Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XXX. The Lorrie Meadow.
It was high time, according to agricultural economics, that Donal Grant should be promoted a step in the ranks of labour. A youth like him was fit for horses and their work, and looked idle in a field with cattle. But Donal was not ambitious, at least in that direction. He was more and more in love with books, and learning and the music of thought and word; and he knew well that no one doing a man's work upon a farm could have much time left for study--certainly not a quarter of what the herd-boy could command. Therefore, with his parents approval, he continued to fill the humbler office, and receive the scantier wages belonging to it.
The day following their adventure on Glashgar, in the afternoon, Nicie being in the grounds with her little mistress, proposed that they should look whether they could see her brother down in the meadow of which her mother had spoken. Ginevra willingly agreed, and they took their way through the shrubbery to a certain tall hedge which divided the grounds from a little grove of larches on the slope of a steep bank descending to the Lorrie, on the other side of which lay the meadow. It was a hawthorn hedge, very old, and near the ground very thin, so that they easily found a place to creep through. But they were no better on the other side, for the larches hid the meadow. They went down through them, therefore, to the bank of the little river--the largest tributary of the Daur from the roots of Glashgar.
"There he is!" cried Nicie.
"I see him," responded Ginny, "--with his cows all about the meadow."
Donal sat a little way from the river, reading.
"He's aye at 's buik!" said Nicie.
"I wonder what book it is," said Ginny.
"That wad be ill to say," answered Nicie. "Donal reads a hantle o' buiks--mair, his mither says, nor she doobts he can weel get the guid o'."
"Do you think it's Latin, Nicie?"
"Ow! I daursay. But no; it canna be Laitin--for, leuk! he's lauchin', an' he cudna dee that gien 'twar Laitin. I'm thinkin' it'll be a story: there's a heap o' them prentit noo, they tell me. Or 'deed maybe it may be a sang. He thinks a heap o' sangs. I h'ard my mither ance say she was some feared Donal micht hae ta'en to makin' sangs himsel'; no 'at there was ony ill i' that, she said, gien there wasna ony ill i' the sangs themsel's; but it was jist some trifflin' like, she said, an' they luikit for better frae Donal, wi' a' his buik lear, an' his Euclid--or what ca' they't?--nor makin' sangs."
"What's Euclid, Nicie?"
"Ye may weel speir, missie! but I hae ill tellin' ye. It's a keerious name till a buik, an' min's me o' naething but whan the lid o' yer e'e yeuks (itches); an' as to what lies atween the twa brods o' 't, I ken no more nor the man i' the meen."
"I should like to ask Donal what book he has got," said Ginny.
"I'll cry till 'im, an' ye can speir," said Nicie.--"Donal!--Donal!"
Donal looked up, and seeing his sister, came running to the bank of the stream.
"Canna ye come ower, Donal?" said Nicie. "Here's Miss Galbraith wants to spier ye a question."
Donal was across in a moment, for here the water was nowhere over a foot or two in depth.
"Oh, Donal! you've wet your feet!" cried Ginevra.
"What ill 'ill that dee me, mem?"
"None, I hope," said Ginny; "but it might, you know."
"I micht hae been droont," said Donal.
"Nicie," said Ginny, with dignity, "your brother is laughing at me."
"Na, na, mem," said Donal, apologetically. "I was only so glaid to see you an' Nicie 'at I forgot my mainners."
"Then," returned Ginny, quite satisfied, "would you mind telling me what book you were reading?"
"It's a buik o' ballants," answered Donal. "I'll read ane o' them till ye, gien ye like, mem."
"I should like very much," responded Ginny. "I've read all my own books till I'm tired of them, and I don't like papa's books.--And, do you know, Donal!"--Here the child-woman's voice grew solemn sad--"--I'm very sorry, and I'm frightened to say it; and if you weren't Nicie's brother, I couldn't say it to you;--but I am very tired of the Bible too."
"That's a peety, mem," replied Donal. "I wad hae ye no tell onybody that; for them 'at likes 't no a hair better themsel's, 'ill tak ye for waur nor a haithen for sayin' 't. Jist gang ye up to my mither, an' tell her a' aboot it. She's aye fair to a' body, an' never thinks ill o' onybody 'at says the trowth--whan it's no for contrariness. She says 'at a heap o' ill comes o' fowk no speykin' oot what they ken, or what they're thinkin', but aye guissin' at what they dinna ken, an' what ither fowk's thinkin'."
"Ay!" said Nicie, "it wad be a gey cheenged warl' gien fowk gaed to my mither, an' did as she wad hae them. She says fowk sud never tell but the ill they ken o' themsel's, an' the guid they ken o' ither fowk; an' that's jist the contrar', ye ken, missie, to what fowk maistly dis dee."
A pause naturally followed, which Ginny broke.
"I don't think you told me the name of the book you were reading, Donal," she said.
