Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XXXVII. Mr. Sclater.
It may be remembered that, upon Gibbie's disappearance from the city, great interest was felt in his fate, and such questions started about the boy himself as moved the Rev. Clement Sclater to gather all the information at which he could arrive concerning his family and history. That done, he proceeded to attempt interesting in his unknown fortunes those relatives of his mother whose existence and residences he had discovered. In this, however, he had met with no success. At the house where she was born, there was now no one but a second cousin, to whom her brother, dying unmarried, had left the small estate of the Withrops, along with the family contempt for her husband, and for her because of him, inasmuch as, by marrying him, she had brought disgrace upon herself, and upon all her people. So said the cousin to Mr. Sclater, but seemed himself nowise humbled by the disgrace he recognized, indeed almost claimed. As to the orphan, he said, to speak honestly (as he did at least that once), the more entirely he disappeared, the better he would consider it--not that personally he was the least concerned in the matter; only if, according to the Scripture, there were two more generations yet upon which had to be visited the sins of Sir George and Lady Galbraith, the greater the obscurity in which they remained, the less would be the scandal. The brother who had taken to business, was the senior partner in a large ship-building firm at Greenock. This man, William Fuller Withrop by name--Wilful Withrop the neighbours had nicknamed him--was a bachelor, and reputed rich. Mr. Sclater did not hear of him what roused very brilliant hopes. He was one who would demand more reason than reasonable for the most reasonable of actions that involved parting with money; yet he had been known to do a liberal thing for a public object. Waste was so wicked that any other moral risk was preferable. Of the three, he would waste mind and body rather than estate. Man was made neither to rejoice nor to mourn, but to possess. To leave no stone unturned, however, Mr. Sclater wrote to Mr. Withrop. The answer he received was, that, as the sister, concerning whose child he had applied to him, had never been anything but a trouble to the family; as he had no associations with her memory save those of misery and disgrace; as, before he left home, her name had long ceased to be mentioned among them; and as her own father had deliberately and absolutely disowned her because of her obstinate disobedience and wilfulness, it could hardly be expected of him, and indeed would ill become him, to show any lively interest in her offspring. Still, although he could not honestly pretend to the smallest concern about him, he had, from pure curiosity, made inquiry of correspondents with regard to the boy; from which the resulting, knowledge was, that he was little better than an idiot, whose character, education, and manners, had been picked up in the streets. Nothing, he was satisfied, could be done for such a child, which would not make him more miserable, as well as more wicked, than he was already. Therefore, &c., &c., &c.
Thus failing, Mr. Sclater said to himself he had done all that could be required of him--and he had indeed taken trouble. Nor could anything be asserted, he said further to himself, as his duty in respect of this child, that was not equally his duty in respect of every little wanderer in the streets of his parish. That a child's ancestors had been favoured above others, and had so misused their advantages that their last representative was left in abject poverty, could hardly be a reason why that child, born, in more than probability, with the same evil propensities which had ruined them, should be made an elect object of favour. Who was he, Clement Sclater, to intrude upon the divine prerogative, and presume to act on the doctrine of election! Was a child with a Sir to his name, anything more in the eyes of God than a child without a name at all? Would any title--even that of Earl or Duke, be recognized in the kingdom of heaven? His relatives ought to do something: they failing, of whom could further requisition be made? There were vessels to honour and vessels to dishonour: to which class this one belonged, let God in his time reveal. A duty could not be passed on. It could not become the duty of the minister of a parish, just because those who ought and could, would not, to spend time and money, to the neglect of his calling, in hunting, up a boy whom he would not know what to do with if he had him, a boy whose home had been with the dregs of society.
In justice to Mr. Sclater, it must be mentioned that he did not know Gibbie, even by sight. There remains room, however, for the question, whether, if Mr. Sclater had not been the man to change his course as he did afterwards, he would not have acted differently from the first.
One morning, as he sat at breakfast with his wife, late Mrs. Bonniman, and cast, as is, I fear, the rude habit of not a few husbands, not a few stolen glances, as he ate, over the morning paper, his eye fell upon a paragraph announcing the sudden death of the well-known William Fuller Withrop, of the eminent ship-building firm of Withrop and Playtell, of Greenock. Until he came to the end of the paragraph, his cup of coffee hung suspended in mid air. Then down it went untasted, he jumped from his seat, and hurried from the room. For the said paragraph ended with the remark, that the not unfrequent incapacity of the ablest of business men for looking the inevitable in the face with coolness sufficient to the making of a will, was not only a curious fact, but in the individual case a pity, where two hundred thousand pounds was concerned. Had the writer been a little more philosophical still, he might have seen that the faculty for making money by no means involves judgment in the destination of it, and that the money may do its part for good and evil without, just as well as with, a will at the back of it.
