Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XLV. Shoals Ahead.
It had come to be the custom that Gibbie should go to Donal every Friday afternoon about four o'clock, and remain with him till the same time on Saturday, which was a holiday with both. One Friday, just after he was gone, the temptation seized Mrs. Sclater to follow him, and, paying the lads an unexpected visit, see what they were about.
It was a bright cold afternoon; and in fur tippet and muff, amidst the snow that lay everywhere on roofs and window-sills and pavements, and the wind that blew cold as it blows in few places besides, she looked, with her bright colour and shining eyes, like life itself laughing at death. But not many of those she met carried the like victory in their countenances, for the cold was bitter. As she approached the Widdiehill, she reflected that she had followed Gibbie so quickly, and walked so fast, that the boys could hardly have had time to settle to anything, and resolved therefore to make a little round and spend a few more minutes upon the way. But as, through a neighbouring street, she was again approaching the Widdiehill, she caught sight of something which, as she was passing a certain shop, that of a baker known to her as one of her husband's parishioners, made her stop and look in through the glass which formed the upper half of the door. There she saw Gibbie, seated on the counter, dangling his legs, eating a penny loaf, and looking as comfortable as possible.--"So soon after luncheon, too!" said Mrs. Sclater to herself with indignation, reading through the spectacles of her anger a reflection on her housekeeping. But a second look revealed, as she had dreaded, far weightier cause for displeasure: a very pretty girl stood behind the counter, with whose company Gibbie was evidently much pleased. She was fair of hue, with eyes of gray and green, and red lips whose smile showed teeth whiter than the whitest of flour. At the moment she was laughing merrily, and talking gaily to Gibbie. Clearly they were on the best of terms, and the boy's bright countenance, laughter, and eager motions, were making full response to the girl's words.
Gibbie had been in the shop two or three times before, but this was the first time he had seen his old friend, Mysie, of the amethyst ear-ring. And now one of them had reminded the other of that episode in which their histories had run together; from that Mysie had gone on to other reminiscences of her childhood in which wee Gibbie bore a part, and he had, as well as he could, replied with others, of his, in which she was concerned. Mysie was a simple, well-behaved girl, and the entrance of neither father nor mother would have made the least difference in her behaviour to Sir Gilbert, though doubtless she was more pleased to have a chat with him than with her father's apprentice, who could speak indeed, but looked dull as the dough he worked in, whereas Gibbie, although dumb, was radiant. But the faces of people talking often look more meaningful to one outside the talk-circle than they really are, and Mrs. Sclater, gazing through the glass, found, she imagined, large justification of displeasure. She opened the door sharply, and stepped in. Gibbie jumped from his seat on the counter, and, with a smile of playful roguery, offered it to her; a vivid blush overspread Mysie's fair countenance.
"I thought you had gone to see Donal," said Mrs. Sclater, in the tone of one deceived, and took no notice of the girl.
Gibbie gave her to understand that Donal would arrive presently, and they were then going to the point of the pier, that Donal might learn what the sea was like in a nor'-easter.
"But why did you make your appointment here?" asked the lady.
"Because Mysie and I are old friends," answered the boy on his fingers.
Then first Mrs. Sclater turned to the girl: having got over her first indignation, she spoke gently and with a frankness natural to her.
"Sir Gilbert tells me you are old friends," she said.
Thereupon Mysie told her the story of the ear-ring, which had introduced their present conversation, and added several other little recollections, in one of which she was drawn into a description, half pathetic, half humorous, of the forlorn appearance of wee Gibbie, as he ran about in his truncated trousers. Mrs. Slater was more annoyed, however, than interested, for, in view of the young baronet's future, she would have had all such things forgotten; but Gibbie was full of delight in the vivid recollections thus brought him of some of the less painful portions of his past, and appreciated every graphic word that fell from the girl's pretty lips.
