that unusually fine summer, and partly, perhaps, from missing the kindness of Mrs Forbes, Annie took a longing to see her old aunt, and set out for Clippenstrae to visit her. It was a walk of two miles, chiefly along the high road, bordered in part by accessible plantation. Through this she loitered along, enjoying the few wild flowers and the many lights and shadows, so that it was almost evening before she reached her destination.
"Preserve 's a'! Annie Anderson, what brings ye here this time o' nicht?" exclaimed her aunt.
"It's a lang time sin I saw ye, auntie, and I wantit to see ye."
"Weel, come butt the hoose. Ye're growin' a great muckle quean," said her aunt, inclined to a favourable consideration of her by her growth.
Margaret "didna like bairns--menseless craturs--aye wantin' ither fowk to do for them!" But growth was a kind of regenerating process in her eyes, and when a girl began to look like a woman, she regarded it as an outward sign of conversion, or something equally valuable.--So she conducted her into the presence of her uncle, a little old man, worn and bent, with gray locks peeping out from under a Highland bonnet.
"This is my brither Jeames's bairn," she said.
The old man received her kindly, called her his dawtie, and made her sit down by him on a three-legged creepie, talking to her as if she had been quite a child, while she, capable of high converse as she was, replied in corresponding terms. Her great-aunt was confined to her bed with rheumatism. Supper was preparing, and Annie was not sorry to have a share, for indeed, during the summer, her meals were often scanty enough. While they ate, the old man kept helping her to the best, talking to her all the time.
"Will ye no come and bide wi' me, dawtie?" he said, meaning little by the question.
"Na, na," answered Margaret for her. "She's at the schule, ye ken, uncle, and we maunna interfere wi' her schoolin.'--Hoo does that leein' ted, Robert Bruce, carry himsel' to ye, bairn?"
"Ow! I jist never min' him," answered Annie.
"Weel, it's a' he deserves at your han'. But gin I war you, I wad let him ken that gin he saws your corn ye hae a richt to raither mair nor his gleanins."
"I dinna ken what ye mean," answered Annie.
"Ow! na; I daursay no. But ye may jist as weel ken noo, that that ted, Robert Bruce, has twa hunner poun' odd o' yer ain, lassie; and gin he doesna use ye weel, ye can jist tell him 'at I telt ye sae."
This piece of news had not the overpowering effect upon Annie which, perhaps, her aunt had expected. No doubt the money seemed in her eyes a limitless fortune; but then Bruce had it. She might as soon think of robbing a bear of her whelps as getting her own from Bruce. Besides, what could she do with it if she had it? And she had not yet acquired the faculty of loving money for its own sake. When she rose to take her leave, she felt little richer than when she entered, save for the kind words of John Peterson.
"It's ower late for ye to gang hame yer lane, dawtie," said the old man.
"I'm nae that fleyt," answered Annie.
"Weel, gin ye walk wi' Him, the mirk'll be licht aboot ye," said he, taking off his Highland bonnet, and looking up with a silent recognition of the care of Him. "Be a gude lass," he resumed, replacing his bonnet, "an' rin hame as fest's ye can. Gude nicht to ye, dawtie."
Rejoicing as if she had found her long-lost home, Annie went out into the deep gloamin feeling it impossible she should be frightened at anything. But when she came to the part of the road bordered with trees, she could not help fancying she saw a figure flitting along from tree to tree just within the deeper dusk of the wood, and as she hurried on, fancy grew to fear. Presently she heard awful sounds, like the subdued growling of wild beasts. She would have taken to her heels in terror, but she reflected that thereby she would only insure pursuit, whereas she might slip away unperceived. As she reached a stile leading into the wood, however, a dusky figure came bounding over it, and advanced towards her. To her relief it went on two legs; and when it came nearer she thought she recognized some traits of old acquaintance about it. When it was within a couple of yards of her, as she still pursued her way towards Glamerton, she stopped and cried out joyfully:
"Curly!"--for it was her old vice-champion.
"Annie!" was the equally joyful response.
"I thocht ye was a wild beast!" said Annie.
"I was only growlin' for fun to mysel'," answered Curly, who would have done it all the more if he had known there was any one on the road. "I didna ken 'at I was fleggin' onybody. An' hoo are ye, Annie? An' hoo's Blister Bruce?"
For Curly was dreadfully prolific in nicknames.
