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Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald


THE cottage to which Mr. Galbraith had taken Ginevra, stood in a suburban street -- one of those small, well-built stone houses common, I fancy, throughout Scotland, with three rooms and a kitchen on its one floor, and a large attic with dormer windows. It was low and wide-roofed, and had a tiny garden between it and the quiet street. This garden was full of flowers in summer and autumn, but the tops of a few gaunt stems of hollyhocks, and the wiry straggling creepers of the honeysuckle about the eaves, was all that now showed from the pavement. It had a dwarf wall of granite, with an iron railing on the top, through which, in the season, its glorious colours used to attract many eyes, but Mr. Galbraith had had the railing and the gate lined to the very spikes with boards: the first day of his abode he had discovered that the passers-by -- not to say those who stood to stare admiringly at the flowers, came much too near his faded but none the less conscious dignity. He had also put a lock on the gate, and so made of the garden a sort of propylon to the house. For he had of late developed a tendency towards taking to earth, like the creatures that seem to have been created ashamed of themselves, and are always burrowing. But it was not that the late laird was ashamed of himself in any proper sense. Of the dishonesty of his doings he was as yet scarcely half conscious, for the proud man shrinks from repentance, regarding it as disgrace. To wash is to acknowledge the need of washing. He avoided the eyes of men for the mean reason that he could no longer appear in dignity as laird of Glashruach and chairman of a grand company; while he felt as if something must have gone wrong with the laws of nature that it had become possible for Thomas Galbraith, of Glashruach, Esq., to live in a dumpy cottage. He had thought seriously of resuming his patronymic of Durrant, but reflected that he was too well known to don that cloak of transparent darkness without giving currency to the idea that he had soiled the other past longer wearing. It would be imagined, he said, picking out one dishonesty of which he had not been guilty, that he had settled money on his wife, and retired to enjoy it.

His condition was far more pitiful than his situation. Having no faculty for mental occupation except with affairs, finding nothing to do but cleave, like a spent sailor, with hands and feet to the slippery rock of what was once his rectitude, such as it was, trying to hold it still his own, he would sit for hours without moving -- a perfect creature, temple, god, and worshipper, all in one -- only that the worshipper was hardly content with his god, and that a worm was gnawing on at the foundation of the temple. Nearly as motionless, her hands excepted, would Ginevra sit opposite to him, not quieter but more peaceful than when a girl, partly because now she was less afraid of him. He called her, in his thoughts as he sat there, heartless and cold, but not only was she not so, but it was his fault that she appeared to him such. In his moral stupidity he would rather have seen her manifest concern at the poverty to which he had reduced her, than show the stillness of a contented mind. She was not much given to books, but what she read was worth reading, and such as turned into thought while she sat. They are not the best students who are most dependent on books. What can be got out of them is at best only material: a man must build his house for himself. She would have read more, but with her father beside her doing nothing, she felt that to take a book would be like going into a warm house, and leaving him out in the cold. It was very sad to her to see him thus shrunk and withered, and lost in thought that plainly was not thinking. Nothing interested him; he never looked at the papers, never cared to hear a word of news. His eyes more unsteady, his lips looser, his neck thinner and longer, he looked more than ever like a puppet whose strings hung slack. How often would Ginevra have cast herself on his bosom if she could have even hoped he would not repel her! Now and then his eyes did wander to her in a dazed sort of animal-like appeal, but the moment she attempted response, he turned into a corpse. Still, when it came, that look was a comfort, for it seemed to witness some bond between them after all. And another comfort was, that now, in his misery, she was able, if not to forget those painful thoughts about him which had all these years haunted her, at least to dismiss them when they came, in the hope that, as already such a change had passed upon him, further and better change might follow.

She was still the same brown bird as of old -- a bird of the twilight, or rather a twilight itself, with a whole night of stars behind it, of whose existence she scarcely knew, having but just started on the voyage of discovery which life is. She had the sweetest, rarest smile -- not frequent and flashing like Gibbie's, but stealing up from below, like the shadowy reflection of a greater light, gently deepening, permeating her countenance until it reached her eyes, thence issuing in soft flame. Always however, an soon as her eyes began to glow duskily, down went their lids, and down dropt her head like the frond of a sensitive plant, Her atmosphere was an embodied stillness; she made a quiet wherever she entered; she was not beautiful, but she was lovely; and her presence at once made a place such as one would desire to be in.

