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Image Map : Christian Books : CHAPTER XIX. THE LAIRD.

Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald


THOMAS GALBRAITH was by birth Thomas Durrant, but had married an heiress by whom he came into possession of Glashruach, and had, according to previous agreement, taken her name. When she died he mourned her loss as well as he could, but was consoled by feeling himself now first master of both position and possession, when the ladder by which he had attained them was removed. It was not that she had ever given him occasion to feel that marriage and not inheritance was the source of his distinction in the land, but that having a soul as keenly sensitive to small material rights as it was obtuse to great spiritual ones, he never felt the property quite his own until his wife was no longer within sight. Had he been a little more sensitive still, he would have felt that the property was then his daughter's, and his only through her; but this he failed to consider.

Mrs. Galbraith was a gentle sweet woman, who loved her husband, but was capable of loving a greater man better. Had she lived long enough to allow of their opinions confronting in the matter of their child's education, serious differences would probably have arisen between them; as it was, they had never quarrelled except about the name she should bear. The father, having for her sake -- so he said to himself -- sacrificed his patronymic, was anxious that in order to her retaining some rudimentary trace of himself in the ears of men, she should be overshadowed with his Christian name, and called Thomasina. But the mother was herein all the mother, and obdurate for her daughter's future; and, as was right between the two, she had her way, and her child a pretty name. Being more sentimental than artistic, however, she did not perceive how imperfectly the sweet Italian Ginevra concorded with the strong Scotch Galbraith. Her father hated the name, therefore invariably abbreviated it after such fashion as rendered it inoffensive to the most conservative of Scotish ears; and for his own part, at length, never said Ginny, without seeing and hearing and meaning Jenny. As Jenny, indeed, he addressed her in the one or two letters which were all he ever wrote to her; and thus he perpetuated the one matrimonial difference across the grave.

Having no natural bent to literature, but having in his youth studied for and practised at the Scotish bar, he had brought with him into the country a taste for certain kinds of dry reading, judged pre-eminently respectable, and for its indulgence had brought also a not insufficient store of such provender as his soul mildly hungered after, in the shape of books bound mostly in yellow-calf -- books of law, history, and divinity. What the books of law were, I would not foolhardily add to my many risks of blundering by presuming to recall; the history was mostly Scotish, or connected with Scotish affairs; the theology was entirely of the New England type of corrupted Calvinism, with which in Scotland they saddle the memory of great-souled, hard-hearted Calvin himself. Thoroughly respectable, and a little devout, Mr. Galbraith was a good deal more of a Scotchman than a Christian; growth was a doctrine unembodied in his creed; he turned from everything new, no matter how harmonious with the old, in freezing disapprobation; he recognized no element in God or nature which could not be reasoned about after the forms of the Scotch philosophy. He would not have said an Episcopalian could not be saved, for at the bar he had known more than one good lawyer of the episcopal party; but to say a Roman Catholic would not necessarily be damned, would to his judgment have revealed at once the impending fate of the rash asserter. In religion he regarded everything not only as settled but as understood; but seemed aware of no call in relation to truth, but to bark at anyone who showed the least anxiety to discover it. What truth he held himself, he held as a sack holds corn -- not even as a worm holds earth.

To his servants and tenants he was what he thought just -- never condescending to talk over a thing with any of the former but the game-keeper, and never making any allowance to the latter for misfortune. In general expression he looked displeased, but meant to look dignified. No one had ever seen him wrathful; nor did he care enough for his fellow-mortals ever to be greatly vexed -- at least he never manifested vexation otherwise than by a silence that showed more of contempt than suffering.

In person, he was very tall and very thin, with a head much too small for his height; a narrow forehead, above which the brown hair looked like a wig; pale-blue, ill-set eyes, that seemed too large for their sockets, consequently tumbled about a little, and were never at once brought to focus; a large, but soft-looking nose; a loose-lipped mouth, and very little chin. He always looked as if consciously trying to keep himself together. He wore his shirt-collar unusually high, yet out of it far shot his long neck, notwithstanding the smallness of which, his words always seemed to come from a throat much too big for them. He had greatly the look of a hen, proud of her maternal experiences, and silent from conceit of what she could say if she would. So much better would he have done as an underling than as a ruler -- as a journeyman even, than a master, that to know him was almost to disbelieve in the good of what is generally called education. His learning seemed to have taken the wrong fermentation, and turned to folly instead of wisdom. But he did not do much harm, for he had a great respect for his respectability. Perhaps if he had been a craftsman, he might even have done more harm -- making rickety wheelbarrows, asthmatic pumps, ill-fitting window-frames, or boots with a lurking divorce in each welt. He had no turn for farming, and therefore let all his land, yet liked to interfere, and as much as possible kept a personal jurisdiction.

