Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XLIII. The Minister's Defeat.
The minister's wrath, when he found he had been followed home by Gibbie who yet would not enter the house, instantly rose in redoubled strength. He was ashamed to report the affair to Mrs. Sclater just as it had passed. He was but a married old bachelor, and fancied he must keep up his dignity in the eyes of his wife, not having yet learned that, if a man be true, his friends and lovers will see to his dignity. So his anger went on smouldering all night long, and all through his sleep, without a touch of cool assuagement, and in the morning he rose with his temper very feverish. During breakfast he was gloomy, but would confess to no inward annoyance. What added to his unrest was, that, although he felt insulted, he did not know what precisely the nature of the insult was. Even in his wrath he could scarcely set down Gibbie's following of him to a glorying mockery of his defeat. Doubtless, for a man accustomed to deal with affairs, to rule over a parish--for one who generally had his way in the kirk-session, and to whom his wife showed becoming respect, it was scarcely fitting that the rude behaviour of an ignorant country dummy should affect him so much: he ought to have been above such injury. But the lad whom he so regarded, had first with his mere looks lowered him in his own eyes, then showed himself beyond the reach of his reproof by calmly refusing to obey him, and then become unintelligible by following him like a creature over whom surveillance was needful! The more he thought of this last, the more inexplicable it seemed to become, except on the notion of deliberate insult. And the worst was, that henceforth he could expect to have no power at all over the boy! If it was like this already, how would it be in the time to come? If, on the other hand, he were to re-establish his authority at the cost of making the boy hate him, then, the moment he was of age, his behaviour would be that of a liberated enemy: he would go straight to the dogs, and his money with him!--The man of influence and scheme did well to be annoyed.
Gibbie made his appearance at ten o'clock, and went straight to the study, where at that hour the minister was always waiting him. He entered with his own smile, bending his head in morning salutation. The minister said "Good morning," but gruffly, and without raising his eyes from the last publication of the Spalding Club. Gibbie seated himself in his usual place, arranged his book and slate, and was ready to commence--when the minister, having now summoned resolution, lifted his head, fixed his eyes on him, and said sternly--
"Sir Gilbert, what was your meaning in following me, after refusing to accompany me?"
Gibbie's face flushed. Mr. Sclater believed he saw him for the first time ashamed of himself; his hope rose; his courage grew; he augured victory and a re-established throne: he gathered himself up in dignity, prepared to overwhelm him. But Gibbie showed no hesitation; he took his slate instantly, found his pencil, wrote, and handed the slate to the minister. There stood these words:
"I thougt you was drunnk."
Mr. Sclater started to his feet, the hand which held the offending document uplifted, his eyes flaming, his checks white with passion, and with the flat of the slate came down a great blow on the top of Gibbie's head. Happily the latter was the harder of the two, and the former broke, flying mostly out of the frame. It took Gibbie terribly by surprise. Half-stunned, he started to his feet, and for one moment the wild beast which was in him, as it is in everybody, rushed to the front of its cage. It would have gone ill then with the minister, had not as sudden a change followed; the very same instant, it was as if an invisible veil, woven of gracious air and odour and dew, had descended upon him; the flame of his wrath went out, quenched utterly; a smile of benignest compassion overspread his countenance; in his offender he saw only a brother. But Mr. Sclater saw no brother before him, for when Gibbie rose he drew back to better his position, and so doing made it an awkard one indeed. For it happened occasionally that, the study being a warm room, Mrs. Sclater, on a winter evening, sat there with her husband, whence it came that on the floor squatted a low foot-stool, subject to not unfrequent clerical imprecation: when he stepped back, he trod on the edge of it, stumbled, and fell. Gibbie darted forward. A part of the minister's body rested upon the stool, and its elevation, made the first movement necessary to rising rather difficult, so that he could not at once get off his back.
