Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XXXVI. The Brander.
Mistress Croale was not, after all, the last who arrived at the Mains. But that the next arrival was accounted for, scarcely rendered it less marvellous than hers.--Just after the loss of Snowball, came floating into the farmyard, over the top of the gate, with such astonishment of all who beheld that each seemed to place more confidence in his neighbour's eyes than in his own, a woman on a raft, with her four little children seated around her, holding the skirt of her gown above her head and out between her hands for a sail. She had made the raft herself, by tying some bars of a paling together, and crossing them with what other bits of wood she could find--a brander she called it, which is Scotch for a gridiron, and thence for a grating. Nobody knew her. She had come down the Lorrie. The farmer was so struck with admiration of her invention, daring, and success, that he vowed he would keep the brander as long as it would stick together; and as it could not be taken into the house, he secured it with a rope to one of the windows.
When they had the horses safe on the first floor, they brought the cattle into the lower rooms; but it became evident that if they were to have a chance, they also must be got up to the same level. Thereupon followed a greater tumult than before--such a banging of heads and hind quarters, of horns and shoulders, against walls and partitions, such a rushing and thundering, that the house seemed in more danger from within than from without; for the cattle were worse to manage than the horses, and one moment stubborn as a milestone, would the next moment start into a frantic rush. One poor wretch broke both her horns clean off against the wall, at a sharp turn of the passage; and after two or three more accidents, partly caused by over-haste in the human mortals, Donal begged that the business should be left to him and his mother. His master consented, and it was wonderful what Janet contrived to effect by gentleness, coaxing, and suggestion. When Hornie's turn came, Donal began to tie ropes to her hind hoofs. Mr. Duff objected.
"Ye dinna ken her sae weel as I dee, sir," answered Donal. "She wad caw her horns intil a man-o-war 'at angert her. An' up yon'er ye cudna get a whack at her, for hurtin' ane 'at didna deserve 't. I s' dee her no mischeef, I s' warran'. Ye jist lea' her to me, sir."
His master yielded. Donal tied a piece of rope round each hind pastern--if cows have pasterns--and made a loop at the end. The moment she was at the top of the stair, he and his mother dropped each a loop over a horn.
"Noo, she'll naither stick nor fling (gore nor kick)," said Donal: she could but bellow, and paw with her fore-feet.
The strangers were mostly in Fergus's bedroom; the horses were all in their owner's; and the cattle were in the remaining rooms. Bursts of talk amongst the women were followed by fits of silence: who could tell how long the flood might last!--or indeed whether the house might not be undermined before morning, or be struck by one of those big thing of which so many floated by, and give way with one terrible crash! Mr. Duff, while preserving a tolerably calm exterior, was nearly at his wits' end. He would stand for half an hour together, with his hands in his pockets, looking motionless out of a window, murmuring now and then to himself, "This is clean ridic'lous!" But when anything had to be done he was active enough. Mistress Croale sat in a corner, very quiet, and looking not a little cowed. There was altogether more water than she liked. Now and then she lifted her lurid black eyes to Janet, who stood at one of the windows, knitting away at her master's stocking, and casting many a calm glance at the brown waters and the strange drift that covered them; but if Janet turned her head and made a remark to her, she never gave back other than curt if not rude reply. In the afternoon Jean brought the whisky bottle. At sight of it, Mistress Croale's eyes shot flame. Jean poured out a glassful, took a sip, and offered it to Janet. Janet declining it, Jean, invaded possibly by some pity of her miserable aspect, offered it to Mistress Croale. She took it with affected coolness, tossed it off at a gulp, and presented the glass--not to the hand from which she had taken it, but to Jean's other hand, in which was the bottle. Jean cast a piercing look into her greedy eyes, and taking the glass from her, filled it, and presented it to the woman who had built and navigated the brander. Mistress Croale muttered something that sounded like a curse upon scrimp measure, and drew herself farther back into the corner, where she had seated herself on Fergus's portmanteau.
"I doobt we hae an Ahchan i' the camp--a Jonah intil the ship!" said Jean to Janet, as she turned, bottle and glass in her hands, to carry them from the room.
"Na, na; naither sae guid nor sae ill," replied Janet. "Fowk 'at's been ill-guidit, no kennin' whaur their help lies, whiles taks to the boatle. But this is but a day o' punishment, no a day o' judgment yet, an' I'm thinkin' the warst's near han' ower.--Gien only Gibbie war here!"
Jean left the room, shaking her head, and Janet stood alone at the window as before. A hand was laid on her arm. She looked up. The black eyes were close to hers, and the glow that was in them gave the lie to the tone of indifference with which Mistress Croale spoke.
"Ye hae mair nor ance made mention o' ane conneckit wi' ye, by the name o' Gibbie," she said.
