Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter III. Mistress Croale.
The house at which they met had yet not a little character remaining. Mistress Croale had come in for a derived worthiness, in the memory, yet lingering about the place, of a worthy aunt deceased, and always encouraged in herself a vague idea of obligation to live up to it. Hence she had made it a rule to supply drink only so long as her customers kept decent--that is, so long as they did not quarrel aloud, and put her in danger of a visit from the police; tell such tales as offended her modesty; utter oaths of any peculiarly atrocious quality; or defame the Sabbath Day, the Kirk, or the Bible. On these terms, and so long as they paid for what they had, they might get as drunk as they pleased, without the smallest offence to Mistress Croale. But if the least unquestionable infringement of her rules occurred, she would pounce upon the shameless one with sudden and sharp reproof. I doubt not that, so doing, she cherished a hope of recommending herself above, and making deposits in view of a coming balance-sheet. The result for this life so far was, that, by these claims to respectability, she had gathered a clientèle of douce, well-disposed drunkards, who rarely gave her any trouble so long as they were in the house though sometimes she had reason to be anxious about the fate of individuals of them after they left it.
Another peculiarity in her government was that she would rarely give drink to a woman. "Na, na," she would say, "what has a wuman to dee wi' strong drink! Lat the men dee as they like, we canna help them." She made exception in behalf of her personal friends; and, for herself, was in the way of sipping--only sipping, privately, on account of her "trouble," she said--by which she meant some complaint, speaking of it as if it were generally known, although of the nature of it nobody had an idea. The truth was that, like her customers, she also was going down the hill, justifying to herself every step of her descent. Until lately, she had been in the way of going regularly to church, and she did go occasionally yet, and always took the yearly sacrament; but the only result seemed to be that she abounded the more in finding justifications, or, where they were not to be had, excuses, for all she did. Probably the stirring of her conscience made this the more necessary to her peace.
If the Lord were to appear in person amongst us, how much would the sight of him do for the sinners of our day? I am not sure that many like Mistress Croale would not go to him. She was not a bad woman, but slowly and surely growing worse.
That morning, as soon as the customer whose entrance had withdrawn her from her descent on Gibbie, had gulped down his dram, wiped his mouth with his blue cotton handkerchief, settled his face into the expression of a drink of water, gone demurely out, and crossed to the other side of the street, she would have returned to the charge, but was prevented by the immediately following entrance of the Rev. Clement Sclater--the minister of her parish, recently appointed. He was a man between young and middle-aged, an honest fellow, zealous to perform the duties of his office, but with notions of religion very beggarly. How could it be otherwise when he knew far more of what he called the Divine decrees than he did of his own heart, or the needs and miseries of human nature? At the moment, Mistress Croale was standing with her back to the door, reaching up to replace the black bottle on its shelf, and did not see the man she heard enter.
"What's yer wull?" she said indifferently.
Mr. Sclater made no answer, waiting for her to turn and face him, which she did the sooner for his silence. Then she saw a man unknown to her, evidently, from his white neckcloth and funereal garments, a minister, standing solemn, with wide-spread legs, and round eyes of displeasure, expecting her attention.
"What's yer wull, sir?" she repeated, with more respect, but less cordiality than at first.
"If you ask my will," he replied, with some pomposity, for who that has just gained an object of ambition can be humble?--"it is that you shut up this whisky shop, and betake yourself to a more decent way of life in my parish."
"My certie! but ye're no blate (over-modest) to craw sae lood i' my hoose, an' that's a nearer fit nor a perris!" she cried, flaring up in wrath both at the nature and rudeness of the address. "Alloo me to tell ye, sir, ye're the first 'at ever daured threep my hoose was no a dacent ane."
"I said nothing about your house. It was your shop I spoke of," said the minister, not guiltless of subterfuge.
"An' what's my chop but my hoose? Haith! my hoose wad be o' fell sma' consideration wantin' the chop. Tak ye heed o' beirin' fause witness, sir."
"I said nothing, and know nothing, against yours more than any other shop for the sale of drink in my parish."
"The Lord's my shepherd! Wad ye even (compare) my hoose to Jock Thamson's or Jeemie Deuk's, baith i' this perris?"
