Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XLIV. The Sinner.
No man can order his life, for it comes flowing over him from behind. But if it lay before us, and we could watch its current approaching from a long distance, what could we do with it before it had reached the now? In like wise a man thinks foolishly who imagines he could have done this and that with his own character and development, if he had but known this and that in time. Were he as good as he thinks himself wise he could but at best have produced a fine cameo in very low relief: with a work in the round, which he is meant to be, he could have done nothing. The one secret of life and development, is not to devise and plan, but to fall in with the forces at work--to do every moment's duty aright--that being the part in the process allotted to us; and let come--not what will, for there is no such thing--but what the eternal Thought wills for each of us, has intended in each of us from the first. If men would but believe that they are in process of creation, and consent to be made--let the maker handle them as the potter his clay, yielding themselves in respondent motion and submissive hopeful action with the turning of his wheel, they would ere long find themselves able to welcome every pressure of that hand upon them, even when it was felt in pain, and sometimes not only to believe but to recognize the divine end in view, the bringing of a son into glory; whereas, behaving like children who struggle and scream while their mother washes and dresses them, they find they have to be washed and dressed, notwithstanding, and with the more discomfort: they may even have to find themselves set half naked and but half dried in a corner, to come to their right minds, and ask to be finished.
At this time neither Gibbie nor Donal strove against his creation--what the wise of this world call their fate. In truth Gibbie never did; and for Donal, the process was at present in a stage much too agreeable to rouse any inclination to resist. He enjoyed his new phase of life immensely. If he did not distinguish himself as a scholar, it was not because he neglected his work, but because he was at the same time doing that by which alone the water could ever rise in the well he was digging: he was himself growing. Far too eager after knowledge to indulge in emulation, he gained no prizes: what had he to do with how much or how little those around him could eat as compared with himself? No work noble or lastingly good can come of emulation any more than of greed: I think the motives are spiritually the same. To excite it is worthy only of the commonplace vulgar schoolmaster, whose ambition is to show what fine scholars he can turn out, that he may get the more pupils. Emulation is the devil-shadow of aspiration. The set of the current in the schools is at present towards a boundless swamp, but the wise among the scholars see it, and wisdom is the tortoise which shall win the race. In the mean time how many, with the legs and the brain of the hare, will think they are gaining it, while they are losing things whose loss will make any prize unprized! The result of Donal's work appeared but very partially in his examinations, which were honest and honourable to him; it was hidden in his thoughts, his aspirations, his growth, and his verse--all which may be seen should I one day tell Donal's story. For Gibbie, the minister had not been long teaching him, before he began to desire to make a scholar of him. Partly from being compelled to spend some labour upon it, the boy was gradually developing an unusual facility in expression. His teacher, compact of conventionalities, would have modelled the result upon some writer imagined by him a master of style; but the hurtful folly never got any hold of Gibbie: all he ever cared about was to say what he meant, and avoid saying something else; to know when he had not said what he meant, and to set the words right. It resulted that, when people did not understand what he meant, the cause generally lay with them not with him; and that, if they sometimes smiled over his mode, it was because it lay closer to nature than theirs: they would have found it a hard task to improve it.
What the fault with his organs of speech was, I cannot tell. His guardian lost no time in having them examined by a surgeon in high repute, a professor of the university, but Dr. Skinner's opinion put an end to question and hope together. Gibbie was not in the least disappointed. He had got on very well as yet without speech. It was not like sight or hearing. The only voice he could not hear was his own, and that was just the one he had neither occasion nor desire to hear. As to his friends, those who had known him the longest minded his dumbness the least. But the moment the defect was understood to be irreparable, Mrs. Sclater very wisely proceeded to learn the finger-speech; and as she learned it, she taught it to Gibbie.
As to his manners, which had been and continued to be her chief care, a certain disappoinment followed her first rapid success: she never could get them to take on the case-hardening needful for what she counted the final polish. They always retained a certain simplicity which she called childishness. It came in fact of childlikeness, but the lady was not child enough to distinguish the difference--as great as that between the back and the front of a head. As, then, the minister found him incapable of forming a style, though time soon proved him capable of producing one, so the minister's wife found him as incapable of putting on company manners of any sort, as most people are incapable of putting them off--without being rude. It was disappointing to Mrs. Sclater, but Gibbie was just as content to appear what he was, as he was unwilling to remain what he was. Being dumb, she would say to herself he would pass in any society; but if he had had his speech, she never could have succeeded in making him a thorough gentleman: he would have always been saying the right thing in the wrong place. By the wrong place she meant the place where alone the thing could have any pertinence. In after years, however, Gibbie's manners were, whether pronounced such or not, almost universally felt to be charming. But Gibbie knew nothing of his manners any more than of the style in which he wrote.
