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When she reached Clippenstrae, she found that she had been sent there. Her aunt came from the inner room as she opened the door, and she knew at once by her face that Death was in the house. For its expression recalled the sad vision of her father's departure. Her great-uncle, the little grey-headed old cottar in the Highland bonnet, lay dying--in the Highland bonnet still. He was going to "the land o' the Leal" (loyal), the true-hearted, to wait for his wife, whose rheumatism was no chariot of fire for swiftness, whatever it might be for pain, to bear her to the "high countries." He has had nothing to do with our story, save that once he made our Annie feel that she had a home. And to give that feeling to another is worth living for, and justifies a place in any story like mine.
Auntie Meg's grief appeared chiefly in her nose; but it was none the less genuine for that, for her nature was chiefly nose. She led the way into the death-room--it could hardly be called the sick-room--and Annie followed. By the bedside sat, in a high-backed chair, an old woman with more wrinkles in her face than moons in her life. She was perfectly calm, and looked like one, already half-across the river, watching her friend as he passed her towards the opposing bank. The old man lay with his eyes closed. As soon as he knew that he was dying he had closed his eyes, that the dead orbs might not stare into the faces of the living. It had been a whim of his for years. He would leave the house decent when his lease was up. And the will kept pressing down the lids which it would soon have no power to lift.
"Ye're come in time," said Auntie Meg, and whispered to the old woman--"My brither Jeames's bairn."
"Ay, ye're come in time, lassie," said the great-aunt kindly, and said no more.
The dying man heard the words, opened his eyes, glanced once at Annie, and closed them again.
"Is that ane o' the angels come?" he asked, for his wits were gone a little way before.
"Na, weel I wat!" said the hard-mouthed ungracious Meg. "It's Annie Anderson, Jeames Anderson's lass."
The old man put his hand feebly from under the bed-clothes.
"I'm glad to see ye, dawtie," he said, still without opening his eyes. "I aye wantit to see mair o' ye, for ye're jist sic a bairn as I wad hae likit to hae mysel' gin it had pleased the Lord. Ye're a douce, God-fearin' lassie, and He'll tak care o' his ain."
Here his mind began to wander again.
"Marget," he said, "is my een steekit, for I think I see angels?"
"Ay are they--close eueuch."
"Weel, that's verra weel. I'll hae a sleep noo."
He was silent for some time. Then he reverted to the fancy that Annie was the first of the angels come to carry away his soul, and murmured brokenly:
"Whan ye tak' it up, be carefu' hoo ye han'le 't, baith for it's some weyk, and for it's no ower clean, and micht blaud the bonnie white han's o' sic God-servers as yersels. I ken mysel there's ae spot ower the hert o' 't, whilk cam o' an ill word I gied a bairn for stealin' a neep. But they did steal a hantle that year. And there's anither spot upo' the richt han', whilk cam o' ower gude a bargain I made wi' auld John Thamson at Glass fair. And it wad never come oot wi' a' the soap and water--Hoots, I'm haverin'! It's upo' the han' o' my soul, whaur soap and water can never come. Lord, dight it clean, and I'll gie him 't a' back whan I see him in thy kingdom. And I'll beg his pardon forbye. But I didna chait him a'thegither. I only tuik mair nor I wad hae gi'en for the colt mysel'. And min' ye dinna lat me fa', gaein' throu the lift."
He went on thus, with wandering thoughts that in their wildest vagaries were yet tending homeward; and which when least sound, were yet busy with the wisest of mortal business--repentance. By degrees he fell into a slumber, and from that, about midnight, into a deeper sleep.
The next morning, Annie went out. She could not feel oppressed or sorrowful at such a death, and she would walk up the river to the churchyard where her father lay. The Wan Water was shallow, and therefore full of talk about all the things that were deep secrets when its bosom was full. Along great portions of its channel, the dry stones lay like a sea-beach. They had been swept from the hills in the torrents of its autumnal fury. The fish did not rise, for the heat made them languid. No trees sheltered them from the rays of the sun. Both above and below, the banks were rugged, and the torrent strong; but at this part the stream flowed through level fields. Here and there a large piece had cracked off and fallen from the bank, to be swept away in the next flood; but meantime the grass was growing on it, greener than anywhere else. The corn would come close to the water's edge and again sweep away to make room for cattle and sheep; and here and there a field of red clover lay wavering between shadow and shine. She went up a long way, and then crossing some fields, came to the churchyard. She did not know her father's grave, for no stone marked the spot where he sank in this broken earthy sea. There was no church: its memory even had vanished. It seemed as if the churchyard had swallowed the church as the heavenly light shall one day swallow the sun and the moon; and the lake of divine fire shall swallow death and hell. She lingered a little, and then set out on her slow return, often sitting down on the pebbles, sea-worn ages before the young river had begun to play with them.
