Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter IX. Adrift.
Gibbie was now without a home. He had had a whole city for his dwelling, every street of which had been to him as another hall in his own house, every lane as a passage from one set of rooms to another, every court as a closet, every house as a safe, guarding the only possessions he had, the only possessions he knew how to value--his fellow-mortals, radiant with faces, and friendly with hands and tongues. Great as was his delight in freedom, a delight he revelled in from morning to night, and sometimes from night to morning, he had never had a notion of it that reached beyond the city, he never longed for larger space, for wider outlook. Space and outlook he had skyward--and seaward when he would, but even into these regions he had never yet desired to go. His world was the world of men; the presence of many was his greater room; his people themselves were his world. He had no idea of freedom in dissociation with human faces and voices and eyes. But now he had left all these, and as he ran from them a red pall seemed settling down behind him, wrapping up and hiding away his country, his home. For the first time in his life, the fatherless, motherless, brotherless, sisterless stray of the streets felt himself alone. The sensation was an awful one. He had lost so many, and had not one left! That gash in Sambo's black throat had slain "a whole cityful." His loneliness grew upon him, until again he darted aside from the road into the bush, this time to hide from the Spectre of the Desert--the No Man. Deprived of human countenances, the face of creation was a mask without eyes, and liberty a mere negation. Not that Gibbie had ever thought about liberty; he had only enjoyed: not that he had ever thought about human faces; he had only loved them, and lived upon their smiles. "Gibbie wadna need to gang to h'aven," said Mysie, the baker's daughter, to her mother, one night, as they walked home from a merry-making. "What for that, lassie?" returned her mother. "Cause he wad be meeserable whaur there was nae drunk fowk," answered Mysie. And now it seemed to the poor, shocked, heart-wounded creature, as if the human face were just the one thing he could no more look upon. One haunted him, the black one, with the white, staring eyes, the mouth in its throat, and the white grinning teeth.
It was a cold, fresh morning, cloudy and changeful, towards the end of April. It had rained, and would rain again; it might snow. Heavy undefined clouds, with saffron breaks and borders, hung about the east, but what was going to happen there--at least he did not think; he did not know east from west, and I doubt whether, although he had often seen the sun set, he had ever seen him rise. Yet even to him, city-creature as he was, it was plain something was going to happen there. And happen it did presently, and that with a splendour that for a moment blinded Gibbie. For just at the horizon there was a long horizontal slip of blue sky, and through that crack the topmost arc of the rising sun shot suddenly a thousand arrows of radiance into the brain of the boy. But the too-much light scorched there a blackness instantly; and to the soul of Gibbie it was the blackness of the room from which he had fled, and upon it out came the white eyeballs and the brilliant teeth of his dead Sambo, and the red burst from his throat that answered the knife of the Malay. He shrieked, and struck with his hands against the sun from which came the terrible vision. Had he been a common child, his reason would have given way; but one result of the overflow of his love was, that he had never yet known fear for himself. His sweet confident face, innocent eyes, and caressing ways, had almost always drawn a response more or less in kind; and that certain some should not repel him, was a fuller response from them than gifts from others. Except now and then, rarely, a street boy a little bigger than himself, no one had ever hurt him, and the hurt upon these occasions had not gone very deep, for the child was brave and hardy. So now it was not fear, but the loss of old confidence, a sickness coming over the heart and brain of his love, that unnerved him. It was not the horrid cruelty to his friend, and his own grievous loss thereby, but the recoil of his loving endeavour that, jarring him out of every groove of thought, every socket of habit, every joint of action, cast him from the city, and made of him a wanderer indeed, not a wanderer in a strange country, but a wanderer in a strange world.
To no traveller could one land well be so different from another, as to Gibbie the country was from the town. He had seen bushes and trees before, but only over garden walls, or in one or two of the churchyards. He had looked from the quay across to the bare shore on the other side, with its sandy hills, and its tall lighthouse on the top of the great rocks that bordered the sea; but, so looking, he had beheld space as one looking from this world into the face of the moon, as a child looks upon vastness and possible dangers from his nurse's arms where it cannot come near him; for houses backed the quay all along; the city was behind him, and spread forth her protecting arms. He had, once or twice, run out along the pier, which shot far into the immensity of the sea, like a causeway to another world--a stormy thread of granite, beaten upon both sides by the waves of the German Ocean; but it was with the sea and not the country he then made the small acquaintance--and that not without terror. The sea was as different from the city as the air into which he had looked up at night--too different to compare against it and feel the contrast; on neither could he set foot; in neither could he be required to live and act--as now in this waste of enterable and pervious extent.