One night on their way home from an evening party, the minister and his wife had a small difference, probably about something of as little real consequence to them as the knowledge of it is to us, but by the time they reached home, they had got to the very summit of politeness with each other. Gibbie was in the drawing-room, as it happened, waiting their return. At the first sound of their voices, he knew, before a syllable reached him that something was wrong. When they entered, they were too much engrossed in difference to heed his presence, and went on disputing--with the utmost external propriety of words and demeanour, but with both injury and a sense of injury in every tone. Had they looked at Gibbie, I cannot think they would have been silenced; but while neither of them dared turn eyes the way of him, neither had moral strength sufficient to check the words that rose to the lips. A discreet, socially wise boy would have left the room, but how could Gibbie abandon his friends to the fiery darts of the wicked one! He ran to the side-table before mentioned. With a vague presentiment of what was coming, Mrs. Sclater, feeling rather than seeing him move across the room like a shadow, sat in dread expectation; and presently her fear arrived, in the shape of a large New Testament, and a face of loving sadness, and keen discomfort, such as she had never before seen Gibbie wear. He held out the book to her, pointing with a finger to the words--she could not refuse to let her eyes fall upon them--"Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another." What Gibbie made of the salt, I do not know; and whether he understood it or not was of little consequence, seeing he had it; but the rest of the sentence he understood so well that he would fain have the writhing yoke-fellows think of it.
The lady's cheeks had been red before, but now they were redder. She rose, cast an angry look at the dumb prophet, a look which seemed to say "How dare you suggest such a thing?" and left the room.
"What have you got there?" asked the minister, turning sharply upon him. Gibbie showed him the passage.
"What have you got to do with it?" he retorted, throwing the book on the table. "Go to bed."
"A detestable prig!" you say, reader?--That is just what Mr. and Mrs. Sclater thought him that night, but they never quarrelled again before him. In truth, they were not given to quarrelling. Many couples who love each other more, quarrel more, and with less politeness. For Gibbie, he went to bed--puzzled, and afraid there must be a beam in his eye.
The very first time Donal and he could manage it, they set out together to find Mistress Croale. Donal thought he had nothing to do but walk straight from Mistress Murkison's door to hers, but, to his own annoyance, and the disappointment of both, he soon found he had not a notion left as to how the place lay, except that it was by the river. So, as it was already rather late, they put off their visit to another time, and took a walk instead.
But Mistress Croale, haunted by old memories, most of them far from pleasant, grew more and more desirous of looking upon the object of perhaps the least disagreeable amongst them: she summoned resolution at last, went to the market a little better dressed than usual, and when business there was over, and she had shut up her little box of a shop, walked to Daur-street to the minister's house.
"He's aften eneuch crossed my door," she said to herself, speaking of Mr. Sclater; "an' though, weel I wat, the sicht o' 'im never bodit me onything but ill, I never loot him ken he was less nor walcome; an' gien bein' a minister gies the freedom o' puir fowk's hooses, it oucht in the niffer (exchange) to gie them the freedom o' his."
Therewith encouraging herself, she walked up the steps and rang the bell. It was a cold, frosty winter evening and as she stood waiting for the door to be opened, much the poor woman longed for her own fireside and a dram. Her period of expectation was drawn out not a little through the fact that the servant whose duty it was to answer the bell was just then waiting at table: because of a public engagement, the minister had to dine earlier than usual. They were in the middle of their soup--cockie-leekie, nice and hot, when the maid informed her master that a woman was at the door, wanting to see Sir Gilbert.
Gibbie looked up, put down his spoon, and was rising to go, when the minister, laying his hand on his arm, pressed him gently back to his chair, and Gibbie yielded, waiting.
"What sort of a woman?" he asked the girl.
