Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald
Chapter VIII. Sambo.
No one was so sorry for the death of Sir George, or had so many kind words to say in memory of him, as Mistress Croale. Neither was her sorrow only because she had lost so good a customer, or even because she had liked the man: I believe it was much enhanced by a vague doubt that after all she was to blame for his death. In vain she said to herself, and said truly, that it would have been far worse for him, and Gibbie too, had he gone elsewhere for his drink; she could not get the account settled with her conscience. She tried to relieve herself by being kinder than before to the boy; but she was greatly hindered in this by the fact that, after his father's death, she could not get him inside her door. That his father was not there--would not be there at night, made the place dreadful to him. This addition to the trouble of mind she already had on account of the nature of her business, was the cause, I believe, why, after Sir George's death, she went down the hill with accelerated speed. She sipped more frequently from her own bottle, soon came to "tasting with" her customers, and after that her descent was rapid. She no longer refused drink to women, though for a time she always gave it under protest; she winked at card-playing; she grew generally more lax in her administration; and by degrees a mist of evil fame began to gather about her house. Thereupon her enemy, as she considered him, the Rev. Clement Sclater, felt himself justified in moving more energetically for the withdrawal of her license, which, with the support of outraged neighbours, he found no difficulty in effecting. She therefore flitted to another parish, and opened a worse house in a worse region of the city--on the river-bank, namely, some little distance above the quay, not too far to be within easy range of sailors, and the people employed about the vessels loading or discharging cargo. It pretended to be only a lodging-house, and had no license for the sale of strong drink, but nevertheless, one way and another, a great deal was drunk in the house, and, as always card-playing, and sometimes worse things were going on, getting more vigorous ever as the daylight waned, frequent quarrels and occasional bloodshed was the consequence. For some time, however, nothing very serious brought the place immediately within the conscious ken of the magistrates.
In the second winter after his father's death, Gibbie, wandering everywhere about the city, encountered Lucky Croale in the neighbourhood of her new abode; down there she was Mistress no longer, but, with a familiarity scarcely removed from contempt, was both mentioned and addressed as Lucky Croale. The repugnance which had hitherto kept Gibbie from her having been altogether to her place and not to herself, he at once accompanied her home, and after that went often to the house. He was considerably surprised when first he heard words from her mouth for using which she had formerly been in the habit of severely reproving her guests; but he always took things as he found them, and when ere long he had to hear such occasionally addressed to himself, when she happened to be more out of temper than usual, he never therefore questioned her friendship. What more than anything else attracted him to her house, however, was the jolly manners and open-hearted kindness of most of the sailors who frequented it, with almost all of whom he was a favourite; and it soon came about that, when his ministrations to the incapable were over, he would spend the rest of the night more frequently there than anywhere else; until at last he gave up, in a great measure, his guardianship of the drunk in the streets for that of those who were certainly in much more danger of mishap at Lucky Croale's. Scarcely a night passed when he was not present at one or more of the quarrels of which the place was a hot-bed; and as he never by any chance took a part, or favoured one side more than another, but confined himself to an impartial distribution of such peace-making blandishments as the ever-springing fountain of his affection took instinctive shape in, the wee baronet came to be regarded, by the better sort of the rough fellows, almost as the very identical sweet little cherub, sitting perched up aloft, whose department in the saving business of the universe it was, to take care of the life of poor Jack. I do not say that he was always successful in his endeavours at atonement, but beyond a doubt Lucky Croale's houff was a good deal less of a hell through the haunting presence of the child. He was not shocked by the things he saw, even when he liked them least. He regarded the doing of them much as he had looked upon his father's drunkenness--as a pitiful necessity that overtook men--one from which there was no escape, and which caused a great need for Gibbies. Evil language and coarse behaviour alike passed over him, without leaving the smallest stain upon heart or conscience, desire or will. No one could doubt it who considered the clarity of his face and eyes, in which the occasional but not frequent expression of keenness and promptitude scarcely even ruffled the prevailing look of unclouded heavenly babyhood.
If any one thinks I am unfaithful to human fact, and overcharge the description of this child, I on my side doubt the extent of the experience of that man or woman. I admit the child a rarity, but a rarity in the right direction, and therefore a being with whom humanity has the greater need to be made acquainted. I admit that the best things are the commonest, but the highest types and the best combinations of them are the rarest. There is more love in the world than anything else, for instance; but the best love and the individual in whom love is supreme are the rarest of all things. That for which humanity has the strongest claim upon its workmen, is the representation of its own best; but the loudest demand of the present day is for the representation of that grade of humanity of which men see the most--that type of things which could never have been but that it might pass. The demand marks the commonness, narrowness, low-levelled satisfaction of the age. It loves its own--not that which might be, and ought to be its own--not its better self, infinitely higher than its present, for the sake of whose approach it exists. I do not think that the age is worse in this respect than those which have preceded it, but that vulgarity, and a certain vile contentment swelling to self-admiration, have become more vocal than hitherto; just as unbelief, which I think in reality less prevailing than in former ages, has become largely more articulate, and thereby more loud and peremptory. But whatever the demand of the age, I insist that that which ought to be presented to its beholding, is the common good uncommonly developed, and that not because of its rarity, but because it is truer to humanity. Shall I admit those conditions, those facts, to be true exponents of humanity, which, except they be changed, purified, or abandoned, must soon cause that humanity to cease from its very name, must destroy its very being? To make the admission would be to assert that a house may be divided against itself, and yet stand. It is the noble, not the failure from the noble, that is the true human; and if I must show the failure, let it ever be with an eye to the final possible, yea, imperative, success. But in our day, a man who will accept any oddity of idiosyncratic development in manners, tastes, or habits, will refuse, not only as improbable, but as inconsistent with human nature, the representation of a man trying to be merely as noble as is absolutely essential to his being--except, indeed, he be at the same time represented as failing utterly in the attempt, and compelled to fall back upon the imperfections of humanity, and acknowledge them as its laws. Its improbability, judged by the experience of most men I admit; its unreality in fact I deny; and its absolute unity with the true idea of humanity, I believe and assert.
