Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter LIII. A Night-Watch.
A sense of loneliness, such as in all his forsaken times he had never felt, overshadowed Gibbie when he read this letter. He was altogether perplexed by Donal's persistent avoidance of him. He had done nothing to hurt him, and knew himself his friend in his sorrow as well as in his joy. He sat down in the room that had been his, and wrote to him. As often as he raised his eyes--for he had not shut the door--he saw the dusty sunshine on the old furniture. It was a bright day, one of the poursuivants of the yet distant summer, but how dreary everything looked! how miserable and heartless now Donal was gone, and would never regard those things any more! When he had ended his letter, almost for the first time in his life, he sat thinking what he should do next. It was as if he were suddenly becalmed on the high seas; one wind had ceased to blow, and another had not begun. It troubled him a little that he must now return to Mr. Sclater, and once more feel the pressure of a nature not homogeneous with his own. But it would not be for long.
Mr. Sclater had thought of making a movement towards gaining an extension of his tutelage beyond the ordinary legal period, on the ground of unfitness in his ward for the management of his property; but Gibbie's character and scholarship, and the opinion of the world which would follow failure, had deterred him from the attempt. In the month of May, therefore, when, according to the registry of his birth in the parish book, he would be of age, he would also be, as he expected, his own master, so far as other mortals were concerned. As to what he would then do, he had thought much, and had plans, but no one knew anything of them except Donal--who had forsaken him.
He was in no haste to return to Daur-street. He packed Donal's things, with all the books they had bought together, and committed the chest to Mistress Murkison. He then told her he would rather not give up his room just yet, but would like to keep it on for a while, and come and go as he pleased; to which the old woman replied,
"As ye wull, Sir Gibbie. Come an' gang as free as the win'. Mak o' my hoose as gien it war yer ain."
He told her he would sleep there that night, and she got him his dinner as usual; after which, putting a Greek book in his pocket, he went out, thinking to go to the end of the pier and sit there a while. He would gladly have gone to Ginevra, but she had prevented him when she was at school, and had never asked him since she left it. But Gibbie was not ennuyé: the pleasure of his life came from the very roots of his being, and would therefore run into any channel of his consciousness; neither was he greatly troubled; nothing could "put rancours in the vessel of" his "peace;" he was only very hungry after the real presence of the human; and scarcely had he set his foot on the pavement, when he resolved to go and see Mistress Croale. The sun, still bright, was sinking towards the west, and a cold wind was blowing. He walked to the market, up to the gallery of it, and on to the farther end, greeting one and another of the keepers of the little shops, until he reached that of Mistress Croale. She was overjoyed at sight of him, and proud the neighbours saw the terms they were on. She understood his signs and finger-speech tolerably, and held her part of the conversation in audible utterance. She told him that for the week past Donal had occupied her garret--she did not know why, she said, and hoped nothing had gone wrong between them. Gibbie signed that he could not tell her about it there, but would go and take tea with her in the evening.
"I'm sorry I canna be hame sae ear'," she replied. "I promised to tak my dish o' tay wi' auld Mistress Green--the kail-wife, ye ken, Sir Gibbie."--Gibbie nodded and she resumed:--"But gien ye wad tak a lug o' a Fin'on haddie wi' me at nine o'clock, I wad be prood."
Gibbie nodded again, and left her.
All this time he had not happened to discover that the lady who stood at the next counter, not more than a couple of yards from him, was Miss Kimble--which was the less surprising in that the lady took some trouble to hide the fact. She extended her purchasing when she saw who was shaking hands with the next stall-keeper, but kept her face turned from him, heard all Mrs. Croale said to him, and went away asking herself what possible relations except objectionable ones could exist between such a pair. She knew little or nothing of Gibbie's early history, for she had not been a dweller in the city when Gibbie was known as well as the town-cross to almost every man, woman, and child in it, else perhaps she might, but I doubt it, have modified her conclusion. Her instinct was in the right, she said, with self-gratulation; he was a lad of low character and tastes, just what she had taken him for the first moment she saw him: his friends could not know what he was; she was bound to acquaint them with his conduct; and first of all, in duty to her old pupil, she must let Mr. Galbraith know what sort of friendships this Sir Gilbert, his nephew, cultivated. She went therefore straight to the cottage.
Fergus was there when she rang the bell. Mr. Galbraith looked out, and seeing who it was, retreated--the more hurriedly that he owed her money, and imagined she had come to dun him. But when she found to her disappointment that she could not see him, Miss Kimble did not therefore attempt to restrain a little longer the pent-up waters of her secret. Mr. Duff was a minister, and the intimate friend of the family: she would say what she had seen and heard. Having then first abjured all love of gossip, she told her tale, appealing to the minister whether she had not been right in desiring to let Sir Gilbert's uncle know how he was going on.
