Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XXII. Refuge.
It was a lovely Saturday evening on Glashgar. The few flowers about the small turf cottage scented the air in the hot western sun. The heather was not in bloom yet, and there were no trees; but there were rocks, and stones, and a brawling burn that half surrounded a little field of oats, one of potatoes, and a small spot with a few stocks of cabbage and kail, on the borders of which grew some bushes of double daisies, and primroses, and carnations. These Janet tended as part of her household, while her husband saw to the oats and potatoes. Robert had charge of the few sheep on the mountain which belonged to the farmer at the Mains, and for his trouble had the cottage and the land, most of which he had himself reclaimed. He had also a certain allowance of meal, which was paid in portions, as corn went from the farm to the mill. If they happened to fall short, the miller would always advance them as much as they needed, repaying himself--and not very strictly--the next time the corn was sent from the Mains. They were never in any want, and never had any money, except what their children brought them out of their small wages. But that was plenty for their every need, nor had they the faintest feeling that they were persons to be pitied. It was very cold up there in winter, to be sure, and they both suffered from rheumatism; but they had no debt, no fear, much love, and between them, this being mostly Janet's, a large hope for what lay on the other side of death: as to the rheumatism, that was necessary, Janet said, to teach them patience, for they had no other trouble. They were indeed growing old, but neither had begun to feel age a burden yet, and when it should prove such, they had a daughter prepared to give up service and go home to help them. Their thoughts about themselves were nearly lost in their thoughts about each other, their children, and their friends. Janet's main care was her old man, and Robert turned to Janet as the one stay of his life, next to the God in whom he trusted. He did not think so much about God as she: he was not able; nor did he read so much of his Bible; but she often read to him; and when any of his children were there of an evening, he always "took the book." While Janet prayed at home, his closet was the mountain-side, where he would kneel in the heather, and pray to Him who saw unseen, the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God. The sheep took no heed of him, but sometimes when he rose from his knees and saw Oscar gazing at him with deepest regard, he would feel a little as if he had not quite entered enough into his closet, and would wonder what the dog was thinking. All day, from the mountain and sky and preaching burns, from the sheep and his dog, from winter storms, spring sun and winds, or summer warmth and glow, but more than all, when he went home, from the presence and influence of his wife, came to him somehow--who can explain how!--spiritual nourishment and vital growth. One great thing in it was, that he kept growing wiser and better without knowing it. If St. Paul had to give up judging his own self, perhaps Robert Grant might get through without ever beginning it. He loved life, but if he had been asked why, he might not have found a ready answer. He loved his wife--just because she was Janet. Blithely he left his cottage in the morning, deep breathing the mountain air, as if it were his first in the blissful world; and all day the essential bliss of being was his; but the immediate hope of his heart was not the heavenly city; it was his home and his old woman, and her talk of what she had found in her Bible that day. Strangely mingled--mingled even to confusion with his faith in God, was his absolute trust in his wife--a confidence not very different in kind from the faith which so many Christians place in the mother of our Lord. To Robert, Janet was one who knew--one who was far ben with the Father of lights. She perceived his intentions, understood his words, did his will, dwelt in the secret place of the Most High. When Janet entered into the kingdom of her Father, she would see that he was not left outside. He was as sure of her love to himself, as he was of God's love to her, and was certain she could never be content without her old man. He was himself a dull soul, he thought, and could not expect the great God to take much notice of him, but he would allow Janet to look after him. He had a vague conviction that he would not be very hard to save, for he knew himself ready to do whatever was required of him. None of all this was plain to his consciousness, however, or I daresay he would have begun at once to combat the feeling.
His sole anxiety, on the other hand, was neither about life nor death, about this world nor the next, but that his children should be honest and honourable, fear God and keep his commandments. Around them, all and each, the thoughts of father and mother were constantly hovering--as if to watch them, and ward off evil.
Almost from the day, now many years ago, when, because of distance and difficulty, she ceased to go to church, Janet had taken to her New Testament in a new fashion.
She possessed an instinctive power of discriminating character, which had its root and growth in the simplicity of her own; she had always been a student of those phases of humanity that came within her ken; she had a large share of that interest in her fellows and their affairs which is the very bloom upon ripe humanity: with these qualifications, and the interpretative light afforded by her own calm practical way of living, she came to understand men and their actions, especially where the latter differed from what might ordinarily have been expected, in a marvellous way: her faculty amounted almost to sympathetic contact with the very humanity. When, therefore, she found herself in this remote spot, where she could see so little of her kind, she began, she hardly knew by what initiation, to turn her study upon the story of our Lord's life. Nor was it long before it possessed her utterly, so that she concentrated upon it all the light and power of vision she had gathered from her experience of humanity. It ought not therefore to be wonderful how much she now understood of the true humanity--with what simple directness she knew what many of the words of the Son of Man meant, and perceived many of the germs of his individual actions. Hence it followed naturally that the thought of him, and the hope of one day seeing him, became her one informing idea. She was now such another as those women who ministered to him on the earth.