Its own horror drove the vision away, and Gibbie saw the world again--saw, but did not love it. The sun seemed but to have looked up to mock him and go down again, for he had crossed the crack, and was behind a thick mass of cloud; a cold damp wind, spotted with sparkles of rain, blew fitfully from the east; the low bushes among which he sat, sent forth a chill sighing all about him, as they sifted the wind into sound; the smell of the damp earth was strange to him--he did not know the freshness, the new birth of which it breathed; below him the gloomy river, here deep, smooth, moody, sullen, there puckered with the grey ripples of a shallow laughter under the cold breeze, went flowing heedless to the city. There only was--or had been, friendliness, comfort, home! This was emptiness--the abode of things, not beings. Yet never once did Gibbie think of returning to the city. He rose and wandered up the wide road along the river bank, farther and farther from it--his only guide the words of his father, "Up Daurside;" his sole comfort the feeling of having once more to do with his father so long departed, some relation still with the paradise of his old world. Along cultivated fields and copses on the one side, and on the other a steep descent to the river, covered here and there with trees, but mostly with rough grass and bushes and stones, he followed the king's highway. There were buttercups and plenty of daisies within his sight--primroses, too, on the slope beneath; but he did not know flowers, and his was not now the mood for discovering what they were. The exercise revived him, and he began to be hungry. But how could there be anything to eat in the desert, inhospitable succession of trees and fields and hedges, through which the road wound endlessly along, like a dead street, having neither houses nor paving stones? Hunger, however, was far less enfeebling to Gibbie than to one accustomed to regular meals, and he was in no anxiety about either when or what he should eat.
The morning advanced, and by-and-by he began to meet a fellow-creature now and then upon the road; but at sight of everyone a feeling rose in him such as he had never had towards human being before: they seemed somehow of a different kind from those in the town, and they did not look friendly as they passed. He did not know that he presented to them a very different countenance from that which his fellow-citizens had always seen him wear; for the mingled and conflicting emotions of his spirit had sent out upon it an expression which, accompanied by the misery of his garments, might well, to the superficial or inexperienced observer, convey the idea that he was a fugitive and guilty. He was so uncomfortable at length from the way the people he met scrutinized him that, when he saw anyone coming, he would instantly turn aside and take the covert of thicket, or hedge, or stone wall, until the bearer of eyes had passed. His accustomed trot, which he kept up for several hours, made him look the more suspicious; but his feet, hardened from very infancy as they were, soon found the difference between the smooth flags and the sharp stones of the road, and before noon he was walking at quite a sober, although still active, pace. Doubtless it slackened the sooner that he knew no goal, no end to his wandering. Up Daurside was the one vague notion he had of his calling, his destiny, and with his short, quick step, his progress was considerable; he passed house after house, farm after farm; but, never in the way of asking for anything, though as little in the way of refusing, he went nearer none of them than the road led him. Besides, the houses were very unlike those in the city, and not at all attractive to him. He came at length to a field, sloping to the road, which was covered with leaves like some he had often seen in the market. They drew him; and as there was but a low and imperfect hedge between, he got over, and found it was a crop of small yellow turnips. He gathered as many as he could carry, and ate them as he went along. Happily no agricultural person encountered him for some distance, though Gibbie knew no special cause to congratulate himself upon that, having not the slightest conscience of offence in what he did. His notions of property were all associated with well-known visible or neighbouring owners, and in the city he would never have dreamed of touching anything that was not given him, except it lay plainly a lost thing. But here, where everything was so different, and he saw none of the signs of ownership to which he was accustomed, the idea of property did not come to him; here everything looked lost, or on the same category with the chips and parings and crusts that were thrown out in the city, and became common property. Besides, the love which had hitherto rendered covetousness impossible, had here no object whose presence might have suggested a doubt, to supply in a measure the lack of knowledge; hunger, instead, was busy in his world. I trust there were few farmers along the road who would have found fault with him for taking one or two; but none, I suspect, would have liked to see him with all the turnips he could carry, eating them like a very rabbit: they were too near a city to look upon such a spectacle with indifference. Gibbie made no attempt to hide his spoil; whatever could have given birth to the sense that caution would be necessary, would have prevented him from taking it. While yet busy he came upon a little girl feeding a cow by the roadside. She saw how he ate the turnips, and offered him a bit of oatmeal bannock. He received it gladly, and with beaming eyes offered her a turnip. See refused it with some indignation. Gibbie, disappointed, but not ungrateful, resumed his tramp, eating his bannock. He came soon after to a little stream that ran into the great river. For a few moments he eyed it very doubtfully, thinking it must, like the kennels along the sides of the streets, be far too dirty to drink of; but the way it sparkled and sang--most unscientific reasons--soon satisfied him, and he drank and was refreshed. He had still two turnips left, but, after the bannock, he did not seem to want them, and stowed them in the ends of the sleeves of his jacket, folded back into great cuffs.