"A decent-lookin' workin'-like body," she answered. "I couldna see her verra weel, it's sae foggy the nicht aboot the door."
"Tell her we're at dinner; she may call again in an hour. Or if she likes to leave a message--Stay: tell her to come again to-morrow morning.--I wonder who she is," he added, turning, he thought, to Gibbie.
But Gibbie was gone. He had passed behind his chair, and all he saw of him was his back as he followed the girl from the room. In his eagerness he left the door open, and they saw him dart to the visitor, shake hands with her in evident delight, and begin pulling her towards the room.
Now Mistress Croale, though nowise inclined to quail before the minister, would not willingly have intruded herself upon him, especially while he sat at dinner with his rather formidable lady; but she fancied, for she stood where she could not see into the dining-room, that Gibbie was taking her where they might have a quiet news together, and, occupied with her bonnet or some other source of feminine disquiet, remained thus mistaken until she stood on the threshold, when, looking up, she started, stopped, made an obedience to the minister, and another to the minister's lady, and stood doubtful, if not a little abashed.
"Not here! my good woman," said Mr. Sclater, rising. "--Oh, it's you, Mistress Croale!--I will speak to you in the hall."
Mrs. Croale's face flushed, and she drew back a step. But Gibbie still held her, and with a look to Mr. Sclater that should have sent straight to his heart the fact that she was dear to his soul, kept drawing her into the room; he wanted her to take his chair at the table. It passed swiftly through her mind that one who had been so intimate both with Sir George and Sir Gibbie in the old time, and had given the latter his tea every Sunday night for so long, might surely, even in such changed circumstances, be allowed to enter the same room with him, however grand it might be; and involuntarily almost she yielded half a doubtful step, while Mr. Sclater, afraid of offending Sir Gilbert, hesitated on the advance to prevent her. How friendly the warm air felt! how consoling the crimson walls with the soft flicker of the great fire upon them! how delicious the odour of the cockie-leekie! She could give up whisky a good deal more easily, she thought, if she had the comforts of a minister to fall back upon! And this was the same minister who had once told her that her soul was as precious to him as that of any other in his parish--and then driven her from respectable Jink Lane to the disreputable Daurfoot! It all passed through her mind in a flash, while yet Gibbie pulled and she resisted.
"Gilbert, come here," called Mrs. Sclater.
He went to her side, obedient and trusting as a child.
"Really, Gilbert, you must not," she said, rather loud for a whisper. "It won't do to turn things upside down this way. If you are to be a gentleman, and an inmate of my house, you must behave like other people. I cannot have a woman like that sitting at my table.--Do you know what sort of a person she is?"
Gibbie's face shone up. He raised his hands. He was already able to talk a little.
"Is she a sinner?" he asked on his fingers.
Mrs. Sclater nodded.
Gibbie wheeled round, and sprang back to the hall, whither the minister had, coming down upon her, bows on, like a sea-shouldering whale, in a manner ejected Mistress Croale, and where he was now talking to her with an air of confidential condescension, willing to wipe out any feeling of injury she might perhaps be inclined to cherish at not being made more welcome: to his consternation, Gibbie threw his arms round her neck, and gave her a great hug.
"Sir Gilbert!" he exclaimed, very angry, and the more angry that he knew he was in the right, "leave Mistress Croale alone, and go back to your dinner immediately.--Jane, open the door."
Jane opened the door, Gibbie let her go, and Mrs. Croale went. But on the threshold she turned.
"Weel, sir," she said, with more severity than pique, and a certain sad injury not unmingled with dignity, "ye hae stappit ower my door-sill mony's the time, an' that wi' sairer words i' yer moo' nor I ever mintit at peyin' ye back; an' I never said to ye gang. Sae first ye turnt me oot o' my ain hoose, an' noo ye turn me oot o' yours; an' what's left ye to turn me oot o' but the hoose o' the Lord? An', 'deed, sir, ye need never won'er gien the likes o' me disna care aboot gangin' to hear a preacht gospel: we wad fain see a practeesed ane! Gien ye had said to me noo the nicht, 'Come awa' ben, Mistress Croale, an' tak a plet o' cockie-leekie wi' 's; it's a cauld nicht;' it's mysel' wad hae been sae upliftit wi' yer kin'ness, 'at I wad hae gane hame an' ta'en--I dinna ken--aiblins a read at my Bible, an' been to be seen at the kirk upo' Sunday I wad--o' that ye may be sure; for it's a heap easier to gang to the kirk nor to read the buik yer lane, whaur ye canna help thinkin' upo' what it says to ye. But noo, as 'tis, I'm awa' hame to the whusky boatle, an' the sin o' 't, gien there be ony in sic a nicht o' cauld an' fog, 'ill jist lie at your door."