But though this was the occasion, it remains to ask what was the cause of the minister's precipitancy. Why should Clement Sclater thereupon spring from his chair in such a state of excitement that he set his cup of coffee down upon its side instead of its bottom, to the detriment of the tablecloth, and of something besides, more unquestionably the personal property of his wife? Why was it that, heedless of her questions, backed although they were both by just anger and lawful curiosity, he ran straight from the room and the house, nor stayed until, at one and the same moment, his foot was on the top step of his lawyer's door, and his hand upon its bell? No doubt it was somebody's business, and perhaps it might be Mr. Sclater's, to find the heirs of men who died intestate; but what made it so indubitably, so emphatically, so individually, so pressingly Mr. Sclater's, that he forgot breakfast, tablecloth, wife, and sermon, all together, that he might see to this boy's rights? Surely if they were rights, they could be in no such imminent danger as this haste seemed to signify. Was it only that he might be the first in the race to right him?--and if so, then again, why? Was it a certainty indisputable, that any boy, whether such an idle tramp as the minister supposed this one to be or not, would be redeemed by the heirship to the hugest of fortunes? Had it, some time before this, become at length easier for a rich boy to enter into the kingdom of heaven? Or was it that, with all his honesty, all his religion, all his churchism, all his protestantism, and his habitual appeal to the word of God, the minister was yet a most reverential worshipper of Mammon,--not the old god mentioned in the New Testament, of course, but a thoroughly respectable modern Mammon, decently dressed, perusing a subscription list! No doubt justice ought to be done, and the young man over at Roughrigs was sure to be putting in a false claim, but where were the lawyers, whose business it was? There was no need of a clergyman to remind them of their duty where the picking of such a carcase was concerned. Had Mr. Sclater ever conceived the smallest admiration or love for the boy, I would not have made these reflections; but, in his ignorance of him and indifference concerning him, he believed there would at least be trouble in proving him of approximately sound mind and decent intellect. What, then, I repeat and leave it, did all this excitement on the part of one of the iron pillars of the church indicate?
From his lawyer he would have gone at once to Mistress Croale--indeed I think he would have gone to her first, to warn her against imparting what information concerning Gibbie she might possess to any other than himself, but he had not an idea where she might even be heard of. He had cleansed his own parish, as he thought, by pulling up the tare, contrary to commandment, and throwing it into his neighbours, where it had taken root, and grown a worse tare than before; until at length, she who had been so careful over the manners and morals of her drunkards, was a drunkard herself and a wanderer, with the reputation of being a far worse woman than she really was. For some years now she had made her living, one poor enough, by hawking small household necessities; and not unfrequently where she appeared, the housewives bought of her because her eyes, and her nose, and an undefined sense of evil in her presence, made them shrink from the danger of offending her. But the real cause of the bad impression she made was, that she was sorely troubled with what is, by huge discourtesy, called a bad conscience--being in reality a conscience doing its duty so well that it makes the whole house uncomfortable.
On her next return to the Daurfoot, as the part of the city was called where now she was most at home, she heard the astounding and welcome news that Gibbie had fallen heir to a large property, and that the reward of one hundred pounds--a modest sum indeed, but where was the good of wasting money, thought Mr. Sclater--had been proclaimed by tuck of drum, to any one giving such information as should lead to the discovery of Sir Gilbert Galbraith, commonly known as wee Sir Gibbie. A description of him was added, and the stray was so kenspeckle, that Mistress Croale saw the necessity of haste to any hope of advantage. She had nothing to guide her beyond the fact of Sir George's habit, in his cups, of referring to the property on Daurside, and the assurance that with the said habit Gibbie must have been as familiar as herself. With this initiative, as she must begin somewhere, and could prosecute her business anywhere, she filled her basket and set out at once for Daurside. There, after a good deal of wandering hither and thither, and a search whose fruitlessness she probably owed to too great caution, she made the desired discovery unexpectedly and marvellously, and left behind her in the valley the reputation of having been on more familiar terms with the flood and the causes of it, than was possible to any but one who kept company worse than human.