Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XLII. Donal's Lodging.
Donal had not accompanied Mr. Sclater and his ward, as he generally styled him, to the city, but continued at the Mains until another herd-boy should be found to take his place. All were sorry to part with him, but no one desired to stand in the way of his good fortune by claiming his service to the end of his half-year. It was about a fortnight after Gibbie's departure when he found himself free. His last night he spent with his parents on Glashgar, and the next morning set out in the moonlight to join the coach, with some cakes and a bit of fresh butter tied up in a cotton handkerchief. He wept at leaving them, nor was too much excited with the prospect before him to lay up his mother's parting words in his heart. For it is not every son that will not learn of his mother. He who will not goes to the school of Gideon. Those last words of Janet to her Donal were, "Noo, min' yer no a win'le strae (a straw dried on its root), but a growin' stalk 'at maun luik till 'ts corn."
When he reached the spot appointed, there already was the cart from the Mains, with his kist containing all his earthly possessions. They did not half fill it, and would have tumbled about in the great chest, had not the bounty of Mistress Jean complemented its space with provision--a cheese, a bag of oatmeal, some oatcakes, and a pound or two of the best butter in the world; for now that he was leaving them, a herd-boy no more, but a colliginer, and going to be a gentleman, it was right to be liberal. The box, whose ponderosity was unintelligible to its owner, having been hoisted, amid the smiles of the passengers, to the mid region of the roof of the coach, Donal clambered after it, and took, for the first time in his life, his place behind four horses--to go softly rushing through the air towards endless liberty. It was to the young poet an hour of glorious birth--in which there seemed nothing too strange, nothing but what should have come. I fancy, when they die, many will find themselves more at home than ever they were in this world. But Donal is not the subject of my story, and I must not spend upon him. I will only say that his feelings on this grand occasion were the less satisfactory to himself, that, not being poet merely, but philosopher as well, he sought to understand them: the mere poet, the man-bird, would have been content with them in themselves. But if he who is both does not rise above both by learning obedience, he will have a fine time of it between them.
The streets of the city at length received them with noise and echo. At the coach-office Mr. Sclater stood waiting, welcomed him with dignity rather than kindness, hired a porter with his truck whom he told where to take the chest, said Sir Gilbert would doubtless call on him the next day, and left him with the porter.
It was a cold afternoon, the air half mist, half twilight. Donal followed the rattling, bumping truck over the stones, walking close behind it, almost in the gutter. They made one turning, went a long way through the narrow, sometimes crowded, Widdiehill, and stopped. The man opened a door, returned to the truck, and began to pull the box from it. Donal gave him effective assistance, and they entered with it between them. There was just light enough from a tallow candle with a wick like a red-hot mushroom, to see that they were in what appeared to Donal a house in most appalling disorder, but was in fact a furniture shop. The porter led the way up a dark stair, and Donal followed with his end of the trunk. At the top was a large room, into which the last of the day glimmered through windows covered with the smoke and dust of years, showing this also full of furniture, chiefly old. A lane through the furniture led along the room to a door at the other end. To Donal's eyes it looked a dreary place; but when the porter opened the other door, he saw a neat little room with a curtained bed, a carpeted floor, a fire burning in the grate, a kettle on the hob, and the table laid for tea: this was like a bit of a palace, for he had never in his life even looked into such a chamber. The porter set down his end of the chest, said "Guid nicht to ye," and walked out, leaving the door open.
Knowing nothing about towns and the ways of them, Donal was yet a little surprised that there was nobody to receive him. He approached the fire, and sat down to warm himself, taking care not to set his hobnailed shoes on the grandeur of the little hearthrug. A few moments and he was startled by a slight noise, as of suppressed laughter. He jumped up. One of the curtains of his bed was strangely agitated. Out leaped Gibbie from behind it, and threw his arms about him.
"Eh, cratur! ye gae me sic a fleg!" said Donal. "But, losh! they hae made a gentleman o' ye a'ready!" he added, holding him at arms length, and regarding him with wonder and admiration.