A certain gentle indifference she allowed to things considered important, the neighbours attributed to weakness of character, and called softness; while the honesty, energy, and directness with which she acted upon insights they did not possess, they attributed to intellectual derangement. She was "ower easy," they said, when the talk had been of prudence or worldly prospect; she was "ower hard," they said, when the question had been of right and wrong.
The same afternoon, a neighbour, on her way over the shoulder of the hill to the next village, had called upon her and found her brushing the rafters of her cottage with a broom at the end of a long stick.
"Save 's a', Janet! what are ye efter? I never saw sic a thing!" she exclaimed.
"I kenna hoo I never thoucht o' sic a thing afore," answered Janet, leaning her broom against the wall, and dusting a chair for her visitor; "but this mornin', whan my man an' me was sittin' at oor brakfast, there cam' sic a clap o' thunner, 'at it jist garred the bit hoosie trim'le; an' doon fell a snot o' soot intil the very spune 'at my man was cairryin' till's honest moo. That cudna be as things war inten'it, ye ken; sae what was to be said but set them richt?"
"Ow, weel! but ye micht hae waitit till Donal cam' hame; he wad hae dune 't in half the time, an' no raxed his jints."
"I cudna pit it aff," answered Janet. "Wha kenned whan the Lord micht come?--He canna come at cock-crawin' the day, but he may be here afore nicht."
"Weel, I's awa," said her visitor rising. "I'm gauin' ower to the toon to buy a feow hanks o' worset to weyve a pair o' stockins to my man. Guid day to ye, Janet.--What neist, I won'er?" she added to herself as she left the house. "The wuman's clean dementit!"
The moment she was gone, Janet caught up her broom again, and went spying about over the roof--ceiling there was none--after long tangles of agglomerated cobweb and smoke.
"Ay!" she said to herself, "wha kens whan he may be at the door? an' I wadna like to hear him say--'Janet, ye micht hae had yer hoose a bit cleaner, whan ye kenned I micht be at han'!'"
With all the cleaning she could give it, her cottage would have looked but a place of misery to many a benevolent woman, who, if she had lived there, would not have been so benevolent as Janet, or have kept the place half so clean. For her soul was alive and rich, and out of her soul, not education or habit, came the smallest of her virtues.--Having finished at last, she took her besom to the door, and beat it against a stone. That done, she stood looking along the path down the hill. It was that by which her sons and daughters, every Saturday, came climbing, one after the other, to her bosom, from their various labours in the valley below, through the sunset, through the long twilight, through the moonlight, each urged by a heart eager to look again upon father and mother.
The sun was now far down his western arc, and nearly on a level with her eyes; and as she gazed into the darkness of the too much light, suddenly emerged from it, rose upward, staggered towards her--was it an angel? was it a spectre? Did her old eyes deceive her? or was the second sight born in her now first in her old age?--It seemed a child--reeling, and spreading out hands that groped. She covered her eyes for a moment, for it might be a vision in the sun, not on the earth--and looked again. It was indeed a naked child! and--was she still so dazzled by the red sun as to see red where red was none?--or were those indeed blood-red streaks on his white skin? Straight now, though slow, he came towards her. It was the same child who had come and gone so strangely before! He held out his hands to her, and fell on his face at her feet like one dead. Then, with a horror of pitiful amazement, she saw a great cross marked in two cruel stripes on his back; and the thoughts that thereupon went coursing through her loving imagination, it would be hard to set forth. Could it be that the Lord was still, child and man, suffering for his race, to deliver his brothers and sisters from their sins?--wandering, enduring, beaten, blessing still? accepting the evil, slaying it, and returning none? his patience the one rock where the evil word finds no echo; his heart the one gulf into which the dead-sea wave rushes with no recoil--from which ever flows back only purest water, sweet and cool; the one abyss of destroying love, into which all wrong tumbles, and finding no reaction, is lost, ceases for evermore? there, in its own cradle, the primal order is still nursed, still restored; thence is still sent forth afresh, to leaven with new life the world ever ageing! Shadowy and vague they were--but vaguely shadowed were thoughts like these in Janet's mind, as she stood half-stunned, regarding for one moment motionless the prostrate child and his wrongs. The next she lifted him in her arms, and holding him tenderly to her mother-heart, carried him into the house, murmuring over him dove-like sounds of pity and endearment mingled with indignation. There she laid him on his side in her bed, covered him gently over, and hastened to the little byre at the end of the cottage, to get him some warm milk. When she returned, he had already lifted his heavy eyelids, and was looking wearily about the place. But when he saw her, did ever so bright a sun shine as that smile of his! Eyes and mouth and whole face flashed upon Janet! She set down the milk, and went to the bedside. Gibbie put up his arms, threw them round her neck, and clung to her as if she had been his mother. And from that moment she was his mother: her heart was big enough to mother all the children of humanity. She was like Charity herself, with her babes innumerable.
