Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XVII. Secret Service.
I must not linger over degrees and phases. Every morning, Gibbie got into the kitchen in good time; and not only did more and more of the work, but did it more and more to the satisfaction of Jean, until, short of the actual making of the porridge, he did everything antecedent to the men's breakfast. When Jean came in, she had but to take the lid from the pot, put in the salt, assume the spurtle, and, grasping the first handful of the meal, which stood ready waiting in the bossie on the stone cheek of the fire, throw it in, thus commencing the simple cookery of the beet of all dishes to a true-hearted and healthy Scotsman. Without further question she attributed all the aid she received to the goodness, "enough for anything," of Donal Grant, and continued to make acknowledgment of the same in both sort and quantity of victuals, whence, as has been shown, the real labourer received his due reward.
Until he had thoroughly mastered his work, Gibbie persisted in regarding matters economic "from his loophole in the ceiling;" and having at length learned the art of making butter, soon arrived at some degree of perfection in it. But when at last one morning he not only churned, but washed and made it up entirely to Jean's satisfaction, she did begin to wonder how a mere boy could both have such perseverance, and be so clever at a woman's work. For now she entered the kitchen every morning without a question of finding the fire burning, the water boiling, the place clean and tidy, the supper dishes well washed and disposed on shelf and rack: her own part was merely to see that proper cloths were handy to so thorough a user of them. She took no one into her confidence on the matter: it was enough, she judged, that she and Donal understood each other.
And now if Gibbie had contented himself with rendering this house-service in return for the shelter of the barn and its hay, he might have enjoyed both longer; but from the position of his night-quarters, he came gradually to understand the work of the stable also; and before long, the men, who were quite ignorant of anything similar taking place in the house, began to observe, more to their wonder than satisfaction, that one or other of their horses was generally groomed before his man came to him; that often there was hay in their racks which they had not given them; and that the master's white horse every morning showed signs of having had some attention paid him that could not be accounted for. The result was much talk and speculation, suspicion and offence; for all were jealous of their rights, their duty, and their dignity, in relation to their horses: no man was at liberty to do a thing to or for any but his own pair. Even the brightening of the harness-brass, in which Gibbie sometimes indulged, was an offence; for did it not imply a reproach? Many were the useless traps laid for the offender, many the futile attempts to surprise him: as Gibbie never did anything except for half an hour or so while the men were sound asleep or at breakfast, he escaped discovery.
But he could not hold continued intercourse with the splendour of the white horse, and neglect carrying out the experiment on which he had resolved with regard to the effect of water upon his own skin; and having found the result a little surprising, he soon got into the habit of daily and thorough ablution. But many animals that never wash are yet cleaner than some that do; and, what with the scantiness of his clothing, his constant exposure to the atmosphere, and his generally lying in a fresh lair, Gibbie had always been comparatively clean. Besides, being nice in his mind, he was naturally nice in his body.
The new personal regard thus roused by the presence of Snowball, had its development greatly assisted by the scrupulosity with which most things in the kitchen, and chief of all in this respect, the churn, were kept. It required much effort to come up to the nicety considered by Jean indispensable in the churn; and the croucher on the ceiling, when he saw the long nose advance to prosecute inquiry into its condition, mentally trembled lest the next movement should condemn his endeavour as a failure. With his clothes he could do nothing, alas! but he bathed every night in the Lorrie as soon as Donal had gone home with the cattle. Once he got into a deep hole, but managed to get out again, and so learned that he could swim.
All day he was with Donal, and took from him by much the greater part of his labour: Donal had never had such time for reading. In return he gave him his dinner, and Gibbie could do very well upon one meal a day. He paid him also in poetry. It never came into his head, seeing he never spoke, to teach him to read. He soon gave up attempting to learn anything from him as to his place or people or history, for to all questions in that direction Gibbie only looked grave and shook his head. As often, on the other hand, as he tried to learn where he spent the night, he received for answer only one of his merriest laughs.