"I was not aware that Sir Gilbert was a cousin of yours, Miss Galbraith," said Fergus.
Ginevra's face was rosy red, but it was now dusk, and the fire-light had friendly retainer-shadows about it.
"He is not my cousin," she answered.
"Why, Ginevra! you told me he was your cousin," said Miss Kimble, with keen moral reproach.
"I beg your pardon; I never did," said Ginevra.
"I must see your father instantly," cried Miss Kimble, rising in anger. "He must be informed at once how much he is mistaken in the young gentleman he permits to be on such friendly terms with his daughter."
"My father does not know him," rejoined Ginevra; "and I should prefer they were not brought together just at present."
Her words sounded strange even in her own ears, but she knew no way but the straight one.
"You quite shock me, Ginevra!" said the school-mistress, resuming her seat: "you cannot mean to say you cherish acquaintance with a young man of whom your father knows nothing, and whom you dare not introduce to him?"
To explain would have been to expose her father to blame.
"I have known Sir Gilbert from my childhood," she said.
"Is it possible your duplicity reaches so far?" cried Miss Kimble, assured in her own mind that Ginevra had said he was her cousin.
Fergus thought it was time to interfere.
"I know something of the circumstances that led to the acquaintance of Miss Galbraith with Sir Gilbert," he said, "and I am sure it would only annoy her father to have any allusion made to it by one--excuse me, Miss Kimble--who is comparatively a stranger. I beg you will leave the matter to me."
Fergus regarded Gibbie as a half witted fellow, and had no fear of him. He knew nothing of the commencement of his acquaintance with Ginevra, but imagined it had come about through Donal; for, studiously as Mr. Galbraith had avoided mention of his quarrel with Ginevra because of the lads, something of it had crept out, and reached the Mains; and in now venturing allusion to that old story, Fergus was feeling after a nerve whose vibration, he thought, might afford him some influence over Ginevra.
He spoke authoritatively, and Miss Kimble, though convinced it was a mere pretence of her graceless pupil that her father would not see her, had to yield, and rose. Mr. Duff rose also, saying he would walk with her. He returned to the cottage, dined with them, and left about eight o'clock.
Already well enough acquainted in the city to learn without difficulty where Mistress Croale lived, and having nothing very particular to do, he strolled in the direction of her lodging, and saw Gibbie go into the house. Having seen him in, he was next seized with the desire to see him out again; having lain in wait for him as a beneficent brownie, he must now watch him as a profligate baronet forsooth! To haunt the low street until he should issue was a dreary prospect--in the east wind of a March night, which some giant up above seemed sowing with great handfuls of rain-seed; but having made up his mind, he stood his ground. For two hours he walked, vaguely cherishing an idea that he was fulfilling a duty of his calling, as a moral policeman.
When at length Gibbie appeared, he had some difficulty in keeping him in sight, for the sky was dark, the moon was not yet up, and Gibbie walked like a swift shadow before him. Suddenly, as if some old association had waked the old habit, he started off at a quick trot. Fergus did his best to follow. As he ran, Gibbie caught sight of a woman seated on a doorstep, almost under a lamp, a few paces up a narrow passage, stopped, stepped within the passage, and stood in a shadow watching her. She had turned the pocket of her dress inside out, and seemed unable to satisfy herself that there was nothing there but the hole, which she examined again and again, as if for the last news of her last coin. Too thoroughly satisfied at length, she put back the pocket, and laid her head on her hands. Gibbie had not a farthing. Oh, how cold it was! and there sat his own flesh and blood shivering in it! He went up to her. The same moment Fergus passed the end of the court. Gibbie took her by the hand. She started in terror, but his smile reassured her. He drew her, and she rose. He laid her hand on his arm, and she went with him. He had not yet begun to think about prudence, and perhaps, if some of us thought more about right, we should have less occasion to cultivate the inferior virtue. Perhaps also we should have more belief that there is One to care that things do not go wrong.
Fergus had given up the chase, and having met a policeman, was talking to him, when Gibbie came up with the woman on his arm, and passed them. Fergus again followed, sure of him now. Had not fear of being recognized prevented him from passing them and looking, he would have seen only a poor old thing, somewhere about sixty; but if she had been beautiful as the morning, of course Gibbie would have taken her all the same. He was the Gibbie that used to see the drunk people home. Gibbies like him do not change; they grow.