Annie had not seen him for six months. He had continued to show himself so full of mischief, though of a comparatively innocent sort, that his father thought it better at last to send him to a town at some distance to learn the trade of a saddler, for which he had shown a preference.
This was his first visit to his home. Hitherto his father had received no complaints of his behaviour, and had now begged a holiday.
"Ye're grown sair, Annie," he said.
"Sae are ye, Curly," answered Annie.
"An' hoo's Alec?"
"He's verra weel."
Whereupon much talk followed, which need not be recorded. At length Curly said:
"And hoo's the rottans?"
"Ower weel and thrivin'."
"Jist pit yer han' i' my coat-pooch, and see what I hae broucht ye."
Knowing Curly's propensities, Annie refused.
"It's a wild beast," said Curly. "I'll lat it oot upo' ye. It was it 'at made a' that roarin' i' the plantin'."
So saying, he pulled out of his pocket the most delicate tortoiseshell kitten, not half the beauty of which could be perceived in the gloamin, which is all the northern summer night. He threw it at Annie, but she had seen enough not to be afraid to catch it in her hands.
"Did ye fess this a' the road frae Spinnie to me, Curly?"
"Ay did I, Annie. Ye see I dinna like rottans. But ye maun haud it oot o' their gait for a feow weeks, or they'll rive't a' to bits. It'll sune be a match for them though, I s' warran'. She comes o' a killin' breed."
Annie took the kitten home, and it shared her bed that night.
"What's that meowlin?" asked Bruce the next morning, the moment he rose from the genuflexion of morning prayers.
"It's my kittlin'," answered Annie. "I'll lat ye see't."
"We hae ower mony mou's i' the hoose already," said Bruce, as she returned with the little peering baby-animal in her arms. "We hae nae room for mair. Here, Rob, tak the cratur, an' pit a tow aboot its neck, an' a stane to the tow, an' fling't into the Glamour."
Annie, not waiting to parley, darted from the house with the kitten.
"Rin efter her, Rob," said Bruce, "an' tak' it frae her, and droon't. We canna hae the hoose swarmin'."
Bob bolted after her, delighted with his commission. But instead of finding her at the door, as he had expected, he saw her already a long way up the street, flying like the wind. He started in keen pursuit. He was now a great lumbering boy, and although Annie's wind was not equal to his, she was more fleet. She took the direct road to Howglen, and Rob kept floundering after her. Before she reached the footbridge she was nearly breathless, and he was gaining fast upon her. Just as she turned the corner of the road, leading up on the other side of the water, she met Alec and Kate. Unable to speak, she passed without appeal. But there was no need to ask the cause of her pale agonized face, for there was young Bruce at her heels. Alec collared him instantly.
"What are you up to?" he asked.
"Naething," answered the panting pursuer.
"Gin ye be efter naething, ye'll fin' that nearer hame," retorted Alec, twisting him round in that direction, and giving him a kick to expedite his return. "Lat me hear o' you troublin' Annie Anderson, an' I'll gar ye loup oot o' yer skin the neist time I lay han's upo' ye. Gang hame."
Rob obeyed like a frightened dog, while Annie pursued her course to Howglen, as if her enemy had been still on her track. Rushing into the parlour, she fell on the floor before Mrs Forbes, unable to utter a word. The kitten sprung mewing out of her arms, and took refuge under the sofa.
"Mem, mem," she gasped at length, "tak' care o' my kittlin'. They want to droon't. It's my ain. Curly gied it to me."
Mrs Forbes comforted her, and readily undertook the tutelage. Annie was very late for school, for Mrs Forbes made her have another breakfast before she went. But Mr Malison was in a good humour that day, and said nothing. Rob Bruce looked devils at her. What he had told his father I do not know; but whatever it was, it was all written down in Bruce's mental books to the debit of Alexander Forbes of Howglen.
Mrs Forbes's heart smote her when she found to what persecution her little friend was exposed during those times when her favour was practically although not really withdrawn; but she did not see how she could well remedy it. She was herself in the power of Bruce, and expostulation from her would be worth little; while to have Annie to the house as before would involve consequences unpleasant to all concerned. She resolved to make up for it by being kinder to her than ever as soon as Alec should have followed Kate to the precincts of the university; while for the present she comforted both herself and Annie by telling her to be sure to come to her when she found herself in any trouble.
But Annie was not one to apply to her friends except she was in great need of their help. The present case had been one of life and death. She found no further occasion to visit Mrs Forbes before Kate and Alec were both gone.
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