Chapter XVIII. The Broonie.
 

Things had gone on in this way for several weeks--if Gibbie had not been such a small creature, I hardly see how they could for so long--when one morning the men came in to breakfast all out of temper together, complaining loudly of the person unknown who would persist in interfering with their work. They were the louder that their suspicions fluttered about Fergus, who was rather overbearing with them, and therefore not a favourite. He was in reality not at all a likely person to bend back or defile hands over such labour, and their pitching upon him for the object of their suspicion, showed how much at a loss they were. Their only ground for suspecting him, beyond the fact that there was no other whom by any violence of imagination they could suspect, was, that, whatever else was done or left undone in the stable, Snowball, whom Fergus was fond of, and rode almost every day, was, as already mentioned, sure to have something done for him. Had he been in good odour with them, they would have thought no harm of most of the things they thought he did, especially as they eased their work; but he carried himself high, they said, doing nothing but ride over the farm and pick out every fault he could find--to show how sharp he was, and look as if he could do better than any of them; and they fancied that he carried their evil report to his father, and that this underhand work in the stable must be part of some sly scheme for bringing them into disgrace. And now at last had come the worst thing of all: Gibbie had discovered the corn-bin, and having no notion but that everything in the stable was for the delectation of the horses, had been feeding them largely with oats--a delicacy with which, in the plenty of other provisions, they were very sparingly supplied; and the consequences had begun to show themselves in the increased unruliness of the more wayward amongst them. Gibbie had long given up resorting to the ceiling, and remained in utter ignorance of the storm that was brewing because of him.

The same day brought things nearly to a crisis; for the overfed Snowball, proving too much for Fergus's horsemanship, came rushing home at a fierce gallop without him, having indeed left him in a ditch by the roadside. The remark thereupon made by the men in his hearing, that it was his own fault, led him to ask questions, when he came gradually to know what they attributed to him, and was indignant at the imputation of such an employment of his mornings to one who had his studies to attend to--scarcely a wise line of defence where the truth would have been more credible as well as convincing--namely, that at the time when those works of supererogation could alone be effected, he lay as lost a creature as ever sleep could make of a man.

In the evening, Jean sought a word with Donal, and expressed her surprise that he should be able to do everybody's work about the place, warning him it would be said he did it at the expense of his own. But what could he mean, she said, by wasting the good corn to put devilry into the horses? Donal stared in utter bewilderment. He knew perfectly that to the men suspicion of him was as impossible as of one of themselves. Did he not sleep in the same chamber with them? Could it be allusion to the way he spent his time when out with the cattle that Mistress Jean intended? He was so confused, looked so guilty as well as astray, and answered so far from any point in Jean's mind, that she at last became altogether bewildered also, out of which chaos of common void gradually dawned on her mind the conviction that she had been wasting both thanks and material recognition of service, where she was under no obligation. Her first feeling thereupon was, not unnaturally however unreasonably, one of resentment--as if Donal, in not doing her the kindness her fancy had been attributing to him, had all the time been doing her an injury; but the boy's honest bearing and her own good sense made her, almost at once, dismiss the absurdity.

Then came anew the question, utterly unanswerable now--who could it be that did not only all her morning work, but, with a passion for labour insatiable, part of that of the men also? She knew her nephew better than to imagine for a moment, with the men, it could be he. A good enough lad she judged him, but not good enough for that. He was too fond of his own comfort to dream of helping other people! But now, having betrayed herself to Donal, she wisely went farther, and secured herself by placing full confidence in him. She laid open the whole matter, confessing that she had imagined her ministering angel to be Donal himself: now she had not even a conjecture to throw at random after the person of her secret servant. Donal, being a Celt, and a poet, would have been a brute if he had failed of being a gentleman, and answered that he was ashamed it should be another and not himself who had been her servant and gained her commendation; but he feared, if he had made any such attempt, he would but have fared like the husband in the old ballad who insisted that his wife's work was much easier to do than his own. But as he spoke, he saw a sudden change come over Jean's countenance. Was it fear? or what was it? She gazed with big eyes fixed on his face, heeding neither him nor his words, and Donal, struck silent, gazed in return. At length, after a pause of strange import, her soul seemed to return into her deep-set grey eyes, and in a broken voice, low, and solemn, and fraught with mystery, she said,

"Donal, it's the broonie!"

