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Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald


IN obedience to the suggestion of his wife, Mr. Sclater did what he could to show Sir Gilbert how mistaken he was in imagining he could fit his actions to the words of our Lord. Shocked as even he would probably have been at such a characterization of his attempt, it amounted practically to this: Do not waste your powers in the endeavour to keep the commandments of our Lord, for it cannot be done, and he knew it could not be done, and never meant it should be done. He pointed out to him, not altogether unfairly, the difficulties, and the causes of mistake, with regard to his words; but said nothing to reveal the spirit and the life of them. Showing more of them to be figures than at first appeared, he made out the meanings of them to be less, not more than the figures, his pictures to be greater than their subjects, his parables larger and more lovely than the truths they represented. In the whole of his lecture, through which ran from beginning to end a tone of reproof, there was not one flash of enthusiasm for our Lord, not a sign that, to his so-called minister, he was a refuge, or a delight -- that he who is the joy of his Father's heart, the essential bliss of the universe, was anything to the soul of his creature, who besides had taken upon him to preach his good news, more than a name to call himself by -- that the story of the Son of God was to him anything better than the soap and water wherewith to blow theological bubbles with the tobacco-pipe of his speculative understanding. The tendency of it was simply to the quelling of all true effort after the knowing of him through obedience, the quenching of all devotion to the central good. Doubtless Gibbie, as well as many a wiser man, might now and then make a mistake in the embodiment of his obedience, but even where the action misses the command, it may yet be obedience to him who gave the command, and by obeying one learns how to obey. I hardly know, however, where Gibbie blundered, except it was in failing to recognize the animals before whom he ought not to cast his pearls -- in taking it for granted that, because his guardian was a minister, and his wife a minister's wife, they must therefore be the disciples of the Jewish carpenter, the eternal Son of the Father of us all. Had he had more of the wisdom of the serpent, he would not have carried them the New Testament as an ending of strife, the words of the Lord as an enlightening law; he would perhaps have known that to try too hard to make people good, is one way to make them worse; that the only way to make them good is to be good -- remembering well the beam and the mote; that the time for speaking comes rarely, the time for being never departs.

But in talking thus to Gibbie, the minister but rippled the air: Gibbie was all the time pondering with himself where he had met the same kind of thing, the same sort of person before. Nothing he said had the slightest effect upon him. He was too familiar with truth to take the yeasty bunghole of a working barrel for a fountain of its waters. The unseen Lord and his reported words were to Gibbie realities, compared with which the very visible Mr. Sclater and his assured utterance were as the merest seemings of a phantom mood. He had never resolved to keep the words of the Lord: he just kept them; but he knew amongst the rest the Lord's words about the keeping of his words, and about being ashamed of him before men, and it was with a pitiful indignation he heard the minister's wisdom drivel past his ears. What he would have said, and withheld himself from saying, had he been able to speak, I cannot tell; I only know that in such circumstances the less said the better, for what can be more unprofitable than a discussion where but one of the disputants understands the question, and the other has all the knowledge? It would have been the eloquence of the wise and the prudent against the perfected praise of the suckling.

The effect of it all upon Gibbie was to send him to his room to his prayers, more eager than ever to keep the commandments of him who had said, If ye love me. Comforted then and strengthened, he came down to go to Donal -- not to tell him, for to none but Janet could he have made such a communication. But in the middle of his descent he remembered suddenly of what and whom Mr. Sclater had all along been reminding him, and turned aside to Mrs. Sclater to ask her to lend him the Pilgrim's Progress. This, as a matter almost of course, was one of the few books in the cottage on Glashgar -- a book beloved of Janet's soul -- and he had read it again and again. Mrs. Sclater told him where in her room to find a copy, and presently he had satisfied himself that it was indeed Mr. Worldly Wiseman whom his imagination had, in cloudy fashion, been placing side by side with the talking minister.

Finding his return delayed, Mrs. Sclater went after him, fearing he might be indulging his curiosity amongst her personal possessions. Peeping in, she saw him seated on the floor beside her little bookcase, lost in reading: she stole behind, and found that what so absorbed him was the conversation between Christian and Worldly -- I beg his pardon, he is nothing without his Mr. -- between Christian and Mr. Worldly Wiseman.

In the evening, when her husband was telling her what he had said to |the young Pharisee| in the morning, the picture of Gibbie on the floor, with the Pilgrim's Progress and Mr. Worldly Wiseman, flashed back on her mind, and she told him the thing. It stung him, not that Gibbie should perhaps have so paralleled him, but that his wife should so interpret Gibbie. To her, however, he said nothing. Had he been a better man, he would have been convinced by the lesson; as it was, he was only convicted, and instead of repenting was offended grievously. For several days he kept expecting the religious gadfly to come buzzing about him with his sting, that is, his forefinger, stuck in the Pilgrim's Progress, and had a swashing blow ready for him; but Gibbie was beginning to learn a lesson or two, and if he was not yet so wise as some serpents, he had always been more harmless than some doves.

That he had gained nothing for the world was pretty evident to the minister the following Sunday -- from the lofty watchtower of the pulpit where he sat throned, while the first psalm was being sung. His own pew was near one of the side doors, and at that door some who were late kept coming in. Amongst them were a stranger or two, who were at once shown to seats. Before the psalm ended, an old man came in and stood by the door -- a poor man in mean garments, with the air of a beggar who had contrived to give himself a Sunday look. Perhaps he had come hoping to find it warmer in church than at home. There he stood, motionless as the leech-gatherer, leaning on his stick, disregarded of men -- it may have been only by innocent accident, I do not know. But just ere the minister must rise for the first prayer, he saw Gibbie, who had heard a feeble cough, cast a glance round, rise as swiftly as noiselessly, open the door of the pew, get out into the passage, take the old man by the hand, and lead him to his place beside the satin-robed and sable-muffed ministerial consort. Obedient to Gibbie's will, the old man took the seat, with an air both of humility and respect, while happily for Mrs. Sclater's remnant of ruffled composure, there was plenty of room in the pew, so that she could move higher up. The old man, it is true, followed, to make a place for Gibbie, but there was still an interval between them sufficient to afford space to the hope that none of the evils she dreaded would fall upon her to devour her. Flushed, angry, uncomfortable, notwithstanding, her face glowed like a bale-fire to the eyes of her husband, and, I fear, spoiled the prayer -- but that did not matter much.

While the two thus involuntarily signalled each other, the boy who had brought discomposure into both pulpit and pew, sat peaceful as a summer morning, with the old man beside him quiet in the reverence of being himself revered. And the minister, while he preached from the words, Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall, for the first time in his life began to feel doubtful whether he might not himself be a humbug. There was not much fear of his falling, however, for he had not yet stood on his feet.

Not a word was said to Gibbie concerning the liberty he had taken: the minister and his wife were in too much dread -- not of St. James and the |poor man in vile raiment,| for they were harmless enough in themselves, but of Gibbie's pointing finger to back them. Three distinct precautions, however, they took; the pew-opener on that side was spoken to; Mrs. Sclater made Gibbie henceforth go into the pew before her; and she removed the New Testament from the drawing-room.

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