Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XVI. Apprenticeship.
He scrambled out on the top of the hay, and looked down on the beautiful creature below him, dawning radiant again with the morning, as it issued undimmed from the black bosom of the night. He was not, perhaps, just so well groomed as white steed might be; it was not a stable where they kept a blue-bag for their grey horses; but to Gibbie's eyes he was so pure, that he began, for the first time in his life, to doubt whether he was himself quite as clean as he ought to be. He did not know, but he would make an experiment for information when he got down to the burn. Meantime was there nothing he could do for the splendid creature? From above, leaning over, he filled his rack with hay; but he had eaten so much grass the night before, that he would not look at it, and Gibbie was disappointed. What should he do next? The thing he would like best would be to look through the ceiling again, and watch the woman at her work. Then, too, he would again smell the boiling porridge, and the burning of the little sprinkles of meal that fell into the fire. He dragged, therefore, the ladder to the opposite end of the barn, and gradually, with no little effort, raised it against the wall. Carefully he crept through the hole, and softly round the shelf, the dangerous part of the pass, and so on to the ceiling, whence he peeped once more down into the kitchen. His precautions had been so far unnecessary, for as yet it lay unvisited, as witnessed by its disorder. Suddenly came to Gibbie the thought that here was a chance for him--here a path back to the world. Rendered daring by the eagerness of his hope, he got again upon the shelf, and with every precaution lest he should even touch a milkpan, descended by the lower shelves to the floor. There finding the door only latched, he entered the kitchen, and proceeded to do everything he had seen the woman do, as nearly in her style as he could. He swept the floor, and dusted the seats, the window sill, the table, with an apron he found left on a chair, then arranged everything tidily, roused the rested fire, and had just concluded that the only way to get the great pot full of water upon it, would be to hang first the pot on the chain, and then fill it with the water, when his sharp ears caught sounds and then heard approaching feet. He darted into the dairy, and in a few seconds, for he was getting used to the thing now, had clambered upon the ceiling, and was lying flat across the joists, with his eyes to the most commanding crack he had discovered: he was anxious to know how his service would be received. When Jean Mavor--she was the farmer's half-sister--opened the door, she stopped short and stared; the kitchen was not as she had left it the night before! She concluded she must be mistaken, for who could have touched it? and entered. Then it became plain beyond dispute that the floor had been swept, the table wiped, the place redd up, and the fire roused.
"Hoot! I maun hae been walkin' i' my sleep!" said Jean to herself aloud. "Or maybe that guid laddie Donal Grant's been wullin' to gie me a helpin' han' for's mither's sake, honest wuman! The laddie's guid eneuch for onything!--ay, gien 'twar to mak' a minister o'!"
Eagerly, greedily, Gibbie now watched her every motion, and, bent upon learning, nothing escaped him: he would do much better next morning!--At length the men came in to breakfast, and he thought to enjoy the sight; but, alas! it wrought so with his hunger as to make him feel sick, and he crept away to the barn. He would gladly have lain down in the hay for a while, but that would require the ladder, and he did not now feel able to move it. On the floor of the barn he was not safe, and he got out of it into the cornyard, where he sought the henhouse. But there was no food there yet, and he must not linger near; for, if he were discovered, they would drive him away, and he would lose Donal Grant. He had not seen him at breakfast, for indeed he seldom, during the summer, had a meal except supper in the house. Gibbie, therefore, as he could not eat, ran to the burn and drank--but had no heart that morning for his projected inquiry into the state of his person. He must go to Donal. The sight of him would help him to bear his hunger.
The first indication Donal had of his proximity was the rush of Hornie past him in flight out of the corn. Gibbie was pursuing her with stones for lack of a stick. Thoroughly ashamed of himself, Donal threw his book from him, and ran to meet Gibbie.
"Ye maunna fling stanes, cratur," he said. "Haith! it's no for me to fin' fau't, though," he added, "sittin' readin' buiks like a gowk 'at I am, an' lattin' the beasts rin wull amo' the corn, 'at's weel peyed to haud them oot o' 't! I'm clean affrontit wi' mysel', cratur."
Gibbie's response was to set off at full speed for the place where Donal had been sitting. He was back in a moment with the book, which he pressed into Donal's hand, while from the other he withdrew his club. This he brandished aloft once or twice, then starting at a steady trot, speedily circled the herd, and returned to his adopted master--only to start again, however, and attack Hornie, whom he drove from the corn-side of the meadow right over to the other: she was already afraid of him. After watching him for a time, Donal came to the conclusion that he could not do more than the cratur if he had as many eyes as Argus, and gave not even one of them to his book. He therefore left all to Gibbie, and did not once look up for a whole hour. Everything went just as it should; and not once, all that day, did Hornie again get a mouthful of the braird. It was rather a heavy morning for Gibbie, though, who had eaten nothing, and every time he came near Donal, saw the handkerchief bulging in the grass, which a little girl had brought and left for him. But he was a rare one both at waiting and at going without.
At last, however, Donal either grew hungry of himself, or was moved by certain understood relations between the sun and the necessities of his mortal frame; for he laid down his book, called out to Gibbie, "Cratur, it's denner-time," and took his bundle. Gibbie drew near with sparkling eyes. There was no selfishness in his hunger, for, at the worst pass he had ever reached, he would have shared what he had with another, but he looked so eager, that Donal, who himself knew nothing of want, perceived that he was ravenous, and made haste to undo the knots of the handkerchief, which Mistress Jean appeared that day to have tied with more than ordinary vigour, ere she intrusted the bundle to the foreman's daughter. When the last knot yielded, he gazed with astonishment at the amount and variety of provision disclosed.
"Losh!" he exclaimed, "the mistress maun hae kenned there was two o' 's."
He little thought that what she had given him beyond the usual supply was an acknowledgment of services rendered by those same hands into which he now delivered a share, on the ground of other service altogether. It is not always, even where there is no mistake as to the person who has deserved it, that the reward reaches the doer so directly.
Before the day was over, Donal gave his helper more and other pay for his service. Choosing a fit time, when the cattle were well together and in good position, Hornie away at the stone dyke, he took from his pocket a somewhat wasted volume of ballads--ballants, he called them--and said, "Sit ye doon, cratur. Never min' the nowt. I'm gaein' to read till ye."
Gibbie dropped on his crossed legs like a lark to the ground, and sat motionless. Donal, after deliberate search, began to read, and Gibbie to listen; and it would be hard to determine which found the more pleasure in his part. For Donal had seldom had a listener--and never one so utterly absorbed.
When the hour came for the cattle to go home, Gibbie again remained behind, waiting until all should be still at the farm. He lay on the dyke, brooding over what he had heard, and wondering how it was that Donal got all those strange beautiful words and sounds and stories out of the book.