A notable change had indeed passed upon Gibbie, mere externals considered, in that fortnight. He was certainly not so picturesque as before, yet the alteration was entirely delightful to Donal. Perhaps he felt it gave a good hope for the future of his own person. Mrs. Sclater had had his hair cut; his shirt was of the whitest of linen, his necktie of the richest of black silk, his clothes were of the newest cut and best possible fit, and his boots perfect: the result was altogether even to her satisfaction. In one thing only was she foiled: she could not get him to wear gloves. He had put on a pair, but found them so miserably uncomfortable that, in merry wrath, he pulled them off on the way home, and threw them--"The best kid!" exclaimed Mrs. Sclater--over the Pearl Bridge. Prudently fearful of over-straining her influence, she yielded for the present, and let him go without.
Mr. Sclater also had hitherto exercised prudence in his demands upon Gibbie--not that he desired anything less than unlimited authority with him, but, knowing it would be hard to enforce, he sought to establish it by a gradual tightening of the rein, a slow encroachment of law upon the realms of disordered license. He had never yet refused to do anything he required of him, had executed entirely the tasks he set him, was more than respectful, and always ready; yet somehow Mr. Sclater could never feel that the lad was exactly obeying him. He thought it over, but could not understand it, and did not like it, for he was fond of authority. Gibbie in fact did whatever was required of him from his own delight in meeting the wish expressed, not from any sense of duty or of obligation to obedience. The minister had no perception of what the boy was, and but a very small capacity for appreciating what was best in him, and had a foreboding suspicion that the time would come when they would differ.
He had not told him that he was going to meet the coach, but Gibbie was glad to learn from Mrs. Sclater that such was his intention, for he preferred meeting Donal at his lodging. He had recognized the place at once from the minister's mention of it to his wife, having known the shop and its owner since ever he could remember himself. He loitered near until he saw Donal arrive, then crept after him and the porter up the stair, and when Donal sat down by the fire, got into the room and behind the curtain.
The boys had then a jolly time of it. They made their tea, for which everything was present, and ate as boys know how, Donal enjoying the rarity of the white bread of the city, Gibbie, who had not tasted oatmeal since he came, devouring "mother's cakes." When they had done, Gibbie, who had, learned much since he came, looked about the room till he found a bell-rope, and pulled it, whereupon the oddest-looking old woman, not a hair altered from what Gibbie remembered her, entered, and, with friendly chatter, proceeded to remove the tray. Suddenly something arrested her, and she began to regard Gibbie with curious looks; in a moment she was sure of him, and a torrent of exclamations and reminiscences and appeals followed, which lasted, the two lads now laughing, now all but crying for nearly an hour, while, all the time, the old woman kept doing and undoing about the hearth and the tea table. Donal asked many questions about his friend, and she answered freely, except as often as one approached his family, when she would fall silent, and bustle about as if she had not heard. Then Gibbie would look thoughtful and strange and a little sad, and a far-away gaze would come into his eyes, as if he were searching for his father in the other world.
When the good woman at length left them, they uncorded Donal's kist, discovered the cause of its portentous weight, took out everything, put the provisions in a cupboard, arranged the few books, and then sat down by the fire for "a read" together.
The hours slipped away; it was night; and still they sat and read. It must have been after ten o' clock when they heard footsteps coming through the adjoining room; the door opened swiftly; in walked Mr. Sclater, and closed it behind him. His look was angry--severe enough for boys caught card-playing, or drinking, or reading something that was not divinity on a Sunday. Gibbie had absented himself without permission, had stayed away for hours, had not returned even when the hour of worship arrived; and these were sins against the respectability of his house which no minister like Mr. Sclater could pass by. It mattered nothing what they were doing! it was all one when it got to midnight! then it became revelling, and was sinful and dangerous, vulgar and ungentlemanly, giving the worst possible example to those beneath them! What could their landlady think?--the very first night?--and a lodger whom he had recommended? Such was the sort of thing with which Mr. Sclater overwhelmed the two boys. Donal would have pleaded in justification, or at least excuse, but he silenced him peremptorily. I suspect there had been some difference between Mrs. Sclater and him just before he left: how otherwise could he have so entirely forgotten his wise resolves anent Gibbie's gradual subjugation?