"My good woman,--"
"Naither better nor waur nor my neepers," interrupted Mistress Croale, forgetting what she had just implied: "a body maun live."
"There are limits even to that most generally accepted of all principles," returned Mr. Sclater; "and I give you fair warning that I mean to do what I can to shut up all such houses as yours in my parish. I tell you of it, not from the least hope that you will anticipate me by closing, but merely that no one may say I did anything in an underhand fashion,"
The calmness with which he uttered the threat alarmed Mistress Croale. He might rouse unmerited suspicion, and cause her much trouble by vexatious complaint, even to the peril of her license. She must take heed, and not irritate her enemy. Instantly, therefore, she changed her tone to one of expostulation.
"It's a sair peety, doobtless," she said, "'at there sud be sae mony drouthie thrapples i' the kingdom, sir; but drouth maun drink, an' ye ken, sir, gien it war hauden frae them, they wad but see deils an' cut their throts."
"They're like to see deils ony gait er' lang," retorted the minister, relapsing into the vernacular for a moment.
"Ow, deed maybe, sir! but e'en the deils themsels war justifeed i' their objection to bein' committed to their ain company afore their time."
Mr. Sclater could not help smiling at the woman's readiness, and that was a point gained by her. An acquaintance with Scripture goes far with a Scotch ecclesiastic. Besides, the man had a redeeming sense of humour, though he did not know how to prize it, not believing it a gift of God.
"It's true, my woman," he answered. "Ay! it said something for them, deils 'at they war, 'at they preferred the swine. But even the swine cudna bide them!"
Encouraged by the condescension of the remark, but disinclined to follow the path of reflection it indicated, Mistress Croale ventured a little farther upon her own.
"Ye see, sir," she said, "as lang's there's whusky, it wull tak the throt-ro'd. It's the naitral w'y o' 't, ye see, to rin doon, an' it's no mainner o' use gangin' again natur. Sae, allooin' the thing maun be, ye'll hae till alloo likewise, an' it's a trouth I'm tellin' ye, sir, 'at it's o' nae sma' consequence to the toon 'at the drucken craturs sud fill themsels wi' dacency--an' that's what I see till. Gang na to the magistrate, sir; but as sune's ye hae gotten testimony--guid testimony though, sir--'at there's been disorder or immorawlity i' my hoose, come ye to me, an' I'll gie ye my han' to paper on't this meenute, 'at I'll gie up my chop, an' lea' yer perris--an' may ye sune get a better i' my place. Sir, I'm like a mither to the puir bodies! An' gin ye drive them to Jock Thamson's, or Jeemie Deuk's, it'll be just like--savin' the word, I dinna inten' 't for sweirin', guid kens!--I say it'll just be dammin' them afore their time, like the puir deils. Hech! but it'll come sune eneuch, an' they're muckle to be peetied!"
"And when those victims of your vile ministrations," said the clergyman, again mounting his wooden horse, and setting it rocking, "find themselves where there will be no whisky to refresh them, where do you think you will be, Mistress Croale?"
"Whaur the Lord wulls," answered the woman. "Whaur that may be, I confess I'm whiles laith to think. Only gien I was you, Maister Sclater, I wad think twise afore I made ill waur."
"But hear me, Mistress Croale: it's not your besotted customers only I have to care for. Your soul is as precious in my sight as any of which I shall have to render an account."
"As Mistress Bonniman's, for enstance?" suggested Mrs. Croale, interrogatively, and with just the least trace of pawkiness in the tone.
The city, large as it was, was yet not large enough to prevent a portion of the private affairs of individuals from coming to be treated as public property, and Mrs. Bonniman was a handsome and rich young widow, the rumour of whose acceptableness to Mr. Sclater had reached Mistress Croale's ear before ever she had seen the minister himself. An unmistakable shadow of confusion crossed his countenance; whereupon with consideration both for herself and him, the woman made haste to go on, as if she had but chosen her instance at merest random.
"Na, na, sir! what my sowl may be in the eyes o' my Maker, I hae ill tellin'," she said, "but dinna ye threip upo' me 'at it's o' the same vailue i' your eyes as the sowl o' sic a fine bonny, winsome leddy as yon. In trouth," she added, and shook her head mournfully, "I haena had sae mony preevileeges; an' maybe it'll be seen till, an' me passed ower a wheen easier nor some fowk."
