Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XXIII. More Schooling.
The first opportunity Donal had, he questioned Fergus as to his share in the ill-usage of Gibbie. Fergus treated the inquiry as an impertinent interference, and mounted his high horse at once. What right had his father's herd-boy to question him as to his conduct? He put it so to him and in nearly just as many words. Thereupon answered Donal--
"It's this, ye see, Fergus: ye hae been unco guid to me, an' I'm mair obligatit till ye nor I can say. But it wad be a scunnerfu' thing to tak the len' o' buiks frae ye, an' spier quest'ons at ye 'at I canna mak oot mysel', an' syne gang awa despisin' ye i' my hert for cruelty an' wrang. What was the cratur punished for? Tell me that. Accordin' till yer aunt's ain accoont, he had taen naething, an' had dune naething but guid."
"Why didn't he speak up then, and defend himself, and not be so damned obstinate?" returned Fergus. "He wouldn't open his mouth to tell his name, or where he came from even. I couldn't get him to utter a single word. As for his punishment, it was by the laird's orders that Angus Mac Pholp took the whip to him. I had nothing to do with it.--"Fergus did not consider the punishment he had himself given him as worth mentioning--as indeed, except for honesty's sake, it was not, beside the other.
"Weel, I'll be a man some day, an' Angus 'll hae to sattle wi' me!" said Donal through his clenched teeth. "Man, Fergus! the cratur's as dumb's a worum. I dinna believe 'at ever he spak a word in's life."
This cut Fergus to the heart, for he was far from being without generosity or pity. How many things a man who is not awake to side strenuously with the good in him against the evil, who is not on his guard lest himself should mislead himself, may do, of which he will one day be bitterly ashamed!--a trite remark, it may be, but, reader, that will make the thing itself no easier to bear, should you ever come to know you have done a thing of the sort. I fear, however, from what I know of Fergus afterwards, that he now, instead of seeking about to make some amends, turned the strength that should have gone in that direction, to the justifying of himself to himself in what he had done. Anyhow, he was far too proud to confess to Donal that he had done wrong--too much offended at being rebuked by one he counted so immeasurably his inferior, to do the right thing his rebuke set before him. What did the mighty business matter! The little rascal was nothing but a tramp; and if he didn't deserve his punishment this time, he had deserved it a hundred times without having it, and would ten thousand times again. So reasoned Fergus, while the feeling grew upon Donal that the cratur was of some superior race--came from some other and nobler world. I would remind my reader that Donal was a Celt, with a nature open to every fancy of love or awe--one of the same breed with the foolish Galatians, and like them ready to be bewitched; but bearing a heart that welcomed the light with glad rebound--loved the lovely, nor loved it only, but turned towards it with desire to become like it. Fergus too was a Celt in the main, but was spoiled by the paltry ambition of being distinguished. He was not in love with loveliness, but in love with praise. He saw not a little of what was good and noble, and would fain be such, but mainly that men might regard him for his goodness and nobility; hence his practical notion of the good was weak, and of the noble, paltry. His one desire in doing anything, was to be approved of or admired in the same--approved of in the opinions he held, in the plans he pursued, in the doctrines he taught; admired in the poems in which he went halting after Byron, and in the eloquence with which he meant one day to astonish great congregations. There was nothing original as yet discoverable in him; nothing to deliver him from the poor imitative apery in which he imagined himself a poet. He did possess one invaluable gift--that of perceiving and admiring more than a little, certain forms of the beautiful; but it was rendered merely ridiculous by being conjoined with the miserable ambition--poor as that of any mountebank emperor--to be himself admired for that admiration. He mistook also sensibility for faculty, nor perceived that it was at best but a probable sign that he might be able to do something or other with pleasure, perhaps with success. If any one judge it hard that men should be made with ambitions to whose objects they can never attain, I answer, ambition is but the evil shadow of aspiration; and no man ever followed the truth, which is the one path of aspiration, and in the end complained that he had been made this way or that. Man is made to be that which he is made most capable of desiring--but it goes without saying that he must desire the thing itself and not its shadow. Man is of the truth, and while he follows a lie, no indication his nature yields will hold, except the fear, the discontent, the sickness of soul, that tell him he is wrong. If he say, "I care not for what you call the substance--it is to me the shadow; I want what you call the shadow," the only answer is, that, to all eternity, he can never have it: a shadow can never be had.