There was one thing, however, which, if it did not throw the laird into a passion -- nothing, as I have said, did that -- brought him nearer to the outer verge of displeasure than any other, and that was, anything whatever to which he could affix the name of superstition. The indignation of better men than the laird with even a confessedly harmless superstition, is sometimes very amusing; and it was a point of Mr. Galbraith's poverty-stricken religion to denounce all superstitions, however diverse in character, with equal severity. To believe in the second sight, for instance, or in any form of life as having the slightest relation to this world, except that of men, that of animals, and that of vegetables, was with him wicked, antagonistic to the Church of Scotland, and inconsistent with her perfect doctrine. The very word ghost would bring upon his face an expression he meant for withering scorn, and indeed it withered his face, rendering it yet more unpleasant to behold. Coming to the benighted country, then, with all the gathered wisdom of Edinburgh in his gallinaceous cranium, and what he counted a vast experience of worldly affairs besides, he brought with him also the firm resolve to be the death of superstition, at least upon his own property. He was not only unaware, but incapable of becoming aware, that he professed to believe a number of things, any one of which was infinitely more hostile to the truth of the universe, than all the fancies and fables of a countryside, handed down from grandmother to grandchild. When, therefore, within a year of his settling at Glashruach, there arose a loud talk of the Mains, his best farm, as haunted by presences making all kinds of tumultuous noises, and even throwing utensils bodily about, he was nearer the borders of a rage, although he kept, as became a gentleman, a calm exterior, than ever he had been in his life. For were not ignorant clodhoppers asserting as facts what he knew never could take place! At once he set himself, with all his experience as a lawyer to aid him, to discover the buffooning authors of the mischief; where there were deeds there were doers, and where there were doers they were discoverable. But his endeavours, uninterrmitted for the space of three weeks, after which the disturbances ceased, proved so utterly without result, that he could never bear the smallest allusion to the hateful business. For he had not only been unhorsed, but by his dearest hobby.

He was seated with a game pie in front of him, over the top of which Ginevra was visible. The girl never sat nearer her father at meals than the whole length of the table, where she occupied her mother's place. She was a solemn-looking child, of eight or nine, dressed in a brown merino frock of the plainest description. Her hair, which was nearly of the same colour as her frock, was done up in two triple plaits, which hung down her back, and were tied at the tips with black ribbon. To the first glance she did not look a very interesting or attractive child; but looked at twice, she was sure to draw the eyes a third time. She was undeniably like her father, and that was much against her at first sight; but it required only a little acquaintance with her face to remove the prejudice; for in its composed, almost resigned expression, every feature of her father's seemed comparatively finished, and settled into harmony with the rest; its chaos was subdued, and not a little of the original underlying design brought out. The nose was firm, the mouth modelled, the chin larger, the eyes a little smaller, and full of life and feeling. The longer it was regarded by any seeing eye, the child's countenance showed fuller of promise, or at least of hope. Gradually the look would appear in it of a latent sensitive anxiety -- then would dawn a glimmer of longing question; and then, all at once, it would slip back into the original ordinary look, which, without seeming attractive, had yet attracted. Her father was never harsh to her, yet she looked rather frightened at him; but then he was cold, very cold, and most children would rather be struck and kissed alternately than neither. And the bond cannot be very close between father and child, when the father has forsaken his childhood. The bond between any two is the one in the other; it is the father in the child, and the child in the father, that reach to each other eternal hands. It troubled Ginevra greatly that, when she asked herself whether she loved her father better than anybody else, as she believed she ought, she became immediately doubtful whether she loved him at all.

She was eating porridge and milk: with spoon arrested in mid-passage, she stopped suddenly, and said: --

|Papa, what's a broonie?|

|I have told you, Jenny, that you are never to talk broad Scotch in my presence,| returned her father. |I would lay severer commands upon you, were it not that I fear tempting you to disobey me, but I will have no vulgarity in the dining-room.|

His words came out slowly, and sounded as if each was a bullet wrapped round with cotton wool to make it fit the barrel. Ginevra looked perplexed for a moment.

|Should I say brownie, papa?| she asked.

|How can I tell you what you should call a creature that has no existence?| rejoined her father.

|If it be a creature, papa, it must have a name!| retorted the little logician, with great solemnity.