"I wouldn't have you build too much upon that, Mistress Croale," said Mr. Sclater, glad to follow the talk down another turning, but considerably more afraid of rousing the woman than he had been before.
The remark drove her behind the categorical stockade of her religious merits.
"I pey my w'y," she said, with modest firmness. "I put my penny, and whiles my saxpence, intil the plate at the door when I gang to the kirk--an' I was jist thinkin' I wad win there the morn's nicht at farest, whan I turnt an' saw ye stan'in there, sir; an' little I thoucht--but that's neither here nor there, I'm thinkin'. I tell as feow lees as I can; I never sweir, nor tak the name o' the Lord in vain, anger me 'at likes; I sell naething but the best whusky; I never hae but broth to my denner upo' the Lord's day, an' broth canna brak the Sawbath, simmerin' awa' upo' the bar o' the grate, an' haudin' no lass frae the kirk; I confess, gien ye wull be speirin', 'at I dinna read my buik sae aften as maybe I sud; but, 'deed, sir, tho' I says't 'at sud haud my tongue, ye hae waur folk i' yer perris nor Benjie Croale's widow; an' gien ye wunna hae a drap to weet yer ain whustle for the holy wark ye hae afore ye the morn's mornin', I maun gang an' mak my bed, for the lass is laid up wi' a bealt thoom, an' I maunna lat a' thing gang to dirt an' green bree; though I'm sure it's rale kin' o' ye to come to luik efter me, an' that's mair nor Maister Rennie, honest gentleman, ever did me the fawvour o', a' the time he ministered the perris. I haena an ill name wi' them 'at kens me, sir; that I can say wi' a clean conscience; an' ye may ken me weel gien ye wull. An' there's jist ae thing mair, sir: I gie ye my Bible-word, 'at never, gien I saw sign o' repentance or turnin' upo' ane o' them 'at pits their legs 'aneth my table--Wad ye luik intil the parlour, sir? No!--as I was sayin', never did I, sin' I keepit hoose, an' never wad I set mysel' to quench the smokin' flax; I wad hae no man's deith, sowl or body, lie at my door."
"Well, well, Mistress Croale," said the minister, somewhat dazed by the cataract he had brought upon his brain, and rather perplexed what to say in reply with any hope of reaching her, "I don't doubt a word of what you tell me; but you know works cannot save us; our best righteousness is but as filthy rags."
"It's weel I ken that, Mr. Sclater. An' I'm sure I'll be glaid to see ye, sir, ony time ye wad dee me the fawvour to luik in as ye're passin' by. It'll be none to yer shame, sir, for mine's an honest hoose."
"I'll do that, Mistress Croale," answered the minister, glad to escape. "But mind," he added, "I don't give up my point for all that; and I hope you will think over what I have been saying to you--and that seriously."
With these words he left the shop rather hurriedly, in evident dread of a reply.
Mistress Croale turned to the shelves behind her, took again the bottle she had replaced, poured out a large half-glass of whisky, and tossed it off. She had been compelled to think and talk of things unpleasant, and it had put her, as she said, a' in a trim'le. She was but one of the many who get the fuel of their life in at the wrong door, their comfort from the world-side of the universe. I cannot tell whether Mr. Sclater or she was the farther from the central heat. The woman had the advantage in this, that she had to expend all her force on mere self-justification, and had no energy left for vain-glory. It was with a sad sigh she set about the work of the house. Nor would it have comforted her much to assure her that hers was a better defence than any distiller in the country could make. Even the whisky itself gave her little relief; it seemed to scald both stomach and conscience, and she vowed never to take it again. But alas! this time is never the time for self-denial; it is always the next time. Abstinence is so much more pleasant to contemplate upon the other side of indulgence! Yet the struggles after betterment that many a drunkard has made in vain, would, had his aim been high enough, have saved his soul from death, and turned the charnel of his life into a temple. Abject as he is, foiled and despised, such a one may not yet be half so contemptible as many a so-counted respectable member of society, who looks down on him from a height too lofty even for scorn. It is not the first and the last only, of whom many will have to change places; but those as well that come everywhere between.