"What have they done to ye, my bairn?" she said, in tones pitiful with the pity of the Shepherd of the sheep himself.
No reply came back--only another heavenly smile, a smile of absolute content. For what were stripes and nakedness and hunger to Gibbie, now that he had a woman to love! Gibbie's necessity was to love; but here was more; here was Love offering herself to him! Except in black Sambo he had scarcely caught a good sight of her before. He had never before been kissed by that might of God's grace, a true woman. She was an old woman who kissed him; but none who have drunk of the old wine of love, straightway desire the new, for they know that the old is better. Match such as hers with thy love, maiden of twenty, and where wilt thou find the man I say not worthy, but fit to mate with thee? For hers was love indeed--not the love of love--but the love of Life. Already Gibbie's faintness was gone--and all his ills with it. She raised him with one arm, and held the bowl to his mouth, and he drank; but all the time he drank, his eyes were fixed upon hers. When she laid him down again, he turned on his side, off his scored back, and in a moment was fast asleep. She stood gazing at him. So still was he, that she began to fear he was dead, and laid her hand on his heart. It was beating steadily, and she left him, to make some gruel for him against his waking. Her soul was glad, for she was ministering to her Master, not the less in his own self, that it was in the person of one of his little ones. Gruel, as such a one makes it, is no common fare, but delicate enough for a queen. She set it down by the fire, and proceeded to lay the supper for her expected children. The clean yellow-white table of soft smooth fir, needed no cloth--only horn spoons and wooden caups.
At length a hand came to the latch, and mother and daughter greeted as mother and daughter only can; then came a son, and mother and son greeted as mother and son only can. They kept on arriving singly to the number of six--two daughters and four sons, the youngest some little time after the rest. Each, as he or she came, Janet took to the bed, and showed her seventh child where he slept. Each time she showed him, to secure like pity with her own, she turned down the bedclothes, and revealed the little back, smitten with the eternal memorial of the divine perfection. The women wept. The young men were furious, each after his fashion.
"God damn the rascal 'at did it!" cried one of them, clenching his teeth, and forgetting himself quite in the rage of the moment.
"Laddie, tak back the word," said his mother calmly. "Gien ye dinna forgie yer enemies, ye'll no be forgi'en yersel'."
"That's some hard, mither," answered the offender, with an attempted smile.
"Hard!" she echoed; "it may weel be hard, for it canna be helpit. What wad be the use o' forgiein' ye, or hoo cud it win at ye, or what wad ye care for't, or mak o't, cairryin' a hell o' hate i' yer verra hert? For gien God be love, hell maun be hate. My bairn, them 'at winna forgie their enemies, cairries sic a nest o' deevilry i' their ain boasoms, 'at the verra speerit o' God himsel' canna win in till't for bein' scomfished wi' smell an' reik. Muckle guid wad only pardon dee to sic! But ance lat them un'erstan' 'at he canna forgie them, an' maybe they'll be fleyt, an' turn again' the Sawtan 'at's i' them."
"Weel, but he's no my enemy," said the youth.
"No your enemy!" returned his mother; "--no your enemy, an' sair (serve) a bairn like that! My certy! but he's the enemy o' the haill race o' mankin'. He trespasses unco sair against me, I'm weel sure o' that! An' I'm glaid o' 't. I'm glaid 'at he has me for ane o' 's enemies, for I forgie him for ane; an' wuss him sae affrontit wi' himsel' er' a' be dune, 'at he wad fain hide his heid in a midden."
"Noo, noo, mither!" said the eldest son, who had not yet spoken, but whose countenance had been showing a mighty indignation, "that's surely as sair a bannin' as yon 'at Jock said."