Mr. Galbraith was not pleased, for although the logic was good, it was against him.

|What foolish person has been insinuating such contemptible superstition into your silly head?| he asked. |Tell me, child,| he continued, |that I may put a stop to it at once.|

He was rising to ring the bell, that he might give the orders consequent on the information he expected: he would have asked Mammon to dinner in black clothes and a white tie, but on Superstition in the loveliest garb would have loosed all the dogs of Glashruach, to hunt her from the property. Her next words, however, arrested him, and just as she ended, the butler came in with fresh toast.

|They say,| said Ginevra, anxious to avoid the forbidden Scotch, therefore stumbling sadly in her utterance, |there's a broonie -- brownie -- at the Mains, who dis a' -- does all the work.|

|What is the meaning of this, Joseph?| said Mr. Galbraith, turning from her to the butler, with the air of rebuke, which was almost habitual to him, a good deal heightened.

|The meanin' o' what, sir?| returned Joseph, nowise abashed, for to him his master was not the greatest man in the world, or even in the highlands. |He's no a Galbraith,| he used to say, when more than commonly provoked with him.

|I ask you, Joseph,| answered the laird, |what this -- this outbreak of superstition imports? You must be aware that nothing in the world could annoy me more than that Miss Galbraith should learn folly in her father's house. That staid servants, such as I had supposed mine to be, should use their tongues as if their heads had no more in them than so many bells hung in a steeple, is to me a mortifying reflection.|

|Tongues as weel's clappers was made to wag, sir; an, wag they wull, sir, sae lang's the tow (string) hings oot at baith lugs,| answered Joseph. The forms of speech he employed were not unfrequently obscure to his master, and in that obscurity lay more of Joseph's impunity than he knew. |Forby (besides), sir,| he went on, |gien tongues didna wag, what w'y wad you, 'at has to set a' thing richt, come to ken what was wrang?|

|That is not a bad remark, Joseph,| replied the laird, with woolly condescension. |Pray acquaint me with the whole matter.|

|I hae naething till acquaint yer honour wi', sir, but the ting-a-ling o' tongues,| replied Joseph; |an' ye'll hae till arreenge't like, till yer ain settisfaction.|

Therewith he proceeded to report what he had heard reported, which was in the main the truth, considerably exaggerated -- that the work of the house was done over night by invisible hands -- and the work of the stables, too; but that in the latter, cantrips were played as well; that some of the men talked of leaving the place; and that Mr. Duff's own horse, Snowball, was nearly out of his mind with fear.

The laird clenched his teeth, and for a whole minute said nothing. Here were either his old enemies again, or some who had heard the old story, and in their turn were beating the drum of consternation in the ears of superstition.

|It is one of the men themselves,| he said at last, with outward frigidity. |Or some ill-designed neighbour,| he added. |But I shall soon be at the bottom of it. Go to the Mains at once, Joseph, and ask young Fergus Duff to be so good as step over, as soon as he conveniently can.|

Fergus was pleased enough to be sent for by the laird, and soon told him all he knew from his aunt and the men, confessing that he had himself been too lazy of a morning to take any steps towards personal acquaintance with the facts, but adding that, as Mr. Galbraith took an interest in the matter, |he would be only too happy to carry out any suggestion he might think proper to make on the subject.

|Fergus,| returned the laird, |do you imagine things inanimate can of themselves change their relations in space? In other words, are the utensils in your kitchen endowed with powers of locomotion? Can they take to themselves wings and fly? Or to use a figure more to the point, are they provided with members necessary to the washing of their own -- persons, shall I say? Answer me those points, Fergus.|

|Certainly not, sir,| answered Fergus solemnly, for the laird's face was solemn, and his speech was very solemn.

|Then, Fergus, let me assure you, that to discover by what agency these apparent wonders are effected, you have merely to watch. If you fail, I will myself come to your assistance. Depend upon it, the thing when explained will prove simplicity itself.|

Fergus at once undertook to watch, but went home not quite so comfortable as he had gone; for he did not altogether, notwithstanding his unbelief in the so-called supernatural, relish the approaching situation. Belief and unbelief are not always quite plainly distinguishable from each other, and Fear is not always certain which of them is his mother. He was not the less resolved, however, to carry out what he had undertaken -- that was, to sit up all night, if necessary, in order to have an interview with the extravagant and erring -- spirit, surely, whether embodied or not, that dared thus wrong |domestic awe, night-rest, and neighbourhood,| by doing people's work for them unbidden. Not even to himself did he confess that he felt frightened, for he was a youth of nearly eighteen; but he could not quite hide from himself the fact that he anticipated no pleasure in the duty which lay before him.

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