Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter X. The Barn.
By this time Gibbie had got well up towards the roots of the hills of Gormgarnet, and the river had dwindled greatly. He was no longer afraid of it, but would lie for hours listening to its murmurs over its pebbly bed, and sometimes even sleep in the hollows of its banks, or below the willows that overhung it. Every here and there, a brown rivulet from some peat-bog on a hill--brown and clear, like smoke-crystals molten together, flowed into it, and when he had lost it, guided him back to his guide. Farm after farm he passed, here one widely bordering a valley stream, there another stretching its skirts up the hillsides till they were lost in mere heather, where the sheep wandered about, cropping what stray grass-blades and other eatables they could find. Lower down he had passed through small towns and large villages: here farms and cottages, with an occasional country-seat and little village of low thatched houses, made up the abodes of men. By this time he had become greatly reconciled to the loneliness of Nature, and no more was afraid in her solitary presence.
At the same time his heart had begun to ache and long after the communion of his kind. For not once since he set out--and that seemed months where it was only weeks, had he had an opportunity of doing anything for anybody--except, indeed, unfastening the dog's collar; and not to be able to help was to Gibbie like being dead. Everybody, down to the dogs, had been doing for him, and what was to become of him! It was a state altogether of servitude into which he had fallen.
May had now set in, but up here among the hills she was May by courtesy only: or if she was May, she would never be Might. She was, indeed, only April, with her showers and sunshine, her tearful, childish laughter, and again the frown, and the despair irremediable. Nay, as if she still kept up a secret correspondence with her cousin March, banished for his rudeness, she would not very seldom shake from her skirts a snow storm, and oftener the dancing hail. Then out would come the sun behind her, and laugh, and say--"I could not help that; but here I am all the same, coming to you as fast as I can!" The green crops were growing darker, and the trees were all getting out their nets to catch carbon. The lambs were frolicking, and in sheltered places the flowers were turning the earth into a firmament. And now a mere daisy was enough to delight the heart of Gibbie. His joy in humanity so suddenly checked, and his thirst for it left unslaked, he had begun to see the human look in the face of the commonest flowers, to love the trusting stare of the daisy, that gold-hearted boy, and the gentle despondency of the girl harebell, dreaming of her mother, the azure. The wind, of which he had scarce thought as he met it roaming the streets like himself, was now a friend of his solitude, bringing him sweet odours, alive with the souls of bees, and cooling with bliss the heat of the long walk. Even when it blew cold along the waste moss, waving the heads of the cotton-grass, the only live thing visible, it was a lover, and kissed him on the forehead. Not that Gibbie knew what a kiss was, any more than he knew about the souls of bees. He did not remember ever having been kissed. In that granite city, the women were not much given to kissing children, even their own, but if they had been, who of them would have thought of kissing Gibbie! The baker's wife, kind as she always was to him, would have thought it defilement to press her lips to those of the beggar child. And how is any child to thrive without kisses! The first caresses Gibbie ever knew as such, were given him by Mother Nature herself. It was only, however, by degrees, though indeed rapid degrees, that he became capable of them. In the first part of his journey he was stunned, stupid, lost in change, distracted between a suddenly vanished past, and a future slow dawning in the present. He felt little beyond hunger, and that vague urging up Daurside, with occasional shoots of pleasure from kindness, mostly of woman and dog. He was less shy of the country people by this time, but he did not care to seek them. He thought them not nearly so friendly and good as the town-people, forgetting that these knew him and those did not. To Gibbie an introduction was the last thing necessary for any one who wore a face, and he could not understand why they looked at him so.
Whatever is capable of aspiring, must be troubled that it may wake and aspire--then troubled still, that it may hold fast, be itself, and aspire still.
One evening his path vanished between twilight and moonrise, and just as it became dark he found himself at a rough gate, through which he saw a field. There was a pretty tall hedge on each side of the gate, and he was now a sufficiently experienced traveller to conclude that he was not far from some human abode. He climbed the gate and found himself in a field of clover. It was a splendid big bed, and even had the night not been warm, he would not have hesitated to sleep in it. He had never had a cold, and had as little fear for his health as for his life. He was hungry, it is true; but although food was doubtless more delicious to such hunger as his--that of the whole body, than it can be to the mere palate and culinary imagination of an epicure, it was not so necessary to him that he could not go to sleep without it. So down he lay in the clover, and was at once unconscious.