"You shall have a plate of soup, and welcome, Mistress Croale!" said the minister, in a rather stagey tone of hospitality "--Jane, take Mistress Croale to the kitchen with you, and--"
"The deil's tail i' yer soup!--'At I sud say 't!" cried Mistress Croale, drawing herself up suddenly, with a snort of anger: "whan turnt I beggar? I wad fain be informt! Was't yer soup or yer grace I soucht till, sir? The Lord be atween you an' me! There's first 'at 'll be last, an' last 'at 'll be first. But the tane's no me, an' the tither's no you, sir."
With that she turned and walked down the steps, holding her head high.
"Really, Sir Gilbert," said the minister, going back into the dining-room--but no Gibbie was there!--nobody but his wife, sitting in solitary discomposure at the head of her dinner-table. The same instant, he heard a clatter of feet down the steps, and turned quickly into the hall again, where Jane was in the act of shutting the door.
"Sir Gilbert's run oot efter the wuman, sir!" she said.
"Hoot!" grunted the minister, greatly displeased, and went back to his wife.
"Take Sir Gilbert's plate away," said Mrs. Sclater to the servant.
"That's his New Testament again!" she went on, when the girl had left the room.
"My dear! my dear! take care," said her husband. He had not much notion of obedience to God, but he had some idea of respect to religion. He was just an idolater of a Christian shade.
"Really, Mr. Sclater," his wife continued, "I had no idea what I was undertaking. But you gave me no choice. The creature is incorrigible. But of course he must prefer the society of women like that. They are the sort he was accustomed to when he received his first impressions, and how could it be otherwise? You knew how he had been brought up, and what you had to expect!"
"Brought up!" cried the minister, and caused his spoonful of cockie-leekie to rush into his mouth with the noise of the German schlürfen, then burst into a loud laugh. "You should have seen him about the streets!--with his trowsers--"
"Mister Sclater! Then you ought to have known better!" said his wife, and laying down her spoon, sat back into the embrace of her chair.
But in reality she was not the least sorry he had undertaken the charge. She could not help loving the boy, and her words were merely the foam of vexation, mingled with not a little jealousy, that he had left her, and his nice hot dinner, to go with the woman. Had she been a fine lady like herself, I doubt if she would have liked it much better; but she specially recoiled from coming into rivalry with one in whose house a horrible murder had been committed, and who had been before the magistrates in consequence.
Nothing further was said until the second course was on the table. Then the lady spoke again:
"You really must, Mr. Sclater, teach him the absurdity of attempting to fit every point of his behaviour to--to--words which were of course quite suitable to the time when they were spoken, but which it is impossible to take literally now-a-days--as impossible as to go about the streets with a great horn on your head and a veil hanging across it.--Why!"--Here she laughed--a laugh the less lady-like that, although it was both low and musical, it was scornful, and a little shaken by doubt.--"You saw him throw his arms round the horrid creature's neck!--Well, he had just asked me if she was a sinner. I made no doubt she was. Off with the word goes my gentleman to embrace her!"
Here they laughed together.
Dinner over, they went to a missionary meeting, where the one stood and made a speech and the other sat and listened, while Gibbie was having tea with Mistress Croale.
From that day Gibbie's mind was much exercised as to what he could do for Mistress Croale, and now first he began to wish he had his money. As fast as he learned the finger-alphabet he had taught it to Donal, and, as already they had a good many symbols in use between them, so many indeed that Donal would often instead of speaking make use of signs, they had now the means of intercourse almost as free as if they had had between them two tongues instead of one. It was easy therefore for Gibbie to impart to Donal his anxiety concerning her, and his strong desire to help her, and doing so, he lamented in a gentle way his present inability. This communication Donal judged it wise to impart in his turn to Mistress Croale.
