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Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald


IT was a cold night in March, cloudy and blowing. Every human body was turned into a fortress for bare defence of life. There was no snow on the ground, but it seemed as if there must be snow everywhere else. There was snow in the clouds overhead, and there was snow in the mind of man beneath. The very air felt like the quarry out of which the snow had been dug which was being ground above. The wind felt black, the sky was black, and the lamps were blowing about as if they wanted to escape for the darkness was after them. It was the Sunday following the induction of Fergus, and this was the meteoric condition through which Donal and Gibbie passed on their way to the North church, to hear him preach in the pulpit that was now his own.

The people had been gathering since long before the hour, and the youths could find only standing room near the door. Cold as was the weather, and keen as blew the wind into the church every time a door was opened, the instant it was shut again it was warm, for the place was crowded from the very height of the great steep-sloping galleries, at the back of which the people were standing on the window sills, down to the double swing-doors, which were constantly cracking open as if the house was literally too full to hold the congregation. The aisles also were crowded with people standing, all eager yet solemn, with granite faces and live eyes. One who did not know better might well have imagined them gathered in hunger after good tidings from the kingdom of truth and hope, whereby they might hasten the coming of that kingdom in their souls and the souls they loved. But it was hardly that; it was indeed a long way from it, and no such thing: the eagerness was, in the mass, doubtless with exceptions, to hear the new preacher, the pyrotechnist of human logic and eloquence, who was about to burn his halfpenny blue lights over the abyss of truth, and throw his yelping crackers into it.

The eyes of the young men went wandering over the crowd, looking for any of their few acquaintances, but below they mostly fell of course on the backs of heads. There was, however, no mistaking either Ginevra's bonnet or the occiput perched like a capital on the long neck of her father. They sat a good way in front, about the middle of the great church. At the sight of them Gibbie's face brightened, Donal's turned pale as death. For, only the last week but one, he had heard of the frequent visits of the young preacher to the cottage, and of the favour in which he was held by both father and daughter; and his state of mind since, had not, with all his philosophy to rectify and support it, been an enviable one. That he could not for a moment regard himself as a fit husband for the lady-lass, or dream of exposing himself or her to the insult which the offer of himself as a son-in-law would bring on them both from the laird, was not a reflection to render the thought of such a bag of wind as Fergus Duff marrying her, one whit the less horribly unendurable. Had the laird been in the same social position as before, Donal would have had no fear of his accepting Fergus; but misfortune alters many relations. Fergus's father was a man of considerable property, Fergus himself almost a man of influence, and already in possession of a comfortable income: it was possible to imagine that the impoverished Thomas Galbraith, late of Glashruach, Esq., might contrive to swallow what annoyance there could not but in any case be in wedding his daughter to the son of John Duff, late his own tenant of the Mains. Altogether Donal's thoughts were not of the kind to put him in fit mood -- I do not say to gather benefit from the prophesying of Fergus, but to give fair play to the peddler who now rose to display his loaded calico and beggarly shoddy over the book-board of the pulpit. But the congregation listened rapt. I dare not say there was no divine reality concerned in his utterance, for Gibbie saw many a glimmer through the rents in his logic, and the thin-worn patches of his philosophy; but it was not such glimmers that fettered the regards of the audience, but the noisy flow and false eloquence of the preacher. In proportion to the falsehood in us are we exposed to the falsehood in others. The false plays upon the false without discord; comes to the false, and is welcomed as the true; there is no jar, for the false to the false look the true; darkness takes darkness for light, and great is the darkness. I will not attempt an account of the sermon; even admirably rendered, it would be worthless as the best of copies of a bad wall-paper. There was in it, to be sure, such a glowing description of the city of God as might have served to attract thither all the diamond-merchants of Amsterdam; but why a Christian should care to go to such a place, let him tell who knows; while, on the other hand, the audience appeared equally interested in his equiponderating description of the place of misery. Not once {did he even} attempt to give, or indeed could have given, the feeblest idea, to a single soul present, of the one terror of the universe -- the peril of being cast from the arms of essential Love and Life into the bosom of living Death. For this teacher of men knew nothing whatever but by hearsay, had not in himself experienced one of the joys or one of the horrors he endeavoured to embody.

Gibbie was not at home listening to such a sermon; he was distressed, and said afterwards to Donal he would far rather be subjected to Mr. Sclater's isms than Fergus's ations. It caused him pain too to see Donal look so scornful, so contemptuous even; while it added to Donal's unrest, and swelled his evil mood, to see Mr. Galbraith absorbed. For Ginevra's bonnet, it did not once move -- but then it was not set at an angle to indicate either eyes upturned in listening, or cast down in emotion. Donal would have sacrificed not a few songs, the only wealth he possessed, for one peep round the corner of that bonnet. He had become painfully aware, that, much as he had seen of Ginevra, he knew scarcely anything of her thoughts; he had always talked so much more to her than she to him, that now, when he longed to know, he could not even guess what she might be thinking, or what effect such |an arrangement| of red and yellow would have upon her imagination and judgment. She could not think or receive what was not true, he felt sure, but she might easily enough attribute truth where it did not exist.