When he woke, the moon was high in the heavens, and had melted the veil of the darkness from the scene of still, well-ordered comfort. A short distance from his couch, stood a little army of ricks, between twenty and thirty of them, constructed perfectly--smooth and upright and round and large, each with its conical top netted in with straw-rope, and finished off with what the herd-boy called a toupican--a neatly tied and trim tuft of the straw with which it was thatched, answering to the stone-ball on the top of a gable. Like triangles their summits stood out against the pale blue, moon-diluted air. They were treasure-caves, hollowed out of space, and stored with the best of ammunition against the armies of hunger and want; but Gibbie, though he had seen many of them, did not know what they were. He had seen straw used for the bedding of cattle and horses, and supposed that the chief end of such ricks. Nor had he any clear idea that the cattle themselves were kept for any other object than to make them comfortable and happy. He had stood behind their houses in the dark, and heard them munching and grinding away even in the night. Probably the country was for the cattle, as the towns for the men; and that would explain why the country-people were so inferior. While he stood gazing, a wind arose behind the hills, and came blowing down some glen that opened northwards; Gibbie felt it cold, and sought the shelter of the ricks.
Great and solemn they looked as he drew nigh--near each other, yet enough apart for plenty of air to flow and eddy between. Over a low wall of unmortared stones, he entered their ranks: above him, as he looked up from their broad base, they ascended huge as pyramids, and peopled the waste air with giant forms. How warm it was in the round-winding paths amongst the fruitful piles--tombs these, no cenotaphs! He wandered about them, now in a dusky yellow gloom, and now in the cold blue moonlight, which they seemed to warm. At length he discovered that the huge things were flanked on one side by a long low house, in which there was a door, horizontally divided into two parts. Gibbie would fain have got in, to try whether the place was good for sleep; but he found both halves fast. In the lower half, however, he spied a hole, which, though not so large, reminded him of the entrance to the kennel of his dog host; but alas! it had a door too, shut from the inside. There might be some way of opening it. He felt about, and soon discovered that it was a sliding valve, which he could push to either side. It was, in fact, the cat's door, specially constructed for her convenience of entrance and exit. For the cat is the guardian of the barn; the grain which tempts the rats and mice is no temptation to her; the rats and mice themselves are; upon them she executes justice, and remains herself an incorruptible, because untempted, therefore a respectable member of the farm-community--only the dairy door must be kept shut; that has no cat-wicket in it.
The hole was a small one, but tempting to the wee baronet; he might perhaps be able to squeeze himself through. He tried and succeeded, though with some little difficulty. The moon was there before him, shining through a pane or two of glass over the door, and by her light on the hard brown clay floor, Gibbie saw where he was, though if he had been told he was in the barn, he would neither have felt nor been at all the wiser. It was a very old-fashioned barn. About a third of it was floored with wood--dark with age--almost as brown as the clay--for threshing upon with flails. At that labour two men had been busy during the most of the preceding day, and that was how, in the same end of the barn, rose a great heap of oat-straw, showing in the light of the moon like a mound of pale gold. Had Gibbie had any education in the marvellous, he might now, in the midnight and moonlight, have well imagined himself in some treasure-house of the gnomes. What he saw in the other corner was still liker gold, and was indeed greater than gold, for it was life--the heap, namely, of corn threshed from the straw: Gibbie recognized this as what he had seen given to horses. But now the temptation to sleep, with such facilities presented, was overpowering, and took from him all desire to examine further: he shot into the middle of the loose heap of straw, and vanished from the glimpses of the moon, burrowing like a mole. In the heart of the golden warmth, he lay so dry and comfortable that, notwithstanding his hunger had waked with him, he was presently in a faster sleep than before. And indeed what more luxurious bed, or what bed conducive to softer slumber was there in the world to find!
"The moving moon went down the sky," the cold wind softened and grew still; the stars swelled out larger; the rats came, and then came puss, and the rats went with a scuffle and squatter; the pagan grey came in like a sleep-walker, and made the barn dreary as a dull dream; then the horses began to fidget with their big feet, the cattle to low with their great trombone throats, and the cocks to crow as if to give warning for the last time against the devil, the world, and the flesh; the men in the adjoining chamber woke, yawned, stretched themselves mightily, and rose; the god-like sun rose after them, and, entering the barn with them, drove out the grey; and through it all the orphan lay warm in God's keeping and his nest of straw, like the butterfly of a huge chrysalis.
When at length Gibbie became once more aware of existence, it was through a stormy invasion of the still realm of sleep; the blows of two flails fell persistent and quick-following, first on the thick head of the sheaf of oats untied and cast down before them, then grew louder and more deafening as the oats flew and the chaff fluttered, and the straw flattened and broke and thinned and spread--until at last they thundered in great hard blows on the wooden floor. It was the first of these last blows that shook Gibbie awake. What they were or indicated he could not tell. He wormed himself softly round in the straw to look out and see.
