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Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald


SUCH were the events of every night, and such had they been since Gibbie first assumed this office of guardian -- a time so long in proportion to his life that it seemed to him as one of the laws of existence that fathers got drunk and Gibbies took care of them. But Saturday night was always one of special bliss; for then the joy to come spread its arms beneath and around the present delight: all Sunday his father would be his. On that happiest day of all the week, he never set his foot out of doors, except to run twice to Mistress Croale's, once to fetch the dinner which she supplied from her own table, and for which Sir George regularly paid in advance on Saturday before commencing his potations.

But indeed the streets were not attractive to the child on Sundays: there were no shops open, and the people in their Sunday clothes, many of them with their faces studiously settled into masks intended to express righteousness, were far less interesting, because less alive, than the same people in their work-day attire, in their shops, or seated at their stalls, or driving their carts, and looking thoroughly human. As to going to church himself, such an idea had never entered his head. He had not once for a moment imagined that anybody would like him to go to church, that such as he ever went to church, that church was at all a place to which Gibbies with fathers to look after should have any desire to go. As to what church, going meant, he had not the vaguest idea; it had not even waked the glimmer of a question in his mind. All he knew was that people went to church on Sundays. It was another of the laws of existence, the reason of which he knew no more than why his father went every night to Jink Lane and got drunk. George, however, although he had taught his son nothing, was not without religion, and had notions of duty in respect of the Sabbath. Not even with the prize of whisky in view, would he have consented to earn a sovereign on that day by the lightest of work.

Gibbie was awake some time before his father, and lay revelling in love's bliss of proximity. At length Sir George, the merest bubble of nature, awoke, and pushed him from him.

The child got up at once, but only to stand by the bed-side. He said no word, did not even think an impatient thought, yet his father seemed to feel that he was waiting for him. After two or three huge yawns, he spread out his arms, but, unable to stretch himself, yawned again, rolled himself off the bed, and crept feebly across the room to an empty chest that stood under the skylight. There he seated himself, and for half an hour sat motionless, a perfect type of dilapidation, moral and physical, while a little way off stood Gibbie, looking on, like one awaiting a resurrection. At length he seemed to come to himself -- the expected sign of which was that he reached down his hand towards the meeting of roof and floor, and took up a tiny last with a half-made boot upon it. At sight of it in his father's hands, Gibbie clapped his with delight -- an old delight, renewed every Sunday since he could remember. That boot was for him! and this being the second, the pair would be finished before night! By slow degrees of revival, with many pauses between, George got to work. He wanted no breakfast, and made no inquiry of Gibbie whether he had had any. But what cared Gibbie about breakfast! With his father all to himself, and that father working away at a new boot for him -- for him who had never had a pair of any sort upon his feet since the woollen ones he wore in his mother's lap, breakfast or no breakfast was much the same to him. It could never have occurred to him that it was his father's part to provide him with breakfast. If he was to have none, it was Sunday that was to blame: there was no use in going to look for any when the shops were all shut, and everybody either at church, or closed in domestic penetralia, or out for a walk. More than contented, therefore, while busily his father wedded welt and sole with stitches infrangible, Gibbie sat on the floor, preparing waxed ends, carefully sticking in the hog's bristle, and rolling the combination, with quite professional aptitude, between the flat of his hand and what of trouser-leg he had left, gazing eagerly between at the advancing masterpiece. Occasionally the triumph of expectation would exceed his control, when he would spring from the floor, and caper and strut about like a pigeon -- soft as a shadow, for he knew his father could not bear noise in the morning -- or behind his back execute a pantomimic dumb show of delight, in which he seemed with difficulty to restrain himself from jumping upon him, and hugging him in his ecstasy. Oh, best of parents! working thus even on a Sunday for his Gibbie, when everybody else was at church enjoying himself! But Gibbie never dared hug his father except when he was drunk -- why, he could hardly have told. Relieved by his dumb show, he would return, quite as an aged grimalkin, and again deposit himself on the floor near his father where he could see his busy hands.

