Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter LIX. Catastrophe.
Gibbie went home as if Pearl-street had been the stairs of Glashgar, and the Auld Hoose a mansion in the heavens. He seemed to float along the way as one floats in a happy dream, where motion is born at once of the will, without the intermediating mechanics of nerve, muscle, and fulcrum. Love had been gathering and ever storing itself in his heart so many years for this brown dove! now at last the rock was smitten, and its treasure rushed forth to her service. In nothing was it changed as it issued, save as the dark, silent, motionless water of the cavern changes into the sparkling, singing, dancing rivulet. Gibbie's was love simple, unselfish, undemanding--not merely asking for no return, but asking for no recognition, requiring not even that its existence should be known. He was a rare one, who did not make the common miserable blunder of taking the shadow cast by love--the desire, namely, to be loved--for love itself; his love was a vertical sun, and his own shadow was under his feet. Silly youths and maidens count themselves martyrs of love, when they are but the pining witnesses to a delicious and entrancing selfishness. But do not mistake me through confounding, on the other hand, the desire to be loved--which is neither wrong nor noble, any more than hunger is either wrong or noble--and the delight in being loved, to be devoid of which a man must be lost in an immeasurably deeper, in an evil, ruinous, yea, a fiendish selfishness. Not to care for love is the still worse reaction from the self-foiled and outworn greed of love. Gibbie's love was a diamond among gem-loves. There are men whose love to a friend is less selfish than their love to the dearest woman; but Gibbie's was not a love to be less divine towards a woman than towards a man. One man's love is as different from another's as the one is himself different from the other. The love that dwells in one man is an angel, the love in another is a bird, that in another a hog. Some would count worthless the love of a man who loved everybody. There would be no distinction in being loved by such a man!--and distinction, as a guarantee of their own great worth, is what such seek. There are women who desire to be the sole object of a man's affection, and are all their lives devoured by unlawful jealousies. A love that had never gone forth upon human being but themselves, would be to them the treasure to sell all that they might buy. And the man who brought such a love might in truth be all-absorbed therein himself: the poorest of creatures may well be absorbed in the poorest of loves. A heart has to be taught to love, and its first lesson, however well learnt, no more makes it perfect in love, than the A B C makes a savant. The man who loves most will love best. The man who throughly loves God and his neighbour is the only man who will love a woman ideally--who can love her with the love God thought of between them when he made man male and female. The man, I repeat, who loves God with his very life, and his neighbour as Christ loves him, is the man who alone is capable of grand, perfect, glorious love to any woman. Because Gibbie's love was towards everything human, he was able to love Ginevra as Donal, poet and prophet, was not yet grown able to love her. To that of the most passionate of unbelieving lovers, Gibbie's love was as the fire of a sun to that of a forest. The fulness of a world of love-ways and love-thoughts was Gibbie's. In sweet affairs of loving-kindness, he was in his own kingdom, and sat upon its throne. And it was this essential love, acknowledging and embracing, as a necessity of its being, everything that could be loved, which now concentrated its rays on the individual's individual. His love to Ginevra stood like a growing thicket of aromatic shrubs, until her confession set the fire of heaven to it, and the flame that consumes not, but gives life, arose and shot homeward. He had never imagined, never hoped, never desired she should love him like that. She had refused his friend, the strong, the noble, the beautiful, Donal the poet, and it never could but from her own lips have found way to his belief that she had turned her regard upon wee Sir Gibbie, a nobody, who to himself was a mere burning heart running about in tattered garments. His devotion to her had forestalled every pain with its antidote of perfect love, had negatived every lack, had precluded every desire, had shut all avenues of entrance against self. Even if "a little thought unsound" should have chanced upon an entrance, it would have found no soil to root and grow in: the soil for the harvest of pain is that brought down from the peaks of pride by the torrents of desire. Immeasurably the greater therefore was his delight, when the warmth and odour of the love that had been from time to him immemorial passing out from him in virtue of consolation and healing, came back upon him in the softest and sweetest of flower-waking spring-winds. Then indeed was his heart a bliss worth God's making. The sum of happiness in the city, if gathered that night into one wave, could not have reached half-way to the crest of the mighty billow tossing itself heavenward as it rushed along the ocean of Gibbie's spirit.