"Gien ye wad sit doon a meenute, mem," returned Donal, "--here's a bonnie gowany spot--I wad read a bit till ye, an' see gien ye likit it, afore I tellt ye the name o' 't."
She dropped at once on the little gowany bed, gathered her frock about her ankles, and said,
"Sit down, Nicie. It's so kind of Donal to read something to us! I wonder what it's going to be."
She uttered everything in a deliberate, old-fashioned way, with precise articulation, and a certain manner that an English mother would have called priggish, but which was only the outcome of Scotch stiffness, her father's rebukes, and her own sense of propriety.
Donal read the ballad of Kemp Owen.
"I think--I think--I don't think I understand it," said Ginevra. "It is very dreadful, and--and--I don't know what to think. Tell me about it, Donal.--Do you know what it means, Nicie?"
"No ae glimp, missie," answered Nicie.
Donal proceeded at once to an exposition. He told them that the serpent was a lady, enchanted by a wicked witch, who, after she had changed her, twisted her three times round the tree, so that she could not undo herself, and laid the spell upon her that she should never have the shape of a woman, until a knight kissed her as often as she was twisted round the tree. Then, when the knight did come, at every kiss a coil of her body unwound itself, until, at the last kiss, she stood before him the beautiful lady she really was."
"What a good, kind, brave knight!" said Ginevra.
"But it's no true, ye ken, missie," said Nicie, anxious that she should not be misled. "It's naething but Donal's nonsense."
"Nonsense here, nonsense there!" said Donal, "I see a heap o' sense intil 't. But nonsense or no, Nicie, its nane o' my nonsense: I wuss it war. It's hun'ers o' years auld, that ballant, I s' warran'."
"It's beautiful," said Ginevra, with decision and dignity. "I hope he married the lady, and they lived happy ever after."
"I dinna ken, mem. The man 'at made the ballant, I daursay, thoucht him weel payed gien the bonny leddy said thank ye till him."
"Oh! but, Donal, that wouldn't be enough!--Would it, Nicie?"
"Weel, ye see, missie," answered Nicie, "he but gae her three kisses--that wasna sae muckle to wur (lay out) upon a body."
"But a serpent!--a serpent's mouth, Nicie!"
Here, unhappily, Donal had to rush through the burn without leave-taking, for Hornie was attempting a trespass; and the two girls, thinking it was time to go home, rose, and climbed to the house at their leisure.
The rest of the day Ginevra talked of little else than the serpent lady and the brave knight, saying now and then what a nice boy that Donal of Nicie's was. Nor was more than the gentlest hint necessary to make Nicie remark, the next morning, that perhaps, if they went down again to the Lorrie, Donal might come, and bring the book. But when they reached the bank and looked across, they saw him occupied with Gibbie. They had their heads close together over a slate, upon which now the one, now the other, seemed to be drawing. This went on and on, and they never looked up. Ginny would have gone home, and come again in the afternoon, but Nicie instantly called Donal. He sprang to his feet and came to them, followed by Gibbie. Donal crossed the burn, but Gibbie remained on the other side, and when presently Donal took his "buik o' ballants" from his pocket, and the little company seated themselves, stood with his back to them, and his eyes on the nowt. That morning they were not interrupted.
Donal read to them for a whole hour, concerning which reading, and Ginevra's reception of it, Nicie declared she could not see what for they made sic a wark aboot a wheen auld ballants, ane efter anither.--"They're no half sae bonnie as the paraphrases, Donal," she said.
After this, Ginevra went frequently with Nicie to see her mother, and learned much of the best from her. Often also they went down to the Lorrie, and had an interview with Donal, which was longer or shorter as Gibbie was there or not to release him.
Ginny's life was now far happier than it had ever been. New channels of thought and feeling were opened, new questions were started, new interests awaked; so that, instead of losing by Miss Machar's continued inability to teach her, she was learning far more than she could give her, learning it, too, with the pleasure which invariably accompanies true learning.
Little more than child as she was, Donal felt from the first the charm of her society; and she by no means received without giving, for his mental development was greatly expedited thereby. Few weeks passed before he was her humble squire, devoted to her with all the chivalry of a youth for a girl whom he supposes as much his superior in kind as she is in worldly position; his sole advantage, in his own judgment, and that which alone procured him the privilege of her society, being, that he was older, and therefore knew a little more. So potent and genial was her influence on his imagination, that, without once thinking of her as their object, he now first found himself capable of making verses--such as they were; and one day, with his book before him--it was Burns, and he had been reading the Gowan poem to Ginevra and his sister--he ventured to repeat, as if he read them from the book, the following: they halted a little, no doubt, in rhythm, neither were perfectly rimed, but for a beginning, they had promise. Gibbie, who had thrown himself down on the other bank, and lay listening, at once detected the change in the tone of his utterance, and before he ceased had concluded that he was not reading them, and that they were his own.
