Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XXXV. The Whelp.
Gibbie sped down the hill through a worse rain than ever. The morning was close, and the vapours that filled it were like smoke burned to the hue of the flames whence it issued. Many a man that morning believed another great deluge begun, and all measures relating to things of this world lost labour. Going down his own side of the Glashburn, the nearest path to the valley, the gamekeeper's cottage was the first dwelling on his way. It stood a little distance from the bank of the burn, opposite the bridge and gate, while such things were.
It had been with great difficulty, for even Angus did not know the mountain so well as Gibbie, that the gamekeeper reached it with the housekeeper the night before. It was within two gunshots of the house of Glashruach, yet to get to it they had to walk miles up and down Glashgar. A mountain in storm is as hard to cross as a sea. Arrived, they did not therefore feel safe. The tendency of the Glashburn was indeed away from the cottage, as the grounds of Glashruach sadly witnessed; but a torrent is double-edged, and who could tell? The yielding of one stone in its channel might send it to them. All night Angus watched, peering out ever again into the darkness, but seeing nothing save three lights that burned above the water--one of them, he thought, at the Mains. The other two went out in the darkness, but that only in the dawn. When the morning came, there was the Glashburn meeting the Lorrie in his garden. But the cottage was well built, and fit to stand a good siege, while any moment the waters might have reached their height. By breakfast time, however, they were round it from behind. There is nothing like a flood for revealing the variations of surface, the dips and swells of a country. In a few minutes they were isolated, with the current of the Glashburn on one side, and that of the Lorrie in front. When he saw the water come in at front and back doors at once, Angus ordered his family up the stair: the cottage had a large attic, with dormer windows, where they slept. He himself remained below for some time longer, in that end of the house where he kept his guns and fishing-tackle; there he sat on a table, preparing nets for the fish that would be left in the pools; and not until he found himself afloat did he take his work to the attic.
There the room was hot, and they had the window open. Mistress Mac Pholp stood at it, looking out on the awful prospect, with her youngest child, a sickly boy, in her arms. He had in his a little terrier-pup, greatly valued of the gamekeeper. In a sudden outbreak of peevish wilfulness, he threw the creature out of the window. It fell on the slooping roof, and before it could recover itself, being too young to have the full command of four legs, rolled off.
"Eh! the doggie's i' the watter!" cried Mistress Mac Pholp in dismay.
Angus threw down everything with an ugly oath, for he had given strict orders not one of the children should handle the whelp, jumped up, and got out on the roof. From there he might have managed to reach it, so high now was the water, had the little thing remained where it fell, but already it had swam a yard or two from the house. Angus, who was a fair swimmer and an angry man, threw off his coat, and plunged after it, greatly to the delight of the little one, caught the pup with his teeth by the back of the neck, and turned to make for the house. Just then a shrub, swept from the hill, caught him in the face, and so bewildered him, that, before he got rid of it, he had blundered into the edge of the current, which seized and bore him rapidly away. He dropped the pup, and struck out for home with all his strength. But he soon found the most he could do was to keep his head above water, and gave himself up for lost. His wife screamed in agony. Gibbie heard her as he came down the hill, and ran at full speed towards the cottage.
About a hundred yards from the house, the current bore Angus straight into a large elder tree. He got into the middle of it, and there remained trembling, the weak branches breaking with every motion he made, while the stream worked at the roots, and the wind laid hold of him with fierce leverage. In terror, seeming still to sink as he sat, he watched the trees dart by like battering-rams in the swiftest of the current: the least of them diverging would tear the elder tree with it. Brave enough in dealing with poachers, Angus was not the man to gaze with composure in the face of a sure slow death, against which no assault could be made. Many a man is courageous because he has not conscience enough to make a coward of him, but Angus had not quite reached that condition, and from the branches of the elder tree showed a pale, terror-stricken visage. Amidst the many objects on the face of the water, Gibbie, however, did not distinguish it, and plunging in swam round to the front of the cottage to learn what was the matter. There the wife's gesticulations directed his eyes to her drowning husband.
But what was he to do? He could swim to the tree well enough, and, he thought, back again, but how was that to be made of service to Angus? He could not save him by main force--there was not enough of that between them. If he had a line, and there must be plenty of lines in the cottage, he would carry him the end of it to haul upon--that would do. If he could send it to him that would be better still, for then he could help at the other end, and would be in the right position, up stream, to help farther, if necessary, for down the current alone was the path of communication open. He caught hold of the eaves, and scrambled on to the roof. But in the folly and faithlessness of her despair, the woman would not let him enter. With a curse caught from her husband, she struck him from the window, crying,
"Ye s' no come in here, an' my man droonin' yon'er! Gang till 'im, ye cooard!"
Never had poor Gibbie so much missed the use of speech. On the slope of the roof he could do little to force an entrance, therefore threw himself off it to seek another, and betook himself to the windows below. Through that of Angus's room, he caught sight of a floating anker cask. It was the very thing!--and there on the walls hung a quantity of nets and cordage! But how to get in? It was a sash-window, and of course swollen with the wet, therefore not to be opened; and there was not a square in it large enough to let him through. He swam to the other side, and crept softly on to the roof, and over the ridge. But a broken slate betrayed him. The woman saw him, rushed to the fire-place, caught up the poker, and darted back to defend the window.
"Ye s' no come in here, I tell ye," she screeched, "an' my man stickin' i' yon boortree buss!"
Gibbie advanced. She made a blow at him with the poker. He caught it, wrenched it from her grasp, and threw himself from the roof. The next moment they heard the poker at work, smashing the window.