Resting thus about half way home, she sang a song which she had found in her father's old song-book. She had said it once to Alec and Curly, but they did not care much for it, and she had not thought of it again till now.
"Ane by ane they gang awa'. The gatherer gathers great an' sma'. Ane by ane maks ane an' a'.
Aye whan ane is ta'en frae ane, Ane on earth is left alane, Twa in heaven are knit again.
Whan God's hairst is in or lang, Golden-heidit, ripe, and thrang, Syne begins a better sang."
She looked up, and Curly was walking through the broad river to where she sat.
"I kent ye a mile aff, Annie," he said.
"I'm glaid to see ye, Curly."
"I wonner gin ye'll be as glaid to see me the neist time, Annie."
Then Annie perceived that Curly looked earnest and anxious.
"What do ye say, Curly?" she returned.
"I hardly ken what I say, Annie, though I ken what I mean. And I dinna ken what I'm gaun to say neist, but they say the trowth will oot. I wiss it wad, ohn a body said it."
"What can be the maitter, Curly?"--Annie was getting frightened.--"It maun be ill news, or ye wadna luik like that."
"I doobt it'll be warst news to them that it's nae news till."
"Ye speyk in riddles, Curly."
He tried to laugh but succeeded badly, and stood before her, with downcast eyes, poking his thorn-stick into the mass of pebbles. Annie waited in silence, and that brought it out at last.
"Annie, when we war at the schule thegither, I wad hae gien ye onything. Noo I hae gien ye a' thing, and my hert to the beet (boot) o' the bargain."
"Curly!" said Annie, and said no more, for she felt as if her heart would break.
"I likit ye at the schule, Annie; but noo there's naething i' the warl but you."
Annie rose gently, came close to him, and laying a hand on his arm, said,
"I'm richt sorry for ye, Curly."
He half turned his back, was silent for a moment, and then said coldly, but in a trembling voice,
"Dinna distress yersel'. We canna help it."
"But what'll ye do, Curly?" asked Annie in a tone full of compassionate loving-kindness, and with her hand still on his arm. "It's sair to bide."
"Gude kens that.--I maun jist warstle throu' 't like mony anither. I'll awa' back to the pig-skin saiddle I was workin' at," said Curly, with a smile at the bitterness of his fate.
"It's no that I dinna like ye, Curly. Ye ken that. I wad do anything for ye that I cud do. Ye hae been a gude frien' to me."
And here Annie burst out crying.
"Dinna greit. The Lord preserve's! dinna greit. I winna say anither word aboot it. What's Curly that sic a ane as you sud greit for him? Faith! it's nearhan' as guid as gin ye lo'ed me. I'm as prood's a turkey-cock," averred Curly in a voice ready to break with emotion of a very different sort from pride.
"It's a sair thing that things winna gang richt!" said Annie at last, after many vain attempts to stop the fountain by drying the stream of her tears.--I believe they were the first words of complaint upon things in general that she ever uttered.
"Is't my wyte, Curly?" she added.
"Deil a bit o' 't!" cried Curly. "And I beg yer pardon for sweirin'. Your wyte! I was aye a fule. But maybe," he added, brightening a little, "I micht hae a chance--some day--some day far awa', ye ken, Annie?"
"Na, na, Curly. Dinna think o' 't. There's no chance for ye, dear Curly."
His face flushed red as a peony.
"That lick-the-dirt 's no gaun to gar ye marry the colliginer?"
"Dinna ye be feared that I'll marry onybody I dinna like, Curly."
"Ye dinna like him. I houp to God!"
"I canna bide him."
"Weel, maybe--Wha kens? I daurna despair."
"Curly, Curly, I maun be honest wi' you, as ye hae been wi' me. Whan ance a body's seen ane, they canna see anither, ye ken. Wha cud hae been at the schule as I was sae lang, and syne taen oot o' the water, ye ken, and syne--?"