"Ay," answered Janet, sending for the serpent to aid the dove; "an' what may be yer wull wi' him?"
"Ow, naething," returned Mistress Croale. "I kenned ane o' the name lang syne 'at was lost sicht o'."
"There's Gibbies here an' Gibbies there," remarked Janet, probing her.
"Weel I wat!" she answered peevishly, for she had had whisky enough only to make her cross, and turned away, muttering however in an undertone, but not too low for Janet to hear, "but there's nae mony wee Sir Gibbies, or the warl' wadna be sae dooms like hell."
Janet was arrested in her turn: could the fierce, repellent, whisky-craving woman be the mother of her gracious Gibbie? Could she be, and look so lost? But the loss of him had lost her perhaps. Anyhow God was his Father, whoever was the mother of him.
"Hoo cam ye to tyne yer bairn, wuman?" she asked.
But Mistress Croale was careful also, and had her reasons.
"He ran frae the bluidy han'," she said enigmatically.
Janet recalled how Gibbie came to her, scored by the hand of cruelty. Were there always innocents in the world, who in their own persons, by the will of God, unknown to themselves, carried on the work of Christ, filling up that which was left behind of the sufferings of their Master--women, children, infants, idiots--creatures of sufferance, with souls open to the world to receive wrong, that it might pass and cease? little furnaces they, of the consuming fire, to swallow up and destroy by uncomplaining endurance--the divine destruction!
"Hoo cam he by the bonnie nickname?" she asked at length.
"Nickname!" retorted Mistress Croale fiercely; "I think I hear ye! His ain name an' teetle by law an' richt, as sure's ever there was a King Jeames 'at first pat his han' to the makin' o' baronets!--as it's aften I hae h'ard Sir George, the father o' 'im, tell the same."
She ceased abruptly, annoyed with herself, as it seemed, for having said so much.
"Ye wadna be my lady yersel', wad ye, mem?" suggested Janet in her gentlest voice.
Mistress Croale made her no answer. Perhaps she thought of the days when she alone of women did the simplest of woman's offices for Sir George. Anyhow, it was one thing to rush of herself to the verge of her secret, and quite another to be fooled over it.
"Is't lang sin' ye lost him?" asked Janet, after a bootless pause.
"Ay," she answered, gruffly and discourteously, in a tone intended to quench interrogation.
But Janet persisted.
"Wad ye ken 'im again gien ye saw 'im?"
"Ken 'im? I wad ken 'im gien he had grown a gran'father. Ken 'im, quo' she! Wha ever kenned 'im as I did, bairn 'at he was, an' wadna ken 'im gien he war deid an' an angel made o' 'im!--But weel I wat, it's little differ that wad mak!"
She rose in her excitement, and going to the other window, stood gazing vacantly out upon the rushing sea. To Janet it was plain she knew more about Gibbie than she was inclined to tell, and it gave her a momentary sting of apprehension.
"What was aboot him ye wad ken sae weel?" she asked in a tone of indifference, as if speaking only through the meshes of her work.
"I'll ken them 'at speirs afore I tell," she replied sullenly.--But the next instant she screamed aloud, "Lord God Almichty! yon's him! yon's himsel'!" and, stretching out her arms, dashed a hand through a pane, letting in an eddying swirl of wind and water, while the blood streamed unheeded from her wrist.
The same moment Jean entered the room. She heard both the cry and the sound of the breaking glass.
"Care what set the beggar-wife!" she exclaimed. "Gang frae the window, ye randy."
Mistress Croale took no heed. She stood now staring from the window still as a statue except for the panting motion of her sides. At the other window stood Janet, gazing also, with blessed face. For there, like a triton on a sea-horse, came Gibbie through the water on Snowball, swimming wearily.
He caught sight of Janet at the window, and straightway his countenance was radiant with smiles. Mistress Croale gave a shuddering sigh, drew back from her window, and betook herself again to her dark corner. Jean went to Janet's window, and there beheld the triumphal approach of her brownie, saving from the waters the lost and lamented Snowball. She shouted to her brother.
"John! John! here's yer Snawba'; here's yer Snawba'."
John ran to her call, and, beside himself with joy when he saw his favourite come swimming along, threw the window wide, and began to bawl the most unnecessary directions and encouragements, as if the exploit had been brought thus far towards a happy issue solely through him, while from all the windows Gibbie was welcomed with shouts and cheers and congratulations.
"Lord preserve 's!" cried Mr. Duff, recognizing the rider at last, "it's Rob Grant's innocent! Wha wad hae thoucht it?"
