Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XXXII. Prologue.
Ever since he became a dweller in the air of Glashgar, Gibbie, mindful of his first visit thereto, and of his grand experience on that occasion, had been in the habit, as often as he saw reason to expect a thunder-storm, and his duties would permit, of ascending the mountain, and there on the crest of the granite peak, awaiting the arrival of the tumult. Everything antagonistic in the boy, everything that could naturally find relief, or pleasure, or simple outcome, in resistance or contention, debarred as it was by the exuberance of his loving kindness from obtaining satisfaction or alleviation in strife with his fellows, found it wherever he could encounter the forces of Nature, in personal wrestle with them where possible, and always in wildest sympathy with any uproar of the elements. The absence of personality in them allowed the co-existence of sympathy and antagonism in respect of them. Except those truths awaking delight at once calm and profound, of which so few know the power, and the direct influence of human relation, Gibbie's emotional joy was more stirred by storm than by anything else; and with all forms of it he was so familiar that, young as he was, he had unconsciously begun to generalize on its phases.
Towards the evening of a wondrously fine day in the beginning of August--a perfect day of summer in her matronly beauty, it began to rain. All the next day the slopes and stairs of Glashgar were alternately glowing in sunshine, and swept with heavy showers, driven slanting in strong gusts of wind from the northwest. How often he was wet through and dried again that day, Gibbie could not have told. He wore so little that either took but a few moments, and he was always ready for a change. The wind and the rain together were cold, but that only served to let the sunshine deeper into him when it returned.
In the afternoon there was less sun, more rain, and more wind; and at last the sun seemed to give it up; the wind grew to a hurricane, and the rain strove with it which should inhabit the space. The whole upper region was like a huge mortar, in which the wind was the pestle, and, with innumerable gyres, vainly ground at the rain. Gibbie drove his sheep to the refuge of a pen on the lower slope of a valley that ran at right angles to the wind, where they were sheltered by a rock behind, forming one side of the enclosure, and dykes of loose stones, forming the others, at a height there was no tradition of any flood having reached. He then went home, and having told Robert what he had done, and had his supper, set out in the early-failing light, to ascend the mountain. A great thunder-storm was at hand, and was calling him. It was almost dark before he reached the top, but he knew the surface of Glashgar nearly as well as the floor of the cottage. Just as he had fought his way to the crest of the peak in the face of one of the fiercest of the blasts abroad that night, a sudden rush of fire made the heavens like the smoke-filled vault of an oven, and at once the thunder followed, in a succession of single sharp explosions without any roll between. The mountain shook with the windy shocks, but the first of the thunder-storm was the worst, and it soon passed. The wind and the rain continued, and the darkness was filled with the rush of the water everywhere wildly tearing down the sides of the mountain. Thus heaven and earth held communication in torrents all the night. Down the steeps of the limpid air they ran to the hard sides of the hills, where at once, as if they were no longer at home, and did not like the change, they began to work mischief. To the ears and heart of Gibbie their noises were a mass of broken music. Every spring and autumn the floods came, and he knew them, and they were welcome to him in their seasons.
It required some care to find his way down through the darkness and the waters to the cottage, but as he was neither in fear nor in haste, he was in little danger, and his hands and feet could pick out the path where his eyes were useless. When at length he reached his bed, it was not for a long time to sleep, but to lie awake and listen to the raging of the wind all about and above and below the cottage, and the rushing of the streams down past it on every side. To his imagination it was as if he lay in the very bed of the channel by which the waters of heaven were shooting to the valleys of the earth; and when he fell asleep at last, his dream was of the rush of the river of the water of life from under the throne of God; and he saw men drink thereof, and everyone as he drank straightway knew that he was one with the Father, and one with every child of his throughout the infinite universe.
He woke, and what remained of his dream was love in his heart, and in his ears the sound of many waters. It was morning. He rose, and, dressing hastily, opened the door. What a picture of grey storm rose outspread before him! The wind fiercely invaded the cottage, thick charged with water-drops, and stepping out he shut the door in haste, lest it should blow upon the old people in bed and wake them. He could not see far on any side, for the rain that fell, and the mist and steam that rose, upon which the wind seemed to have no power; but wherever he did see, there water was running down. Up the mountain he went--he could hardly have told why. Once, for a moment, as he ascended, the veil of the vapour either rose, or was torn asunder, and he saw the great wet gleam of the world below. By the time he reached the top, it was as light as it was all the day; but it was with a dull yellow glare, as if the sun were obscured by the smoke and vaporous fumes of a burning world which the rain had been sent to quench. It was a wild, hopeless scene--as if God had turned his face away from the world, and all Nature was therefore drowned in tears--no Rachel weeping for her children, but the whole creation crying for the Father, and refusing to be comforted. Gibbie stood gazing and thinking. Did God like to look at the storm he made? If Jesus did, would he have left it all and gone to sleep, when the wind and waves were howling, and flinging the boat about like a toy between them? He must have been tired, surely! With what? Then first Gibbie saw that perhaps it tired Jesus to heal people; that every time what cured man or woman was life that went out of him, and that he missed it, perhaps--not from his heart, but from his body; and if it were so, then it was no wonder if he slept in the midst of a right splendid storm. And upon that Gibbie remembered what St. Matthew says just before he tells about the storm--that "he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses."