All this time Sir George never spoke a word. Incredible as it may seem, however, he was continually, off and on, trying his hardest to think of some Sunday lesson to give his child. Many of those that knew the boy, regarded him as a sort of idiot, drawing the conclusion from Gibbie's practical honesty and his too evident love for his kind: it was incredible that a child should be poor, unselfish, loving, and not deficient in intellect! His father knew him better, yet he often quieted his conscience in regard to his education, with the reflection that not much could be done for him. Still, every now and then he would think perhaps he ought to do something: who could tell but the child might be damned for not understanding the plan of salvation? and brooding over the matter this morning, as well as his headache would permit, he came to the resolution, as he had often done before, to buy a Shorter Catechism; the boy could not learn it, but he would keep reading it to him, and something might stick. Even now perhaps he could begin the course by recalling some of the questions and answers that had been the plague of his life every Saturday at school. He set his recollection to work, therefore, in the lumber-room of his memory, and again and again sent it back to the task, but could find nothing belonging to the catechism except the first question with its answer, and a few incoherent fragments of others. Moreover, he found his mind so confused and incapable of continuous or concentrated effort, that he could not even keep |man's chief end| and the rosined end between his fingers from twisting up together in the most extraordinary manner. Yet if the child but |had the question,| he might get some good of it. The hour might come when he would say, |My father taught me that!| -- who could tell? And he knew he had the words correct, wherever he had dropped their meaning. For the sake of Gibbie's immortal part, therefore, he would repeat the answer to that first, most momentous of questions, over and over as he worked, in the hope of insinuating something -- he could not say what -- into the small mental pocket of the innocent. The first, therefore, and almost the only words which Gibbie heard from his father's lips that morning, were these, dozens of times repeated -- |Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.| But so far was Gibbie from perceiving in them any meaning, that even with his father's pronunciation of chief end as chifenn, they roused in his mind no sense or suspicion of obscurity. The word stuck there, notwithstanding; but Gibbie was years a man before he found out what a chifenn was. Where was the great matter? How many who have learned their catechism and deplore the ignorance of others, make the least effort to place their chief end even in the direction of that of their creation? Is it not the constant thwarting of their aims, the rendering of their desires futile, and their ends a mockery, that alone prevents them and their lives from proving an absolute failure? Sir George, with his inveterate, consuming thirst for whisky, was but the type of all who would gain their bliss after the scheme of their own fancies, instead of the scheme of their existence; who would build their house after their own childish wilfulness instead of the ground-plan of their being. How was Sir George to glorify the God whom he could honestly thank for nothing but whisky, the sole of his gifts that he prized? Over and over that day he repeated the words, |Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever,| and all the time his imagination, his desire, his hope, were centred on the bottle, which with his very back he felt where it stood behind him, away on the floor at the head of his bed. Nevertheless when he had gone over them a score of times or so, and Gibbie had begun, by a merry look and nodding of his head, to manifest that he knew what was coming next, the father felt more content with himself than for years past; and when he was satisfied that Gibbie knew all the words, though, indeed, they were hardly more than sounds to him, he sent him, with a great sense of relief, to fetch the broth and beef and potatoes from Mistress Croale's.

Eating a real dinner in his father's house, though without a table to set it upon, Gibbie felt himself a most privileged person. The only thing that troubled him was that his father ate so little. Not until the twilight began to show did Sir George really begin to revive, but the darker it grew without, the brighter his spirit burned. For, amongst not a few others, there was this strange remnant of righteousness in the man, that he never would taste drink before it was dark in winter, or in summer before the regular hour for ceasing work had arrived; and to this rule he kept, and that under far greater difficulties, on the Sunday as well. For Mistress Croale would not sell a drop of drink, not even on the sly, on the Sabbath-day: she would fain have some stake in the hidden kingdom; and George, who had not a Sunday stomach he could assume for the day any more than a Sunday coat, was thereby driven to provide his whisky and that day drink it at home; when, with the bottle so near him, and the sense that he had not to go out to find his relief, his resolution was indeed sorely tried; but he felt that to yield would be to cut his last cable and be swept on the lee-shore of utter ruin.

