One cold afternoon in the end of October, when Mistress Croale was shutting up her shop in the market, and a tumbler of something hot was haunting her imagination, Gibbie came walking up the long gallery with the light hill-step which he never lost, and startled her with a hand on her shoulder, making signs that she must come with him. She made haste to lock her door, and they walked side by side to the Widdiehill. As they crossed the end of it she cast a look down Jink Lane, and thought of her altered condition with a sigh. Then the memory of the awful time amongst the sailors, in which poor Sambo's frightful death was ever prominent, came back like a fog from hell. But so far gone were those times now, that, seeing their events more as they really were, she looked upon them with incredulous horror, as things in which she could hardly have had any part or lot. Then returned her wanderings and homeless miseries, when often a haystack or a heap of straw in a shed was her only joy--whisky always excepted. Last of all came the dread perils, the hairbreadth escapes of her too adventurous voyage on the brander;--and after all these things, here she was, walking in peace by the side of wee Sir Gibbie, a friend as strong now as he had always been true! She asked herself, or some power within asked her, whence came the troubles that had haunted her life. Why had she been marked out for such misfortunes? Her conscience answered--from her persistence in living by the sale of drink after she had begun to feel it was wrong. Thence it was that she had learned to drink, and that she was even now liable, if not to be found drunk in the streets, yet to go to bed drunk as any of her former customers. The cold crept into her bones; the air seemed full of blue points and clear edges of cold, that stung and cut her. She was a wretched, a low creature! What would her late aunt think to see her now? What if this cold in her bones were the cold of coming death? To lie for ages in her coffin, with her mouth full of earth, longing for whisky! A verse from the end of the New Testament with "nor drunkards" in it, came to her mind. She had always had faith, she said to herself; but let them preach what they liked about salvation by faith, she knew there was nothing but hell for her if she were to die that night. There was Mistress Murkison looking out of her shop-door! She was respected as much as ever! Would Mistress Murkison be saved if she died that night? At least nobody would want her damned; whereas not a few, and Mr. Sclater in particular, would think it no fair play if Mistress Croale were not damned!
They turned into the close of the Auld Hoose o' Galbraith.
"Wee Gibbie's plottin' to lead me to repentance!" she said to herself. "He's gaein' to shaw me whaur his father dee'd, an' whaur they leevit in sic meesery--a' throu' the drink I gae 'im, an' the respectable hoose I keepit to 'tice him till't! He wad hae me persuaudit to lea' aff the drink! Weel, I'm a heap better nor ance I was, an' gie't up I wull a'thegither--afore it comes to the last wi' me."
By this time Gibbie was leading her up the dark stair. At the top, on a wide hall-like landing, he opened a door. She drew back with shy amaze. Her first thought was--"That prood madam, the minister's wife, 'ill be there!" Was affront lying in wait for her again? She looked round angrily at her conductor. But his smile re-assured her, and she stepped in.
It was almost a grand room, rich and sombre in colour, old-fashioned in its somewhat stately furniture. A glorious fire was blazing and candles were burning. The table was covered with a white cloth, and laid for two. Gibbie shut the door, placed a chair for Mistress Croale by the fire, seated himself, took out his tablets, wrote "Will you be my housekeeper? I will give you £100 a year," and handed them to her.
"Lord, Sir Gibbie!" she cried, jumping to her feet, "hae ye tint yer wuts? Hoo wad an auld wife like me luik in sic a place--an' in sic duds as this? It wad gar Sawtan lauch, an' that he can but seldom."
Gibbie rose, and taking her by the hand, led her to the door of an adjoining room. It was a bedroom, as grand as the room they had left, and if Mistress Croale was surprised before, she was astonished now. A fire was burning here too, candles were alight on the dressing-table, a hot bath stood ready, on the bed lay a dress of rich black satin, with linen and everything down, or up, to collars, cuffs, mittens, cap, and shoes. All these things Gibbie had bought himself, using the knowledge he had gathered in shopping with Mrs. Sclater, and the advice of her dressmaker, whom he had taken into his confidence, and who had entered heartily into his plan. He made signs to Mistress Croale that everything there was at her service, and left her.
Like one in a dream she yielded to the rush of events, not too much bewildered to dress with care, and neither too old nor too wicked nor too ugly to find pleasure in it. She might have been a born lady just restored to the habits of her youth, to judge by her delight over the ivory brushes and tortoise-shell comb, and great mirror. In an hour or so she made her appearance--I can hardly say reappeared, she was so altered. She entered the room neither blushing nor smiling, but wiping the tears from her eyes like a too blessed child. What Mrs. Sclater would have felt, I dare hardly think; for there was "the horrid woman" arrayed as nearly after her fashion as Gibbie had been able to get her up! A very good "get-up" nevertheless it was, and satisfactory to both concerned. Mistress Croale went out a decent-looking poor body, and entered a not uncomely matron of the housekeeper class, rather agreeable to look upon, who had just stood a nerve-shaking but not unpleasant surprise, and was recovering. Gibbie was so satisfied with her appearance that, come of age as he was, and vagrant no more, he first danced round her several times with a candle in his hand, much to the danger but nowise to the detriment of her finery, then set it down, and executed his old lavolta of delight, which, as always, he finished by standing on one leg.
