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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.
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