Hardly had he ended, when Gibbie's pipes began from the opposite side of the water, and, true to time and cadence and feeling, followed with just the one air to suit the song--from which Donal, to his no small comfort, understood that one at least of his audience had received his lilt. If the poorest nature in the world responds with the tune to the mightiest master's song, he knows, if not another echo should come back, that he has uttered a true cry. But Ginevra had not received it, and being therefore of her own mind, and not of the song's, was critical. It is of the true things it does not, perhaps cannot receive, that human nature is most critical.
"That one is nonsense, Donal," she said. "Isn't it now? How could a man be a burn, or a wind, or the sun? But poets are silly. Papa says so."
In his mind Donal did not know which way to look; physically, he regarded the ground. Happily at that very moment Hornie caused a diversion, and Gibbie understood what Donal was feeling too well to make even a pretence of going after her. I must, to his praise, record the fact that, instead of wreaking his mortification upon the cow, Donal spared her several blows out of gratitude for the deliverance her misbehaviour had wrought him. He was in no haste to return to his audience. To have his first poem thus rejected was killing. She was but a child who had so unkindly criticized it, but she was the child he wanted to please; and for a few moments life itself seemed scarcely worth having. He called himself a fool, and resolved never to read another poem to a girl so long as he lived. By the time he had again walked through the burn, however, he was calm and comparatively wise, and knew what to say.
"Div ye hear yon burn efter ye gang to yer bed, mem?" he asked Genevra, as he climbed the bank, pointing a little lower down the stream to the mountain brook which there joined it.
"Always," she answered. "It runs right under my window."
"What kin' o' a din dis't mak'?" he asked again.
"It is different at different times," she answered. "It sings and chatters in summer, and growls and cries and grumbles in winter, or after rain up in Glashgar."
"Div ye think the burn's ony happier i' the summer, mem?"
"No, Donal; the burn has no life in it, and therefore can't be happier one time than another."
"Weel, mem, I wad jist like to speir what waur it is to fancy yersel' a burn, than to fancy the burn a body, ae time singin' an' chatterin', an' the neist growlin' an' grum'lin'."
"Well, but, Donal, can a man be a burn?"
"Weel, mem, no--at least no i' this warl', an' at 'is ain wull. But whan ye're lyin' hearkenin' to the burn, did ye never imagine yersel' rinnin' doon wi' 't--doon to the sea?"
"No, Donal; I always fancy myself going up the mountain where it comes from, and running about wild there in the wind, when all the time I know I'm safe and warm in bed."
"Weel, maybe that's better yet--I wadna say," answered Donal; "but jist the nicht, for a cheenge like, ye turn an' gang doon wi' 't--i' yer thouchts, I mean. Lie an' hearken he'rty till 't the nicht, whan ye're i' yer bed; hearken an' hearken till the soon' rins awa' wi' ye like, an' ye forget a' aboot yersel', an' think yersel' awa' wi' the burn, rinnin', rinnin', throu' this an' throu' that, throu' stanes an' birks an' bracken, throu' heather, an' plooed lan' an' corn, an' wuds an' gairdens, aye singin', an' aye cheengin' yer tune accordin', till it wins to the muckle roarin' sea, an' 's a' tint. An' the first nicht 'at the win' 's up an' awa', dee the same, mem, wi' the win'. Get up upo' the back o' 't, like, as gien it was yer muckle horse, an' jist ride him to the deith; an' efter that, gien ye dinna maybe jist wuss 'at ye was a burn or a blawin' win'--aither wad be a sair loss to the universe--ye wunna, I'm thinkin', be sae ready to fin' fau't wi' the chield 'at made yon bit sangy."
"Are you vexed with me, Donal?--I'm so sorry!" said Ginevra, taking the earnestness of his tone for displeasure.
"Na, na, mem. Ye're ower guid an' ower bonny," answered Donal, "to be a vex to onybody; but it wad be a vex to hear sic a cratur as you speykin' like ane o' the fules o' the warl', 'at believe i' naething but what comes in at the holes i' their heid."
Ginevra was silent. She could not quite understand Donal, but she felt she must be wrong somehow; and of this she was the more convinced when she saw the beautiful eyes of Gibbie fixed in admiration, and brimful of love, upon Donal.
The way Donal kept his vow never to read another poem of his own to a girl, was to proceed that very night to make another for the express purpose, as he lay awake in the darkness.
The last one he ever read to her in that meadow was this:
I doubt whether Ginevra understood this song better than the first, but she was now more careful of criticizing; and when by degrees it dawned upon her that he was the maker of these and other verses he read, she grew half afraid of Donal, and began to regard him with big eyes; he became, from a herd-boy, an unintelligible person, therefore a wonder. For, brought thus face to face with the maker of verses, she could not help trying to think how he did the thing; and as she felt no possibility of making verses herself, it remained a mystery and an astonishment, causing a great respect for the poet to mingle with the kindness she felt towards Nicie's brother.