Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XL Mrs. Sclater.
Gibbie was in a dream of mingled past and future delights, when his conductor stopped at a large and important-looking house, with a flight of granite steps up to the door. Gibbie had never been inside such a house in his life, but when they entered, he was not much impressed. He did look with a little surprise, it is true, but it was down, not up: he felt his feet walking soft, and wondered for a moment that there should be a field of grass in a house. Then he gave a glance round, thought it was a big place, and followed Mr. Sclater up the stair with the free mounting step of the Glashgar shepherd. Forgetful and unconscious, he walked into the drawing-room with his bonnet on his head. Mrs. Sclater rose when they entered, and he approached her with a smile of welcome to the house which he carried, always full of guests, in his bosom. He never thought of looking to her to welcome him. She shook hands with him in a doubtful kind of way.
"How do you do, Sir Gilbert?" she said. "Only ladies are allowed to wear their caps in the drawing-room, you know," she added, in a tone of courteous and half-rallying rebuke, speaking from a flowery height of conscious superiority.
What she meant by the drawing-room, Gibbie had not an idea. He looked at her head, and saw no cap; she had nothing upon it but a quantity of beautiful black hair; then suddenly remembered his bonnet; he knew well enough bonnets had to be taken off in house or cottage: he had never done so because he never had worn a bonnet. But it was with a smile of amusement only that he now took it off. He was so free from selfishness that he knew nothing of shame. Never a shadow of blush at his bad manners tinged his cheek. He put the cap in his pocket, and catching sight of a footstool by the corner of the chimney-piece, was so strongly reminded of his creepie by the cottage-hearth, which, big lad as he now was, he had still haunted, that he went at once and seated himself upon it. From this coign of vantage he looked round the room with a gentle curiosity, casting a glance of pleasure every now and then at Mrs. Sclater, to whom her husband, in a manner somewhat constrained because of his presence, was recounting some of the incidents of his journey, making choice, after the manner of many, of the most commonplace and uninteresting.
Gibbie had not been educated in the relative grandeur of things of this world, and he regarded the things he now saw just as things, without the smallest notion of any power in them to confer superiority by being possessed: can a slave knight his master? The reverend but poor Mr. Sclater was not above the foolish consciousness of importance accruing from the refined adjuncts of a more needy corporeal existence; his wife would have felt out of her proper sphere had she ceased to see them around her, and would have lost some of her aplomb; but the divine idiot Gibbie was incapable even of the notion that they mattered a straw to the life of any man. Indeed, to compare man with man was no habit of his; hence it cannot be wonderful that stone hearth and steel grate, clay floor and Brussels carpet were much the same to him. Man was the one sacred thing. Gibbie's unconscious creed was a powerful leveller, but it was a leveller up, not down. The heart that revered the beggar could afford to be incapable of homage to position. His was not one of those contemptible natures which have no reverence because they have no aspiration, which think themselves fine because they acknowledge nothing superior to their own essential baseness. To Gibbie every man was better than himself. It was for him a sudden and strange descent--from the region of poetry and closest intercourse with the strong and gracious and vital simplicities of Nature, human and other, to the rich commonplaces, amongst them not a few fashionable vulgarities, of an ordinary well-appointed house, and ordinary well-appointed people; but, however bedizened, humanity was there; and he who does not love human more than any other nature has not life in himself, does not carry his poetry in him, as Gibbie did, therefore cannot find it except where it has been shown to him. Neither was a common house like this by any means devoid of any things to please him. If there was not the lovely homeliness of the cottage which at once gave all it had, there was a certain stateliness which afforded its own reception; if there was little harmony, there were individual colours that afforded him delight--as for instance, afterwards, the crimson covering the walls of the dining-room, whose colour was of that soft deep-penetrable character which a flock paper alone can carry. Then there were pictures, bad enough most of them, no doubt, in the eyes of the critic, but endlessly suggestive, therefore endlessly delightful to Gibbie. It is not the man who knows most about Nature that is hardest to please, however he may be hardest to satisfy, with the attempt to follow her. The accomplished poet will derive pleasure from verses which are a mockery to the soul of the unhappy mortal whose business is judgment--the most thankless of all labours, and justly so. Certain fruits one is unable to like until he has eaten them in their perfection; after that, the reminder in them of the perfect will enable him to enjoy even the inferior a little, recognizing their kind--always provided he be not one given to judgment--a connoisseur, that is, one who cares less for the truth than for the knowing comparison of one embodiment of it with another. Gibbie's regard then, as it wandered round the room, lighting on this colour, and that texture, in curtain, or carpet, or worked screen, found interest and pleasure. Amidst the mere upholstery of houses and hearts, amidst the common life of the common crowd, he was, and had to be, what he had learned to be amongst the nobility and in the palace of Glashgar.
