Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XXI. The Punishment.
The house he was approaching, had a little the look of a prison. Of the more ancient portion the windows were very small, and every corner had a turret with a conical cap-roof. That part was all rough-cast, therefore grey, as if with age. The more modern part was built of all kinds of hard stone, roughly cloven or blasted from the mountain and its boulders. Granite red and grey, blue whinstone, yellow ironstone, were all mingled anyhow, fitness of size and shape alone regarded in their conjunctions; but the result as to colour was rather pleasing than otherwise, and Gibbie regarded it with some admiration. Nor, although he had received from Fergus such convincing proof that he was regarded as a culprit, had he any dread of evil awaiting him. The highest embodiment of the law with which he had acquaintance was the police, and from not one of them in all the city had he ever had a harsh word; his conscience was as void of offence as ever it had been, and the law consequently, notwithstanding the threats of Fergus, had for him no terrors.
The laird was an early riser, and therefore regarded the mere getting up early as a virtue, altogether irrespective of how the time, thus redeemed, as he called it, was spent. This morning, as it turned out, it would have been better spent in sleep. He was talking to his gamekeeper, a heavy-browed man, by the coach-house door, when Fergus appeared holding the dwindled brownie by the huge collar of his tatters. A more innocent-looking malefactor sure never appeared before awful Justice! Only he was in rags, and there are others besides dogs whose judgments go by appearance. Mr. Galbraith was one of them, and smiled a grim, an ugly smile.
"So this is your vaunted brownie, Mr. Duff!" he said, and stood looking down upon Gibbie, as if in his small person he saw superstition at the point of death, mocked thither by the arrows of his contemptuous wit.
"It's all the brownie I could lay hands on, sir," answered Fergus. "I took him in the act."
"Boy," said the laird, rolling his eyes, more unsteady than usual with indignation, in the direction of Gibbie, "what have you to say for yourself?"
Gibbie had no say--and nothing to say that his questioner could either have understood or believed; the truth from his lips would but have presented him a lying hypocrite to the wisdom of his judge. As it was, he smiled, looking up fearless in the face of the magistrate, so awful in his own esteem.
"What is your name?" asked the laird, speaking yet more sternly.
Gibbie still smiled and was silent, looking straight in his questioner's eyes. He dreaded nothing from the laird. Fergus had beaten him, but Fergus he classed with the bigger boys who had occasionally treated him roughly; this was a man, and men, except they were foreign sailors, or drunk, were never unkind. He had no idea of his silence causing annoyance. Everybody in the city had known he could not answer; and now when Fergus and the laird persisted in questioning him, he thought they were making kindly game of him, and smiled the more. Nor was there much about Mr. Galbraith to rouse a suspicion of the contrary; for he made a great virtue of keeping his temper when most he caused other people to lose theirs.
"I see the young vagabond is as impertinent as he is vicious," he said at last, finding that to no interrogation could he draw forth any other response than a smile. "Here Angus,"--and he turned to the gamekeeper--"take him into the coach-house, and teach him a little behaviour. A touch or two of the whip will find his tongue for him." Angus seized the little gentleman by the neck, as if he had been a polecat, and at arm's length walked him unresistingly into the coach-house. There, with one vigorous tug, he tore the jacket from his back, and his only other garment, dependent thereupon by some device known only to Gibbie, fell from him, and he stood in helpless nakedness, smiling still: he had never done anything shameful, therefore had no acquaintance with shame. But when the scowling keeper, to whom poverty was first cousin to poaching, and who hated tramps as he hated vermin, approached him with a heavy cart whip in his hand, he cast his eyes down at his white sides, very white between his brown arms and brown legs, and then lifted them in a mute appeal, which somehow looked as if it were for somebody else, against what he could no longer fail to perceive the man's intent. But he had no notion of what the thing threatened amounted to. He had had few hard blows in his time, and had never felt a whip.
"Ye deil's glaur!" cried the fellow, clenching the cruel teeth of one who loved not his brother, "I s' lat ye ken what comes o' brakin' into honest hooses, an' takin' what's no yer ain!"
A vision of the gnawed cheese, which he had never touched since the idea of its being property awoke in him, rose before Gibbie's mental eyes, and inwardly he bowed to the punishment. But the look he had fixed on Angus was not without effect, for the man was a father, though a severe one, and was not all a brute: he turned and changed the cart whip for a gig one with a broken shaft, which lay near. It was well for himself that he did so, for the other would probably have killed Gibbie. When the blow fell the child shivered all over, his face turned white, and without uttering even a moan, he doubled up and dropped senseless. A swollen cincture, like a red snake, had risen all round his waist, and from one spot in it the blood was oozing. It looked as if the lash had cut him in two.
The blow had stung his heart and it had ceased to beat. But the gamekeeper understood vagrants! the young blackguard was only shamming!
"Up wi' ye, ye deevil! or I s' gar ye," he said from between his teeth, lifting the whip for a second blow.