Breathless with eager interest, Gibbie watched his father's hands, and just as the darkness closed in, the boot was finished. His father rose, and Gibbie, glowing with delight, sprang upon the seat he had left, while his father knelt upon the floor to try upon the unaccustomed foot the result from which he had just drawn the last. Ah, pity! pity! But even Gibbie might by this time have learned to foresee it! three times already had the same thing happened: the boot would not go on the foot. The real cause of the failure it were useless to inquire. Sir George said that, Sunday being the only day he could give to the boots, before he could finish them, Gibbie's feet had always outgrown the measure. But it may be Sir George was not so good a maker as cobbler. That he meant honestly by the boy I am sure, and not the less sure for the confession I am forced to make, that on each occasion when he thus failed to fit him, he sold the boots the next day at a fair price to a ready-made shop, and drank the proceeds. A stranger thing still was, that, although Gibbie had never yet worn boot or shoe, his father's conscience was greatly relieved by the knowledge that he spent his Sundays in making boots for him. Had he been an ordinary child, and given him trouble, he would possibly have hated him; as it was, he had a great though sadly inoperative affection for the boy, which was an endless good to them both.

After many bootless trials, bootless the feet must remain, and George, laying the failure down in despair, rose from his knees, and left Gibbie seated on the chest more like a king discrowned, than a beggar unshod. And like a king the little beggar bore his pain. He heaved one sigh, and a slow moisture gathered in his eyes, but it did not overflow. One minute only he sat and hugged his desolation -- then, missing his father, jumped off the box to find him.

He sat on the edge of the bed, looking infinitely more disconsolate than Gibbie felt, his head and hands hanging down, a picture of utter dejection. Gibbie bounded to him, climbed on the bed, and nearly strangled him in the sharp embrace of his little arms. Sir George took him on his knees and kissed him, and the tears rose in his dull eyes. He got up with him, carried him to the box, placed him on it once more, and fetched a piece of brown paper from under the bed. From this he tore carefully several slips, with which he then proceeded to take a most thoughtful measurement of the baffling foot. He was far more to be pitied than Gibbie, who would not have worn the boots an hour had they been the best fit in shoedom. The solos of his feet were very nearly equal in resistance to leather, and at least until the snow and hard frost came, he was better without boots.

But now the darkness had fallen, and his joy was at the door. But he was always too much ashamed to begin to drink before the child: he hated to uncork the bottle before him. What followed was in regular Sunday routine.

|Gang ower to Mistress Croale's, Gibbie,| he said, |wi' my compliments.|

Away ran Gibbie, nothing loath, and at his knock was admitted. Mistress Croale sat in the parlour, taking her tea, and expecting him. She was always kind to the child. She could not help feeling that no small part of what ought to be spent on him came to her; and on Sundays, therefore, partly for his sake, partly for her own, she always gave him his tea -- nominally tea, really blue city-milk -- with as much dry bread as he could eat, and a bit of buttered toast from her plate to finish off with. As he ate, he stood at the other side of the table; he looked so miserable in her eyes that, even before her servant, she was ashamed to have him sit with her; but Gibbie was quite content, never thought of sitting, and ate in gladness, every now and then looking up with loving, grateful eyes, which must have gone right to the woman's heart, had it not been for a vague sense she had of being all the time his enemy -- and that although she spent much time in persuading herself that she did her best both for his father and him.

When he returned, greatly refreshed, and the boots all but forgotten, he found his father, as he knew he would, already started on the business of the evening. He had drawn the chest, the only seat in the room, to the side of the bed, against which he leaned his back. A penny candle was burning in a stone blacking bottle on the chimney piece, and on the floor beside the chest stood the bottle of whisky, a jug of water, a stoneware mug, and a wineglass.

There was no fire and no kettle, whence his drinking was sad, as became the Scotch Sabbath in distinction from the Jewish. There, however, was the drink, and thereby his soul could live -- yea, expand her mouldy wings! Gibbie was far from shocked; it was all right, all in the order of things, and he went up to his father with radiant countenance. Sir George put forth his hands and took him between his knees. An evil wind now swelled his sails, but the cargo of the crazy human hull was not therefore evil.

|Gibbie,| he said, solemnly, |never ye drink a drap o' whusky. Never ye rax oot the han' to the boatle. Never ye drink anything but watter, caller watter, my man.|

As he said the words, he stretched out his own hand to the mug, lifted it to his lips, and swallowed a great gulp.

|Dinna do't, I tell ye, Gibbie,| he repeated.