Mrs. Sclater, late Mrs. Bonniman, was the widow of a merchant who had made his money in foreign trade, and to her house Mr. Sclater had flitted when he married her. She was a well-bred woman, much the superior of her second husband in the small duties and graces of social life, and, already a sufferer in some of his not very serious grossièretés, regarded with no small apprehension the arrival of one in whom she expected the same kind of thing in largely exaggerated degree. She did not much care to play the mother to a bear cub, she said to her friends, with a good-humoured laugh. "Just think," she added, "with such a childhood as the poor boy had, what a mass of vulgarity must be lying in that uncultivated brain of his! It is no small mercy, as Mr. Sclater says, that our ears at least are safe. Poor boy!"--She was a woman of about forty, rather tall, of good complexion tending to the ruddy, with black smooth shining hair parted over a white forehead, black eyes, nose a little aquiline, good mouth, and fine white teeth--altogether a handsome woman--some notion of whose style may be gathered from the fact that, upon the testimony of her cheval glass, she preferred satin to the richest of silks, and almost always wore it. Now and then she would attempt a change, but was always defeated and driven back into satin. She was precise in her personal rules, but not stiff in the manners wherein she embodied them: these were indeed just a little florid and wavy, a trifle profuse in their grace. She kept an excellent table, and every appointment about the house was in good style--a favourite phrase with her. She was her own housekeeper, an exact mistress, but considerate, so that her servants had no bad time of it. She was sensible, kind, always responsive to appeal, had scarcely a thread of poetry or art in her upper texture, loved fair play, was seldom in the wrong, and never confessed it when she was. But when she saw it, she took some pains to avoid being so in a similar way again. She held hard by her own opinion; was capable of a mild admiration of truth and righteousness in another; had one or two pet commandments to which she paid more attention than to the rest; was a safe member of society, never carrying tales; was kind with condescension to the poor, and altogether a good wife for a minister of Mr. Sclater's sort. She knew how to hold her own with any who would have established superiority. A little more coldness, pride, indifference, and careless restraint, with just a touch of rudeness, would have given her the freedom of the best society, if she could have got into it. Altogether it would not have been easy to find one who could do more for Gibbie in respect for the social rapports that seemed to await him. Even some who would gladly themselves have undertaken the task, admitted that he might have fallen into much less qualified hands. Her husband was confident that, if anybody could, his wife would make a gentleman of Sir Gilbert; and he ought to know, for she had done a good deal of polishing upon him.
She was now seated on a low chair at the other side of the fire, leaning back at a large angle, slowly contemplating out of her black eyes the lad on the footstool, whose blue eyes she saw wandering about the room, in a manner neither vague nor unintelligent, but showing more of interest than of either surprise or admiration. Suddenly he turned them full upon her; they met hers, and the light rushed into them like a torrent, breaking forth after its way in a soulful smile. I hope my readers are not tired of the mention of Gibbie's smiles: I can hardly avoid it; they were all Gibbie had for the small coin of intercourse; and if my readers care to be just, they will please to remember that they have been spared many a he said and she said. Unhappily for me there is no way of giving the delicate differences of those smiles. Much of what Gibbie perhaps felt the more that he could not say it, had got into the place where the smiles are made, and, like a variety of pollens, had impregnated them with all shades and colours of expression, whose varied significance those who had known him longest, dividing and distinguishing, had gone far towards being able to interpret. In that which now shone on Mrs. Sclater, there was something, she said the next day to a friend, which no woman could resist, and which must come of his gentle blood. If she could have seen a few of his later ancestors at least, she would have doubted if they had anything to do with that smile beyond its mere transmission from "the first stock-father of gentleness." She responded, and from that moment the lady and the shepherd lad were friends
Now that a real introduction had taken place between them, and in her answering smile Gibbie had met the lady herself, he proceeded, in most natural sequence, without the smallest shyness or suspicion of rudeness, to make himself acquainted with the phenomena presenting her. As he would have gazed upon a rainbow, trying perhaps to distinguish the undistinguishable in the meeting and parting of its colours, only that here behind was the all-powerful love of his own, he began to examine the lady's face and form, dwelling and contemplating with eyes innocent as any baby's. This lasted; but did not last long before it began to produce in the lady a certain uncertain embarrassment, a something she did not quite understand, therefore could not account for, and did not like. Why should she mind eyes such as those making acquaintance with what a whole congregation might see any Sunday at church, or for that matter, the whole city on Monday, if it pleased to look upon her as she walked shopping in Pearl-street? Why indeed? Yet she began to grow restless, and feel as if she wanted to let down her veil. She could have risen and left the room, but she had "no notion" of being thus put to flight by her bear-cub; she was ashamed that a woman of her age and experience should be so foolish; and besides, she wanted to come to an understanding with herself as to what herself meant by it. She did not feel that the boy was rude; she was not angry with him as with one taking a liberty; yet she did wish he would not look at her like that; and presently she was relieved.