Now whether it was that sleep was yet heavy upon him, and bewildered his eyes, or that his imagination had in dreams been busy with foregone horrors, I cannot tell; but, as he peered through the meshes of the crossing and blinding straws, what he seemed to see was the body of an old man with dishevelled hair, whom, prostrate on the ground, they were beating to death with great sticks. His tongue clave to the roof of his mouth, not a sound could he utter, not a finger could he move; he had no choice but to lie still, and witness the fierce enormity. But it is good that we are compelled to see some things, life amongst the rest, to what we call the end of them. By degrees Gibbie's sight cleared; the old man faded away; and what was left of him he could see to be only an armful of straw. The next sheaf they threw down, he perceived, under their blows, the corn flying out of it, and began to understand a little. When it was finished, the corn that had flown dancing from its home, like hail from its cloud, was swept aside to the common heap, and the straw tossed up on the mound that harboured Gibbie. It was well that the man with the pitchfork did not spy his eyes peering out from the midst of the straw: he might have taken him for some wild creature, and driven the prongs into him. As it was, Gibbie did not altogether like the look of him, and lay still as a stone. Then another sheaf was unbound and cast on the floor, and the blows of the flails began again. It went on thus for an hour and a half, and Gibbie although he dropped asleep several times, was nearly stupid with the noise. The men at length, however, swept up the corn and tossed up the straw for the last time, and went out. Gibbie, judging by his own desires, thought they must have gone to eat, but did not follow them, having generally been ordered away the moment he was seen in a farmyard. He crept out, however, and began to look about him--first of all for something he could eat. The oats looked the most likely, and he took a mouthful for a trial. He ground at them severely, but, hungry as he was, he failed to find oats good for food. Their hard husks, their dryness, their instability, all slipping past each other at every attempt to crush them with his teeth, together foiled him utterly. He must search farther. Looking round him afresh, he saw an open loft, and climbing on the heap in which he had slept, managed to reach it. It was at the height of the walls, and the couples of the roof rose immediately from it. At the farther end was a heap of hay, which he took for another kind of straw. Then he spied something he knew; a row of cheeses lay on a shelf suspended from the rafters, ripening. Gibbie knew them well from the shop windows--knew they were cheeses, and good to eat, though whence and how they came he did not know, his impression being that they grew in the fields like the turnips. He had still the notion uncorrected, that things in the country belonged to nobody in particular, and were mostly for the use of animals, with which, since he became a wanderer, he had almost come to class himself. He was very hungry. He pounced upon a cheese and lifted it between his two hands; it smelled good, but felt very hard. That was no matter: what else were teeth made strong and sharp for? He tried them on one of the round edges, and, nibbling actively, soon got through to the softer body of the cheese. But he had not got much farther when he heard the men returning, and desisted, afraid of being discovered by the noise he made. The readiest way to conceal himself was to lie down flat on the loft, and he did so just where he could see the threshing-floor over the edge of it by lifting his head. This, however, he scarcely ventured to do; and all he could see as he lay was the tip of the swing-bar of one of the flails, ever as it reached the highest point of its ascent. But to watch for it very soon ceased to be interesting; and although he had eaten so little of the cheese, it had yet been enough to make him dreadfully thirsty, therefore he greatly desired to get away. But he dared not go down: with their sticks those men might knock him over in a moment! So he lay there thinking of the poor little hedgehog he had seen on the road as he came; how he stood watching it, and wishing he had a suit made all of great pins, which he could set up when he pleased; and how the driver of a cart, catching sight of him at the foot of the hedge, gave him a blow with his whip, and, poor fellow! notwithstanding his clothes of pins, that one blow of a whip was too much for him! There seemed nothing in the world but killing!
At length he could, unoccupied with something else, bear his thirst no longer, and, squirming round on the floor, crept softly towards the other end of the loft, to see what was to be seen there.
He found that the heap of hay was not in the loft at all. It filled a small chamber in the stable, in fact; and when Gibbie clambered upon it, what should he see below him on the other side, but a beautiful white horse, eating some of the same sort of stuff he was now lying upon! Beyond he could see the backs of more horses, but they were very different--big and clumsy, and not white. They were all eating, and this was their food on which he lay! He wished he too could eat it--and tried, but found it even less satisfactory than the oats, for it nearly choked him, and set him coughing so that he was in considerable danger of betraying his presence to the men in the barn. How did the horses manage to get such dry stuff down their throats? But the cheese was dry too, and he could eat that! No doubt the cheese, as well as the fine straw, was there for the horses! He would like to see the beautiful white creature down there eat a bit of it; but with all his big teeth he did not think he could manage a whole cheese, and how to get a piece broken off for him, with those men there, he could not devise. It would want a long-handled hammer like those with which he had seen men breaking stones on the road.
A door opened beyond, and a man came in and led two of the horses out, leaving the door open. Gibbie clambered down from the top of the hay into the stall beside the white horse, and ran out. He was almost in the fields, had not even a fence to cross.
He cast a glance around, and went straight for a neighbouring hollow, where, taught by experience, he hoped to find water.