When first he entered, Gibbie rose with his usual smile of greeting, and got him a chair. But he waved aside the attention with indignant indifference, and went on with his foolish reproof--unworthy of record except for Gibbie's following behaviour. Beaten down by the suddenness of the storm, Donal had never risen from his chair, but sat glowering into the fire. He was annoyed, vexed, half-ashamed; with that readiness of the poetic nature to fit itself to any position, especially one suggested by an unjust judgment, he felt, with the worthy parson thus storming at him, almost as if guilty in everything laid to their joint charge. Gibbie on his feet looked the minister straight in the face. His smile of welcome, which had suddenly mingled itself with bewilderment, gradually faded into one of concern, then of pity, and by degrees died away altogether, leaving in its place a look of question. More and more settled his countenance grew, while all the time he never took his eyes off Mr. Sclater's, until its expression at length was that of pitiful unconscious reproof, mingled with sympathetic shame. He had never met anything like this before. Nothing low like this--for all injustice, and especially all that sort of thing which Janet called "dingin' the motes wi' the beam," is eternally low--had Gibbie seen in the holy temple of Glashgar! He had no way of understanding or interpreting it save by calling to his aid the sad knowledge of evil, gathered in his earliest years. Except in the laird and Fergus and the gamekeeper, he had not, since fleeing from Lucky Croale's houff, seen a trace of unreasonable anger in any one he knew. Robert or Janet had never scolded him. He might go and come as he pleased. The night was sacred as the day in that dear house. His father, even when most overcome by the wicked thing, had never scolded him!
The boys remaining absolutely silent, the minister had it all his own way. But before he had begun to draw to a close, across the blinding mists of his fog-breeding wrath he began to be aware of the shining of two heavenly lights, the eyes, namely, of the dumb boy fixed upon him. They jarred him a little in his onward course; they shook him as if with a doubt; the feeling undefined slowly grew to a notion, first obscure, then plain: they were eyes of reproof that were fastened upon his! At the first suspicion, his anger flared up more fierce than ever; but it was a flare of a doomed flame; slowly the rebuke told, was telling; the self-satisfied in-the-rightness--a very different thing from righteousness--of the man was sinking before the innocent difference of the boy; he began to feel awkward, he hesitated, he ceased: for the moment Gibbie, unconsciously, had conquered; without knowing it, he was the superior of the two, and Mr. Sclater had begun to learn that he could never exercise authority over him. But the wordly-wise man will not seem to be defeated even where he knows he is. If he do give in, he will make it look as if it came of the proper motion of his own goodness. After a slight pause, the minister spoke again, but with the changed tone of one who has had an apology made to him, whose anger is appeased, and who therefore acts the Neptune over the billows of his own sea. That was the way he would slide out of it.
"Donal Grant," he said, "you had better go to bed at once, and get fit for your work to-morrow. I will go with you to call upon the principal. Take care you are not out of the way when I come for you.--Get your cap, Sir Gilbert, and come. Mrs. Sclater was already very uneasy about you when I left her."
Gibbie took from his pocket the little ivory tablets Mrs. Sclater had given him, wrote the following words, and handed them to the minister:
"Dear sir, I am going to slepe this night with Donal. The bed is bigg enuf for 2. Good night, sir."
For a moment the minister's wrath seethed again. Like a volcano, however, that has sent out a puff of steam, but holds back its lava, he thought better of it: here was a chance of retiring with grace--in well-conducted retreat, instead of headlong rout.
"Then be sure you are home by lesson-time," he said. "Donal can come with you. Good night. Mind you don't keep each other awake."