That moment it seemed as if he must be himself in some wave-tossed boat, and not upon a mountain of stone, for Glashgar gave a great heave under him, then rocked and shook from side to side a little, and settled down so still and steady, that motion and the mountain seemed again two ideas that never could be present together in any mind. The next instant came an explosion, followed by a frightful roaring and hurling, as of mingled water and stones; and on the side of the mountain beneath him he saw what, through the mist, looked like a cloud of smoke or dust rising to a height. He darted towards it. As he drew nearer, the cloud seemed to condense, and presently he saw plainly enough that it was a great column of water shooting up and out from the face of the mountain. It sank and rose again, with the alternation of a huge pulse: the mountain was cracked, and through the crack, with every throb of its heart, the life-blood of the great hull of the world seemed beating out. Already it had scattered masses of gravel on all sides, and down the hill a river was shooting in sheer cataract, raving and tearing, and carrying stones and rocks with it like foam. Still and still it pulsed and rushed and ran, born, like another Xanthus, a river full-grown, from the heart of the mountain.
Suddenly Gibbie, in the midst of his astonishment and awful delight, noted the path of the new stream, and from his knowledge of the face of the mountain, perceived that its course was direct for the cottage. Down the hill he shot after it, as if it were a wild beast that his fault had freed from its cage. He was not terrified. One believing like him in the perfect Love and perfect Will of a Father of men, as the fact of facts, fears nothing. Fear is faithlessness. But there is so little that is worthy the name of faith, that such a confidence will appear to most not merely incredible but heartless. The Lord himself seems not to have been very hopeful about us, for he said, When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth? A perfect faith would lift us absolutely above fear. It is in the cracks, crannies, and gulfy faults of our belief, the gaps that are not faith, that the snow of apprehension settles, and the ice of unkindness forms.
The torrent had already worn for itself a channel: what earth there was, it had swept clean away to the rock, and the loose stones it had thrown up aside, or hurled with it in its headlong course. But as Gibbie bounded along, following it with a speed almost equal to its own, he was checked in the midst of his hearty haste by the sight, a few yards away, of another like terror--another torrent issuing from the side of the hill, and rushing to swell the valley stream. Another and another he saw, with growing wonder, as he ran; before he reached home he passed some six or eight, and had begun to think whether a second deluge of the whole world might not be at hand, commencing this time with Scotland. Two of them joined the one he was following, and he had to cross them as he could; the others he saw near and farther off--one foaming deliverance after another, issuing from the entrails of the mountain, like imprisoned demons, that, broken from their bonds, ran to ravage the world with the accumulated hate of dreariest centuries. Now and then a huge boulder, loosened from its bed by the trail of this or that watery serpent, would go rolling, leaping, bounding down the hill before him, and just in time he escaped one that came springing after him as if it were a living thing that wanted to devour him. Nor was Glashgar the only torrent-bearing mountain of Gormgarnet that day, though the rain prevented Gibbie from seeing anything of what the rest of them were doing. The fountains of the great deep were broken up, and seemed rushing together to drown the world. And still the wind was raging, and the rain tumbling to the earth, rather in sheets than in streams.
Gibbie at length forsook the bank of the new torrent to take the nearest way home, and soon reached the point whence first, returning in that direction, he always looked to see the cottage. For a moment he was utterly bewildered: no cottage was to be seen. From the top of the rock against which it was built, shot the whole mass of the water he had been pursuing, now dark with stones and gravel, now grey with foam, or glassy in the lurid light.
"O Jesus Christ!" he cried, and darted to the place. When he came near, to his amazement there stood the little house unharmed, the very centre of the cataract! For a few yards on the top of the rock, the torrent had a nearly horizontal channel, along which it rushed with unabated speed to the edge, and thence shot clean over the cottage, dropping only a dribble of rain on the roof from the underside of its half-arch. The garden ground was gone, swept clean from the bare rock, which made a fine smooth shoot for the water a long distance in front. He darted through the drizzle and spray, reached the door, and lifted the hatch. The same moment he heard Janet's voice in joyful greeting.
"Noo, noo! come awa', laddie," she said. "Wha wad hae thoucht we wad hae to lea' the rock to win oot o' the water? We're but waitin' you to gang.--Come, Robert, we'll awa' doon the hill."
She stood in the middle of the room in her best gown, as if she had been going to church, her Bible, a good-sized octavo, under her arm, with a white handkerchief folded round it, and her umbrella in her hand.