"He'll be in an' murder's a'!" cried the mother, and ran to the stair, while the children screamed and danced with terror.
But the water was far too deep for her, She returned to the attic, barricaded the door, and went again to the window to watch her drowning husband.
Gibbie was inside in a moment, and seizing the cask, proceeded to attach to it a strong line. He broke a bit from a fishing-rod, secured the line round the middle of it with a notch, put the stick through the bunghole in the bilge, and corked up the hole with a net-float. Happily he had a knife in his pocket. He then joined strong lines together until he thought he had length enough, secured the last end to a bar of the grate, and knocked out both sashes of the window with an axe. A passage thus cleared, he floated out first a chair, then a creepie, and one thing after another, to learn from what point to start the barrel. Seeing and recognizing them from above, Mistress Mac Pholp raised a terrible outcry. In the very presence of her drowning husband, such a wanton dissipation of her property roused her to fiercest wrath, for she imagined Gibbie was emptying her house with leisurely revenge. Satisfied at length, he floated out his barrel, and followed with the line in his hand, to aid its direction if necessary. It struck the tree. With a yell of joy Angus laid hold of it, and hauling the line taut, and feeling it secure, committed himself at once to the water, holding by the barrel, and swimming with his legs, while Gibbie, away to the side with a hold of the rope, was swimming his hardest to draw him out of the current. But a weary man was Angus, when at length he reached the house. It was all he could do to get himself in at the window, and crawl up the stair. At the top of it he fell benumbed on the floor.
By the time that, repentant and grateful, Mistress Mac Pholp bethought herself of Gibbie, not a trace of him was to be seen; and Angus, contemplating his present experience in connection with that of Robert Grant's cottage, came to the conclusion that he must be an emissary of Satan who on two such occasions had so unexpectedly rescued him. Perhaps the idea was not quite so illogical as it must seem; for how should such a man imagine any other sort of messenger taking an interest in his life? He was confirmed in the notion when he found that a yard of the line remained attached to the grate, but the rest of it with the anker was gone--fit bark for the angel he imagined Gibbie, to ride the stormy waters withal. While they looked for him in the water and on the land, Gibbie was again in the room below, carrying out a fresh thought. With the help of the table, he emptied the cask, into which a good deal of water had got. Then he took out the stick, corked the bunghole tight, laced the cask up in a piece of net, attached the line to the net, and wound it about the cask by rolling the latter round and round, took the cask between his hands, and pushed from the window straight into the current of the Glashburn. In a moment it had swept him to the Lorrie. By the greater rapidity of the former he got easily across the heavier current of the latter, and was presently in water comparatively still, swimming quietly towards the Mains, and enjoying his trip none the less that he had to keep a sharp look-out: if he should have to dive, to avoid any drifting object, he might lose his barrel. Quickly now, had he been so minded, he could have returned to the city--changing vessel for vessel, as one after another went to pieces. Many a house-roof offered itself for the voyage; now and then a great water-wheel, horizontal and helpless, devoured of its element. Once he saw a cradle come gyrating along, and, urging all his might, intercepted it, but hardly knew whether he was more sorry or relieved to find it empty. When he was about half-way to the Mains, a whole fleet of ricks bore down upon him. He boarded one, and scrambled to the top of it, keeping fast hold of the end of his line, which unrolled from the barrel as he ascended. From its peak he surveyed the wild scene. All was running water. Not a human being was visible, and but a few house-roofs, of which for a moment it was hard to say whether or not they were of those that were afloat. Here and there were the tops of trees, showing like low bushes. Nothing was uplifted except the mountains. He drew near the Mains. All the ricks in the yard were bobbing about, as if amusing themselves with a slow contradance; but they were as yet kept in by the barn, and a huge old hedge of hawthorn. What was that cry from far away? Surely it was that of a horse in danger! It brought a lusty equine response from the farm. Where could horses be with such a depth of water about the place? Then began a great lowing of cattle. But again came the cry of the horse from afar, and Gibbie, this time recognizing the voice as Snowball's, forgot the rest. He stood up on the very top of the rick and sent his keen glance round on all sides. The cry came again and again, so that he was satisfied in what direction he must look. The rain had abated a little, but the air was so thick with vapour that he could not tell whether it was really an object he seemed to see white against the brown water, far away to the left, or a fancy of his excited hope: it might be Snowball on the turn-pike road, which thereabout ran along the top of a high embankment. He tumbled from the rick, rolled the line about the barrel, and pushed vigorously for what might be the horse.
It took him a weary hour--in so many currents was he caught, one after the other, all straining to carry him far below the object he wanted to reach: an object it plainly was before he had got half-way across, and by and by as plainly it was Snowball--testified to ears and eyes together. When at length he scrambled on the embankment beside him, the poor, shivering, perishing creature gave a low neigh of delight: he did not know Gibbie, but he was a human being. He was quite cowed and submissive, and Gibbie at once set about his rescue. He had reasoned as he came along that, if there were beasts at the Mains, there must be room for Snowball, and thither he would endeavour to take him. He tied the end of the line to the remnant of the halter on his head, the other end being still fast to the barrel, and took to the water again. Encouraged by the power upon his head, the pressure, namely, of the halter, the horse followed, and they made for the Mains. It was a long journey, and Gibbie had not breath enough to sing to Snowball, but he made what noise he could, and they got slowly along. He found the difficulties far greater now that he had to look out for the horse as well as for himself. None but one much used to the water could have succeeded in the attempt, or could indeed have stood out against its weakening influence and the strain of the continued exertion together so long. At length his barrel got water-logged, and he sent it adrift.