He entered the close of the Auld Hoose. But the excess of his joy had not yet turned to light, was not yet passing from him in physical flame: whence then the glow that illumined the court? He looked up. The windows of Mistress Croale's bedroom were glaring with light! He opened the door hurriedly and darted up. On the stair he was met by the smell of burning, which grew stronger as he ascended. He opened Mistress Croale's door. The chintz curtains of her bed were flaming to the ceiling. He darted to it. Mistress Croale was not in it. He jumped upon it, and tore down the curtains and tester, trampling them under his feet upon the blankets. He had almost finished, and, at the bottom of the bed, was reaching up and pulling at the last of the flaming rags, when a groan came to his ears. He looked down: there, at the foot of the bed, on her back upon the floor, lay Mistress Croale in her satin gown, with red swollen face, wide-open mouth, and half-open eyes, dead drunk, a heap of ruin. A bit of glowing tinder fell on her forehead. She opened her eyes, looked up, uttered a terrified cry, closed them, and was again motionless, except for her breathing. On one side of her lay a bottle, on the other a chamber-candlestick upset, with the candle guttered into a mass.
With the help of the water-jugs, and the bath which stood ready in his room, he succeeded at last in putting out the fire, and then turned his attention to Mistress Croale. Her breathing had grown so stertorous that he was alarmed, and getting more water, bathed her head, and laid a wet handkerchief on it, after which he sat down and watched her. It would have made a strange picture: the middle of the night, the fire-blasted bed, the painful, ugly carcase on the floor, and the sad yet--I had almost said radiant youth, watching near. The slow night passed.
The gray of the morning came, chill and cheerless. Mistress Croale stirred, moved, crept up rather than rose to a sitting position, and stretched herself yawning. Gibbie had risen and stood over her. She caught sight of him; absolute terror distorted her sodden face; she stared at him, then stared about her, like one who had suddenly waked in hell. He took her by the arm. She obeyed, rose, and stood, fear conquering the remnants of drunkenness, with her whisky-scorched eyes following his every movement, as he got her cloak and bonnet. He put them on her. She submitted like a child caught in wickedness, and cowed by the capture. He led her from the house, out into the dark morning, made her take his arm, and away they walked together, down to the riverside. She gave a reel now and then, and sometimes her knees would double under her; but Gibbie was no novice at the task, and brought her safe to the door of her lodging--of which, in view of such a possibility, he had been paying the rent all the time. He opened the door with her pass-key, led her up the stair, unlocked the door of her garret, placed her in a chair, and left her, closing the doors gently behind him. Instinctively she sought her bed, fell upon it, and slept again.
When she woke, her dim mind was haunted by a terrible vision of resurrection and damnation, of which the only point she could plainly recall, was an angel, as like Sir Gibbie as he could look, hanging in the air above her, and sending out flames on all sides of him, which burned her up, inside and out, shrivelling soul and body together. As she lay thinking over it, with her eyes closed, suddenly she remembered, with a pang of dismay, that she had got drunk and broken her vow--that was the origin of the bad dream, and the dreadful headache, and the burning at her heart! She must have water! Painfully lifting herself upon one elbow, she opened her eyes. Then what a bewilderment, and what a discovery, slow unfolding itself, were hers! Like her first parents she had fallen; her paradise was gone; she lay outside among the thorns and thistles before the gate. From being the virtual mistress of a great house, she was back in her dreary lonely garret! Re-exiled in shame from her briefly regained respectability, from friendship and honourable life and the holding forth of help to the world, she lay there a sow that had been washed, and washed in vain! What a sight of disgrace was her grand satin gown--wet, and scorched, and smeared with candle! and ugh! how it smelt of smoke and burning and the dregs of whisky! And her lace!--She gazed at her finery as an angel might on his feathers which the enemy had burned while he slept on his watch.