The most pleasant of her thoughts were of necessity those with which the two youths were associated. How dreary but for them and theirs would the retrospect of her life have been! Several times every winter they had met at the minister's, and every summer she had again and again seen Gibbie with Mrs. Sclater, and once or twice had had a walk with them, and every time Gibbie had something of Donal's to give her. Twice Gibbie had gone to see her at the school, but the second time she asked him not to come again, as Miss Kimble did not like it. He gave a big stare of wonder, and thought of Angus and the laird; but followed the stare with a swift smile, for he saw she was troubled, and asked no question, but waited for the understanding of all things that must come. But now, when or where was she ever to see them more? Gibbie was no longer at the minister's, and perhaps she would never be invited to meet them there again. She dared not ask Donal to call: her father would be indignant; and for her father's sake she would not ask Gibbie; it might give him pain; while the thought that he would of a certainty behave so differently to him now that he was well-dressed, and mannered like a gentleman, was almost more unendurable to her than the memory of his past treatment of him.

Mr. and Mrs. Sclater had called upon them the moment they were settled in the cottage; but Mr. Galbraith would see nobody. When the gate-bell rang, he always looked out, and if a visitor appeared, withdrew to his bedroom.

One brilliant Saturday morning, the second in the session, the ground hard with an early frost, the filmy ice making fairy caverns and grottos in the cart-ruts, and the air so condensed with cold that every breath, to those who ate and slept well, had the life of two, Mrs. Sclater rang the said bell. Mr. Galbraith peeping from the window, saw a lady's bonnet, and went. She walked in, followed by Gibbie, and would have Ginevra go with them for a long walk. Pleased enough with the proposal, for the outsides of life had been dull as well as painful of late, she went and asked her father. If she did not tell him that Sir Gilbert was with Mrs. Sclater, perhaps she ought to have told him; but I am not sure, and therefore am not going to blame her. When parents are not fathers and mothers, but something that has no name in the kingdom of heaven, they place the purest and most honest of daughters in the midst of perplexities.

|Why do you ask me?| returned her father. |My wishes are nothing to any one now; to you they never were anything.|

|I will stay at home, if you wish it, papa, -- with pleasure,| she replied, as cheerfully as she could after such a reproach.

|By no means. If you do, I shall go and dine at the Red Hart,| he answered -- not having money enough in his possession to pay for a dinner there.

I fancy he meant to be kind, but, like not a few, alas! took no pains to look as kind as he was. There are many, however, who seem to delight in planting a sting where conscience or heart will not let them deny. It made her miserable for a while of course, but she had got so used to his way of breaking a gift as he handed it, that she answered only with a sigh. When she was a child, his ungraciousness had power to darken the sunlight, but by repetition it had lost force. In haste she put on her little brown-ribboned bonnet, took the moth-eaten muff that had been her mother's, and rejoined Mrs. Sclater and Gibbie, beaming with troubled pleasure. Life in her was strong, and their society soon enabled her to forget, not her father's sadness, but his treatment of her.

At the end of the street, they found Donal waiting them -- without greatcoat or muffler, the picture of such health as suffices to its own warmth, not a mark of the midnight student about him, and looking very different, in town-made clothes, from the Donal of the mirror. He approached and saluted her with such an air of homely grace as one might imagine that of the Red Cross Knight, when, having just put on the armour of a Christian man, from a clownish fellow he straightway appeared the goodliest knight in the company. Away they walked together westward, then turned southward. Mrs. Sclater and Gibbie led, and Ginevra followed with Donal. And they had not walked far, before something of the delight of old times on Glashruach began to revive in the bosom of the too sober girl. In vain she reminded herself that her father sat miserable at home, thinking of her probably as the most heartless of girls; the sun, and the bright air like wine in her veins, were too much for her, Donal had soon made her cheerful, and now and then she answered his talk with even a little flash of merriment. They crossed the bridge, high-hung over the Daur, by which on that black morning Gibbie fled; and here for the first time, with his three friends about him, he told on his fingers the dire deed of the night, and heard from Mrs. Sclater that the murderers had been hanged. Ginevra grew white and faint as she read his fingers and gestures, but it was more at the thought of what the child had come through, than from the horror of his narrative. They then turned eastward to the sea, and came to the top of the rock-border of the coast, with its cliffs rent into gullies, eerie places to look down into, ending in caverns into which the waves rushed with bellow and boom. Although so nigh the city, this was always a solitary place, yet, rounding a rock, they came upon a young man, who hurried a book into his pocket, and would have gone by the other side, but perceiving himself recognized, came to meet them, and saluted Mrs. Sclater, who presented him to Ginevra as the Rev. Mr. Duff.

|I have not had the pleasure of seeing you since you were quite a little girl, Miss Galbraith,| said Fergus.

