Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter XLIX. The Houseless.
The minister kept Gibbie hard at work, and by the time Donal's last winter came, Gibbie was ready for college also. To please Mr. Sclater he competed for a bursary, and gained a tolerably good one, but declined accepting it. His guardian was annoyed, he could not see why he should refuse what he had "earned." Gibbie asked him whether it was the design of the founder of those bursaries that rich boys should have them. Were they not for the like of Donal? Whereupon Mr. Sclater could not help remembering what a difference it would have made to him in his early struggles, if some rich bursar above him had yielded a place--and held his peace.
Daur-street being too far from Elphinstone College for a student to live there, Mr. Sclater consented to Gibbie's lodging with Donal, but would have insisted on their taking rooms in some part of the town--more suitable to the young baronet's position, he said; but as there was another room to be had at Mistress Murkison's, Gibbie insisted that one who had shown them so much kindness must not be forsaken; and by this time he seldom found difficulty in having his way with his guardian. Both he and his wife had come to understand him better, and nobody could understand Gibbie better without also understanding better all that was good and true and right: although they hardly knew the fact themselves, the standard of both of them had been heightened by not a few degrees since Gibbie came to them; and although he soon ceased to take direct notice of what in their conduct distressed him, I cannot help thinking it was not amiss that he uttered himself as he did at the first; knowing a little his ways of thinking they came to feel his judgment unexpressed. For Mrs. Sclater, when she bethought herself that she had said or done something he must count worldly, the very silence of the dumb boy was a reproof to her.
One night the youths had been out for a long walk and came back to the city late, after the shops were shut. Only here and there a light glimmered in some low-browed little place, probably used in part by the family. Not a soul was visible in the dingy region through which they now approached their lodging, when round a corner, moving like a shadow, came, soft-pacing, a ghostly woman in rags, with a white, worn face, and the largest black eyes, it seemed to the youths that they had ever seen--an apparition of awe and grief and wonder. To compare a great thing to a small, she was to their eyes as a ruined, desecrated shrine to the eyes of the saint's own peculiar worshipper. I may compare her to what I please, great or small--to a sapphire set in tin, to an angel with draggled feathers; for far beyond all comparison is that temple of the holy ghost in the desert--a woman in wretchedness and rags. She carried her puny baby rolled hard in the corner of her scrap of black shawl. To the youths a sea of trouble looked out of those wild eyes. As she drew near them, she hesitated, half-stopped, and put out a hand from under the shawl--stretched out no arm, held out only a hand from the wrist, white against the night. Donal had no money. Gibbie had a shilling. The hand closed upon it, a gleam crossed the sad face, and a murmur of thanks fluttered from the thin lips as she walked on her way. The youths breathed deep, and felt a little relieved, but only a little. The thought of the woman wandering in the dark and the fog and the night, was a sickness at their hearts. Was it impossible to gather such under the wings of any night-brooding hen? That Gibbie had gone through so much of the same kind of thing himself, and had found it endurable enough, did not make her case a whit the less pitiful in his eyes, and indeed it was widely, sadly different from his. Along the deserted street, which looked to Donal like a waterless canal banked by mounds of death, and lighted by phosphorescent grave-damps, they followed her with their eyes, the one living thing, fading away from lamp to lamp; and when they could see her no farther, followed her with their feet; they could not bear to lose sight of her. But they kept just on the verge of vision, for they did not want her to know the espial of their love. Suddenly she disappeared, and keeping their eyes on the spot as well as they could, they found when they reached it a little shop, with a red curtain, half torn down, across the glass door of it. A dim oil lamp was burning within. It looked like a rag-shop, dirty and dreadful. There she stood, while a woman with a bloated face, looking to Donal like a feeder of hell-swine, took from some secret hole underneath, a bottle which seemed to Gibbie the very one his father used to drink from. He would have rushed in and dashed it from her hand, but Donal withheld him.
"Hoots!" he said, "we canna follow her a' nicht; an' gien we did, what better wad she be i' the mornin'? Lat her be, puir thing!"
She received the whisky in a broken tea-cup, swallowed some of it eagerly, then, to the horror of the youths, put some of it into the mouth of her child from her own. Draining the last drops from the cup, she set it quietly down, turned, and without a word spoken, for she had paid beforehand, came out, her face looking just as white and thin as before, but having another expression in the eyes of it. At the sight Donal's wisdom forsook him.
