Chapter XX. The Ambush.




For more reasons than one, Fergus judged it prudent to tell not even auntie Jean of his intention; but, waiting until the house was quiet, stole softly from his room and repaired to the kitchen--at the other end of the long straggling house, where he sat down, and taking his book, an annual of the beginning of the century, began to read the story of Kathed and Eurelia. Having finished it, he read another. He read and read, but no brownie came. His candle burned into the socket. He lighted another, and read again. Still no brownie appeared, and, hard and straight as was the wooden chair on which he sat, be began to doze. Presently he started wide awake, fancying he heard a noise; but nothing was there. He raised his book once more, and read until he had finished the stories in it: for the verse he had no inclination that night. As soon as they were all consumed, he began to feel very eerie: his courage had been sheltering itself behind his thoughts, which the tales he had been reading had kept turned away from the object of dread. Still deeper and deeper grew the night around him, until the bare, soulless waste of it came at last, when a brave man might welcome any ghost for the life it would bring. And ever as it came, the tide of fear flowed more rapidly, until at last it rose over his heart, and threatened to stifle him. The direst foe of courage is the fear itself, not the object of it; and the man who can overcome his own terror is a hero and more. In this Fergus had not yet deserved to be successful. That kind of victory comes only of faith. Still, he did not fly the field; he was no coward. At the same time, prizing courage, scorning fear, and indeed disbelieving in every nocturnal object of terror except robbers, he came at last to such an all but abandonment of dread, that he dared not look over his shoulder, lest he should see the brownie standing at his back; he would rather be seized from behind and strangled in his hairy grasp, than turn and die of the seeing. The night was dark--no moon and many clouds. Not a sound came from the close. The cattle, the horses, the pigs, the cocks and hens, the very cats and rats seemed asleep. There was not a rustle in the thatch, a creak in the couples. It was well, for the slightest noise would have brought his heart into his mouth, and he would have been in great danger of scaring the household, and for ever disgracing himself, with a shriek. Yet he longed to hear something stir. Oh! for the stamp of a horse from the stable or the low of a cow from the byre! But they were all under the brownie's spell, and he was coming--toeless feet, and thumbed but fingerless hands! as if he was made with stockings, and hum'le mittens! Was it the want of toes that made him able to come and go so quietly?--Another hour crept by; when lo, a mighty sun-trumpet blew in the throat of the black cock! Fergus sprang to his feet with the start it gave him--but the next moment gladness rushed up in his heart: the morning was on its way! and, foe to superstition as he was, and much as he had mocked at Donal for what he counted some of his tendencies in that direction, he began instantly to comfort himself with the old belief that all things of the darkness flee from the crowing of the cock. The same moment his courage began to return, and the next he was laughing at his terrors, more foolish than when he felt them, seeing he was the same man of fear as before, and the same circumstances would wrap him in the same garment of dire apprehension. In his folly he imagined himself quite ready to watch the next night without even repugnance--for it was the morning, not the night, that came first!

When the grey of the dawn appeared, he said to himself he would lie down on the bench a while, he was so tired of sitting; he would not sleep. He lay down, and in a moment was asleep. The light grew and grew, and the brownie came--a different brownie indeed from the one he had pictured--with the daintiest-shaped hands and feet coming out of the midst of rags, and with no hair except roughly parted curls over the face of a cherub--for the combing of Snowball's mane and tail had taught Gibbie to use the same comb upon his own thatch. But as soon as he opened the door of the dairy, he was warned by the loud breathing of the sleeper, and looking about, espied him on the bench behind the table, and swiftly retreated. The same instant Fergus woke, stretched himself, saw it was broad daylight, and, with his brain muddled by fatigue and sleep combined, crawled shivering to bed. Then in came the brownie again; and when Jean Mavor entered, there was her work done as usual.

Fergus was hours late for breakfast, and when he went into the common room, found his aunt alone there.

"Weel, auntie." he said, "I think I fleggit yer broonie!"

"Did ye that, man? Ay!--An' syne ye set tee, an' did the wark yersel to save yer auntie Jean's auld banes?"

"Na, na! I was o'er tiret for that. Sae wad ye hae been yersel', gien ye had sitten up a' nicht."

"Wha did it, than?"

"Ow, jist yersel', I'm thinkin', auntie."

"Never a finger o' mine was laid till't, Fergus. Gien ye fleggit ae broonie, anither cam; for there's the wark done, the same's ever.!"

"Damn the cratur!" cried Fergus.

"Whisht, whisht, laddie! he's maybe hearin' ye this meenute. An' gien he binna, there's ane 'at is, an' likesna sweirin'."

"I beg yer pardon, auntie, but it's jist provokin'!" returned Fergus, and therewith recounted the tale of his night's watch, omitting mention only of his feelings throughout the vigil.

As soon as he had had his breakfast, he went to carry his report to Glashruach.

The laird was vexed, and told him he must sleep well before night, and watch to better purpose.

The next night, Fergus's terror returned in full force; but he watched thoroughly notwithstanding, and when his aunt entered, she found him there, and her kitchen in a mess. He had caught no brownie, it was true, but neither had a stroke of her work been done. The floor was unswept; not a dish had been washed; it was churning-day, but the cream stood in the jar in the dairy, not the butter in the pan on the kitchen-dresser. Jean could not quite see the good or the gain of it. She had begun to feel like a lady, she said to herself, and now she must tuck up her sleeves and set to work as before. It was a come-down in the world, and she did not like it. She conned her nephew little thanks, and not being in the habit of dissembling, let him feel the same. He crept to bed rather mortified. When he woke from a long sleep, he found no meal waiting him, and had to content himself with cakes [1] and milk before setting out for "the Muckle Hoose."

