Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter LVII. A Hiding-Place from the Wind.
Gibbie found everything at the Auld Hoose in complete order for his reception: Mistress Croale had been very diligent, and promised well for a housekeeper--looked well, too, in her black satin and lace, with her complexion, she justly flattered herself, not a little improved. She had a good meal ready for him, with every adjunct in proper style, during the preparation of which she had revelled in the thought that some day, when she had quite established her fitness for her new position, Sir Gibbie would certainly invite the minister and his lady to dine with him, when she, whom they were too proud to ask to partake of their cockie-leekie, would show them she knew both what a dinner ought to be, and how to preside at it; and the soup it should be cockie-leekie.
Everything went comfortably. Gibbie was so well up in mathematics, thanks to Mr. Sclater, that, doing all requisite for honourable studentship, but having no desire to distinguish himself, he had plenty of time for more important duty. Now that he was by himself, as if old habit had returned in the shape of new passion, he roamed the streets every night. His custom was this: after dinner, which he had when he came from college, about half-past four, he lay down, fell asleep in a moment, as he always did, and slept till half-past six; then he had tea, and after that, studied--not dawdled over his books, till ten o'clock, when he took his Greek Testament. At eleven he went out, seldom finally returning before half-past one, sometimes not for an hour longer--during which time Mistress Croale was in readiness to receive any guest he might bring home.
The history of the special endeavour he had now commenced does not belong to my narrative. Some nights, many nights together, he would not meet a single wanderer; occasionally he would meet two or three in the same night. When he found one, he would stand regarding him until he spoke. If the man was drunk he would leave him: such were not those for whom he could now do most. If he was sober, he made him signs of invitation. If he would not go with him, he left him, but kept him in view, and tried him again. If still he would not, he gave him a piece of bread, and left him. If he called, he stopped, and by circuitous ways brought him to the little house at the back. It was purposely quite dark. If the man was too apprehensive to enter, he left him; if he followed, he led him to Mistress Croale. If anything suggested the possibility of helping farther, a possibility turning entirely on the person's self, the attempt was set on foot; but in general, after a good breakfast, Gibbie led him through a dark passage into the darkened house, and dismissed him from the door by which he had entered. He never gave money, and never sought such guest except in the winter. Indeed, he was never in the city in the summer. Before the session was over, they had one woman and one girl in a fair way of honest livelihood, and one small child, whose mother had an infant besides, and was evidently dying, he had sent "in a present" to Janet, by the hand of Mistress Murkison. Altogether it was a tolerable beginning, and during the time not a word reached him indicating knowledge of his proceedings, although within a week or two a rumour was rife in the lower parts of the city, of a mysterious being who went about doing this and that for poor folk, but, notwithstanding his gifts, was far from canny.
Mr. and Mrs. Sclater could not fail to be much annoyed when they found he was no longer lodging with Mistress Murkison, but occupying the Auld Hoose, with "that horrible woman" for a housekeeper; they knew, however, that expostulation with one possessed by such a headstrong sense of duty was utterly useless, and contented themselves with predicting to each other some terrible check, the result of his ridiculous theory concerning what was required of a Christian--namely, that the disciple should be as his Master. At the same time Mrs. Sclater had a sacred suspicion that no real ill would ever befall God's innocent, Gilbert Galbraith.
Fergus had now with his father's help established himself in the manse of the North Church, and thither he invited Mr. and Miss Galbraith to dine with him on a certain evening. Her father's absolute desire compelled Ginevra's assent; she could not, while with him, rebel absolutely. Fergus did his best to make the evening a pleasant one, and had special satisfaction in showing the laird that he could provide both a good dinner and a good bottle of port. Two of his congregation, a young lawyer and his wife, were the only other guests. The laird found the lawyer an agreeable companion, chiefly from his readiness to listen to his old law stories, and Fergus laid himself out to please the two ladies: secure of the admiration of one, he hoped it might help to draw the favour of the other. He had conceived the notion that Ginevra probably disliked his profession, and took pains therefore to show how much he was a man of the world--talked about Shakspere, and flaunted rags of quotation in elocutionary style; got books from his study, and read passages from Byron, Shelley, and Moore--chiefly from "The Loves of the Angels" of the last, ecstasizing the lawyer's lady, and interesting Ginevra, though all he read taken together seemed to her unworthy of comparison with one of poor Donal's songs.
It grew late. The dinner had been at a fashionable hour; they had stayed an unfashionable time: it was nearly twelve o'clock when guests and host left the house in company. The lawyer and his wife went one way, and Fergus went the other with the laird and Ginevra.