Ginevra said coldly she did not remember him. The youths greeted him in careless student fashion: they had met now and then for a moment about the college; and a little meaningless talk followed.

He was to preach the next day -- and for several Sundays following -- at a certain large church in the city, at the time without a minister; and when they came upon him he was studying his sermon -- I do not mean the truths he intended to press upon his audience -- those he had mastered long ago -- but his manuscript, studying it in the sense in which actors use the word, learning it, that is, by heart laboriously, that the words might come from his lips as much like an extemporaneous utterance as possible, consistently with not being mistaken for one, which, were it true as the Bible, would have no merit in the ears of those who counted themselves judges of the craft. The kind of thing suited Fergus, whose highest idea of life was seeming. Naturally capable, he had already made of himself rather a dull fellow; for when a man spends his energy on appearing to have, he is all the time destroying what he has, and therein the very means of becoming what he desires to seem. If he gains his end his success is his punishment.

Fergus never forgot that he was a clergyman, always carrying himself according to his idea of the calling; therefore when the interchange of commonplaces flagged, he began to look about him for some remark sufficiently tinged with his profession to be suitable for him to make, and for the ladies to hear as his. The wind was a thoroughly wintry one from the north-east, and had been blowing all night, so that the waves were shouldering the rocks with huge assault. Now Fergus's sermon, which he meant to use as a spade for the casting of the first turf of the first parallel in the siege of the pulpit of the North parish, was upon the vanity of human ambition, his text being the grand verse -- And so I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of the holy; there was no small amount of fine writing in the manuscript he had thrust into his pocket; and his sermon was in his head when he remarked, with the wafture of a neatly-gloved hand seawards --

|I was watching these waves when you found me: they seem to me such a picture of the vanity of human endeavour! But just as little as those waves would mind me, if I told them they were wasting their labour on these rocks, will men mind me, when I tell them to-morrow of the emptiness of their ambitions.|

|A present enstance o' the vainity o' human endeevour!| said Donal. |What for sud ye, in that case, gang on preachin', sae settin' them an ill exemple?|

Duff gave him a high-lidded glance, vouchsafing no reply.

|Just as those waves,| he continued, |waste themselves in effort, as often foiled as renewed, to tear down these rocks, so do the men of this world go on and on, spending their strength for nought.|

|Hoots, Fergus!| said Donal again, in broadest speech, as if with its bray he would rebuke not the madness but the silliness of the prophet, |ye dinna mean to tell me yon jaws (billows) disna ken their business better nor imaigine they hae to caw doon the rocks?|

Duff cast a second glance of scorn at what he took for the prosaic stupidity or poverty-stricken logomachy of Donal, while Ginevra opened on him big brown eyes, as much as to say, |Donal, who was it set me down for saying a man couldn't be a burn?| But Gibbie's face was expectant: he knew Donal. Mrs. Sclater also looked interested: she did not much like Duff, and by this time she suspected Donal of genius. Donal turned to Ginevra with a smile, and said, in the best English he could command --

|Bear with me a moment, Miss Galbraith. If Mr. Duff will oblige me by answering my question, I trust I shall satisfy you I am no turncoat.|

Fergus stared. What did his father's herd-boy mean by talking such English to the ladies, and such vulgar Scotch to him? Although now a magistrand -- that is, one about to take his degree of Master of Arts -- Donal was still to Fergus the cleaner-out of his father's byres -- an upstart, whose former position was his real one -- towards him at least, who knew him. And did the fellow challenge him to a discussion? Or did he presume on the familiarity of their boyhood, and wish to sport his acquaintance with the popular preacher? On either supposition, he was impertinent.

|I spoke poetically,| he said, with cold dignity.