At length the rockets, Roman candles, and squibs were all burnt out, the would-be |eternal blazon| was over, and the preacher sunk back exhausted in his seat. The people sang; a prayer, fit pendent to such a sermon, followed, and the congregation was dismissed -- it could not be with much additional strength to meet the sorrows, temptations, sophisms, commonplaces, disappointments, dulnesses, stupidities, and general devilries of the week, although not a few paid the preacher welcome compliments on his |gran' discoorse.|

The young men were out among the first, and going round to another door, in the church-yard, by which they judged Ginevra and her father must issue, there stood waiting. The night was utterly changed. The wind had gone about, and the vapours were high in heaven, broken all into cloud-masses of sombre grandeur. Now from behind, now upon their sides, they were made glorious by the full moon, while through their rents appeared the sky and the ever marvellous stars. Gibbie's eyes went climbing up the spire that shot skyward over their heads. Around its point the clouds and the moon seemed to gather, grouping themselves in grand carelessness; and he thought of the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven; to us mere heaps of watery vapour, ever ready to fall, drowning the earth in rain, or burying it in snow, to angel-feet they might be solid masses whereon to tread attendant upon him, who, although with his word he ruled winds and seas, loved to be waited on by the multitude of his own! He was yet gazing, forgetful of the human tide about him, watching the glory dominant over storm, when his companion pinched his arm: he looked, and was aware that Fergus, muffled to the eyes, was standing beside them. He seemed not to see them, and they were nowise inclined to attract his attention, but gazed motionless on the church door, an unsealed fountain of souls. What a curious thing it is to watch an issuing crowd of faces for one loved one -- all so unattractive, provoking, blamable, as they come rolling round corners, dividing, and flowing away -- not one of them the right one! But at last out she did come -- Ginevra, like a daisy among mown grass! It was really she! -- but with her father. She saw Donal, glanced from him to Gibbie, cast down her sweet eyes, and made no sign. Fergus had already advanced and addressed the laird.

|Ah, Mr. Duff!| said Mr. Galbraith; |excuse me, but would you oblige me by giving your arm to my daughter? I see a friend waiting to speak to me. I shall overtake you in a moment.|

Fergus murmured his pleasure, and Ginevra and he moved away together. The youths for a moment watched the father. He dawdled -- evidently wanted to speak to no one. They then followed the two, walking some yards behind them. Every other moment Fergus would bend his head towards Ginevra; once or twice they saw the little bonnet turn upwards in response or question. Poor Donal was burning with lawless and foolish indignation: why should the minister muffle himself up like an old woman in the crowd, and take off the great handkerchief when talking with the lady? When the youths reached the street where the cottage stood, they turned the corner after them, and walked quickly up to them where they stood at the gate waiting for it to be opened.

|Sic a gran' nicht!| said Donal, after the usual greetings. |Sir Gibbie an' me 's haein' a dauner wi' the mune. Ye wad think she had licht eneuch to haud the cloods aff o' her, wad ye no, mem? But na! they'll be upon her, an' I'm feart there's ae unco black ane yon'er -- dinna ye see 't -- wi' a straik o' white, aboot the thrapple o' 't? -- There -- dinna ye see 't?| he went on pointing to the clouds about the moon, | -- that ane, I'm doobtin', 'ill hae the better o' her or lang -- tak her intill 'ts airms, an' bray a' the licht oot o' her. Guid nicht, mem. -- Guid nicht, Fergus. You ministers sudna mak yersels sae like cloods. Ye sud be cled in white an' gowd, an' a' colours o' stanes, like the new Jerooslem ye tell sic tales aboot, an' syne naebody wad mistak the news ye bring.|

Therewith Donal walked on, doubtless for the moment a little relieved. But before they had walked far, he broke down altogether.

|Gibbie,| he said, |yon rascal's gauin' to merry the leddy-lass! an' it drives me mad to think it. Gien I cud but ance see an' speyk till her -- ance -- jist ance! Lord! what 'll come o' a' the gowans upo' the Mains, an' the heather upo' Glashgar!|

He burst out crying, but instantly dashed away his tears with indignation at his weakness.

|I maun dree my weird,| (undergo my doom), he said, and said no more.

Gibbie's face had grown white in the moon-gleams, and his lips trembled. He put his arm through Donal's and clung to him, and in silence they went home. When they reached Donal's room, Donal entering shut the door behind him and shut out Gibbie. He stood for a moment like one dazed, then suddenly coming to himself, turned away, left the house, and ran straight to Daur-street.

When the minister's door was opened to him, he went to that of the dining-room, knowing Mr. and Mrs. Sclater would then be at supper. Happily for his intent, the minister was at the moment having his tumbler of toddy after the labours of the day, an indulgence which, so long as Gibbie was in the house, he had, ever since that first dinner-party, taken in private, out of regard, as he pretended to himself, for the boy's painful associations with it, but in reality, to his credit be it told if it may, from a little shame of the thing itself; and his wife therefore, when she saw Gibbie, rose, and, meeting him, took him with her to her own little sitting-room, where they had a long talk, of which the result appeared the next night in a note from Mrs. Sclater to Gibbie, asking him and Donal to spend the evening of Tuesday with her.

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