Donal said "Good night, sir," and Gibbie gave him a serious and respectful nod. He left the room, and the boys turned and looked at each other. Donal's countenance expressed an indignant sense of wrong, but Gibbie's revealed a more profound concern. He stood motionless, intent on the receding steps of the minister. The moment the sound of them ceased, he darted soundless after him. Donal, who from Mr. Sclater's reply had understood what Gibbie had written, was astonished, and starting to his feet followed him. By the time he reached the door, Gibbie was past the second lamp, his shadow describing a huge half-circle around him, as he stole from lamp to lamp after the minister, keeping always a lamp-post still between them. When the minister turned a corner, Gibbie made a soundless dart to it, and peeped round, lingered a moment looking, then followed again. On and on went Mr. Sclater, and on and on went Gibbie, careful constantly not to be seen by him; and on and on went Donal, careful to be seen of neither. They went a long way as he thought, for to the country boy distance between houses seemed much greater than between dykes or hedges. At last the minister went up the steps of a handsome house, took a key from his pocket, and opened the door. From some impulse or other, as he stepped in, he turned sharp round, and saw Gibbie.
"Come in," he said, in a loud authoritative tone, probably taking the boy's appearance for the effect of repentance and a desire to return to his own bed.
Gibbie lifted his cap, and walked quietly on towards the other end of Daur-street. Donal dared not follow, for Mr. Sclater stood between, looking out. Presently however the door shut with a great bang, and Donal was after Gibbie like a hound. But Gibbie had turned a corner, and was gone from his sight. Donal turned a corner too, but it was a wrong corner. Concluding that Gibbie had turned another corner ahead of him, he ran on and on, in the vanishing hope of catching sight of him again; but he was soon satisfied he had lost him,--nor him only, but himself as well, for he had not the smallest idea how to return, even as far as the minister's house. It rendered the matter considerably worse that, having never heard the name of the street where he lodged but once--when the minister gave direction to the porter, he had utterly forgotten it. So there he was, out in the night, astray in the streets of a city of many tens of thousands, in which he had never till that day set foot--never before having been in any larger abode of men than a scattered village of thatched roofs. But he was not tired, and so long as a man is not tired, he can do well, even in pain. But a city is a dreary place at night, even to one who knows his way in it--much drearier to one lost--in some respects drearier than a heath--except there be old mine-shafts in it.
"It's as gien a' the birds o' a country had creepit intil their bit eggs again, an' the day was left bare o' sang!" said the poet to himself as he walked. Night amongst houses was a new thing to him. Night on the hillsides and in the fields he knew well; but this was like a place of tombs--what else, when all were dead for the night? The night is the world's graveyard, and the cities are its catacombs. He repeated to himself all his own few ballads, then repeated them aloud as he walked, indulging the fancy that he had a long audience on each side of him; but he dropped into silence the moment any night-wanderer appeared. Presently he found himself on the shore of the river, and tried to get to the edge of the water; but it was low tide, the lamps did not throw much light so far, the moon was clouded, he got among logs and mud, and regained the street bemired, and beginning to feel weary. He was saying to himself what ever was he to do all the night long, when round a corner a little way off came a woman. It was no use asking counsel of her, however, or of anyone, he thought, so long as he did not know even the name of the street he wanted--a street which as he walked along it had seemed interminable. The woman drew near. She was rather tall, erect in the back, but bowed in the shoulders, with fierce black eyes, which were all that he could see of her face, for she had a little tartan shawl over her head, which she held together with one hand, while in the other she carried a basket. But those eyes were enough to make him fancy he must have seen her before. They were just passing each other, under a lamp, when she looked hard at him, and stopped.
"Man," she said, "I hae set e'en upo' your face afore!"
"Gien that be the case," answered Donal, "ye set e'en upo' 't again."
"Whaur come ye frae?" she asked.
"That's what I wad fain speir mysel'," he replied. "But, wuman," he went on, "I fancy I hae set e'en upo' your e'en afore--I canna weel say for yer face. Whaur come ye frae?"