Nor was larger time for reading the sole benefit Gibbie conferred upon Donal. Such was the avidity and growing intelligence with which the little naked town-savage listened to what Donal read to him, that his presence was just so much added to Donal's own live soul of thought and feeling. From listening to his own lips through Gibbie's ears, he not only understood many things better, but, perceiving what things must puzzle Gibbie, came sometimes, rather to his astonishment, to see that in fact he did not understand them himself. Thus the bond between the boy and the child grew closer--far closer, indeed than Donal imagined; for, although still, now and then, he had a return of the fancy that Gibbie might be a creature of some speechless race other than human, of whom he was never to know whence he came or whither he went--a messenger, perhaps, come to unveil to him the depths of his own spirit, and make up for the human teaching denied him, this was only in his more poetic moods, and his ordinary mental position towards him was one of kind condescension.
It was not all fine weather up there among the mountains in the beginning of summer. In the first week of June even, there was sleet and snow in the wind--the tears of the vanquished Winter, blown, as he fled, across the sea, from Norway or Iceland. Then would Donal's heart be sore for Gibbie, when he saw his poor rags blown about like streamers in the wind, and the white spots melting on his bare skin. His own condition would then to many have appeared pitiful enough, but such an idea Donal would have laughed to scorn, and justly. Then most, perhaps then only, does the truly generous nature feel poverty, when he sees another in need and can do little or nothing to help him. Donal had neither greatcoat, plaid, nor umbrella, wherewith to shield Gibbie's looped and windowed raggedness. Once, in great pity, he pulled off his jacket, and threw it on Gibbie's shoulders. But the shout of laughter that burst from the boy, as he flung the jacket from him, and rushed away into the middle of the feeding herd, a shout that came from no cave of rudeness, but from the very depths of delight, stirred by the loving kindness of the act, startled Donal out of his pity into brief anger, and he rushed after him in indignation, with full purpose to teach him proper behaviour by a box on each ear. But Gibbie dived under the belly of a favourite cow, and peering out sideways from under her neck and between her forelegs, his arms grasping each a leg, while the cow went on twisting her long tongue round the grass and plucking it undisturbed, showed such an innocent countenance of holy merriment, that the pride of Donal's hurt benevolence melted away, and his laughter emulated Gibbie's. That sort of day was in truth drearier for Donal than for Gibbie, for the books he had were not his own, and he dared not expose them to the rain; some of them indeed came from Glashruach--the Muckle Hoose, they generally called it! When he left him, it was to wander disconsolately about the field; while Gibbie, sheltered under a whole cow, defied the chill and the sleet, and had no books of which to miss the use. He could not, it is true, shield his legs from the insidious attacks of such sneaking blasts as will always find out the undefended spots; but his great heart was so well-to-do in the inside of him, that, unlike Touchstone, his spirits not being weary, he cared not for his legs. The worst storm in the world could not have made that heart quail. For, think! there had just been the strong, the well-dressed, the learned, the wise, the altogether mighty and considerable Donal, the cowherd, actually desiring him, wee Sir Gibbie Galbraith, the cinder of the city furnace, the naked, and generally the hungry little tramp, to wear his jacket to cover him from the storm! The idea was one of eternal triumph; and Gibbie, exulting in the unheard-of devotion and condescension of the thing, kept on laughing like a blessed cherub under the cow's belly. Nor was there in his delight the smallest admixture of pride that he should have drawn forth such kindness; it was simple glorying in the beauteous fact. As to the cold and the sleet, so far as he knew they never hurt anybody. They were not altogether pleasant creatures, but they could not help themselves, and would soon give over their teasing. By to-morrow they would have wandered away into other fields, and left the sun free to come back to Donal and the cattle, when Gibbie, at present shielded like any lord by the friendliest of cows, would come in for a share of the light and the warmth. Gibbie was so confident with the animals, that they were already even more friendly with him than with Donal--all except Hornie, who, being of a low spirit, therefore incapable of obedience, was friendliest with the one who gave her the hardest blows.