Gibbie shook his head with positive repudiation.

|That's richt, my man,| responded his father with satisfaction. |Gien ever I see ye pree (taste) the boatle, I'll warstle frae my grave an' fleg ye oot o' the sma' wuts ye hae, my man.|

Here followed another gulp from the mug.

The threat had conveyed nothing to Gibbie. Even had he understood, it would have carried anything but terror to his father-worshipping heart.

|Gibbie,| resumed Sir George, after a brief pause, |div ye ken what fowk'll ca' ye whan I'm deid?|

Gibbie again shook his head -- with expression this time of mere ignorance.

|They'll ca' ye Sir Gibbie Galbraith, my man,| said his father, |an' richtly, for it'll be no nickname, though some may lauch 'cause yer father was a sutor, an' mair 'at, for a' that, ye haena a shee to yer fut yersel', puir fallow! Heedna ye what they say, Gibbie. Min' 'at ye're Sir Gibbie, an' hae the honour o' the faimily to haud up, my man -- an' that ye can not dee an' drink. This cursit drink's been the ruin o' a' the Galbraiths as far back as I ken. 'Maist the only thing I can min' o' my gran'father -- a big bonny man, wi' lang white hair -- twise as big's me, Gibbie -- is seein' him deid drunk i' the gutter o' the pump. He drank 'maist a' thing there was, Gibbie -- lan's an' lordship, till there was hardly an accre left upo' haill Daurside to come to my father -- 'maist naething but a wheen sma' hooses. He was a guid man, my father; but his father learnt him to drink afore he was 'maist oot o' 's coaties, an' gae him nae schuilin'; an' gien he red himsel' o' a' 'at was left, it was sma' won'er -- only, ye see, Gibbie, what was to come o' me? I pit it till ye, Gibbie -- what was to come o' me? -- Gien a kin' neiper, 'at kent what it was to drink, an' sae had a fallow-feelin', hadna ta'en an' learnt me my trade, the Lord kens what wad hae come o' you an' me, Gibbie, my man! -- Gang to yer bed, noo, an' lea' me to my ain thouchts; no' 'at they're aye the best o' company, laddie. -- But whiles they're no that ill,| he concluded, with a weak smile, as some reflex of himself not quite unsatisfactory gloomed faintly in the besmeared mirror of his uncertain consciousness.

Gibbie obeyed, and getting under the Gordon tartan, lay and looked out, like a weasel from its hole, at his father's back. For half an hour or so Sir George went on drinking. All at once he started to his feet, and turning towards the bed a white face distorted with agony, kneeled down on the box and groaned out:

|O God, the pains o' hell hae gotten haud upo' me. O Lord, I'm i' the grup o' Sawtan. The deevil o' drink has me by the hause. I doobt, O Lord, ye're gauin' to damn me dreidfu'. What guid that'll do ye, O Lord, I dinna ken, but I doobtna ye'll dee what's richt, only I wuss I hed never crossed ye i' yer wull. I kenna what I'm to dee, or what's to be deene wi' me, or whaur ony help's to come frae. I hae tried an' tried to maister the drink, but I was aye whumled. For ye see, Lord, kennin' a' thing as ye dee, 'at until I hae a drap i' my skin, I canna even think; I canna min' the sangs I used to sing, or the prayers my mither learnt me sittin' upo' her lap. Till I hae swallowed a mou'fu' or twa, things luik sae awfu'-like 'at I'm fit to cut my thro't; an' syne ance I'm begun, there's nae mair thoucht o' endeevourin' to behaud (withhold) till I canna drink a drap mair. O God, what garred ye mak things 'at wad mak whusky, whan ye kenned it wad mak sic a beast o' me?