Ginevra was hardly the same child after the experience of that terrible morning. At no time very much at home with her father, something had now come between them, to remove which all her struggles to love him as before were unavailing. The father was too stupid, too unsympathetic, to take note of the look of fear that crossed her face if ever he addressed her suddenly; and when she was absorbed in fighting the thoughts that would come, he took her constraint for sullenness.
With a cold spot in his heart where once had dwelt some genuine regard for Donal, Fergus went back to college. Donal went on herding the cattle, cudgeling Hornie, and reading what books he could lay his hands on: there was no supply through Fergus any more, alas! The year before, ere he took his leave, he had been careful to see Donal provided with at least books for study; but this time he left him to shift for himself. He was small because he was proud, spiteful because he was conceited. He would let Donal know what it was to have lost his favour! But Donal did not suffer much, except in the loss of the friendship itself. He managed to get the loan of a copy of Burns--better meat for a strong spirit than the poetry of Byron or even Scott. An innate cleanliness of soul rendered the occasional coarseness to him harmless, and the mighty torrent of the man's life, broken by occasional pools reflecting the stars; its headlong hatred of hypocrisy and false religion; its generosity, and struggling conscientiousness; its failures and its repentances, roused much in the heart of Donal. Happily the copy he had borrowed, had in it a tolerable biography; and that, read along with the man's work, enabled him, young as he was, to see something of where and how he had failed, and to shadow out to himself, not altogether vaguely, the perils to which the greatest must be exposed who cannot rule his own spirit, but, like a mere child, reels from one mood into another--at the will of--what?
From reading Burns, Donal learned also not a little of the capabilities of his own language; for, Celt as he was by birth and country and mental character, he could not speak the Gaelic: that language, soft as the speech of streams from rugged mountains, and wild as that of the wind in the tops of fir-trees, the language at once of bards and fighting men, had so far ebbed from the region, lingering only here and there in the hollow pools of old memories, that Donal had never learned it; and the lowland Scotch, an ancient branch of English, dry and gnarled, but still flourishing in its old age, had become instead, his mother-tongue; and the man who loves the antique speech, or even the mere patois, of his childhood, and knows how to use it, possesses therein a certain kind of power over the hearts of men, which the most refined and perfect of languages cannot give, inasmuch as it has travelled farther from the original sources of laughter and tears. But the old Scotish itself is, alas! rapidly vanishing before a poor, shabby imitation of modern English--itself a weaker language in sound, however enriched in words, since the days of Shakspere, when it was far more like Scotch in its utterance than it is now.
So sings Klaus Groth, in and concerning his own Plattdeutsch--so nearly akin to the English.
To a poet especially is it an inestimable advantage to be able to employ such a language for his purposes. Not only was it the speech of his childhood, when he saw everything with fresh, true eyes, but it is itself a child-speech; and the child way of saying must always lie nearer the child way of seeing, which is the poetic way. Therefore, as the poetic faculty was now slowly asserting itself in Donal, it was of vast importance that he should know what the genius of Scotland had been able to do with his homely mother-tongue, for through that tongue alone, could what poetry he had in him have thoroughly fair play, and in turn do its best towards his development--which is the first and greatest use of poetry. It is a ruinous misjudgment--too contemptible to be asserted, but not too contemptible to be acted upon, that the end of poetry is publication. Its true end is to help first the man who makes it along the path to the truth: help for other people may or may not be in it; that, if it become a question at all, must be an after one. To the man who has it, the gift is invaluable; and, in proportion as it helps him to be a better man, it is of value to the whole world; but it may, in itself, be so nearly worthless, that the publishing of it would be more for harm than good. Ask any one who has had to perform the unenviable duty of editor to a magazine: he will corroborate what I say--that the quantity of verse good enough to be its own reward, but without the smallest claim to be uttered to the world, is enormous.
Not yet, however, had Donal written a single stanza. A line, or at most two, would now and then come into his head with a buzz, like a wandering honey-bee that had mistaken its hive--generally in the shape of a humorous malediction on Hornie--but that was all.