Just as the stroke fell, marking him from the nape all down the spine, so that he now bore upon his back in red the sign the ass carries in black, a piercing shriek assailed Angus's ears, and his arm, which had mechanically raised itself for a third blow, hung arrested.
The same moment, in at the coach-house door shot Ginevra, as white as Gibbie. She darted to where he lay, and there stood over him, arms rigid and hands clenched hard, shivering as he had shivered, and sending from her body shriek after shriek, as if her very soul were the breath of which her cries were fashioned. It was as if the woman's heart in her felt its roots torn from their home in the bosom of God, and quivering in agony, and confronted by the stare of an eternal impossibility, shrieked against Satan.
"Gang awa, missie," cried Angus, who had respect to this child, though he had not yet learned to respect childhood; "he's a coorse cratur, an' maun hae's whups."
But Ginevra was deaf to his evil charming. She stopped her cries, however, to help Gibbie up, and took one of his hands to raise him. But his arm hung limp and motionless; she let it go; it dropped like a stick, and again she began to shriek. Angus laid his hand on her shoulder. She turned on him, and opening her mouth wide, screamed at him like a wild animal, with all the hatred of mingled love and fear; then threw herself on the boy, and covered his body with her own. Angus, stooping to remove her, saw Gibbie's face, and became uncomfortable.
"He's deid! he's deid! Ye've killt him, Angus! Ye're an ill man!" she cried fiercely. "I hate ye. I'll tell on ye. I'll tell my papa."
"Hoot! whisht, missie!" said Angus. "It was by yer papa's ain orders I gae him the whup, an' he weel deserved it forby. An' gien ye dinna gang awa, an' be a guid yoong leddy, I'll gie 'im mair yet."
"I'll tell God," shrieked Ginevra with fresh energy of defensive love and wrath.
Again he sought to remove her, but she clung so, with both legs and arms, to the insensible Gibbie, that he could but lift both together, and had to leave her alone.
"Gien ye daur to touch 'im again, Angus, I'll bite ye--bite ye--BITE YE," she screamed, in a passage wildly crescendo.
The laird and Fergus had walked away together, perhaps neither of them quite comfortable at the orders given, but the one too self-sufficient to recall them, and the other too submissive to interfere. They heard the cries, nevertheless, and had they known them for Ginevra's, would have rushed to the spot; but fierce emotion had so utterly changed her voice--and indeed she had never in her life cried out before--that they took them for Gibbie's and supposed the whip had had the desired effect and loosed his tongue. As to the rest of the household, which would by this time have been all gathered in the coach-house, the laird had taken his stand where he could intercept them: he would not have the execution of the decrees of justice interfered with.
But Ginevra's shrieks brought Gibbie to himself. Faintly he opened his eyes, and stared, stupid with growing pain, at the tear-blurred face beside him. In the confusion of his thoughts he fancied the pain he felt was Ginevra's, not his, and sought to comfort her, stroking her cheek with feeble hand, and putting up his mouth to kiss her. But Angus, utterly scandalized at the proceeding, and restored to energy by seeing that the boy was alive, caught her up suddenly and carried her off--struggling, writhing, and scratching like a cat. Indeed she bit his arm, and that severely, but the man never even told his wife. Little Missie was a queen, and little Gibbie was a vermin, but he was ashamed to let the mother of his children know that the former had bitten him for the sake of the latter.
The moment she thus disappeared, Gibbie began to apprehend that she was suffering for him, not he for her. His whole body bore testimony to frightful abuse. This was some horrible place inhabited by men such as those that killed Sambo! He must fly. But would they hurt the little girl? He thought not--she was at home. He started to spring to his feet, but fell back almost powerless; then tried more cautiously and got up wearily, for the pain and the terrible shock seemed to have taken the strength out of every limb. Once on his feet, he could scarcely stoop to pick up his remnant of trowsers without again falling, and the effort made him groan with distress. He was in the act of trying in vain to stand on one foot, so as to get the other into the garment, when he fancied he heard the step of his executioner, returning doubtless to resume his torture. He dropped the rag, and darted out of the door, forgetting aches and stiffness and agony. All naked as he was, he fled like the wind, unseen, or at least unrecognized, of any eye. Fergus did catch a glimpse of something white that flashed across a vista through the neighbouring wood, but he took it for a white peacock, of which there were two or three about the place. The three men were disgusted with the little wretch when they found that he had actually fled into the open day without his clothes. Poor Gibbie! it was such a small difference! It needed as little change to make a savage as an angel of him. All depended on the eyes that saw him.