Donal's mouth opened wide at the word, but the tenor of his thought it would have been hard for him to determine. Celtic in kindred and education, he had listened in his time to a multitude of strange tales, both indigenous and exotic, and, Celtic in blood, had been inclined to believe every one of them for which he could find the least raison d'Ítre. But at school he had been taught that such stories deserved nothing better than mockery, that to believe them was contrary to religion, and a mark of such weakness as involved blame. Nevertheless, when he heard the word broonie issue from a face with such an expression as Jean's then wore, his heart seemed to give a gape in his bosom, and it rushed back upon his memory how he had heard certain old people talk of the brownie that used, when their mothers and grandmothers were young, to haunt the Mains of Glashruach. His mother did not believe such things, but she believed nothing but her New Testament!--and what if there should be something in them? The idea of service rendered by the hand of a being too clumsy, awkward, ugly, to consent to be seen by the more finished race of his fellow-creatures, whom yet he surpassed in strength and endurance and longevity, had at least in it for Donal the attraction of a certain grotesque yet homely poetic element. He remembered too the honour such a type of creature had had in being lapt around for ever in the airy folds of L'Allegro. And to think that Mistress Jean, for whom everybody had such a respect, should speak of the creature in such a tone!--it sent a thrill of horrific wonder and delight through the whole frame of the boy: might, could there be such creatures? And thereupon began to open to his imagination vista after vista into the realms of might-be possibility--where dwelt whole clans and kins of creatures, differing from us and our kin, yet occasionally, at the cross-roads of creation, coming into contact with us, and influencing us not greatly, perhaps, yet strangely and notably. Not once did the real brownie occur to him--the small, naked Gibbie, far more marvellous and admirable than any brownie of legendary fable or fact, whether celebrated in rude old Scots ballad for his taeless feet, or designated in noble English poem of perfect art, as lubber fiend of hairy length.

Jean Mavor came from a valley far withdrawn in the folds of the Gormgarnet mountains, where in her youth she had heard yet stranger tales than had ever come to Donal's ears, of which some had perhaps kept their hold the more firmly that she had never heard them even alluded to since she left her home. Her brother, a hard-headed highlander, as canny as any lowland Scot, would have laughed to scorn the most passing reference to such an existence; and Fergus, who had had a lowland mother--and nowhere is there less of so-called superstition than in most parts of the lowlands of Scotland--would have joined heartily in his mockery. For the cowherd, however, as I say, the idea had no small attraction, and his stare was the reflection of Mistress Jean's own--for the soul is a live mirror, at once receiving into its centre, and reflecting from its surface.

"Div ye railly think it, mem?" said Donal at last.

"Think what?" retorted Jean, sharply, jealous instantly of being compromised, and perhaps not certain that she had spoken aloud.

"Div ye railly think 'at there is sic craturs as broonies, Mistress Jean?" said Donal.

"Wha kens what there is an' what there isna?" returned Jean: she was not going to commit herself either way. Even had she imagined herself above believing such things, she would not have dared to say so; for there was a time still near in her memory, though unknown to any now upon the farm except her brother, when the Mains of Glashruach was the talk of Daurside because of certain inexplicable nightly disorders that fell out there; the slang rows, or the Scotch remishs (a form of the English romage), would perhaps come nearest to a designation of them, consisting as they did of confused noises, rumblings, ejaculations; and the fact itself was a reason for silence, seeing a word might bring the place again into men's mouths in like fashion, and seriously affect the service of the farm; such a rumour would certainly be made in the market a ground for demanding more wages to fee to the Mains. "Ye haud yer tongue, laddie," she went on; "it's the least ye can efter a' 'at's come an' gane; an' least said's sunest mendit, Gang to yer wark."

But either Mistress Jean's influx of caution came too late, and someone had overheard her suggestion, or the idea was already abroad in the mind bucolic and georgic, for that very night it began to be reported upon the nearer farms, that the Mains of Glashruach was haunted by a brownie who did all the work for both men and Maids--a circumstance productive of different opinions with regard to the desirableness of a situation there, some asserting they would not fee to it for any amount of wages, and others averring they could desire nothing better than a place where the work was all done for them.

Quick at disappearing as Gibbie was, a very little cunning on the part of Jean might soon have entrapped the brownie; but a considerable touch of fear was now added to her other motives for continuing to spend a couple of hours longer in bed than had formerly been her custom. So that for yet a few days things went on much as usual; Gibbie saw no sign that his presence was suspected, or that his doings were offensive; and life being to him a constant present, he never troubled himself about anything before it was there to answer for itself.

One morning the long thick mane of Snowball was found carefully plaited up in innumerable locks. This was properly elf-work, but no fairies had been heard of on Daurside for many a long year. The brownie, on the other hand, was already in every one's mouth--only a stray one, probably, that had wandered from some old valley away in the mountains, where they were still believed in--but not the less a brownie; and if it was not the brownie who plaited Snowball's mane, who or what was it? A phenomenon must be accounted for, and he who will not accept a theory offered, or even a word applied, is indebted in a full explanation. The rumour spread in long slow ripples, till at last one of them struck the membrana tympani of the laird, where he sat at luncheon in the House of Glashruach.