Mrs. Sclater took good care not to leave until Donal came. Then the boys, having asked her if she would not go with them, which invitation she declined with smiling thanks, took their departure and went to pay their visit to the German Ocean, leaving her with Mysie--which they certainly would not have done, could they have foreseen how the well-meaning lady--nine-tenths of the mischiefs in the world are well-meant--would hurt the feelings of the gentle-conditioned girl. For a long time after, as often as Gibbie entered the shop, Mysie left it and her mother came--a result altogether as Mrs. Sclater would have had it. But hardly anybody was ever in less danger of falling in love than Gibbie; and the thing would not have been worth recording, but for the new direction it caused in Mrs. Sclater's thoughts: measures, she judged, must be taken.
Gladly as she would have centred Gibbie's boyish affections in herself, she was too conscientious and experienced not to regard the danger of any special effort in that direction, and began therefore to cast about in her mind what could be done to protect him from one at least of the natural consequences of his early familiarity with things unseemly--exposure, namely, to the risk of forming low alliances--the more imminent that it was much too late to attempt any restriction of his liberty, so as to keep him from roaming the city at his pleasure. Recalling what her husband had told her of the odd meeting between the boy and a young lady at Miss Kimble's school--some relation, she thought he had said--also the desire to see her again which Gibbie, on more than one occasion, had shown, she thought whether she could turn the acquaintance to account. She did not much like Miss Kimble, chiefly because of her affectations--which, by the way, were caricatures of her own; but she knew her very well, and there was no reason why she should not ask her to come and spend the evening, and bring two or three of the elder girls with her: a little familiarity with the looks, manners, and dress of refined girls of his own age, would be the best antidote to his taste for low society, from that of bakers' daughters downwards.
It was Mrs. Sclater's own doing that Gibbie had not again spoken to Ginevra. Nowise abashed at the thought of the grenadier or her array of doves, he would have gone, the very next day after meeting them in the street, to call upon her: it was some good, he thought, of being a rich instead of a poor boy, that, having lost thereby those whom he loved best, he had come where he could at least see Miss Galbraith; but Mrs. Sclater had pretended not to understand where he wanted to go, and used other artifices besides--well-meant, of course--to keep him to herself until she should better understand him. After that he had seen Ginevra more than once at church, but had had no chance of speaking to her. For, in the sudden dispersion of its agglomerate particles, a Scotch congregation is--or was in Gibbie's time--very like the well-known vitreous drop called a Prince Rupert's tear, in which the mutually repellent particles are held together by a strongly contracted homogeneous layer--to separate with explosion the instant the tough skin is broken and vibration introduced; and as Mrs. Sclater generally sat in her dignity to the last, and Gibbie sat with her, only once was he out in time to catch a glimpse of the ultimate rank of the retreating girls. He was just starting to pursue them, when Mrs. Sclater, perceiving his intention, detained him by requesting the support of his arm--a way she had, pretending to be weary, or to have given her ankle a twist, when she wanted to keep him by her side. Another time he had followed them close enough to see which turn they took out of Daur-street; but that was all he had learned, and when the severity of the winter arrived, and the snow lay deep, sometimes for weeks together, the chances of meeting them were few. The first time the boys went out together, that when they failed to find Mistress Croale's garret, they made an excursion in search of the girls' school, but had been equally unsuccessful in that; and although they never after went for a walk without contriving to pass through some part of the region in which they thought it must lie, they had never yet even discovered a house upon which they could agree as presenting probabilities.
Mr. Galbraith did not take Miss Kimble into his confidence with respect to his reasons for so hurriedly placing his daughter under her care: he was far too reticent, too proud, and too much hurt for that. Hence, when Mrs. Sclater's invitation arrived, the schoolmistress was aware of no reason why Miss Galbraith should not be one of the girls to go with her, especially as there was her cousin, Sir Gilbert, whom she herself would like to meet again, in the hope of removing the bad impression which, in the discharge of her duty, she feared she must have made upon him.