What followed was the strangest act for a Scotch boy, but it must be kept in mind how limited were his means of expression. He jumped over the prostrate minister, who the next moment seeing his face bent over him from behind, and seized, like the gamekeeper, with suspicion born of his violence, raised his hands to defend himself, and made a blow at him. Gibbie avoided it, laid hold of his arms inside each elbow, clamped them to the floor, kissed him on forehead and cheek, and began to help him up like a child.
Having regained his legs, the minister stood for a moment, confused and half-blinded. The first thing he saw was a drop of blood stealing down Gibbie's forehead. He was shocked at what he had done. In truth he had been frightfully provoked, but it was not for a clergyman so to avenge an insult, and as mere chastisement it was brutal. What would Mrs. Sclater say to it? The rascal was sure to make his complaint to her! And there too was his friend, the herd-lad, in the drawing-room with her!
"Go and wash your face," he said, "and come back again directly."
Gibbie put his hand to his face, and feeling something wet, looked, and burst into a merry laugh.
"I am sorry I have hurt you," said the minister, not a little relieved at the sound; "but how dared you write such a--such an insolence? A clergyman never gets drunk."
Gibbie picked up the frame which the minister had dropped in his fall: a piece of the slate was still sticking in one side, and he wrote upon it:
I will kno better the next time. I thout it was alwais whisky that made peeple like that. I begg your pardon, sir.
He handed him the fragment, ran to his own room, returned presently, looking all right, and when Mr. Sclater would have attended to his wound, would not let him even look at it, laughing at the idea. Still further relieved to find there was nothing to attract observation to the injury, and yet more ashamed of himself, the minister made haste to the refuge of their work; but it did not require the gleam of the paper substituted for the slate, to keep him that morning in remembrance of what he had done; indeed it hovered about him long after the gray of the new slate had passed into a dark blue.
From that time, after luncheon, which followed immediately upon lessons, Gibbie went and came as he pleased. Mrs. Sclater begged he would never be out after ten o'clock without having let them know that he meant to stay all night with his friend: not once did he neglect this request, and they soon came to have perfect confidence not only in any individual promise he might make, but in his general punctuality. Mrs. Sclater never came to know anything of his wounded head, and it gave the minister a sharp sting of compunction, as well as increased his sense of moral inferiority, when he saw that for a fortnight or so he never took his favourite place at her feet, evidently that she should not look down on his head.
The same evening they had friends to dinner. Already Gibbie was so far civilized, as they called it, that he might have sat at any dining-table without attracting the least attention, but that evening he attracted a great deal. For he could scarcely eat his own dinner for watching the needs of those at the table with him, ready to spring from his chair and supply the least lack. This behaviour naturally harassed the hostess, and at last, upon one of those occasions, the servants happening to be out of the room, she called him to her side, and said,
"You were quite right to do that now, Gilbert, but please never do such a thing when the servants are in the room. It confuses them, and makes us all uncomfortable."
Gibbie heard with obedient ear, but took the words as containing express permission to wait upon the company in the absence of other ministration. When therefore the servants finally disappeared, as was the custom there in small households, immediately after placing the dessert, Gibbie got up, and, much to the amusement of the guests, waited on them as quite a matter of course. But they would have wondered could they have looked into the heart of the boy, and beheld the spirit in which the thing was done, the soil in which was hid the root of the service; for to him the whole thing was sacred as an altar-rite to the priest who ministers. Round and round the table, deft and noiseless, he went, altogether aware of the pleasure of the thing, not at all of its oddity--which, however, had he understood it perfectly, he would not in the least have minded.
All this may, both in Gibbie and the narrative, seem trifling, but I more than doubt whether, until our small services are sweet with divine affection, our great ones, if such we are capable of, will ever have the true Christian flavour about them. And then such eagerness to pounce upon every smallest opportunity of doing the will of the Master, could not fail to further proficiency in the service throughout.