Her hands, which had been lying all the time in her lap, white upon black, had at length drawn and fixed Gibbie's attention. They were very lady-like hands, long-fingered, and with the orthodox long-oval nails, each with a quarter segment of a pale rising moon at the root--hands nearly faultless, and, I suspect, considered by their owner entirely such--but a really faultless hand, who has ever seen?--To Gibbie's eyes they were such beautiful things, that, after a moment or two spent in regarding them across the length of the hairy hearthrug, he got up, took his footstool, crossed with it to the other side of the fire, set it down by Mrs. Sclater, and reseated himself. Without moving more than her fine neck, she looked down on him curiously, wondering what would come next; and what did come next was, that he laid one of his hands on one of those that lay in the satin lap; then, struck with the contrast between them, burst out laughing. But he neither withdrew his hand, nor showed the least shame of the hard, brown, tarry-seamed, strong, though rather small prehensile member, with its worn and blackened nails, but let it calmly remain outspread, side by side with the white, shapely, spotless, gracious and graceful thing, adorned, in sign of the honour it possessed in being the hand of Mrs. Sclater,--it was her favourite hand,--with a half hoop of fine blue-green turkises, and a limpid activity of many diamonds. She laughed also--who could have helped it? that laugh would have set silver bells ringing in responsive sympathy!--and patted the lumpy thing which, odd as the fact might be, was also called a hand, with short little pecking pats; she did not altogether like touching so painful a degeneracy from the ideal. But his very evident admiration of hers, went far to reconcile her to his,--as was but right, seeing a man's admirations go farther to denote him truly, than the sort of hands or feet either he may happen to have received from this or that vanished ancestor. Still she found his presence--more than his proximity--discomposing, and was glad when Mr. Sclater, who, I forgot to mention, had left the room, returned and took Gibbie away to show him his, and instruct him what changes he must make upon his person in preparation for dinner.
When Mrs. Sclater went to bed that night she lay awake a good while thinking, and her main thought was--what could be the nature of the peculiar feeling which the stare of the boy had roused in her? Nor was it long before she began to suspect that, unlike her hand beside his, she showed to some kind of disadvantage beside the shepherd lad. Was it dissatisfaction then with herself that his look had waked? She was aware of nothing in which she had failed or been in the wrong of late. She never did anything to be called wrong--by herself, that is, or indeed by her neighbours. She had never done anything very wrong, she thought; and anything wrong she had done, was now a far away and so nearly forgotten, that it seemed to have left her almost quite innocent; yet the look of those blue eyes, searching, searching, without seeming to know it, made her feel something like the discomfort of a dream of expected visitors, with her house not quite in a condition to receive them. She must see to her hidden house. She must take dust-pan and broom and go about a little. For there are purifications in which king and cowboy must each serve himself. The things that come out of a man are they that defile him, and to get rid of them, a man must go into himself, be a convict, and scrub the floor of his cell. Mrs. Sclater's cell was very tidy and respectable for a cell, but no human consciousness can be clean, until it lies wide open to the eternal sun, and the all-potent wind; until, from a dim-lighted cellar it becomes a mountain-top.