Hearing the pitiful wailing of a child and the cough of a woman, as they went along a street bridge, they peeped over the parapet, and saw, upon the stair leading to the lower street, a woman, with a child asleep in her lap, trying to eat a piece of bread, and coughing as if in the last stage of consumption. On the next step below sat a man hushing in his bosom the baby whose cry they had heard. They stood for a moment, the minister pondering whether his profession required of him action, and Ginevra's gaze fixed on the head and shoulders of the foreshortened figure of the man, who vainly as patiently sought to soothe the child by gently rocking it to and fro. But when he began a strange humming song to it, which brought all Glashgar before her eyes, Ginevra knew beyond a doubt that it was Gibbie. At the sound the child ceased to wail, and presently the woman with difficulty rose, laying a hand for help on Gibbie's shoulder. Then Gibbie rose also, cradling the infant on his left arm, and making signs to the mother to place the child on his right. She did so, and turning, went feebly up the stair. Gibbie followed with the two children, one lying on his arm, the other with his head on his shoulder, both wretched and pining, with gray cheeks, and dark hollows under their eyes. From the top of the stair they went slowly up the street, the poor woman coughing, and Gibbie crooning to the baby, who cried no more, but now and then moaned. Then Fergus said to the laird:
"Did you see that young man, sir? That is the so-called Sir Gilbert Galbraith we were talking of the other night. They say he has come into a good property, but you may judge for yourself whether he seems fit to manage it!"
Ginevra withdrew her hand from his arm.
"Good God, Jenny!" exclaimed the laird, "you do not mean to tell me you have ever spoken to a young man like that?"
"I know him very well, papa," replied Ginevra, collectedly.
"You are incomprehensible, Jenny! If you know him, why do I not know him? If you had not known good reason to be ashamed of him, you would, one time or other, have mentioned his name in my hearing.--I ask you, and I demand an answer,"--here he stopped, and fronted her--"why have you concealed from me your acquaintance with this--this--person?"
"Because I thought it might be painful to you, papa," she answered, looking in his face.
"Painful to me! Why should it be painful to me--except indeed that it breaks my heart as often as I see you betray your invincible fondness for low company?"
"Do you desire me to tell you, papa, why I thought it might be painful to you to make that young man's acquaintance?"
"I do distinctly. I command you."
"Then I will: that young man, Sir Gilbert Galbraith,--"
"Nonsense, girl! there is no such Galbraith. It is the merest of scoffs."
Ginevra did not care to argue with him this point. In truth she knew little more about it than he.
"Many years ago," she recommenced, "when I was a child,--Excuse me, Mr. Duff, but it is quite time I told my father what has been weighing upon my mind for so many years."
"Sir Gilbert!" muttered her father contemptuously.
"One day," again she began, "Mr. Fergus Duff brought a ragged little boy to Glashruach--the most innocent and loving of creatures, who had committed no crime but that of doing good in secret. I saw Mr. Duff box his ears on the bridge; and you, papa, gave him over to that wretch, Angus Mac Pholp, to whip him--so at least Angus told me, after he had whipped him till he dropped senseless. I can hardly keep from screaming now when I think of it."
"All this, Jenny, is nothing less than cursed folly. Do you mean to tell me you have all these years been cherishing resentment against your own father, for the sake of a little thieving rascal, whom it was a good deed to fright from the error of his ways? I have no doubt Angus gave him merely what he deserved."
"You must remember, Miss Galbraith, we did not know he was dumb," said Fergus, humbly.
"If you had had any heart," said Ginevra, "you would have seen in his face that he was a perfect angelic child. He ran to the mountain, without a rag to cover his bleeding body, and would have died of cold and hunger, had not the Grants, the parents of your father's herd-boy, Mr. Duff, taken him to their hearts, and been father and mother to him."--Ginevra's mouth was opened at last.--"After that," she went on, "Angus, that bad man, shot him like a wild beast, when he was quietly herding Robert Grant's sheep. In return Sir Gilbert saved his life in the flood. And just before the house of Glashruach fell--the part in which my room was, he caught me up, because he could not speak, and carried me out of it; and when I told you that he had saved my life, you ordered him out of the house, and when he was afraid to leave me alone with you, dashed him against the wall, and sent for Angus to whip him again. But I should have liked to see Angus try it then!"
"I do remember an insolent fellow taking advantage of the ruinous state the house was in to make his way into my study," said the laird.
"And now," Ginevra continued, "Mr. Duff makes question of his wits because he finds him carrying a poor woman's children, going to get them a bed somewhere! If Mr. Duff had run about the streets when he was a child, like Sir Gilbert, he might not, perhaps, think it so strange he should care about a houseless woman and her brats!"
Therewith Ginevra burst into tears.
"Abominably disagreeable!" muttered the laird. "I always thought she was an idiot!--Hold your tongue, Jenny! you will wake the street. All you say may or may not be quite true; I do not say you are telling lies, or even exaggerating; but I see nothing in it to prove the lad a fit companion for a young lady. Very much to the contrary. I suppose he told you he was your injured, neglected, ill-used cousin? He may be your cousin: you may have any number of such cousins, if half the low tales concerning your mother's family be true."
Ginevra did not answer him--did not speak another word. When Fergus left them at their own door, she neither shook hands with him nor bade him good night.
"Jenny," said her father, the moment he was gone, "if I hear of your once speaking again to that low vagabond,--and now I think of it," he cried, interrupting himself with a sudden recollection, "there was a cobbler-fellow in the town here they used to call Sir Somebody Galbraith!--that must be his father! Whether the Sir was title or nickname, I neither know nor care. A title without money is as bad as a saintship without grace. But this I tell you, that if I hear of your speaking one word, good or bad, to the fellow again, I will, I swear to Almighty God, I will turn you out of the house."
To Ginevra's accumulated misery, she carried with her to her room a feeling of contempt for her father, with which she lay struggling in vain half the night.