One day, then, at luncheon, Mrs. Sclater told Gibbie that some ladies were coming to tea, and they were going to have supper instead of dinner. He must put on his best clothes, she said. He did as she desired, was duly inspected, approved on the whole, and finished off by a few deft fingers at his necktie, and a gentle push or two from the loveliest of hands against his hair-thatch, and was seated in the drawing-room with Mrs. Sclater when the ladies arrived. Ginevra and he shook hands, she with the sweetest of rose-flushes, he with the radiance of delighted surprise. But, a moment after, when Mrs. Sclater and her guests had seated themselves, Gibbie, their only gentleman, for Mr. Sclater had not yet made his appearance, had vanished from the room. Tea was not brought until some time after, when Mr. Sclater came home, and then Mrs. Sclater sent Jane to find Sir Gilbert; but she returned to say he was not in the house. The lady's heart sank, her countenance fell, and all was gloom: her project had miscarried! he was gone! who could tell whither?--perhaps to the baker's daughter, or to the horrid woman Croale!
The case was however very much otherwise. The moment Gibbie ended his greetings, he had darted off to tell Donal: it was not his custom to enjoy alone anything sharable.
The news that Ginevra was at that moment seated in Mrs. Sclater's house, at that moment, as his eagerness had misunderstood Gibbie's, expecting his arrival, raised such a commotion in Donal's atmosphere, that for a time it was but a huddle of small whirlwinds. His heart was beating like the trample of a trotting horse. He never thought of inquiring whether Gibbie had been commissioned by Mrs. Sclater to invite him, or reflected that his studies were not half over for the night. An instant before the arrival of the blessed fact, he had been absorbed in a rather abstruse metaphysico-mathematical question; now not the metaphysics of the universe would have appeared to him worth a moment's meditation. He went pacing up and down the room, and seemed lost to everything. Gibbie shook him at length, and told him, by two signs, that he must put on his Sunday clothes. Then first shyness, like the shroud of northern myth that lies in wait in a man's path, leaped up, and wrapped itself around him. It was very well to receive ladies in a meadow, quite another thing to walk into their company in a grand room, such as, before entering Mrs. Sclater's, he had never beheld even in Fairyland or the Arabian Nights. He knew the ways of the one, and not the ways of the other. Chairs ornate were doubtless poor things to daisied banks, yet the other day he had hardly brought himself to sit on one of Mrs. Sclater's! It was a moment of awful seeming. But what would he not face to see once more the lovely lady-girl! He bethought himself that he was no longer a cowherd but a student, and that such feelings were unworthy of one who would walk level with his fellows. He rushed to the labours of his toilette, performed severe ablutions, endued his best shirt--coarse, but sweet from the fresh breezes of Glashgar, a pair of trousers of buff-coloured fustian stamped over with a black pattern, an olive-green waistcoat, a blue tailcoat with lappets behind, and a pair of well-polished shoes, the soles of which in honour of Sunday were studded with small instead of large knobs of iron, set a tall beaver hat, which no brushing would make smooth, on the back of his head, stuffed a silk hankerchief, crimson and yellow, in his pocket, and declared himself ready.
Now Gibbie, although he would not have looked so well in his woolly coat in Mrs. Sclater's drawing-room as on the rocks of Glashgar, would have looked better in almost any other than the evening dress, now, alas! nearly European. Mr. Sclater, on the other hand, would have looked worse in any other because being less commonplace, it would have been less like himself; and so long as the commonplace conventional so greatly outnumber the simply individual, it is perhaps well the present fashion should hold. But Donal could hardly have put on any clothes that would have made him look worse, either in respect of himself or of the surroundings of social life, than those he now wore. Neither of the boys, however, had begun to think about dress in relation either to custom or to fitness, and it was with complete satisfaction that Gibbie carried off Donal to present to the guest of his guardians.
Donal's preparations had taken a long time, and before they reached the house, tea was over and gone. They had had some music; and Mrs. Sclater was now talking kindly to two of the school-girls, who, seated erect on the sofa, were looking upon her elegance with awe and envy. Ginevra, was looking at the pictures of an annual. Mr. Sclater was making Miss Kimble agreeable to herself. He had a certain gift of talk--depending in a great measure on the assurance of being listened to, an assurance which is, alas! nowise the less hurtful to many a clergyman out of the pulpit, that he may be equally aware no one heeds him in it.