He ran he knew not whither, feeling nothing but the desire first to get into some covert, and then to run farther. His first rush was for the shubbery, his next across the little park to the wood beyond. He did not feel the wind of his running on his bare skin. He did not feel the hunger that had made him so unable to bear the lash. On and on he ran, fancying ever he heard the cruel Angus behind him. If a dry twig snapped, he thought it was the crack of the whip; and a small wind that rose suddenly in the top of a pine, seemed the hiss with which it was about to descend upon him. He ran and ran, but still there seemed nothing between him and his persecutors. He felt no safety. At length he came where a high wall joining some water, formed a boundary. The water was a brook from the mountain, here widened and deepened into a still pool. He had been once out of his depth before: he threw himself in, and swam straight across: ever after that, swimming seemed to him as natural as walking.
Then first awoke a faint sense of safety; for on the other side he was knee deep in heather. He was on the wild hill, with miles on miles of cover! Here the unman could not catch him. It must be the same that Donal pointed out to him one day at a distance; he had a gun, and Donal said he had once shot a poacher and killed him. He did not know what a poacher was: perhaps he was one himself, and the man would shoot him. They could see him quite well from the other side! he must cross the knoll first, and then he might lie down and rest. He would get right into the heather, and lie with it all around and over him till the night came. Where he would go then, he did not know. But it was all one; he could go anywhere. Donal must mind his cows, and the men must mind the horses, and Mistress Jean must mind her kitchen, but Sir Gibbie could go where he pleased. He would go up Daurside; but he would not go just at once; that man might be on the outlook for him, and he wouldn't like to be shot. People who were shot lay still, and were put into holes in the earth, and covered up, and he would not like that.
Thus he communed with himself as he went over the knoll. On the other side he chose a tall patch of heather, and crept under. How nice and warm and kind the heather felt, though it did hurt the weals dreadfully sometimes. If he only had something to cover just them! There seemed to be one down his back as well as round his waist!
And now Sir Gibbie, though not much poorer than he had been, really possessed nothing separable, except his hair and his nails--nothing therefore that he could call his, as distinguished from him. His sole other possession was a negative quantity--his hunger, namely, for he had not even a meal in his body: he had eaten nothing since the preceding noon. I am wrong--he had one possession besides, though hardly a separable one--a ballad about a fair lady and her page, which Donal had taught him. That he now began to repeat to himself, but was disappointed to find it a good deal withered. He was not nearly reduced to extremity yet though--this little heir of the world: in his body he had splendid health, in his heart a great courage, and in his soul an ever-throbbing love. It was his love to the very image of man, that made the horror of the treatment he had received. Angus was and was not a man! After all, Gibbie was still one to be regarded with holy envy.
Poor Ginny was sent to bed for interfering with her father's orders; and what with rage and horror and pity, an inexplicable feeling of hopelessness took possession of her, while her affection for her father was greatly, perhaps for this world irretrievably, injured by that morning's experience; a something remained that never passed from her, and that something, as often as it stirred, rose between him and her.
Fergus told his aunt what had taken place, and made much game of her brownie. But the more Jean thought about the affair, the less she liked it. It was she upon whom it all came! What did it matter who or what her brownie was? And what had they whipped the creature for? What harm had he done? If indeed he was a little ragged urchin, the thing was only the more inexplicable! He had taken nothing! She had never missed so much as a barley scon! The cream had always brought her the right quantity of butter! Not even a bannock, so far as she knew, was ever gone from the press, or an egg from the bossie where they lay heaped! There was more in it than she could understand! Her nephew's mighty feat, so far from explaining anything, had only sealed up the mystery. She could not help cherishing a shadowy hope that, when things had grown quiet, he would again reveal his presence by his work, if not by his visible person. It was mortifying to think that he had gone as he came, and she had never set eyes upon him. But Fergus's account of his disappearance had also, in her judgment, a decided element of the marvellous in it. She was strongly inclined to believe that the brownie had cast a glamour over him and the laird and Angus, all three, and had been making game of them for his own amusement. Indeed Daurside generally refused the explanation of the brownie presented for its acceptance, and the laird scored nothing against the arch-enemy Superstition.
Donal Grant, missing his "cratur" that day for the first time, heard enough when he came home to satisfy him that he had been acting the brownie in the house and the stable as well as in the field, incredible as it might well appear that such a child should have had even mere strength for what he did. Then first also, after he had thus lost him, he began to understand his worth, and to see how much he owed him. While he had imagined himself kind to the urchin, the urchin had been laying him under endless obligation. For he left him with ever so much more in his brains than when he came. This book and that, through his aid, he had read thoroughly; and a score or so of propositions had been added to his stock in Euclid. His first feeling about the child revived as he pondered--namely, that he was not of this world. But even then Donal did not know the best Gibbie had done for him. He did not know of what far deeper and better things he had, through his gentleness, his trust, his loving service, his absolute unselfishness, sown the seeds in his mind. On the other hand, Donal had in return done more for Gibbie than he knew, though what he had done for him, namely, shared his dinners with him, had been less of a gift than he thought, and Donal had rather been sharing in Gibbie's dinner, than Gibbie in Donal's.