It is hardly necessary for me now to remark, seeing my narrative must already have suggested it, that what kept Gibbie pure and honest was the rarely-developed, ever-active love of his kind. The human face was the one attraction to him in the universe. In deep fact, it is so to everyone; I state but the commonest reality in creation; only in Gibbie the fact had come to the surface; the common thing was his in uncommon degree and potency. Gibbie knew no music except the voice of man and woman; at least no other had as yet affected him. To be sure he had never heard much. Drunken sea-songs he heard every night almost; and now and then on Sundays he ran through a zone of psalm-singing; but neither of those could well be called music. There hung a caged bird here and there at a door in the poorer streets; but Gibbie's love embraced the lower creation also, and too tenderly for the enjoyment of its melody. The human bird loved liberty too dearly to gather anything but pain from the song of the little feathered brother who had lost it, and to whom he could not minister as to the drunkard. In general he ran from the presence of such a prisoner. But sometimes he would stop and try to comfort the naked little Freedom, disrobed of its space; and on one occasion was caught in the very act of delivering a canary that hung outside a little shop. Any other than wee Gibbie would have been heartily cuffed for the offence, but the owner of the bird only smiled at the would-be liberator, and hung the cage a couple of feet higher on the wall. With such a passion of affection, then, finding vent in constant action, is it any wonder Gibbie's heart and hands should be too full for evil to occupy them even a little?
One night in the spring, entering Lucky Croale's common room, he saw there for the first time a negro sailor, whom the rest called Sambo, and was at once taken with his big, dark, radiant eyes, and his white teeth continually uncovering themselves in good-humoured smiles. Sambo had left the vessel in which he had arrived, was waiting for another, and had taken up his quarters at Lucky Croale's. Gibbie's advances he met instantly, and in a few days a strong mutual affection had sprung up between them. To Gibbie Sambo speedily became absolutely loving and tender, and Gibbie made him full return of devotion.
The negro was a man of immense muscular power, like not a few of his race, and, like most of them, not easily provoked, inheriting not a little of their hard-learned long-suffering. He bore even with those who treated him with far worse than the ordinary superciliousness of white to black; and when the rudest of city boys mocked him, only showed his teeth by way of smile. The ill-conditioned among Lucky Croale's customers and lodgers were constantly taking advantage of his good nature, and presuming upon his forbearance; but so long as they confined themselves to mere insolence, or even bare-faced cheating, he endured with marvellous temper. It was possible, however, to go too far even with him.
One night Sambo was looking on at a game of cards, in which all the rest in the room were engaged. Happening to laugh at some turn it took, one of them, a Malay, who was losing, was offended, and abused him. Others objected to his having fun without risking money, and required him to join in the game. This for some reason or other he declined, and when the whole party at length insisted, positively refused. Thereupon they all took umbrage, nor did most of them make many steps of the ascent from displeasure to indignation, wrath, revenge; and then ensued a row. Gibbie had been sitting all the time on his friend's knee, every now and then stroking his black face, in which, as insult followed insult, the sunny blood kept slowly rising, making the balls of his eyes and his teeth look still whiter. At length a savage from Greenock threw a tumbler at him. Sambo, quick as a lizard, covered his face with his arm. The tumbler falling from it, struck Gibbie on the head--not severely, but hard enough to make him utter a little cry. At that sound, the latent fierceness came wide awake in Sambo. Gently as a nursing mother he set Gibbie down in a corner behind him, then with one rush sent every Jack of the company sprawling on the floor, with the table and bottles and glasses atop of them. At the vision of their plight his good humour instantly returned, he burst into a great hearty laugh, and proceeded at once to lift the table from off them. That effected, he caught up Gibbie in his arms, and carried him with him to bed.