"You must add cunning to courage, my young friend," said Mr. Galbraith; and the result of their conference was that Fergus went home resolved on yet another attempt.

He felt much inclined to associate Donal with him in his watch this time, but was too desirous of proving his courage both to himself and to the world, to yield to the suggestion of his fear. He went to bed with a book immediately after the noon-day meal and rose in time for supper.

There was a large wooden press in the kitchen, standing out from the wall; this with the next wall made a little recess, in which there was just room for a chair; and in that recess Fergus seated himself, in the easiest chair he could get into it. He then opened wide the door of the press, and it covered him entirely.

This night would have been the dreariest of all for him, the laird having insisted that he should watch in the dark, had he not speedily fallen fast asleep, and slept all night--so well that he woke at the first noise Gibbie made.

It was broad clear morning, but his heart beat so loud and fast with apprehension and curiosity mingled, that for a few moments Fergus dare not stir, but sat listening breathless to the movement beside him, none the less appalling that it was so quiet. Recovering himself a little he cautiously moved the door of the press, and peeped out.

He saw nothing so frightful as he had, in spite of himself, anticipated, but was not therefore, perhaps, the less astonished. The dread brownie of his idea shrunk to a tiny ragged urchin, with a wonderful head of hair, azure eyes, and deft hands, noiselessly bustling about on bare feet. He watched him at his leisure, watched him keenly, assured that any moment he could spring upon him.

As he watched, his wonder sank, and he grew disappointed at the collapsing of the lubber-fiend into a poor half-naked child upon whom both his courage and his fear had been wasted. As he continued to watch, an evil cloud of anger at the presumption of the unknown minimus began to gather in his mental atmosphere, and was probably the cause of some movement by which his chair gave a loud creak. Without even looking round, Gibbie darted into the dairy, and shut the door. Instantly Fergus was after him, but only in time to see the vanishing of his last heel through the hole in the wall, and that way Fergus was much too large to follow him. He rushed from the house, and across the corner of the yard to the barn-door. Gibbie, who did not believe he had been seen, stood laughing on the floor, when suddenly he heard the key entering the lock. He bolted through the cat-hole--but again just one moment too late, leaving behind him on Fergus's retina the light from the soles of two bare feet. The key of the door to the rick-yard was inside, and Fergus was after him in a moment, but the ricks came close to the barn-door, and the next he saw of him was the fluttering of his rags in the wind, and the flashing of his white skin in the sun, as he fled across the clover field; and before Fergus was over the wall, Gibbie was a good way ahead towards the Lorrie. Gibbie was a better runner for his size than Fergus, and in better training too; but, alas! Fergus's legs were nearly twice as long as Gibbie's. The little one reached the Lorrie, first, and dashing across it, ran up the side of the Glashburn, with a vague idea of Glashgar in his head. Fergus behind him was growing more and more angry as he gained upon him but felt his breath failing him. Just at the bridge to the iron gate to Glashruach, he caught him at last, and sunk on the parapet exhausted. The smile with which Gibbie, too much out of breath to laugh, confessed himself vanquished, would have disarmed one harder-hearted than Fergus, had he not lost his temper in the dread of losing his labour; and the answer Gibbie received to his smile was a box on the ear that bewildered him. He looked pitifully in his captor's face, the smile not yet faded from his, only to receive a box on the other ear, which, though a contrary and similar both at once, was not a cure, and the water gathered in his eyes. Fergus, a little eased in his temper by the infliction, and in his breath by the wall of the bridge, began to ply him with questions; but no answer following, his wrath rose again, and again he boxed both his ears--without better result.

Then came the question what was he to do with the redoubted brownie, now that he had him. He was ashamed to show himself as the captor of such a miserable culprit, but the little rascal deserved punishment, and the laird would require him at his hands. He turned upon his prisoner and told him he was an impudent rascal. Gibbie had recovered again, and was able once more to smile a little. He had been guilty of burglary, said Fergus; and Gibbie smiled. He could be sent to prison for it, said Fergus; and Gibbie smiled--but this time a very grave smile. Fergus took him by the collar, which amounted to nearly a third part of the jacket, and shook him till he had half torn that third from the other two; then opened the gate, and, holding him by the back of the neck, walked him up the drive, every now and then giving him a fierce shake that jarred his teeth. Thus, over the old gravel, mossy and damp and grassy, and cool to his little bare feet, between rowan and birk and pine and larch, like a malefactor, and looking every inch the outcast he was, did Sir Gilbert Galbraith approach the house of his ancestors for the first time. Individually, wee Gibbie was anything but a prodigal; it had never been possible to him to be one; but none the less was he the type and result and representative of his prodigal race, in him now once more looking upon the house they had lost by their vices and weaknesses, and in him now beginning to reap the benefits of punishment. But of vice and loss, of house and fathers and punishment, Gibbie had no smallest cognition. His history was about him and in him, yet of it all he suspected nothing. It would have made little difference to him if he had known it all; he would none the less have accepted everything that came, just as part of the story in which he found himself.



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