"What, laddie! Wad ye hae a fellow-cratur live to a' eternity ohn been ashamed o' sic a thing 's that? Wad that be to wuss him weel? Kenna ye 'at the mair shame the mair grace? My word was the best beginnin' o' better 'at I cud wuss him. Na, na, laddie! frae my verra hert, I wuss he may be that affrontit wi' himsel' 'at he canna sae muckle as lift up's een to h'aven, but maun smite upo' 's breist an' say, 'God be mercifu' to me a sinner!' That's my curse upo' him, for I wadna hae 'im a deevil. Whan he comes to think that shame o' himsel', I'll tak him to my hert, as I tak the bairn he misguidit. Only I doobt I'll be lang awa afore that, for it taks time to fess a man like that till's holy senses."
The sixth of the family now entered, and his mother led him up to the bed.
"The Lord preserve's!" cried Donal Grant, "it's the cratur!--An' is that the gait they hae guidit him! The quaietest cratur an' the willin'est!"
Donal began to choke.
"Ye ken him than, laddie?" said his mother.
"Weel that," answered Donal. "He's been wi' me an' the nowt ilka day for weeks till the day."
With that he hurried into the story of his acquaintance with Gibbie; and the fable of the brownie would soon have disappeared from Daurside, had it not been that Janet desired them to say nothing about the boy, but let him be forgotten by his enemies, till he grew able to take care of himself. Besides, she said, their father might get into trouble with the master and the laird, if it were known they had him.
Donal vowed to himself, that, if Fergus had had a hand in the abuse, he would never speak civil word to him again.
He turned towards the bed, and there were Gibbie's azure eyes wide open and fixed upon him.
"Eh, ye cratur!" he cried; and darting to the bed, he took Gibbie's face between his hands, and said, in a voice to which pity and sympathy gave a tone like his mother's,
"Whaten a deevil was't 'at lickit ye like that? Eh! I wuss I had the trimmin' o' him!"
"Has the ill-guideship ta'en the tongue frae 'im, think ye?" asked the mother.
"Na, na," answered Donal; "he's been like that sin' ever I kenned him. I never h'ard word frae the moo' o' 'im."
"He'll be ane o' the deif an' dumb," said Janet.
"He's no deif, mither; that I ken weel; but dumb he maun be, I'm thinkin'.--Cratur," he continued, stooping over the boy, "gien ye hear what I'm sayin', tak haud o' my nose."
Thereupon, with a laugh like that of an amused infant, Gibbie raised his hand, and with thumb and forefinger gently pinched Donal's large nose, at which they all burst out laughing with joy. It was as if they had found an angel's baby in the bushes, and been afraid he was an idiot, but were now relieved. Away went Janet, and brought him his gruel. It was with no small difficulty and not without a moan or two, that Gibbie sat up in the bed to take it. There was something very pathetic in the full content with which he sat there in his nakedness, and looked smiling at them all. It was more than content--it was bliss that shone in his countenance. He took the wooden bowl, and began to eat; and the look he cast on Janet seemed to say he had never tasted such delicious food. Indeed he never had; and the poor cottage, where once more he was a stranger and taken in, appeared to Gibbie a place of wondrous wealth. And so it was--not only in the best treasures, those of loving kindness, but in all homely plenty as well for the needs of the body--a very temple of the God of simplicity and comfort--rich in warmth and rest and food.
Janet went to her kist, whence she brought out a garment of her own, and aired it at the fire. It had no lace at the neck or cuffs, no embroidery down the front; but when she put it on him, amid the tearful laughter of the women, and had tied it round his waist with a piece of list that had served as a garter, it made a dress most becoming in their eyes, and gave Gibbie indescribable pleasure from its whiteness, and its coolness to his inflamed skin.
They had just finished clothing him thus, when the goodman came home, and the mother's narration had to be given afresh, with Donal's notes explanatory and completive. As the latter reported the doings of the imagined brownie, and the commotion they had caused at the Mains and along Daurside, Gibbie's countenance flashed with pleasure and fun; and at last he broke into such a peal of laughter as had never, for pure merriment, been heard before so high on Glashgar. All joined involuntarily in the laugh--even the old man, who had been listening with his grey eyebrows knit, and hanging like bosky precipices over the tarns of his deepset eyes, taking in every word, but uttering not one. When at last his wife showed him the child's back, he lifted his two hands, and moved them slowly up and down, as in pitiful appeal for man against man to the sire of the race. But still he said not a word. As to utterance of what lay in the deep soul of him, the old man, except sometimes to his wife, was nearly as dumb as Gibbie himself.