All day the cold spring weather continued, with more of the past winter in it than of the coming summer. The sun would shine out for a few moments, with a grey, weary, old light, then retreat as if he had tried, but really could not. Once came a slight fall of snow, which, however, melted the moment it touched the earth. The wind kept blowing cheerlessly by fits, and the world seemed growing tired of the same thing over again so often. At length the air began to grow dusk: then, first, fears of the darkness, to Gibbie utterly unknown before, and only born of the preceding night, began to make him aware of their existence in the human world. They seemed to rise up from his lonely heart; they seemed to descend upon him out of the thickening air; they seemed to catch at his breath, and gather behind him as he went. But, happily, before it was quite dark, and while yet he could distinguish between objects, he came to the gate of a farmyard; it waked in him the hope of finding some place where he could sleep warmer than in the road, and he clambered over it. Nearest of the buildings to the gate, stood an open shed, and he could see the shafts of carts projecting from it: perhaps in one of those carts, or under it, he might find a place that would serve him to sleep in: he did not yet know what facilities for repose the country affords. But just as he entered the shed, he spied at the farther corner of it, outside, a wooden structure, like a small house, and through the arched door of it saw the floor covered with nice-looking straw. He suspected it to be a dog's kennel; and presently the chain lying beside it, with a collar at the end, satisfied him it was. The dog was absent, and it looked altogether enticing! He crept in, got under as much of the straw as he could heap over him, and fell fast asleep.
In a few minutes, as it seemed to him, he was roused by the great voice of a dog in conversation with a boy: the boy seemed, by the sound of the chain, to be fastening the collar on the dog's neck, and presently left him. The dog, which had been on the rampage the whole afternoon, immediately turned to creep in and rest till supper time, presenting to Gibbie, who had drawn himself up at the back of the kennel, the intelligent countenance of a large Newfoundland. Now Gibbie had been honoured with the acquaintance of many dogs, and the friendship of most of them, for a lover of humanity can hardly fail to be a lover of caninity. Even among dogs, however, there are ungracious individuals, and Gibbie had once or twice been bitten by quadrupedal worshippers of the respectable. Hence, with the sight of the owner of the dwelling, it dawned upon him that he must be startled to find a stranger in his house, and might, regarding him as an intruder rather than a guest, worry him before he had time to explain himself. He darted forward therefore to get out, but had scarcely reached the door, when the dog put in his nose, ready to follow with all he was and had. Gibbie, thereupon, began a loud barking, as much as to say--"Here I am: please do nothing without reflection." The dog started back in extreme astonishment, his ears erect, and a keen look of question on his sagacious visage: what strange animal, speaking like, and yet so unlike, an orthodox dog, could have got into his very chamber? Gibbie, amused at the dog's fright, and assured by his looks that he was both a good-natured and reasonable animal, burst into a fit of merry laughter as loud as his previous barking, and a good deal more musical. The dog evidently liked it better, and took it as a challenge to play: after a series of sharp bursts of barking, his eyes flashing straight in at the door, and his ears lifted up like two plumes on the top of them, he darted into the kennel, and began poking his nose into his visitor. Gibbie fell to patting and kissing and hugging him as if he had been a human--as who can tell but he was?--glad of any companion that belonged to the region of the light; and they were friends at once. Mankind had disappointed him, but here was a dog! Gibbie was not the one to refuse mercies which yet he would not have been content to pray for. Both were tired, however, for both had been active that day, and a few minutes of mingled wrestling and endearment, to which, perhaps, the narrowness of their play-ground gave a speedier conclusion, contented both, after which they lay side by side in peace, Gibbie with his head on the dog's back, and the dog every now and then turning his head over his shoulder to lick Gibbie's face.