Presently the ladies rose, and when they had left the room, the host asked Gibbie to ring the bell. He obeyed with alacrity, and a servant appeared. She placed the utensils for making and drinking toddy, after Scotch custom, upon the table. A shadow fell upon the soul of Gibbie: for the first time since he ran from the city, he saw the well-known appointments of midnight orgy, associated in his mind with all the horrors from which he had fled. The memory of old nights in the street, as he watched for his father, and then helped him home; of his father's last prayer, drinking and imploring; of his white, motionless face the next morning; of the row at Lucky Croale's, and poor black Sambo's gaping throat--all these terrible things came back upon him, as he stood staring at the tumblers and the wine glasses and the steaming kettle.
"What is the girl thinking of!" exclaimed the minister, who had been talking to his next neighbour, when he heard the door close behind the servant. "She has actually forgotten the whisky!--Sir Gilbert," he went on, with a glance at the boy, "as you are so good, will you oblige me by bringing the bottle from the sideboard?"
Gibbie started at the sound of his name, but did not move from the place. After a moment, the minister, who had resumed the conversation, thinking he had not heard him, looked up. There, between the foot of the table and the sideboard, stood Gibbie as if fixed to the floor gazing out of his blue eyes at the minister--those eyes filmy with gathering tears, the smile utterly faded from his countenance.--Would the Master have drunk out of that bottle? he was thinking with himself. Imagining some chance remark had hurt the boy's pride, and not altogether sorry--it gave hope of the gentleman he wanted to make him--Mr. Sclater spoke again:
"It's just behind you, Sir Gilbert--the whisky bottle--that purple one with the silver top."
Gibbie never moved, but his eyes began to run over. A fearful remembrance of the blow he had given him on the head rushed back on Mr. Sclater: could it be the consequence of that? Was the boy paralyzed? He was on the point of hurrying to him, but restrained himself, and rising with deliberation, approached the sideboard. A nearer sight of the boy's face reassured him.
"I beg your pardon, Sir Gilbert," he said; "I thought you would not mind waiting on us as well as on the ladies. It is your own fault, you know.--There," he added, pointing to the table; "take your place, and have a little toddy. It won't hurt you."
The eyes of all the guests were by this time fixed on Gibbie. What could be the matter with the curious creature? they wondered. His gentle merriment and quiet delight in waiting upon them, had given a pleasant concussion to the spirits of the party, which had at first threatened to be rather a stiff and dull one; and there now was the boy all at once looking as if he had received a blow, or some cutting insult which he did not know how to resent!
Between the agony of refusing to serve, and the impossibility of putting his hand to unclean ministration, Gibbie had stood as if spell-bound. He would have thought little of such horrors in Lucky Croale's houff, but the sight of the things here terrified him. He felt as a Corinthian Christian must, catching a sight of one of the elders of the church feasting in a temple. But the last words of the minister broke the painful charm. He burst into tears, and darting from the room, not a little to his guardian's relief, hurried to his own.
The guests stared bewildered.
"He'll be gone to the ladies," said their host. "He's an odd creature. Mrs. Sclater understands him better than I do. He's more at home with her."
Therewith he proceeded to tell them his history, and whence the interest he had in him, not bringing down his narrative beyond the afternoon of the preceding day.
The next morning, Mrs. Sclater had a talk with him concerning his whim of waiting at table, telling him he must not do so again; it was not the custom for gentlemen to do the things that servants were paid to do; it was not fair to the servants, and so on--happening to end with an utterance of mild wonder at his fancy for such a peculiarity. This exclamation Gibbie took for a question, or at least the expression of a desire to understand the reason of the thing. He went to a side-table, and having stood there a moment or two, returned with a New Testament, in which he pointed out the words, "But I am among you as he that serveth." Giving her just time to read them, he took the book again, and in addition presented the words, "The disciple is not above his master, but every one that is perfect shall be as his master."
Mrs. Sclater was as much put out as if he had been guilty of another and worse indiscretion. The idea of anybody ordering his common doings, not to say his oddities, by principles drawn from a source far too sacred to be practically regarded, was too preposterous to have ever become even a notion to her. Henceforth, however, it was a mote to trouble her mind's eye, a mote she did not get rid of until it began to turn to a glimmer of light. I need hardly add that Gibbie waited at her dinner-table no more.