"Ken ye a place they ca'--Daurside?" she rejoined.
"Daurside's a gey lang place," answered Donal; "an' this maun be aboot the tae en' o' 't, I'm thinkin'."
"Ye're no far wrang there," she returned; "an' ye hae a gey gleg tongue i' yer heid for a laad frae Daurside."
"I never h'ard 'at tongues war cuttit shorter there nor ither gaits," said Donal;" but I didna mean ye ony offence."
"There's nane ta'en, nor like to be," answered the woman.--"Ken ye a place they ca' Mains o' Glashruach?"
As she spoke she let go her shawl, and it opened from her face like two curtains.
"Lord! it's the witch-wife!" cried Donal, retreating a pace in his astonishment.
The woman burst into a great laugh, a hard, unmusical, but not unmirthful laugh.
"Ay!" she said, "was that hoo the fowk wad hae't o' me?"
"It wasna muckle won'er, efter ye cam wydin' throu' watter yairds deep, an' syne gaed doon the spate on a bran'er."
"Weel, it was the maddest thing!" she returned, with another laugh which stopped abruptly. "--I wadna dee the like again to save my life. But the Michty cairried me throu'.--An' hoo's wee Sir Gibbie?--Come in--I dinna ken yer name--but we're jist at the door o' my bit garret. Come quaiet up the stair, an' tell me a' aboot it."
"Weel, I wadna be sorry to rist a bit, for I hae tint mysel a'thegither, an' I'm some tiret," answered Donal. "I but left the Mains thestreen."
"Come in an' walcome; an whan ye're ristit, an' I'm rid o' my basket, I'll sune pit ye i' the gait o' hame."
Donal was too tired, and too glad to be once more in the company of a human being, to pursue further explanation at present. He followed her, as quietly as he could, up the dark stair. When she struck a light, he saw a little garret-room--better than decently furnished, it seemed to the youth from the hills, though his mother would have thought it far from tidy. The moment the woman got a candle lighted, she went to a cupboard, and brought thence a bottle and a glass. When Donal declined the whisky she poured out, she seemed disappointed, and setting down the glass, let it stand. But when she had seated herself, and begun to relate her adventures in quest of Gibbie, she drew it towards her, and sipped as she talked. Some day she would tell him, she said, the whole story of her voyage on the brander, which would make him laugh; it made her laugh, even now, when it came back to her in her bed at night, though she was far enough from laughing at the time. Then she told him a great deal about Gibbie and his father.
"An' noo," remarked Donal, "he'll be thinkin' 't a' ower again, as he rins aboot the toon this verra meenute, luikin' for me!"
"Dinna ye trible yersel' aboot him," said the woman. "He kens the toon as weel's ony rottan kens the drains o' 't.--But whaur div ye pit up?" she added, "for it's time dacent fowk was gauin' to their beds."
Donal explainned that he knew neither the name of the street nor of the people where he was lodging.
"Tell me this or that--something--onything aboot the hoose or the fowk, or what they're like, an' it may be 'at I'll ken them," she said.
But scarcely had he begun his description of the house when she cried,
"Hoot, man! it's at Lucky Murkison's ye are, i' the Wuddiehill. Come awa', an' I s' tak ye hame in a jiffey."
So saying, she rose, took the candle, showed him down the stair, and followed.
It was past midnight, and the moon was down, but the street-lamps were not yet extinguished, and they walked along without anything to interrupt their conversation--chiefly about Sir Gibbie and Sir George. But perhaps if Donal had known the cause of Gibbie's escape from the city, and that the dread thing had taken place in this woman's house, he would not have walked quite so close to her.
Poor Mistress Croale, however, had been nowise to blame for that, and the shock it gave her had even done something to check the rate of her downhill progress. It let her see, with a lightning flash from the pit, how wide the rent now yawned between her and her former respectability. She continued, as we know, to drink whisky, and was not unfrequently overcome by it; but in her following life as peddler, she measured her madness more; and, much in the open air and walking a great deal, with a basket sometimes heavy, her indulgence did her less physical harm; her temper recovered a little, she regained a portion of her self-command; and at the close of those years of wandering, she was less of a ruin, both mentally and spiritually, than at their commencement.