In the mean time Gibbie slept and waked and slept again, night after night--with the loveliest days between, at the cottage on Glashgar. The morning after his arrival, the first thing he was aware of was Janet's face beaming over him, with a look in its eyes more like worship then benevolence. Her husband was gone, and she was about to milk the cow, and was anxious lest, while she was away, he should disappear as before. But the light that rushed into his eyes was in full response to that which kindled the light in hers, and her misgiving vanished; he could not love her like that and leave her. She gave him his breakfast of porridge and milk, and went to her cow.
When she came back, she found everything tidy in the cottage, the floor swept, every dish washed and set aside; and Gibbie was examining an old shoe of Robert's, to see whether he could not mend it. Janet, having therefore leisure, proceeded at once with joy to the construction of a garment she had been devising for him. The design was simple, and its execution easy. Taking a blue winsey petticoat of her own, drawing it in round his waist, and tying it over the chemise which was his only garment, she found, as she had expected, that its hem reached his feet: she partly divided it up the middle, before and behind, and had but to backstitch two short seams, and there was a pair of sailor-like trousers, as tidy as comfortable! Gibbie was delighted with them. True, they had no pockets, but then he had nothing to put in pockets, and one might come to think of that as an advantage. Gibbie indeed had never had pockets, for the pockets of the garments he had had were always worn out before they reached him. Then Janet thought about a cap; but considering him a moment critically, and seeing how his hair stood out like thatch-eaves round his head, she concluded with herself "There maun be some men as weel's women fowk, I'm thinkin', whause hair's gien them for a coverin'," and betook herself instead to her New Testament.
Gibbie stood by as she read in silence, gazing with delight, for he thought it must be a book of ballads like Donal's that she was reading. But Janet found his presence, his unresting attitude, and his gaze, discomposing. To worship freely, one must be alone, or else with fellow-worshippers. And reading and worshipping were often so mingled with Janet, as to form but one mental consciousness. She looked up therefore from her book, and said--
"Can ye read, laddie?"
Gibbie shook his head.
"Sit ye doon than, an' I s' read till ye."
Gibbie obeyed more than willingly, expecting to hear some ancient Scots tale of love or chivalry. Instead, it was one of those love-awful, glory-sad chapters in the end of the Gospel of John, over which hangs the darkest cloud of human sorrow, shot through and through with the radiance of light eternal, essential, invincible. Whether it was the uncertain response to Janet's tone merely, or to truth too loud to be heard, save as a thrill, of some chord in his own spirit, having its one end indeed twisted around an earthly peg, but the other looped to a tail-piece far in the unknown--I cannot tell; it may have been that the name now and then recurring brought to his mind the last words of poor Sambo; anyhow, when Janet looked up, she saw the tears rolling down the child's face. At the same time, from the expression of his countenance, she judged that his understanding had grasped nothing. She turned therefore to the parable of the prodigal son, and read it. Even that had not a few words and phrases unknown to Gibbie, but he did not fail to catch the drift of the perfect story. For had not Gibbie himself had a father, to whose bosom he went home every night? Let but love be the interpreter, and what most wretched type will not serve the turn for the carriage of profoundest truth! The prodigal's lowest degradation, Gibbie did not understand; but Janet saw the expression of the boy's face alter with every tone of the tale, through all the gamut between the swine's trough and the arms of the father. Then at last he burst--not into tears--Gibbie was not much acquainted with weeping--but into a laugh of loud triumph. He clapped his hands, and in a shiver of ecstasy, stood like a stork upon one leg, as if so much of him was all that could be spared for this lower world, and screwed himself together.
Janet was well satisfied with her experiment. Most Scotch women, and more than most Scotch men, would have rebuked him for laughing, but Janet knew in herself a certain tension of delight which nothing served to relieve but a wild laughter of holiest gladness; and never in tears of deepest emotion did her heart appeal more directly to its God. It is the heart that is not yet sure of its God, that is afraid to laugh in his presence.