"Eh, wuman," he cried, "yon wasna what ye hed the shillin' for!"
"Ye said naething," answered the poor creature, humbly, and walked on, hanging her head, and pressing her baby to her bosom.
The boys looked at each other.
"That wasna the gait yer shillin' sud hae gane, Gibbie," said Donal. "It's clear it winna dee to gie shillin's to sic like as her. Wha kens but the hunger an' the caul', an' the want o' whisky may be the wuman's evil things here, 'at she may 'scape the hellfire o' the Rich Man hereafter?"
He stopped, for Gibbie was weeping. The woman and her child he would have taken to his very heart, and could do nothing for them. Love seemed helpless, for money was useless. It set him thinking much, and the result appeared. From that hour the case of the homeless haunted his heart and brain and imagination; and as his natural affections found themselves repelled and chilled in what is called Society, they took refuge more and more with the houseless and hungry and shivering. Through them, also, he now, for the first time, began to find grave and troublous questions mingling with his faith and hope; so that already he began to be rewarded for his love: to the true heart every doubt is a door. I will not follow and describe the opening of these doors to Gibbie, but, as what he discovered found always its first utterance in action, wait until I can show the result.
For the time the youths were again a little relieved about the woman: following her still, to a yet more wretched part of the city, they saw her knock at a door, pay something, and be admitted. It looked a dreadful refuge, but she was at least under cover, and shelter, in such a climate as ours in winter, must be the first rudimentary notion of salvation. No longer haunted with the idea of her wandering all night about the comfortless streets, "like a ghost awake in Memphis," Donal said, they went home. But it was long before they got to sleep, and in the morning their first words were about the woman.
"Gien only we hed my mither here!" said Donal.
"Mightn't you try Mr. Sclater?" suggested Gibbie.
Donal answered with a great roar of laughter.
"He wad tell her she oucht to tak shame till hersel'," he said, "an' I'm thinkin' she's lang brunt a' her stock o' that firin'. He wud tell her she sud work for her livin', an' maybe there isna ae turn the puir thing can dee 'at onybody wad gie her a bawbee for a day o'!--But what say ye to takin' advice o' Miss Galbraith?"
It was strange how, with the marked distinctions between them, Donal and Gibbie would every now and then, like the daughters of the Vicar of Wakefield, seem to change places and parts.
"God can make praise-pipes of babes and sucklings," answered Gibbie; "but it does not follow that they can give advice. Don't you remember your mother saying that the stripling David was enough to kill a braggart giant, but a sore-tried man was wanted to rule the people?"
It ended in their going to Mistress Croale. They did not lay bare to her their perplexities, but they asked her to find out who the woman was, and see if anything could be done for her. They said to themselves she would know the condition of such a woman, and what would be moving in her mind, after the experience she had herself had, better at least than the minister or his lady-wife. Nor were they disappointed. To be thus taken into counsel revived for Mistress Croale the time of her dignity while yet she shepherded her little flock of drunkards. She undertook the task with hearty good will, and carried it out with some success. Its reaction on herself to her own good was remarkable. There can be no better auxiliary against our own sins than to help our neighbour in the encounter with his. Merely to contemplate our neighbour will recoil upon us in quite another way: we shall see his faults so black, that we will not consent to believe ours so bad, and will immediately begin to excuse, which is the same as to cherish them, instead of casting them from us with abhorrence.
One day early in the session, as the youths were approaching the gate of Miss Kimble's school, a thin, care-worn man, in shabby clothes, came out, and walked along meeting them. Every now and then he bowed his shoulders, as if something invisible had leaped upon them from behind, and as often seemed to throw it off and with effort walk erect. It was the laird. They lifted their caps, but in return he only stared, or rather tried to stare, for his eyes seemed able to fix themselves on nothing. He was now at length a thoroughly ruined man, and had come to the city to end his days in a cottage belonging to his daughter. Already Mr. Sclater, who was unweariedly on the watch over the material interests of his ward, had, through his lawyer, and without permitting his name to appear, purchased the whole of the Glashruach property. For the present, however, he kept Sir Gilbert in ignorance of the fact.