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Mrs Forbes was greatly perplexed about Annie. She could not bear the thought of turning her out; and besides she did not see where she was to go, for she could not be in the house with young Bruce. On the other hand, she had still the same dangerous sense of worldly duty as to the prevention of a so-called unsuitable match, the chance of which was more threatening than ever. For Annie had grown very lovely, and having taken captive the affections of the mother, must put the heart of the son in dire jeopardy. But Alec arrived two days before he was expected, and delivered his mother from her perplexity by declaring that if Annie were sent away he too would leave the house. He had seen through the maternal precautions the last time he was at home, and talking with Cupples about it, who secretly wished for no better luck than that Alec should fall in love with Annie, had his feelings strengthened as to the unkindness, if not injustice, of throwing her periodically into such a dungeon as the society of the Bruces. So Annie remained where she was, much, I must confess, to her inward content.
The youth and the maiden met every day--the youth unembarrassed, and the maiden reserved and shy, even to the satisfaction of the mother. But if Alec could have seen the loving thoughts which, like threads of heavenly gold (for all the gold of heaven is invisible), wrought themselves into the garments she made for him, I do not think he could have helped falling in love with her, although most men, I fear, would only have fallen the more in love with themselves, and cared the less for her. But he did not see them, or hear the divine measures to which her needle flew, as she laboured to arm him against the cold of those regions
Where all life dies, death lives, and nature breeds, Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things.
Alec's college-life had interposed a gulf between him and his previous history. But his approaching departure into places unknown and a life untried, operated upon his spiritual condition like the approach of death; and he must strengthen again all the old bonds which had been stretched thin by time and absence; he must make righteous atonement for the wrong of neglect; in short, he must set his inward house in order, ere he went forth to the abodes of ice. Death is not a breaker but a renewer of ties. And if in view of death we gird up the loins of our minds, and unite our hearts into a whole of love, and tenderness, and atonement, and forgiveness, then Death himself cannot be that thing of forlornness and loss.
He took a day to go and see Curly, and spent a pleasant afternoon with him, recalling the old times, and the old stories, and the old companions; for the youth with the downy chin has a past as ancient as that of the man with the gray beard. And Curly told him the story of his encounter with young Bruce on the bank of the Wan Water. And over and over again Annie's name came up, but Curly never hinted at her secret.
The next evening he went to see Thomas Crann. Thomas received him with a cordiality amounting even to gruff tenderness.
"I'm richt glaid to see ye," he said; "and I tak' it verra kin' o' ye, wi' a' yer gran' learnin', to come and see an ignorant man like me. But Alec, my man, there's some things 'at I ken better nor ye ken them yet. Him that made the whauls is better worth seekin' nor the whauls themsel's. God's works may swallow the man that follows them, but God himsel' 's the hidin'-place frae the wind, and the covert frae the tempest. Set na up nae fause God--that's the thing 'at ye lo'e best, ye ken--for like Dawgon, it'll fa', and maybe brain ye i' the fa'. Come doon upo' yer knees wi' me, and I'll pray for ye. But ye maun pray for yersel', or my prayers winna be o' muckle avail: ye ken that."
Yielding to the spiritual power of Thomas, whose gray-blue eyes were flashing with fervour, Alec kneeled down as he was desired, and Thomas said:
"O thou who madest the whales to play i' the great watters, and gavest unto men sic a need o' licht that they maun hunt the leviathan to haud their lamps burnin' at nicht whan thou hast sent thy sun awa' to ither lands, be thou roon' aboot this youth, wha surely is nae muckle waur than him 'at the Saviour lo'ed; and when thou seest his ship gang sailin' into the far north whaur thou keepest thy stores o' frost and snaw ready to remin' men o' thy goodness by takin' the heat frae them for a sizzon--when thou seest his ship gaein far north, pit doon thy finger, O Lord, and straik a track afore't, throu' amo' the hills o' ice, that it may gang throu' in saf-ety, even as thy chosen people gaed throu' the Reid Sea, and the river o' Jordan. For, Lord, we want him hame again in thy good time. For he is the only son of his mother, and she is a widow. But aboon a', O Lord, elec' him to thy grace and lat him ken the glory o' God, even the licht o' thy coontenance. For me, I'm a' thine, to live or dee, and I care not which. For I hae gotten the gueed o' this warl'; and gin I binna ready for the neist, it's because o' my sins, and no o' my savours. For I wad glaidle depairt and be with the Lord. But this young man has never seen thy face; and, O Lord, I'm jist feared that my coontenance micht fa' even in thy kingdom, gin I kent that Alec Forbes was doon i' the ill place. Spare him, O Lord, and gie him time for repentance gin he has a chance; but gin he has nane, tak' him at ance, that his doom may be the lichter."
Alec rose with a very serious face, and went home to his mother in a mood more concordant with her feelings than the light-heartedness with which he generally tried to laugh away her apprehensions.
He even called on Robert Bruce, at his mother's request. It went terribly against the grain with him though. He expected to find him rude as of old, but he was, on the contrary, as pleasant as a man could be whose only notion of politeness lay in licking.
His civility came from two sources--the one hope, the other fear. Alec was going away and might never return. That was the hope. For although Bruce had spread the report of Annie's engagement to Curly, he believed that Alec was the real obstacle to his plans. At the same time he was afraid of him, believing in his cowardly mind that Alec would not stop short of personal reprisals if he should offend him; and now he was a great six-foot fellow, of whose prowess at college confused and exaggerated stories were floating about the town.--Bruce was a man who could hatch and cherish plans, keeping one in reserve behind the other, and beholding their result from afar.
"Ay! ay! Mr Forbes--sae ye're gaun awa' amo' the train-ile, are ye? Hae ye ony share i' the tak' no?"
"I don't think the doctor has any share," answered Alec.
"But I warran' ye'll put to yer han', and help at the catchin'."
"Weel, gin ye come in for a barrel or twa, ye may coont upo' me to tak it aff yer han', at the ordinar' price--to the wholesale merchan's, ye ken--wi' maybe a sma' discoont for orderin' 't afore the whaul was ta'en."
The day drew near. He had bidden all his friends farewell. He must go just as the spring was coming in with the old well-beloved green borne before her on the white banner of the snowdrop, and following in miles of jubilation: he must not wait for her triumph, but speed away before her towards the dreary north, which only a few of her hard-riding pursuivants would ever reach. For green hills he must have opal-hued bergs--for green fields the outspread slaty waters, rolling in the delight of their few weeks of glorious freedom, and mocking the unwieldy ice-giants that rush in wind-driven troops across their plains, or welter captive in the weary swell, and melt away beneath the low summer sun.
His mother would have gone to see him on board, but he prevailed upon her to say good-bye to him at home. She kept her tears till after he was gone. Annie bade him farewell with a pale face, and a smile that was all sweetness and no gladness. She did not weep even afterwards. A gentle cold hand pressed her heart down, so that neither blood reached her face nor water her eyes. She went about everything just as before, because it had to be done; but it seemed foolish to do anything. The spring might as well stay away for any good that it promised either of them.
As Mr Cupples was taking his farewell on board,
"Ye'll gang and see my mother?" said Alec.
"Ay, ay, bantam; I'll do that.--Noo tak care o' yersel; and dinna tak leeberties wi' behemoth. Put a ring in's nose gin ye like, only haud oot ower frae's tail. He's no mowse (not to be meddled with)."
So away went Alec northwards, over the blue-gray waters, surgeon of the strong barque Sea-horse.
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