Thus had Gibbie his first lesson in the only thing worth learning, in that which, to be learned at all, demands the united energy of heart and soul and strength and mind; and from that day he went on learning it. I cannot tell how, or what were the slow stages by which his mind budded and swelled until it burst into the flower of humanity, the knowledge of God. I cannot tell the shape of the door by which the Lord entered into that house, and took everlasting possession of it. I cannot even tell in what shape he appeared himself in Gibbie's thoughts--for the Lord can take any shape that is human. I only know it was not any unhuman shape of earthly theology that he bore to Gibbie, when he saw him with "that inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude." For happily Janet never suspected how utter was Gibbie's ignorance. She never dreamed that he did not know what was generally said about Jesus Christ. She thought he must know as well as she the outlines of his story, and the purpose of his life and death, as commonly taught, and therefore never attempted explanations for the sake of which she would probably have found herself driven to use terms and phrases which merely substitute that which is intelligible because it appeals to what in us is low, and is itself both low and false, for that which, if unintelligible, is so because of its grandeur and truth. Gibbie's ideas of God he got all from the mouth of Theology himself, the Word of God; and to the theologian who will not be content with his teaching, the disciple of Jesus must just turn his back, that his face may be to his Master.
So, teaching him only that which she loved, not that which she had been taught, Janet read to Gibbie of Jesus, talked to him of Jesus, dreamed to him about Jesus; until at length--Gibbie did not think to watch, and knew nothing of the process by which it came about--his whole soul was full of the man, of his doings, of his words, of his thoughts, of his life. Jesus Christ was in him--he was possessed by him. Almost before he knew, he was trying to fashion his life after that of his Master.
Between the two, it was a sweet teaching, a sweet learning. Under Janet, Gibbie was saved the thousand agonies that befall the conscientious disciple, from the forcing upon him, as the thoughts and will of the eternal Father of our spirits, of the ill expressed and worse understood experiences, the crude conjectures, the vulgar imaginations of would-be teachers of the multitude. Containing truth enough to save those of sufficiently low development to receive such teaching without disgust, it contains falsehood enough, but for the Spirit of God, to ruin all nobler--I mean all childlike natures, utterly; and many such it has gone far to ruin, driving them even to a madness in which they have died. Jesus alone knows the Father, and can reveal him. Janet studied only Jesus, and as a man knows his friend, so she, only infinitely better, knew her more than friend--her Lord and her God. Do I speak of a poor Scotch peasant woman too largely for the reader whose test of truth is the notion of probability he draws from his own experience? Let me put one question to make the real probability clearer. Should it be any wonder, if Christ be indeed the natural Lord of every man, woman, and child, that a simple, capable nature, laying itself entirely open to him and his influences, should understand him? How should he be the Lord of that nature if such a thing were not possible, or were at all improbable--nay, if such a thing did not necessarily follow? Among women, was it not always to peasant women that heavenly messages came? See revelation culminate in Elizabeth and Mary, the mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus. Think how much fitter that it should be so;--that they to whom the word of God comes should be women bred in the dignity of a natural life, and familiarity with the large ways of the earth; women of simple and few wants, without distraction, and with time for reflection--compelled to reflection, indeed, from the enduring presence of an unsullied consciousness: for wherever there is a humble, thoughtful nature, into that nature the divine consciousness, that is, the Spirit of God, presses as into its own place. Holy women are to be found everywhere, but the prophetess is not so likely to be found in the city as in the hill-country.
Whatever Janet, then, might, perhaps--I do not know--have imagined it her duty to say to Gibbie had she surmised his ignorance, having long ceased to trouble her own head, she had now no inclination to trouble Gibbie's heart with what men call the plan of salvation. It was enough to her to find that he followed her Master. Being in the light she understood the light, and had no need of system, either true or false, to explain it to her. She lived by the word proceeding out of the mouth of God. When life begins to speculate upon itself, I suspect it has begun to die. And seldom has there been a fitter soul, one clearer from evil, from folly, from human device--a purer cistern for such water of life as rose in the heart of Janet Grant to pour itself into, than the soul of Sir Gibbie. But I must not call any true soul a cistern: wherever the water of life is received, it sinks and softens and hollows, until it reaches, far down, the springs of life there also, that come straight from the eternal hills, and thenceforth there is in that soul a well of water springing up into everlasting life.