After following them through several streets, Fergus saw them stop at a door. Gibbie opened it with a key which his spy imagined the woman gave him. They entered, and shut it almost in Fergus's face, as he hurried up determined to speak. Gibbie led the poor shivering creature up the stair, across the chaos of furniture, and into his room, in the other corner next to Donal's. To his joy he found the fire was not out. He set her in the easiest chair he had, put the kettle on, blew the fire to a blaze, made coffee, cut bread and butter, got out a pot of marmalade, and ate and drank with his guest. She seemed quite bewildered and altogether unsure. I believe she took him at last, finding he never spoke, for half-crazy, as not a few had done, and as many would yet do. She smelt of drink, but was sober, and ready enough to eat. When she had taken as much as she would, Gibbie turned down the bed-clothes, made a sign to her she was to sleep there, took the key from the outside of the door, and put it in the lock on the inside, nodded a good-night, and left her, closing the door softly, which he heard her lock behind him, and going to Donal's room, where he slept.
In the morning he knocked at her door, but there was no answer, and opening it, he found she was gone.
When he told Mistress Murkison what he had done, he was considerably astonished at the wrath and indignation which instantly developed themselves in the good creature's atmosphere. That her respectable house should be made a hiding-place from the wind and a covert from the tempest, was infuriating. Without a moment's delay, she began a sweeping and scrubbing, and general cleansing of the room, as if all the devils had spent the night in it. And then for the first time Gibbie reflected, that, when he ran about the streets, he had never been taken home--except once, to be put under the rod and staff of the old woman. If Janet had been like the rest of them, he would have died upon Glashgar, or be now wandering about the country, doing odd jobs for half-pence! He must not do like other people--would not, could not, dared not be like them! He had had such a thorough schooling in humanity as nobody else had had! He had been to school in the streets, in dark places of revelry and crime, and in the very house of light!
When Mistress Murkison told him that if ever he did the like again, she would give him notice to quit, he looked in her face: she stared a moment in return, then threw her arms round his neck, and kissed him.
"Ye're the bonniest cratur o' a muckle idiot 'at ever man saw!" she cried; "an' gien ye dinna tak the better care, ye'll be soopit aff to haiven afore ye ken whaur ye are or what ye're aboot."
Her feelings, if not her sentiments, experienced a relapse when she discovered that one of her few silver tea-spoons was gone--which, beyond a doubt, the woman had taken: she abused her, and again scolded Gibbie, with much vigour. But Gibbie said to himself, "The woman is not bad, for there were two more silver spoons on the table." Even in the matter of stealing we must think of our own beam before our neighbour's mote. It is not easy to be honest. There is many a thief who is less of a thief than many a respectable member of society. The thief must be punished, and assuredly the other shall not come out until he has paid the uttermost farthing. Gibbie, who would have died rather than cast a shadow of injustice, was not shocked at the woman's depravity like Mistress Murkison. I am afraid he smiled. He took no notice either of her scoldings or her lamentations; but the first week after he came of age, he carried her a present of a dozen spoons.
Fergus could not tell Ginevra what he had seen; and if he told her father, she would learn that he had been playing the spy. To go to Mr. Sclater would have compromised him similarly. And what great occasion was there? He was not the fellow's keeper!
That same day Gibbie went back to his guardians. At his request Mrs. Sclater asked Ginevra to spend the following evening with them: he wanted to tell her about Donal. She accepted the invitation. But in a village near the foot of Glashgar, Donal had that morning done what was destined to prevent her from keeping her engagement: he had posted a letter to her. In an interval of comparative quiet, he had recalled the verses he sang to her as they walked that evening, and now sent them--completed in a very different tone. Not a word accompanied them.
Some sharp rocky heicht, to catch a far mornin'
The letter was handed, with one or two more, to Mr. Galbraith, at the breakfast table. He did not receive many letters now, and could afford time to one that was for his daughter. He laid it with the rest by his side, and after breakfast took it to his room and read it. He could no more understand it than Fergus could the Epistle to the Romans, and therefore the little he did understand of it was too much. But he had begun to be afraid of his daughter: her still dignity had begun to tell upon him in his humiliation. He laid the letter aside, said nothing, and waited, inwardly angry and contemptuous. After a while he began to flatter himself with the hope that perhaps it was but a sort of impertinent valentine, the writer of which was unknown to Ginevra. From the moment of its arrival, however, he kept a stricter watch upon her, and that night prevented her from going to Mrs. Sclater's. Gibbie, aware that Fergus continued his visits, doubted less and less that she had given herself to "The Bledder," as Donal called the popular preacher.