"He that believeth shall not make haste," she said, "but he maunna tempt the Lord, aither. Drink that milk, Gibbie, an' pit a bannock i' yer pooch, an' come awa'."
Robert rose from the edge of the bed, staff in hand, ready too. He also was in his Sunday clothes. Oscar, who could make no change of attire, but was always ready, and had been standing looking up in his face for the last ten minutes, wagged his tail when he saw him rise, and got out of his way. On the table were the remains of their breakfast of oat-cake and milk--the fire Janet had left on the hearth was a spongy mass of peat, as wet as the winter before it was dug from the bog, so they had had no porridge. The water kept coming in splashes down the lum, the hillocks of the floor were slimy, and in the hollows little lakes were gathering: the lowest film of the torrent-water ran down the rock behind, and making its way between rock and roof, threatened soon to render the place uninhabitable.
"What's the eese o' lo'denin' yersel' wi' the umbrell?" said Robert. "Ye'll get it a' drookit (drenched)."
"Ow, I'll jist tak it," replied Janet, with a laugh in acknowledgment of her husband's fun; "it'll haud the rain ohn blin't me."
"That's gien ye be able to haud it up. I doobt the win' 'll be ower sair upo' 't. I'm thinkin', though, it'll be mair to haud yer beuk dry!"
Janet smiled and made no denial.
"Noo, Gibbie," she said, "ye gang an' lowse Crummie. But ye'll hae to lead her. She winna be to caw in sic a win' 's this, an' no plain ro'd afore her."
"Whaur div ye think o' gauin'?" asked Robert, who, satisfied as usual with whatever might be in his wife's mind, had not till this moment thought of asking her where she meant to take refuge.
"Ow, we'll jist mak for the Mains, gien ye be agreeable, Robert," she answered. "It's there we belang till, an' in wather like this naebody wad refeese bield till a beggar, no to say Mistress Jean till her ain fowk."
With that she led the way to the door and opened it.
"His v'ice was like the soon' o' mony watters," she said to herself softly, as the liquid thunder of the torrent came in the louder.
Gibbie shot round the corner to the byre, whence through all the roar, every now and then they had heard the cavernous mooing of Crummie, piteous and low. He found a stream a foot deep running between her fore and hind legs, and did not wonder that she wanted to be on the move. Speedily he loosed her, and fastening the chain-tether to her halter, led her out. She was terrified at sight of the falling water, and they had some trouble in getting her through behind it, but presently after, she was making the descent as carefully and successfully as any of them.
It was a heavy undertaking for the two old folk to walk all the way to the Mains, and in such a state of the elements; but where there is no choice, we do well to make no difficulty. Janet was half troubled that her mountain, and her foundation on the rock, should have failed her; but consoled herself that they were but shadows of heavenly things and figures of the true; and that a mountain or a rock was in itself no more to be trusted than a horse or a prince or the legs of a man. Robert plodded on in contented silence, and Gibbie was in great glee, singing, after his fashion, all the way, though now and then half-choked by the fierceness of the wind round some corner of rock, filled with rain-drops that stung like hailstones.
By and by Janet stopped and began looking about her. This naturally seemed to her husband rather odd in the circumstances.
"What are ye efter, Janet?" he said, shouting through the wind from a few yards off, by no means sorry to stand for a moment, although any recovering of his breath seemed almost hopeless in such a tempest.
"I want to lay my umbrell in safity," answered Janet, "--gien I cud but perceive a shuitable spot. Ye was richt, Robert, it's mair w'alth nor I can get the guid o'."
"Hoots! fling't frae ye, than, lass," he returned. "Is this a day to be thinkin' o' warl' 's gear?"
"What for no, Robert?" she rejoined. "Ae day's as guid's anither for thinkin' aboot onything the richt gait."
"What!" retorted Robert, "--whan we hae ta'en oor lives in oor han', an' can no more than houp we may cairry them throu' safe!"
"What's that 'at ye ca' oor lives, Robert? The Maister never made muckle o' the savin' o' sic like's them. It seems to me they're naething but a kin' o' warl' 's gear themsel's."
"An' yet," argued Robert, "ye'll tak thoucht aboot an auld umbrell? Whaur's yer consistency, lass?"
"Gien I war tribled aboot my life," said Janet, "I cud ill spare thoucht for an auld umbrell. But they baith trible me sae little, 'at I may jist as weel luik efter them baith. It's auld an' casten an' bow-ribbit, it's true, but it wad ill become me to drap it wi'oot a thoucht, whan him 'at could mak haill loaves, said, 'Gether up the fragments 'at naething be lost.'--Na," she continued, still looking about her, "I maun jist dee my duty by the auld umbrell; syne come o' 't 'at likes, I carena."
So saying she walked to the lee side of a rock, and laid the umbrella close under it, then a few large stones upon it to keep it down.
I may add, that the same umbrella, recovered, and with two new ribs, served Janet to the day of her death.