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Image Map : Christian Books : CHAPTER XIII. THE CEILING.

Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald


HE might have slept longer the next morning, for there was no threshing to wake him, in spite of the cocks in the yard that made it their business to rouse sleepers to their work, had it not been for another kind of cock inside him, which bore the same relation to food that the others bore to light. He peeped first, then crept out. All was still except the voices of those same prophet cocks, crying in the wilderness of the yet sunless world; a moo now and then from the byres; and the occasional stamp of a great hoof in the stable. Gibbie clambered up into the loft, and turning the cheeses about until he came upon the one he had gnawed before, again attacked it, and enlarged considerably the hole he had already made in it. Rather dangerous food it was, perhaps, eaten in that unmitigated way, for it was made of skimmed milk, and was very dry and hard; but Gibbie was a powerful little animal, all bones and sinews, small hard muscle, and faultless digestion. The next idea naturally rising was the burn; he tumbled down over the straw heap to the floor of the barn, and made for the cat-hole. But the moment he put his head out, he saw the legs of a man: the farmer was walking through his ricks, speculating on the money they held. He drew back, and looked round to see where best he could betake himself should he come in. He spied thereupon a ladder leaning against the end-wall of the barn, opposite the loft and the stables, and near it in the wall a wooden shutter, like the door of a little cupboard. He got up the ladder, and opening the shutter, which was fastened only with a button, found a hole in the wall, through which popping his head too carelessly, he knocked from a shelf some piece of pottery, which fell with a great crash on a paved floor. Looking after it, Gibbie beheld below him a rich prospect of yellow-white pools ranged in order on shelves. They reminded him of milk, but were of a different colour. As he gazed, a door opened hastily, with sharp clicking latch, and a woman entered, ejaculating, |Care what set that cat!| Gibbie drew back, lest in her search for the cat she might find the culprit. She looked all round, muttering such truncated imprecations as befitted the mouth of a Scotchwoman; but as none of her milk was touched, her wrath gradually abated: she picked up the fragments and withdrew.

Thereupon Gibbie ventured to reconnoitre a little farther, and popping in his head again, saw that the dairy was open to the roof, but the door was in a partition which did not run so high. The place from which the woman entered, was ceiled, and the ceiling rested on the partition between it and the dairy; so that, from a shelf level with the hole, he could easily enough get on the top of the ceiling. This, urged by the instinct of the homeless to understand their surroundings, he presently effected, by creeping like a cat along the top shelf.

The ceiling was that of the kitchen, and was merely of boards, which, being old and shrunken, had here and there a considerable crack between two, and Gibbie, peeping through one after another of these cracks, soon saw several things he did not understand. Of such was a barrel-churn, which he took for a barrel-organ, and welcomed as a sign of civilization. The woman was sweeping the room towards the hearth, where the peat fire was already burning, with a great pot hanging over it, covered with a wooden lid. When the water in it was hot, she poured it into a large wooden dish, in which she began to wash other dishes, thus giving the observant Gibbie his first notion of housekeeping. Then she scoured the deal table, dusted the bench and the chairs, arranged the dishes on shelves and rack, except a few which she placed on the table, put more water on the fire, and disappeared in the dairy. Thence presently she returned, carrying a great jar, which, to Gibbie's astonishment, having lifted a lid in the top of the churn, she emptied into it; he was not, therefore, any farther astonished, when she began to turn the handle vigorously, that no music issued. As to what else might be expected, Gibbie had not even a mistaken idea. But the butter came quickly that morning, and then he did have another astonishment, for he saw a great mass of something half-solid tumbled out where he had seen a liquid poured in -- nor that alone, for the liquid came out again too! But when at length he saw the mass, after being well washed, moulded into certain shapes, he recognized it as butter, such as he had seen in the shops, and had now and then tasted on the piece given him by some more than usually generous housekeeper. Surely he had wandered into a region of plenty! Only now, when he saw the woman busy and careful, the idea of things in the country being a sort of common property began to fade from his mind, and the perception to wake that they were as the things in the shops, which must not be touched without first paying money for them over a counter.

The butter-making, brought to a successful close, the woman proceeded to make porridge for the men's breakfast, and with hungry eyes Gibbie watched that process next. The water in the great pot boiling like a wild volcano, she took handful after handful of meal from a great wooden dish, called a bossie, and threw it into the pot, stirring as she threw, until the mess was presently so thick that she could no more move the spurtle in it; and scarcely had she emptied it into another great wooden bowl, called a bicker, when Gibbie heard the heavy tramp of the men crossing the yard to consume it.

For the last few minutes, Gibbie's nostrils -- alas! not Gibbie -- had been regaled with the delicious odour of the boiling meal; and now his eyes had their turn -- but still, alas, not Gibbie! Prostrate on the ceiling he lay and watched the splendid spoonfuls tumble out of sight into the capacious throats of four men; all took their spoonfuls from the same dish, but each dipped his spoonful into his private caup of milk, ere he carried it to his mouth. A little apart sat a boy, whom the woman seemed to favour, having provided him with a plateful of porridge by himself, but the fact was, four were as many as could bicker comfortably, or with any chance of fair play. The boy's countenance greatly attracted Gibbie. It was a long, solemn face, but the eyes were bright-blue and sparkling; and when he smiled, which was not very often, it was a good and meaningful smile.

When the meal was over, and he saw the little that was left, with all the drops of milk from the caups, tumbled into a common receptacle, to be kept, he thought, for the next meal, poor Gibbie felt very empty and forsaken. He crawled away sad at heart, with nothing before him except a drink of water at the burn. He might have gone to the door of the house, in the hope of a bit of cake, but now that he had seen something of the doings in the house and of the people who lived in it -- as soon, that is, as he had looked embodied ownership in the face -- he began to be aware of its claims, and the cheese he had eaten to lie heavy upon his spiritual stomach; he had done that which he would not have done before leaving the city. Carefully he crept across the ceiling, his head hanging, like a dog scolded of his master, carefully along the shelf of the dairy, and through the opening in the wall, quickly down the ladder, and through the cat-hole in the barn door. There was no one in the corn-yard now, and he wandered about among the ricks looking, with little hope, for something to eat. Turning a corner he came upon a hen-house -- and there was a crowd of hens and half-grown chickens about the very dish into which he had seen the remnants of the breakfast thrown, all pecking billfuls out of it. As I may have said before, he always felt at liberty to share with the animals, partly, I suppose, because he saw they had no scrupulosity or ceremony amongst themselves; so he dipped his hand into the dish: why should not the bird of the air now and then peck with the more respectable of the barn-door, if only to learn his inferiority? Greatly refreshed, he got up from among the hens, scrambled over the dry stone-wall, and trotted away to the burn.

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