Again he was waked by approaching steps, and the same moment the dog darted from under him, and with much rattle out of the kennel, in front of which he stood and whined expectant. It was not quite dark, for the clouds had drifted away, and the stars were shining, so that, when he put out his head, he was able to see the dim form of a woman setting down something before the dog--into which he instantly plunged his nose, and began gobbling. The sound stirred up all the latent hunger in Gibbie, and he leaped out, eager to have a share. A large wooden bowl was on the ground, and the half of its contents of porridge and milk was already gone; for the poor dog had not yet had experience enough to be perfect in hospitality, and had forgotten his guest's wants in his own: it was plain that, if Gibbie was to have any, he must lose no time in considering the means. Had he had a long nose and mouth all in one like him, he would have plunged them in beside the dog's; but the flatness of his mouth causing the necessity, in the case of such an attempt, of bringing the whole of his face into contact with the food, there was not room in the dish for the two to feed together after the same fashion, so that he was driven to the sole other possible expedient, that of making a spoon of his hand. The dog neither growled nor pushed away the spoon, but instantly began to gobble twice as fast as before, and presently was licking the bottom of the dish. Gibbie's hand, therefore, made but few journeys to his mouth, but what it carried him was good food--better than any he had had that day. When all was gone he crept again into the kennel; the dog followed, and soon they were both fast asleep in each other's arms and legs.
Gibbie woke at sunrise and went out. His host came after him, and stood wagging his tail and looking wistfully up in his face. Gibbie understood him, and, as the sole return he could make for his hospitality, undid his collar. Instantly he rushed off, his back going like a serpent, cleared the gate at a bound, and scouring madly across a field, vanished from his sight; whereupon Gibbie too set out to continue his journey up Daurside.
This day was warmer; the spring had come a step nearer; the dog had been a comforter to him, and the horror had begun to assuage; he began to grow aware of the things about him, and to open his eyes to them. Once he saw a primrose in a little dell, and left the road to look at it. But as he went, he set his foot in the water of a chalybeate spring, which was trickling through the grass, and dyeing the ground red about it: filled with horror he fled, and for some time dared never go near a primrose. And still upon his right hand was the great river, flowing down towards the home he had left; now through low meadows, now through upshouldered fields of wheat and oats, now through rocky heights covered with the graceful silver-barked birch, the mountain ash, and the fir. Every time Gibbie, having lost sight of it by some turn of the road or some interposing eminence, caught its gleam afresh, his first feeling was that it was hurrying to the city, where the dead man lay, to tell where Gibbie was. Why he, who had from infancy done just as he pleased, should now have begun to dread interference with his liberty, he could not himself have told. Perhaps the fear was but the shadow of his new-born aversion to the place where he had seen those best-loved countenances change so suddenly and terribly--cease to smile, but not cease to stare.
That second day he fared better, too, than the first; for he came on a family of mongrel gipsies, who fed him well out of their kettle, and, taken with his looks, thought to keep him for begging purposes. But now that Gibbie's confidence in human nature had been so rudely shaken, he had already begun, with analysis unconscious, to read the human countenance, questioning it; and he thought he saw something that would hurt, in the eyes of two of the men and one of the women. Therefore, in the middle of the night, he slipped silently out of the tent of rags, in which he had lain down with the gipsy children, and ere the mothers woke, was a mile up the river.
But I must not attempt the detail of this part of his journey. It is enough that he got through it. He met with some adventures, and suffered a good deal from hunger and cold. Had he not been hardy as well as fearless he must have died. But, now from this quarter, now from that, he got all that was needful for one of God's birds. Once he found in a hedge the nest of an errant and secretive hen, and recognizing the eggs as food authorized by the shop windows and market of the city, soon qualified himself to have an opinion of their worth. Another time he came upon a girl milking a cow in a shed, and his astonishment at the marvels of the process was such, that he forgot even the hunger that was rendering him faint. He had often seen cows in the city, but had never suspected what they were capable of. When the girl caught sight of him, staring with open mouth, she was taken with such a fit of laughter, that the cow, which was ill-tempered, kicked out, and overturned the pail. Now because of her troublesomeness this cow was not milked beside the rest, and the shed where she stood was used for farm-implements only. The floor of it was the earth, beaten hard, and worn into hollows. When the milk settled in one of these, Gibbie saw that it was lost to the girl, and found to him: undeterred by the astounding nature of the spring from which he had just seen it flow, he threw himself down, and drank like a calf. Her laughter ended, the girl was troubled: she would be scolded for her clumsiness in allowing Hawkie to kick over the pail, but the eagerness of the boy after the milk troubled her more. She told him to wait, and running to the house, returned with two large pieces of oatcake, which she gave him.
Thus, one way and another, food came to Gibbie. Drink was to be had in almost any hollow. Sleep was scattered everywhere over the world. For warmth, only motion and a seasoned skin were necessary: the latter Gibbie had; the former, already a habit learned in the streets, had now become almost a passion.