He paused, stretched down his hand to the floor, lifted the mug, and drank a huge mouthful; then with a cough that sounded apologetic, set it down, and recommenced:

|O Lord, I doobt there's nae houp for me, for the verra river o' the watter o' life wadna be guid to me wantin' a drap frae the boatle intil 't. It's the w'y wi' a' hiz 'at drinks. It's no 'at we're drunkards, Lord -- ow na! it's no that, Lord; it's only 'at we canna dee wantin' the drink. We're sair drinkers, I maun confess, but no jist drunkards, Lord. I'm no drunk the noo; I ken what I'm sayin', an' it's sair trowth, but I cudna hae prayt a word to yer lordship gien I hadna had a jooggy or twa first. O Lord, deliver me frae the pooer o' Sawtan. -- O Lord! O Lord! I canna help mysel'. Dinna sen' me to the ill place. Ye loot the deils gang intil the swine, lat me tee.|

With this frightful petition, his utterance began to grow indistinct. Then he fell forward upon the bed, groaning, and his voice died gradually away. Gibbie had listened to all he said, but the awe of hearing his father talk to one unseen, made his soul very still, and when he ceased he fell asleep.

Alas for the human soul inhabiting a drink-fouled brain! It is a human soul still, and wretched in the midst of all that whisky can do for it. From the pit of hell it cries out. So long as there is that which can sin, it is a man. And the prayer of misery carries its own justification, when the sober petitions of the self-righteous and the unkind are rejected. He who forgives not is not forgiven, and the prayer of the Pharisee is as the weary beating of the surf of hell, while the cry of a soul out of its fire sets the heart-strings of love trembling. There are sins which men must leave behind them, and sins which they must carry with them. Society scouts the drunkard because he is loathsome, and it matters nothing whether society be right or wrong, while it cherishes in its very bosom vices which are, to the God-born thing we call the soul, yet worse poisons. Drunkards and sinners, hard as it may be for them to enter into the kingdom of heaven, must yet be easier to save than the man whose position, reputation, money, engross his heart and his care, who seeks the praise of men and not the praise of God. When I am more of a Christian, I shall have learnt to be sorrier for the man whose end is money or social standing than for the drunkard. But now my heart, recoiling from the one, is sore for the other -- for the agony, the helplessness, the degradation, the nightmare struggle, the wrongs and cruelties committed, the duties neglected, the sickening ruin of mind and heart. So often, too, the drunkard is originally a style of man immeasurably nobler than the money-maker! Compare a Coleridge, Samuel Taylor or Hartley, with -- no; that man has not yet passed to his account. God has in his universe furnaces for the refining of gold, as well as for the burning of chaff and tares and fruitless branches; and, however they may have offended, it is the elder brother who is the judge of all the younger ones.

Gibbie slept some time. When he woke, it was pitch dark, and he was not lying on his father's bosom, He felt about with his hands till he found his father's head. Then he got up and tried to rouse him, and failing to get him on to the bed. But in that too he was sadly unsuccessful: what with the darkness and the weight of him, the result of the boy's best endeavour was, that Sir George half slipped, half rolled down upon the box, and from that to the floor. Assured then of his own helplessness, wee Gibbie dragged the miserable bolster from the bed, and got it under his father's head; then covered him with the plaid, and creeping under it, laid himself on his father's bosom, where soon he slept again.

He woke very cold, and getting up, turned heels-over-head several times to warm himself, but quietly, for his father was still asleep. The room was no longer dark, for the moon was shining through the skylight. When he had got himself a little warmer, he turned to have a look at his father. The pale light shone full upon his face, and it was that, Gibbie thought, which made him look so strange. He darted to him, and stared aghast: he had never seen him look like that before, even when most drunk! He threw himself upon him: his face was dreadfully cold. He pulled and shook him in fear -- he could not have told of what, but he would not wake. He was gone to see what God could do for him there, for whom nothing more could be done here.

But Gibbie did not know anything about death, and went on trying to wake him. At last he observed that, although his mouth was wide open, the breath did not come from it. Thereupon his heart began to fail him. But when he lifted an eyelid, and saw what was under it, the house rang with the despairing shriek of the little orphan.

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