|Ye'll excuse me, Fergus,| replied Donal, | -- for the sake o' auld langsyne, whan I was, as I ever will be, sair obligatit till ye -- but i' that ye say noo, ye're sair wrang: ye wasna speykin' poetically, though I ken weel ye think it, or ye wadna say 't; an' that's what garred me tak ye up. For the verra essence o' poetry is trowth, an' as sune's a word's no true, it's no poetry, though it may hae on the cast claes o' 't. It's nane but them 'at kens na what poetry is, 'at blethers aboot poetic license, an' that kin' o' hen-scraich, as gien a poet was sic a gowk 'at naebody eedit hoo he lee'd, or whether he gaed wi' 's cwite (coat) hin' side afore or no.|

|I am at a loss to understand you -- Donal? -- yes, Donal Grant. I remember you very well; and from the trouble I used to take with you to make you distinguish between the work of the poet and that of the rhymester, I should have thought by this time you would have known a little more about the nature of poetry. Personification is a figure of speech in constant use by all poets.|

|Ow ay! but there's true and there's fause personification; an' it's no ilka poet 'at kens the differ. Ow, I ken! ye'll be doon upo' me wi' yer Byron,| -- Fergus shook his head as at a false impeachment, but Donal went on -- |but even a poet canna mak lees poetry. An' a man 'at in ane o' his gran'est verses cud haiver aboot the birth o' a yoong airthquack! -- losh! to think o' 't growin' an auld airthquack! -- haith, to me it's no up till a deuk-quack! -- sic a poet micht weel, I grant ye, be he ever sic a guid poet whan he tuik heed to what he said, he micht weel, I say, blether nonsense aboot the sea warrin' again' the rocks, an' sic stuff.|

|But don't you see them?| said Fergus, pointing to a great billow that fell back at the moment, and lay churning in the gulf beneath them. |Are they not in fact wasting the rocks away by slow degrees?|

|What comes o' yer seemile than, anent the vainity o' their endeevour? But that's no what I'm carin' aboot. What I mainteen is, 'at though they div weir awa' the rocks, that's nae mair their design nor it's the design o' a yewky owse to kill the tree whan he rubs hit's skin an' his ain aff thegither.|

|Tut! nobody ever means, when he personifies the powers of nature, that they know what they are about.|

|The mair necessar' till attreebute till them naething but their rale design.|

|If they don't know what they are about, how can you he so foolish as talk of their design?|

|Ilka thing has a design, -- an' gien it dinna ken't itsel', that's jist whaur yer true an' lawfu' personification comes in. There's no rizon 'at a poet sudna attreebute till a thing as a conscious design that which lies at the verra heart o' 'ts bein', the design for which it's there. That an' no ither sud determine the personification ye gie a thing -- for that's the trowth o' the thing. Eh, man, Fergus! the jaws is fechtin' wi' nae rocks. They're jist at their pairt in a gran' cleansin' hermony. They're at their hoosemaid's wark, day an' nicht, to haud the warl' clean, an' gran' an' bonnie they sing at it. Gien I was you, I wadna tell fowk any sic nonsense as yon; I wad tell them 'at ilk ane 'at disna dee his wark i' the warl', an' dee 't the richt gait, 's no the worth o' a minnin, no to say a whaul, for ilk ane o' thae wee craturs dis the wull o' him 'at made 'im wi' ilka whisk o' his bit tailie, fa'in' in wi' a' the jabble o' the jaws again' the rocks, for it's a' ae thing -- an' a' to haud the muckle sea clean. An' sae whan I lie i' my bed, an' a' at ance there comes a wee soughie o' win' i' my face, an' I luik up an' see it was naething but the wings o' a flittin' flee, I think wi' mysel' hoo a' the curses are but blessin's 'at ye dinna see intill, an' hoo ilka midge, an' flee, an' muckle dronin' thing 'at gangs aboot singin' bass, no to mention the doos an' the mairtins an' the craws an' the kites an' the oolets an' the muckle aigles an' the butterflees, is a' jist haudin' the air gauin' 'at ilka defilin' thing may be weel turnt ower, an' brunt clean. That's the best I got oot o' my cheemistry last session. An' fain wad I haud air an' watter in motion aboot me, an' sae serve my en' -- whether by waggin' wi' my wings or whiskin' wi' my tail. Eh! it's jist won'erfu'. Its a' ae gran' consortit confusion o' hermony an' order; an' what maks the confusion is only jist 'at a' thing's workin' an' naething sits idle. But awa! wi' the nonsense o' ae thing worryin' an' fechtin' at anither! -- no till ye come to beasts an' fowk, an' syne ye hae eneuch o' 't.|

All the time Fergus had been poking the point of his stick into the ground, a smile of superiority curling his lip.

|I hope, ladies, our wits are not quite swept away in this flood of Doric,| he said.

|You have a poor opinion of the stability of our brains, Mr. Duff,| said Mrs. Sclater.

|I was only judging by myself,| he replied, a little put out. |I can't say I understood our friend here. Did you?|

|Perfectly,| answered Mrs. Sclater.