When she received her hundred pounds for the finding of Sir Gibbie, she rented a little shop in the gallery of the market, where she sold such things as she had carried about the country, adding to her stock, upon the likelihood of demand, without respect to unity either conventional or real, in the character of the wares she associated. The interest and respectability of this new start in life, made a little fresh opposition to the inroads of her besetting sin; so that now she did not consume as much whisky in three days as she did in one when she had her houff on the shore. Some people seem to have been drinking all their lives, of necessity getting more and more into the power of the enemy, but without succumbing at a rapid rate, having even their times of uplifting and betterment. Mistress Croale's complexion was a little clearer; her eyes were less fierce; her expression was more composed; some of the women who like her had shops in the market, had grown a little friendly with her; and, which was of more valuable significance, she had come to be not a little regarded by the poor women of the lower parts behind the market, who were in the way of dealing with her. For the moment a customer of this class, and she had but few of any other, appeared at her shop, or covered stall, rather, she seemed in spirit to go outside the counter and buy with her, giving her the best counsel she had, now advising the cheaper, now the dearer of two articles; while now and then one could tell of having been sent by her to another shop, where, in the particular case, she could do better. A love of affairs, no doubt, bore a part in this peculiarity, but there is all the difference between the two ways of embodying activity--to one's own advantage only, and--to the advantage of one's neighbour as well. For my part, if I knew a woman behaved to her neighbours as Mistress Croale did to hers, were she the worst of drunkards in between, I could not help both respecting and loving her. Alas that such virtue is so portentously scarce! There are so many that are sober for one that is honest! Deep are the depths of social degradation to which the clean, purifying light yet reaches, and lofty are the heights of social honour where yet the light is nothing but darkness. Any thoughtful person who knew Mistress Croale's history, would have feared much for her, and hoped a little: her so-called fate was still undecided. In the mean time she made a living, did not get into debt, spent an inordinate portion of her profits in drink, but had regained and was keeping up a kind and measure of respectability.
Before they reached the Widdiehill, Donal, with the open heart of the poet, was full of friendliness to her, and rejoiced in the mischance that had led him to make her acquaintance.
"Ye ken, of coorse," he happened to say, "'at Gibbie's wi' Maister Sclater?"
"Weel eneuch," she answered. "I hae seen him tee; but he's a gran' gentleman grown, an' I wadna like to be affrontit layin' claim till's acquaintance,--walcome as he ance was to my hoose!"
She had more reason for the doubt and hesitation she thus expressed than Donal knew. But his answer was none the less the true one as regarded his friend.
"Ye little ken Gibbie," he said "gien ye think that gait o' 'im! Gang ye to the minister's door and speir for 'im! He'll be doon the stair like a shot.--But 'deed maybe he's come back, an' 's i' my chaumer the noo! Ye'll come up the stair an' see?"
"Na, I wunna dee that," said Mistress Croale, who did not wish to face Mistress Murkison, well known to her in the days of her comparative prosperity.
She pointed out the door to him, but herself stood on the other side of the way till she saw it opened by her old friend in her night-cap, and heard her make jubilee over his return.
Gibbie had come home and gone out again to look for him, she said.
"Weel," remarked Donal, "there wad be sma' guid in my gaein' to luik for him. It wad be but the sheep gaein' to luik for the shepherd."
"Ye're richt there," said his landlady. "A tint bairn sud aye sit doon an' sit still."
"Weel, ye gang till yer bed, mem," returned Donal. "Lat me see hoo yer door works, an' I'll lat him in whan he comes."
Gibbie came within an hour, and all was well. They made their communication, of which Donal's was far the more interesting, had their laugh over the affair, and went to bed.