"The Lord's babes an' sucklin's are gey cawpable whiles," remarked Janet to herself.--She believed Gibbie had more faculty than any of her own, Donal included, nor did she share the prevalent prejudice of the city that heart and brains are mutually antagonistic; for in her own case she had found that her brains were never worth much to her until her heart took up the education of them. But the intellect is, so much oftener than by love, seen and felt to be sharpened by necessity and greed, that it is not surprising such a prejudice should exist.
"Tak 'im roon' to the door."--"Whaur got ye 'im?"--"Ye wad best get 'im in at the window upo' the stair."--"He'll be maist hungert."--"Ye'll be some weet, I'm thinkin'!"--"Come awa' up the stair, an' tell's a' aboot it."--A score of such conflicting shouts assailed Gibbie as he approached, and he replied to them all with the light of his countenance.
When they arrived at the door, they found a difficulty waiting them: the water was now so high that Snowball's head rose above the lintel; and, though all animals can swim, they do not all know how to dive. A tumult of suggestions immediately broke out. But Donal had already thrown himself from a window with a rope, and swum to Gibbie's assistance; the two understood each other, and heeding nothing the rest were saying, held their own communications. In a minute the rope was fastened round Snow-ball's body, and the end of it drawn between his fore-legs and through the ring of his head-stall, when Donal swam with it to his mother who stood on the stair, with the request that, as soon as she saw Snowball's head under the water, she would pull with all her might, and draw him in at the door. Donal then swam back, and threw his arms round Snowball's neck from below, while the same moment Gibbie cast his whole weight of it from above: the horse was over head and ears in an instant, and through the door in another. With snorting nostrils and blazing eyes his head rose in the passage, and in terror he struck out for the stair. As he scrambled heavily up from the water, his master and Robert seized him, and with much petting and patting and gentling, though there was little enough difficulty in managing him now, conducted him into the bedroom to the rest of the horses. There he was welcomed by his companions, and immediately began devouring the hay upon his master's bedstead. Gibbie came close behind him, was seized by Janet at the top of the stair, embraced like one come alive from the grave, and led, all dripping as he was, into the room were the women were. The farmer followed soon after with the whisky, the universal medicine in those parts, of which he offered a glass to Gibbie, but the innocent turned from it with a curious look of mingled disgust and gratefulness: his father's life had not been all a failure; he had done what parents so rarely effect--handed the general results of his experience to his son. The sight and smell of whisky were to Gibbie a loathing flavoured with horror.
The farmer looked back from the door as he was leaving the room: Gibbie was performing a wild circular dance of which Janet was the centre, throwing his limbs about like the toy the children call a jumping Jack, which ended suddenly in a motionless ecstasy upon one leg. Having regarded for a moment the rescuer of Snowball with astonishment, John Duff turned away with the reflection, how easy it was and natural for those who had nothing, and therefore could lose nothing, to make merry in others' adversity. It did not once occur to him that it was the joy of having saved that caused Gibbie's merriment thus to overflow.
"The cratur's a born idiot!" he said afterwards to Jean; "an' it's jist a mervel what he's cawpable o'!--But, 'deed, there's little to cheese atween Janet an' him! They're baith tarred wi' the same stick." He paused a moment, then added, "They'll dee weel eneuch i' the ither warl', I doobtna, whaur naebody has to haud aff o' themsel's."
That day, however, Gibbie had proved that a man may well afford both to have nothing, and to take no care of himself, seeing he had, since he rose in the morning, rescued a friend, a foe, and a beast of the earth. Verily, he might stand on one leg!
But when he told Janet that he had been home, and had found the cottage uninjured and out of danger, she grew very sober in the midst of her gladness. She could say nothing there amongst strangers, but the dread arose in her bosom that, if indeed she had not like Peter denied her Master before men, she had like Peter yielded homage to the might of the elements in his ruling presence; and she justly saw the same faithlessness in the two failures.
"Eh!" she said to herself, "gien only I had been prayin' i'stead o' rinnin' awa', I wad hae been there whan he turnt the watter aside! I wad hae seen the mirricle! O my Maister! what think ye o' me noo?"
For all the excitement Mistress Croale had shown at first view of Gibbie, she sat still in her dusky corner, made no movement towards him, nor did anything to attract his attention, only kept her eyes fixed upon him; and Janet in her mingled joy and pain forgot her altogether. When at length it recurred to her that she was in the room, she cast a somewhat anxious glance towards the place she had occupied all day. It was empty; and Janet was perplexed to think how she had gone unseen. She had crept out after Mr. Duff, and probably Janet saw her, but as one of those who seeing see not, and immediately forget.