She must have water! She got out of bed with difficulty, then for a whole hour sat on the edge of it motionless, unsure that she was not in hell. At last she wept--acrid tears, for very misery. She rose, took off her satin and lace, put on a cotton gown, and was once more a decent-looking poor body--except as to her glowing face and burning eyes, which to bathe she had nothing but tears. Again she sat down, and for a space did nothing, only suffered in ignominy. At last life began to revive a little. She rose and moved about the room, staring at the things in it as a ghost might stare at the grave-clothes on its abandoned body. There on the table lay her keys; and what was that under them?--A letter addressed to her. She opened it, and found five pound-notes, with these words: "I promise to pay to Mrs. Croale five pounds monthly, for nine months to come. Gilbert Galbraith." She wept again. He would never speak to her more! She had lost him at last--her only friend!--her sole link to God and goodness and the kingdom of heaven!--lost him for ever!
The day went on, cold and foggy without, colder and drearier within. Sick and faint and disgusted, the poor heart had no atmosphere to beat in save an infinite sense of failure and lost opportunity. She had fuel enough in the room to make a little fire, and at length had summoned resolve sufficient for the fetching of water from the street-pump. She went to the cupboard to get a jug: she could not carry a pailful. There in the corner stood her demon-friend! her own old familiar, the black bottle! as if he had been patiently waiting for her all the long dreary time she had been away! With a flash of fierce joy she remembered she had left it half-full. She caught it up, and held it between her and the fading light of the misty window: it was half-full still!--One glass--a hair of the dog--would set her free from faintness and sickness, disgust and misery! There was no one to find fault with her now! She could do as she liked--there was no one to care!--nothing to take fire!--She set the bottle on the table, because her hand shook, and went again to the cupboard to get a glass. On the way--borne upward on some heavenly current from the deeps of her soul, the face of Gibbie, sorrowful because loving, like the face of the Son of Man, met her. She turned, seized the bottle, and would have dashed it on the hearthstone, but that a sudden resolve arrested her lifted arm: Gibbie should see! She would be strong! That bottle should stand on that shelf until the hour when she could show it him and say, "See the proof of my victory!" She drove the cork fiercely in. When its top was level with the neck, she set the bottle back in its place, and from that hour it stood there, a temptation, a ceaseless warning, the monument of a broken but reparable vow, a pledge of hope. It may not have been a prudent measure. To a weak nature it would have involved certain ruin. But there are natures that do better under difficulty; there are many such. And with that fiend-like shape in her cupboard the one ambition of Mistress Croale's life was henceforth inextricably bound up: she would turn that bottle into a witness for her against the judgment she had deserved. Close by the cupboard door, like a kite or an owl nailed up against a barn, she hung her soiled and dishonoured satin gown; and the dusk having now gathered, took the jug, and fetched herself water. Then, having set her kettle on the fire, she went out with her basket, and bought bread, and butter. After a good cup of tea and some nice toast, she went to bed again, much easier both in mind and body, and slept.
In the morning she went to the market, opened her shop, and waited for customers. Pleasure and surprise at her reappearance brought the old ones quickly back. She was friendly and helpful to them as before; but the slightest approach to inquiry as to where she had been or what she had been doing, she met with simple obstinate silence. Gibbie's bounty and her faithful abstinence enabled her to add to her stock and extend her trade. By and by she had the command of a little money; and when in the late autumn there came a time of scarcity and disease, she went about among the poor like a disciple of Sir Gibbie. Some said that, from her knowledge of their ways, from her judgment, and by her personal ministration of what, for her means, she gave more bountifully than any, she did more to hearten their endurance, than all the ladies together who administered money subscribed. It came to Sir Gibbie's ears, and rejoiced his heart: his old friend was on the King's highway still! In the mean time she saw nothing of him. Not once did he pass her shop, where often her mental, and not unfrequently her bodily, attitude was that of a watching lover. The second day, indeed, she saw him at a little distance, and sorely her heart smote her, for one of his hands was in a sling; but he crossed to the other side, plainly to avoid her. She was none the less sure, however, that when she asked him he would forgive her; and ask him she would, as soon as she had satisfactory proof of repentance to show him.