Then they sat down to a nice nondescript meal, also of Gibbie's own providing.
When their meal was ended, he went to a bureau, and brought thence a paper, plainly written to this effect:
"I agree to do whatever Sir Gilbert Galbraith may require of me, so long as it shall not be against my conscience; and consent that, if I taste whisky once, he shall send me away immediately, without further reason given."
He handed it to Mistress Croale; she read, and instantly looked about for pen and ink: she dreaded seeming for a moment to hesitate. He brought them to her, she signed, and they shook hands.
He then conducted her all over the house--first to the rooms prepared for his study and bedroom, and next to the room in the garret, which he had left just as it was when his father died in it. There he gave her a look by which he meant to say, "See what whisky brings people to!" but which her conscience interpreted, "See what you brought my father to!" Next, on the floor between, he showed her a number of bedrooms, all newly repaired and fresh-painted,--with double windows, the inside ones filled with frosted glass. These rooms, he gave her to understand, he wished her to furnish, getting as many things as she could from Mistress Murkison. Going back then to the sitting-room, he proceeded to explain his plans, telling her he had furnished the house that he might not any longer be himself such a stranger as to have no place to take a stranger to. Then he got a Bible there was in the room, and showed her those words in the book of Exodus--"Also, thou shalt not oppress a stranger; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt;" and while she thought again of her wanderings through the country, and her nights in the open air, made her understand that whomsoever he should at any time bring home she was to treat as his guest. She might get a servant to wait upon herself, he said, but she must herself help him to wait upon his guests, in the name of the Son of Man.
She expressed hearty acquiescence, but would not hear of a servant: the more work the better for her! she said. She would to-morrow arrange for giving up her shop and disposing of her stock and the furniture in her garret. But Gibbie requested the keys of both those places. Next, he insisted that she should never utter a word as to the use he intended making of his house; if the thing came out, it would ruin his plans, and he must give them up altogether--and thereupon he took her to the ground floor and showed her a door in communication with a poor little house behind, by which he intended to introduce and dismiss his guests, that they should not know where they had spent the night. Then he made her read to him the hundred and seventh Psalm; after which he left her, saying he would come to the house as soon as the session began, which would be in a week; until then he should be at Mr. Sclater's.
Left alone in the great house--like one with whom the most beneficent of fairies had been busy, the first thing Mistress Croale did was to go and have a good look at herself--from head to foot--in the same mirror that had enlightened Donal as to his outermost man. Very different was the re-reflection it caused in Mistress Croale: she was satisfied with everything she saw there, except her complexion, and that she resolved should improve. She was almost painfully happy. Out there was the Widdiehill, dark and dismal and cold, through which she had come, sad and shivering and haunted with miserable thoughts, into warmth and splendour and luxury and bliss! Wee Sir Gibbie had made a lady of her! If only poor Sir George were alive to see and share!--There was but one thing wanted to make it Paradise indeed--a good tumbler of toddy by the fire before she went to bed!
Then first she thought of the vow she had made as she signed the paper, and shuddered--not at the thought of breaking it, but at the thought of having to keep it, and no help.--No help! it was the easiest thing in the world to get a bottle of whisky. She had but to run to Jink Lane at the farthest, to her own old house, which, for all Mr. Sclater, was a whisky shop yet! She had emptied her till, and had money in her pocket. Who was there to tell? She would not have a chance when Sir Gibbie came home to her. She must make use of what time was left her. She was safe now from going too far, because she must give it up; and why not then have one farewell night of pleasure, to bid a last good-bye to her old friend Whisky? what should she have done without him, lying in the cold wind by a dykeside, or going down the Daur like a shot on her brander?--Thus the tempting passion; thus, for aught I know, a tempting devil at the ear of her mind as well.--But with that came the face of Gibbie; she thought how troubled that face would look if she failed him. What a lost, irredeemable wretch was she about to make of herself after all he had done for her! No; if whisky was heaven, and the want of it was hell, she would not do it! She ran to the door, locked it, brought away the key, and laid it under the Bible from which she had been reading to Sir Gibbie. Perhaps she might have done better than betake herself again to her finery, but it did help her through the rest of the evening, and she went to her grand bed not only sober, but undefiled of the enemy. When Gibbie came to her a week after, he came to a true woman, one who had kept faith with him.
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