"Gin ye mean Alec Forbes--" said Curly, and stopped too. But presently he went on again--"Gin I war to come atween Alec Forbes and you, hangin' wad be ower gude for me. But has Alec--"
"Na, nae a word. But haud yer tongue. Curly. Ance is a' wi' me.--It's nae mony lasses wad hae tell't ye sic a thing. But I ken it's richt. Ye're the only ane that has my secret. Keep it, Curly."
"Like Deith himsel'," said Curly. "Ye are a braw lass."
"Ye maunna think ill o' me, Curly. I hae tell't ye the trowth."
"Jist lat me kiss yer bonnie han' and I'll gang content."
Wisely done or not, it was truth and tenderness that made her offer her lips instead. He turned in silence, comforted for the time, though the comfort would evaporate long before the trouble would sink.
"Curly!" cried Annie, and he came back.
"I think that's young Robert Bruce been to Clippenstrae to speir efter me. Dinna lat him come farther. He's an unceevil fallow."
"Gin he wins by me, he maun hae mair feathers nor I hae," said Curly, and walked on.
Annie followed slowly. When she saw the men meet she sat down.
Curly spoke first, as he came up.
"A fine day, Robbie," he said.
Bruce made no reply, for relations had altered since school-days. It was an evil moment however in which to carry a high chin to Willie Macwha, who was out of temper with the whole world except Annie Anderson. He strode up to the colliginer.
"I said it was a fine day," he repeated.
"Well, I said nothing to the contrary," answered Bruce, putting on his English.
"It's the custom i' this country to mak what answer a man has the sense to mak whan he's spoken till ceevily."
"I considered you uncivil."
"That's jist what a bonnie lassie sittin' yonner said aboot you whan she prayed me no to lat you gang a step nearer till her."
Curly found it at the moment particularly agreeable to quarrel. Moreover he had always disliked Bruce, and now hated him because Annie had complained of him.
"I have as much right to walk here as you or any one else," said Bruce.
"Maybe; but even colliginers doesna aye get their richts. Ae richt whiles rides upo' the tap o' anither. And Annie Anderson has a richt no to be disturbit, whan her uncle, honest man, 's jist lyin' waitin' for's coffin i' the hoose yonner."
"I'm her cousin."
"It's sma' comfort ony o' yer breed ever brocht her. Cousin or no, ye sanna gang near her."
"I'll go where I please," said Bruce, moving to pass.
Curly moved right in front of him.
"By me ye shanna gang. I hae lickit ye afore for bein' ill till her; and I will again gin ye gang a step nearer till her. She doesna want ye. Faith I will! But I wad raither no fecht afore her. Sae jist come back to the toon wi' me, and we'll say nae mair aboot it."
"I'll see you damned!" said Bruce.
"Maybe ye may, bein' likly to arrive at the spot first. But i' the mean time, gin ye dinna want her to see ye lickit, come doon into yon how, and we'll jist sattle aff han' wha's the best man o' the twa."
"I won't move a step to please you or any one else," returned Bruce. He saw that his safety consisted in keeping within sight of Annie.
Curly saw on his part that, a few steps nearer to where Annie sat, the path led behind a stunted ash-tree. So he stepped aside with the proverb,
"He that will to Coupar, maun to Coupar."
Without deigning a word, Bruce walked on, full of pride, concluding that Curly's heart had failed him. But the moment he was behind the tree, Curly met him from the other side of it. Then Bruce's anger, if not his courage, rose, and with an oath, he pushed against him to pass. But the sensation he instantly felt in his nose astonished him; and the blood beginning to flow cowed him at once. He put his handkerchief to his face, turned, and walked back to Glamerton. Curly followed him at a few yards' distance, regretting that he had showed the white feather so soon, as, otherwise, he would have had the pleasure of thrashing him properly. He saw him safe in at the back-door, and then went to his own father's shop.
After a short greeting, very short on Curly's part,
"Hoot! Willie," said his father, "what's come ower ye? Ye luik as gin some lass had said na to ye."
"Some lasses' no 's better not ither lasses' ay, father."
"Deed mnybe, laddie," said George; adding to himself, "That maun hae been Annie Anderson--nae ither."
He was particularly attentive and yielding to Willie during his short visit, and Willie understood it.
Had Annie been compelled, by any evil chance, to return to the garret over Robert Bruce's shop, she would not indeed have found the holes in the floor and the roof reopened; but she would have found that the carpet and the curtains were gone.
The report went through Glamerton that she and Willie Macwha were coortin'.
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