"Ye see, mem," he said in conclusion, "he's some w'y or anither gotten 't intil's heid 'at ye're jist a wheen ower free wi' the boatle. I kenna. Ye'll be the best jeedge o' that yersel'!"
Mistress Croale was silent for a whole minute by the clock. From the moment when Gibbie forsook his dinner and his grand new friends to go with her, the woman's heart had begun to grow to the boy, and her old memories fed the new crop of affection.
"Weel," she replied at length, with no little honesty, "--I mayna be sae ill 's he thinks me, for he had aye his puir father afore 's e'en; but the bairn's richt i' the main, an' we maun luik till't, an' see what can be dune; for eh! I wad be laith to disappint the bonnie laad!--Maister Grant, gien ever there wis a Christi-an sowl upo' the face o' this wickit warl', that Christi-an sowl's wee Sir Gibbie!--an' wha cud hae thoucht it! But it's the Lord's doin', an' mervellous in oor eyes!--Ow! ye needna luik like that; I ken my Bible no that ill!" she added, catching a glimmer of surprise on Donal's countenance. "But for that Maister Scletter--dod! I wadna be sair upon 'im--but gien he be fit to caw a nail here an' a nail there, an fix a sklet or twa, creepin' upo' the riggin' o' the kirk, I'm weel sure he's nae wise maister-builder fit to lay ony fundation.--Ay! I tellt ye I kent my beuk no that ill!" she added with some triumph; then resumed: "What the waur wad he or she or Sir Gibbie hae been though they hed inveetit me, as I was there, to sit me doon, an' tak' a plet o' their cockie-leekie wi' them? There was ane 'at thoucht them 'at was far waur nor me, guid eneuch company for him; an' maybe I may sit doon wi' him efter a', wi' the help o' my bonnie wee Sir Gibbie.--I canna help ca'in' him wee Sir Gibbie--a' the toon ca'd 'im that, though haith! he'll be a big man or he behaud. An' for 's teetle, I was aye ane to gie honour whaur honour was due, an' never ance, weel as I kenned him, did I ca' his honest father, for gien ever there was an honest man yon was him!--never did I ca' him onything but Sir George, naither mair nor less, an' that though he vroucht at the hardest at the cobblin' a' the ook, an' upo' Setterdays was pleased to hae a guid wash i' my ain bedroom, an' pit on a clean sark o' my deid man's, rist his sowl!--no 'at I'm a papist, Maister Grant, an' aye kent better nor think it was ony eese prayin' for them 'at's gane; for wha is there to pey ony heed to sic haithenish prayers as that wad be? Na! we maun pray for the livin' 'at it may dee some guid till, an' no for them 'at its a' ower wi'--the Lord hae mercy upo' them!"
My readers may suspect, one for one reason another for another, that she had already, before Donal came that evening been holding communion with the idol in the three-cornerd temple of her cupboard; and I confess that it was so. But it is equally true that before the next year was gone, she was a shade better--and that not without considerable struggle, and more failures than successes.
Upon one occasion--let those who analyze the workings of the human mind as they would the entrails of an eight-day clock, explain the phenomenon I am about to relate, or decline to believe it, as they choose--she became suddenly aware that she was getting perilously near the brink of actual drunkenness.
"I'll tak but this ae mou'fu' mair," she said to herself; "it's but a mou'fu', an' it's the last i' the boatle, an' it wad be a peety naebody to get the guid o' 't."
She poured it out. It was nearly half a glass. She took it in one large mouthful. But while she held it in her mouth to make the most of it, even while it was between her teeth, something smote her with the sudden sense that this very moment was the crisis of her fate, that now the axe was laid to the root of her tree. She dropped on her knees--not to pray like poor Sir George--but to spout the mouthful of whisky into the fire. In roaring flame it rushed up the chimney. She started back.
"Eh!" she cried; "guid God! sic a deevil's I maun be, to cairry the like o' that i' my inside!--Lord! I'm a perfec' byke o' deevils! My name it maun be Legion. What is to become o' my puir sowl!"
It was a week before she drank another drop--and then she took her devils with circumspection, and the firm resolve to let no more of them enter into her than she could manage to keep in order.
Mr. and Mrs. Sclater got over their annoyance as well as they could, and agreed that in this case no notice should be taken of Gibbie's conduct.