At that moment came a thunderous wave with a great bowff into the hollow at the end of the gully on whose edge they stood.

|There's your housemaid's broom, Donal!| said Ginevra.

They all laughed.

|Everything depends on how you look at a thing,| said Fergus, and said no more -- inwardly resolving, however, to omit from his sermon a certain sentence about the idle waves dashing themselves to ruin on the rocks they would destroy, and to work in something instead about the winds of the winter tossing the snow. A pause followed.

|Well, this is Saturday, and tomorrow is my work-day, you know, ladies,| he said. |If you would oblige me with your address, Miss Galbraith, I should do myself the honour of calling on Mr. Galbraith.|

Ginevra told him where they lived, but added she was afraid he must not expect to see her father, for he had been out of health lately, and would see nobody.

|At all events I shall give myself the chance,| he rejoined, and bidding the ladies good-bye, and nodding to the youths, turned and walked away.

For some time there was silence. At length Donal spoke.

|Poor Fergus!| he said with a little sigh. |He's a good-natured creature, and was a great help to me; but when I think of him a preacher, I seem to see an Egyptian priest standing on the threshold of the great door at Ipsambul, blowing with all his might to keep out the Libyan desert; and the four great stone gods, sitting behind the altar, far back in the gloom, laughing at him.|

Then Ginevra asked him something which led to a good deal of talk about the true and false in poetry, and made Mrs. Sclater feel it was not for nothing she had befriended the lad from the hills in the strange garments. And she began to think whether her husband might not be brought to take a higher view of his calling.

On Monday Fergus went to pay his visit to Mr. Galbraith. As Ginevra had said, her father did not appear, but Fergus was far from disappointed. He had taken it into his head that Miss Galbraith sided with him when that ill-bred fellow made his rude, not to say ungrateful, attack upon him, and was much pleased to have a talk with her. Ginevra, thought it would not be right to cherish against him the memory of the one sin of his youth in her eyes, but she could not like him. She did not know why, but the truth was, she felt, without being able to identify, his unreality: she thought it was because, both in manners and in dress, so far as the custom of his calling would permit, he was that unpleasant phenomenon, a fine gentleman. She had never heard him preach, or she would have liked him still less; for he was an orator wilful and prepense, choice of long words, fond of climaxes, and always aware of the points at which he must wave his arm, throw forward his hands, wipe his eyes with the finest of large cambric handkerchiefs. As it was, she was heartily tired of him before he went, and when he was gone, found, as she sat with her father, that she could not recall a word he had said. As to what had made the fellow stay so long, she was therefore positively unable to give her father an answer; the consequence of which was, that, the next time he called, Mr. Galbraith, much to her relief, stood the brunt of his approach, and received him. The ice thus broken, his ingratiating manners, and the full-blown respect he showed Mr. Galbraith, enabling the weak man to feel himself, as of old, every inch a laird, so won upon him that, when he took his leave, he gave him a cordial invitation to repeat his visit.

He did so, in the evening this time, and remembering a predilection of the laird's, begged for a game of backgammon. The result of his policy was, that, of many weeks that followed, every Monday evening at least he spent with the laird. Ginevra was so grateful to him for his attention to her father, and his efforts to draw him out of his gloom, that she came gradually to let a little light of favour shine upon him. And if the heart of Fergus Duff was drawn to her, that is not to be counted to him a fault -- neither that, his heart thus drawn, he should wish to marry her. Had she been still heiress of Glashruach, he dared not have dreamed of such a thing, but, noting the humble condition to which they were reduced, the growing familiarity of the father, and the friendliness of the daughter, he grew very hopeful, and more anxious than ever to secure the presentation to the North church, which was in the gift of the city. He could easily have got a rich wife, but he was more greedy of distinction than of money, and to marry the daughter of the man to whom he had been accustomed in childhood to look up as the greatest in the known world, was in his eyes like a patent of nobility, would be a ratification of his fitness to mingle with the choice of the land.

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