In the middle of the night Gibbie half woke, and, finding himself alone, sought his father's bosom; then, in the confusion between sleeping and waking, imagined his father's death come again. Presently he remembered it was in Sambo's arms he fell asleep, but where he was now he could not tell: certainly he was not in bed. Groping, he pushed a door, and a glimmer of light came in. He was in a closet of the room in which Sambo slept--and something was to do about his bed. He rose softly and peeped out, There stood several men, and a struggle was going on--nearly noiseless. Gibbie was half-dazed, and could not understand; but he had little anxiety about Sambo, in whose prowess he had a triumphant confidence. Suddenly came the sound of a great gush, and the group parted from the bed and vanished. Gibbie darted towards it. The words, "O Lord Jesus!" came to his ears, and he heard no more: they were poor Sambo's last in this world. The light of a street lamp fell upon the bed: the blood was welling, in great thick throbs, out of his huge black throat. They had bent his head back, and the gash gaped wide.
For some moments Gibbie stood in ghastly terror. No sound except a low gurgle came to his ears, and the horror of the stillness overmastered him. He never could recall what came next. When he knew himself again, he was in the street, running like the wind, he knew not whither. It was not that he dreaded any hurt to himself; horror, not fear, was behind him.
His next recollection of himself was in the first of the morning, on the lofty chain-bridge over the river Daur. Before him lay he knew not what, only escape from what was behind. His faith in men seemed ruined. The city, his home, was frightful to him. Quarrels and curses and blows he had been used to, and amidst them life could be lived. If he did not consciously weave them into his theories, he unconsciously wrapped them up in his confidence, and was at peace. But the last night had revealed something unknown before. It was as if the darkness had been cloven, and through the cleft he saw into hell. A thing had been done that could not be undone, and he thought it must be what people called murder. And Sambo was such a good man! He was almost as good a man as Gibbie's father, and now he would not breathe any more! Was he gone where Gibbie's father was gone? Was it the good men that stopped breathing and grew cold? But it was those wicked men that had deaded Sambo! And with that his first vague perception of evil and wrong in the world began to dawn.
He lifted his head from gazing down on the dark river. A man was approaching the bridge. He came from the awful city! Perhaps he wanted him! He fled along the bridge like a low-flying water-bird. If another man had appeared at the other end, he would have got through between the rods, and thrown himself into the river. But there was no one to oppose his escape; and after following the road a little way up the river, he turned aside into a thicket of shrubs on the nearly precipitous bank, and sat down to recover the breath he had lost more from dismay than exertion.
The light grew. All at once he descried, far down the river, the steeples of the city. Alas! alas! there lay poor black Sambo, so dear to wee Sir Gibbie, motionless and covered with blood! He had two red mouths now, but was not able to speak a word with either! They would carry him to a churchyard and lay him in a hole to lie there for ever and ever. Would all the good people be laid into holes and leave Gibbie quite alone? Sitting and brooding thus, he fell into a dreamy state, in which, brokenly, from here and there, pictures of his former life grew out upon his memory. Suddenly, plainer than all the rest, came the last time he stood under Mistress Croale's window, waiting to help his father home. The same instant, back to the ear of his mind came his father's two words, as he had heard them through the window--"Up Daurside."
"Up Daurside!"--Here he was upon Daurside--a little way up too: he would go farther up. He rose and went on, while the great river kept flowing the other way, dark and terrible, down to the very door inside which lay Sambo with the huge gape in his big throat.
Meantime the murder came to the knowledge of the police, Mistress Croale herself giving the information, and all in the house were arrested. In the course of their examination, it came out that wee Sir Gibbie had gone to bed with the murdered man, and was now nowhere to be found. Either they had murdered him too, or carried him off. The news spread, and the whole city was in commotion about his fate. It was credible enough that persons capable of committing such a crime on such an inoffensive person as the testimony showed poor Sambo, would be capable also of throwing the life of a child after that of the man to protect their own. The city was searched from end to end, from side to side, and from cellar to garret. Not a trace of him was to be found--but indeed Gibbie had always been easier to find than to trace, for he had no belongings of any sort to betray him. No one dreamed of his having fled straight to the country, and search was confined to the city.
The murderers were at length discovered, tried, and executed. They protested their innocence with regard to the child, and therein nothing appeared against them beyond the fact that he was missing. The result, so far as concerned Gibbie, was, that the talk of the city, where almost everyone knew him, was turned, in his absence, upon his history; and from the confused mass of hearsay that reached him, Mr. Sclater set himself to discover and verify the facts. For this purpose he burrowed about in the neighbourhoods Gibbie had chiefly frequented, and was so far successful as to satisfy himself that Gibbie, if he was alive, was Sir Gilbert Galbraith, Baronet; but his own lawyer was able to assure him that not an inch of property remained anywhere attached to the title. There were indeed relations of the boy's mother, who were of some small consequence in a neighbouring county, also one in business in Glasgow, or its neighbourhood, reported wealthy; but these had entirely disowned her because of her marriage. All Mr. Sclater discovered besides was, in a lumber-room next the garret in which Sir George died, a box of papers--a glance at whose contents showed that they must at least prove a great deal of which he was already certain from other sources. A few of them had to do with the house in which they were found, still known as the Auld Hoose o' Galbraith; but most of them referred to property in land, and many were of ancient date. If the property were in the hands of descendants of the original stock, the papers would be of value in their eyes; and, in any case, it would be well to see to their safety. Mr. Sclater therefore had the chest removed to the garret of the manse, where it stood thereafter, little regarded, but able to answer for more than itself.