They sat down to their homely meal. Simplest things will carry the result of honest attention as plainly as more elaborate dishes; and, which it might be well to consider, they will carry no more than they are worth: of Janet's supper it is enough to say that it was such as became her heart. In the judgment of all her guests, the porridge was such as none could make but mother, the milk such as none but mother's cow could yield, the cakes such as she only could bake.
Gibbie sat in the bed like a king on his throne, gazing on his kingdom. For he that loves has, as no one else has. It is the divine possession. Picture the delight of the child, in his passion for his kind, looking out upon this company of true hearts, honest faces, human forms--all strong and healthy, loving each other and generous to the taking in of the world's outcast! Gibbie could not, at that period of his history, have invented a heaven more to his mind, and as often as one of them turned eyes towards the bed, his face shone up with love and merry gratitude, like a better sun.
It was now almost time for the sons and daughters to go down the hill again, and leave the cottage and the blessed old parents and the harboured child to the night, the mountain-silence, and the living God. The sun had long been down; but far away in the north, the faint thin fringe of his light-garment was still visible, moving with the unseen body of his glory softly eastward, dreaming along the horizon, growing fainter and fainter as it went, but at the faintest then beginning to revive and grow. Of the northern lands in summer, it may be said, as of the heaven of heavens, that there is no night there. And by and by the moon also would attend the steps of the returning children of labour.
"Noo, lads an' lasses, afore we hae worship, rin, ilk ane o' ye," said the mother, "an' pu' heather to mak a bed to the wee man--i' the neuk there, at the heid o' oors. He'll sleep there bonny, an' no ill 'ill come near 'im."
She was obeyed instantly. The heather was pulled, and set together upright as it grew, only much closer, so that the tops made a dense surface, and the many stalks, each weak, a strong upbearing whole. They boxed them in below with a board or two for the purpose, and bound them together above with a blanket over the top, and a white sheet over that--a linen sheet it was, and large enough to be doubled, and receive Gibbie between its folds. Then another blanket was added, and the bed, a perfect one, was ready. The eldest of the daughters took Gibbie in her arms, and, tenderly careful over his hurts, lifted him from the old folks' bed, and placed him in his own--one more luxurious, for heather makes a still better stratum for repose than oat-chaff--and Gibbie sank into it with a sigh that was but a smile grown vocal.
Then Donal, as the youngest, got down the big Bible, and having laid it before his father, lighted the rush-pith-wick projecting from the beak of the little iron lamp that hung against the wall, its shape descended from Roman times. The old man put on his spectacles, took the book, and found the passage that fell, in continuous process, to that evening.
Now he was not a very good reader, and, what with blindness and spectacles, and poor light, would sometimes lose his place. But it never troubled him, for he always knew the sense of what was coming, and being no idolater of the letter, used the word that first suggested itself, and so recovered his place without pausing. It reminded his sons and daughters of the time when he used to tell them Bible stories as they crowded about his knees; and sounding therefore merely like the substitution of a more familiar word to assist their comprehension, woke no surprise. And even now, the word supplied, being in the vernacular, was rather to the benefit than the disadvantage of his hearers. The word of Christ is spirit and life, and where the heart is aglow, the tongue will follow that spirit and life fearlessly, and will not err.
On this occasion he was reading of our Lord's cure of the leper; and having read, "put forth his hand," lost his place, and went straight on without it, from his memory of the facts.
"He put forth his han'--an' grippit him, and said, Aw wull--be clean."
After the reading followed a prayer, very solemn and devout. It was then only, when before God, with his wife by his side, and his family around him, that the old man became articulate. He would scarcely have been so then, and would have floundered greatly in the marshes of his mental chaos, but for the stepping-stones of certain theological forms and phrases, which were of endless service to him in that they helped him to utter what in him was far better, and so realise more to himself his own feelings. Those forms and phrases would have shocked any devout Christian who had not been brought up in the same school; but they did him little harm, for he saw only the good that was in them, and indeed did not understand them save in so far as they worded that lifting up of the heart after which he was ever striving.
By the time the prayer was over, Gibbie was fast asleep again. What it all meant he had not an idea; and the sound lulled him--a service often so rendered in lieu of that intended. When he woke next, from the aching of his stripes, the cottage was dark. The old people were fast asleep. A hairy thing lay by his side, which, without the least fear, he examined by palpation, and found to be a dog, whereupon he fell fast asleep again, if possible happier than ever. And while the cottage was thus quiet, the brothers and sisters were still tramping along the moonlight paths of Daurside. They had all set out together, but at one point after another there had been a parting, and now they were on six different roads, each drawing nearer to the labour of the new week.