Just as the farmer left the room, a great noise arose among the cattle in that adjoining; he set down the bottle on a chair that happened to be in the passage, and ran to protect the partitions. Exultation would be a poor word wherewith to represent the madness of the delight that shot its fires into Mistress Croale's eyes when she saw the bottle actually abandoned within her reach. It was to her as the very key of the universe. She darted upon it, put it to her lips, and drank. Yet she took heed, thought while she drank, and did not go beyond what she could carry. Little time such an appropriation required. Noiselessly she set the bottle down, darted into a closet containing a solitary calf, and there stood looking from the open window in right innocent fashion, curiously contemplating the raft attached to it, upon which she had seen the highland woman arrive with her children.
At supper-time she was missing altogether. Nobody could with certainty say when he had last seen her. The house was searched from top to bottom, and the conclusion arrived at was, that she must have fallen from some window and been drowned--only, surely she would at least have uttered one cry! Examining certain of the windows to know whether she might not have left some sign of such an exit, the farmer discovered that the brander was gone.
"Losh!" cried the orra man, with a face bewildered to shapelessness, like that of an old moon rising in a fog, "yon'll be her I saw an hoor ago, hyne doon the water!"
"Ye muckle gowk!" said his master, "hoo cud she win sae far ohn gane to the boddom?"
"Upo' the bran'er, sir," answered the orra man. "I tuik her for a muckle dog upon a door. The wife maun be a witch!"
John Duff stared at the man with his mouth open, and for half a minute all were dumb. The thing was incredible, yet hardly to be controverted. The woman was gone, the raft was gone, and something strange that might be the two together had been observed about the time, as near as they could judge, when she ceased to be observed in the house. Had the farmer noted the change in the level of the whisky in his bottle, he might have been surer of it--except indeed the doubt had then arisen whether they might not rather find her at the foot of the stair when the water subsided.
Mr. Duff said the luck changed with the return of Snowball; his sister said, with the departure of the beggar-wife. Before dark the rain had ceased, and it became evident that the water had not risen for the last half-hour. In two hours more it had sunk a quarter of an inch.
Gibbie threw himself on the floor beside his mother's chair, she covered him with her grey cloak, and he fell fast asleep. At dawn, he woke with a start. He had dreamed that Ginevra was in trouble. He made Janet understand that he would return to guide them home as soon as the way was practicable, and set out at once.
The water fell rapidly. Almost as soon as it was morning, the people at the Mains could begin doing a little towards restoration. But from that day forth, for about a year, instead of the waters of the Daur and the Lorrie, the house was filled with the gradually subsiding flood of Jean's lamentations over her house-gear--one thing after another, and twenty things together. There was scarcely an article she did not, over and over, proclaim utterly ruined, in a tone apparently indicating ground of serious complaint against some one who did not appear, though most of the things, to other eyes than hers, remained seemingly about as useful as before. In vain her brother sought to comfort her with the assurance that there were worse losses at Culloden; she answered, that if he had not himself been specially favoured in the recovery of Snowball, he would have made a much worse complaint about him alone than she did about all her losses; whereupon, being an honest man, and not certain that she spoke other than the truth, he held his peace. But he never made the smallest acknowledgment to Gibbie for the saving of the said Snowball: what could an idiot understand about gratitude? and what use was money to a boy who did not set his life at a pin's fee? But he always spoke kindly to him thereafter, which was more to Gibbie than anything he could have given him; and when a man is content, his friends may hold their peace.
The next day Jean had her dinner strangely provided. As her brother wrote to a friend in Glasgow, she "found at the back of the house, and all lying in a heap, a handsome dish of trout, a pike, a hare, a partridge, and a turkey, with a dish of potatoes, and a dish of turnips, all brought down by the burn, and deposited there for the good of the house, except the turkey, which, alas! was one of her own favourite flock."
In the afternoon, Gibbie re-appeared at the Mains, and Robert and Janet set out at once to go home with him. It was a long journey for them--he had to take them so many rounds. They rested at several houses, and saw much misery on their way. It was night before they arrived at the cottage. They found it warm and clean and tidy: Ginevra had, like a true lady, swept the house that gave her shelter: that ladies often do; and perhaps it is yet more their work in the world than they fully understand. For Ginevra, it was heavenly bliss to her to hear their approaching footsteps; and before she left them she had thoroughly learned that the poorest place where the atmosphere is love, is more homely, and by consequence more heavenly, than the most beautiful even, where law and order are elements supreme.
"Eh, gien I had only had faith an' bidden!" said Janet to herself as she entered; and to the day of her death she never ceased to bemoan her too hasty desertion of "the wee hoosie upo' the muckle rock."
As to the strange woman's evident knowledge concerning Gibbie, she could do nothing but wait--fearing rather than hoping; but she had got so far above time and chance, that nothing really troubled her, and she could wait quietly. At the same time it did not seem likely they would hear anything more of the woman herself: no one believed she could have gone very far without being whelmed, or whumled as they said, in the fierce waters.