Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter XI. Private Interviews.
The winter passed slowly away. Robert and Shargar went to school together, and learned their lessons together at Mrs. Falconer's table. Shargar soon learned to behave with tolerable propriety; was obedient, as far as eye-service went; looked as queer as ever; did what he pleased, which was nowise very wicked, the moment he was out of the old lady's sight; was well fed and well cared for; and when he was asked how he was, gave the invariable answer: 'Middlin'.' He was not very happy.
There was little communication in words between the two boys, for the one had not much to say, and the pondering fits of the other grew rather than relaxed in frequency and intensity. Yet amongst chance acquaintances in the town Robert had the character of a wag, of which he was totally unaware himself. Indeed, although he had more than the ordinary share of humour, I suspect it was not so much his fun as his earnest that got him the character; for he would say such altogether unheard-of and strange things, that the only way they were capable of accounting for him was as a humorist.
'Eh!' he said once to Elshender, during a pause common to a thunder-storm and a lesson on the violin 'eh! wadna ye like to be up in that clood wi' a spaud, turnin' ower the divots and catchin' the flashes lyin' aneath them like lang reid fiery worms?'
'Ay, man, but gin ye luik up to the cloods that gait, ye'll never be muckle o' a fiddler.'
This was merely an outbreak of that insolence of advice so often shown to the young from no vantage-ground but that of age and faithlessness, reminding one of the 'jigging fool' who interfered between Brutus and Cassius on the sole ground that he had seen more years than they. As if ever a fiddler that did not look up to the clouds would be anything but a catgut-scraper! Even Elshender's fiddle was the one angel that held back the heavy curtain of his gross nature, and let the sky shine through. He ought to have been set fiddling every Sunday morning, and from his fiddling dragged straight to church. It was the only thing man could have done for his conversion, for then his heart was open, But I fear the prayers would have closed it before the sermon came. He should rather have been compelled to take his fiddle to church with him, and have a gentle scrape at it in the pauses of the service; only there are no such pauses in the service, alas! And Dooble Sanny, though not too religious to get drunk occasionally, was a great deal too religious to play his fiddle on the Sabbath: he would not willingly anger the powers above; but it was sometimes a sore temptation, especially after he got possession of old Mr. Falconer's wonderful instrument.
'Hoots, man!' he would say to Robert; 'dinna han'le, her as gin she war an egg-box. Tak haud o' her as gin she war a leevin' crater. Ye maun jist straik her canny, an' wile the music oot o' her; for she's like ither women: gin ye be rouch wi' her, ye winna get a word oot o' her. An' dinna han'le her that gait. She canna bide to be contred an' pu'd this gait and that gait.--Come to me, my bonny leddy. Ye'll tell me yer story, winna ye, my dauty (pet)?'
And with every gesture as if he were humouring a shy and invalid girl, he would, as he said, wile the music out of her in sobs and wailing, till the instrument, gathering courage in his embrace, grew gently merry in its confidence, and broke at last into airy laughter. He always spoke, and apparently thought, of his violin as a woman, just as a sailor does of his craft. But there was nothing about him, except his love for music and its instruments, to suggest other than a most uncivilized nature. That which was fine in him was constantly checked and held down by the gross; the merely animal overpowered the spiritual; and it was only upon occasion that his heavenly companion, the violin, could raise him a few feet above the mire and the clay. She never succeeded in setting his feet on a rock; while, on the contrary, he often dragged her with him into the mire of questionable company and circumstances. Worthy Mr. Falconer would have been horrified to see his umquhile modest companion in such society as that into which she was now introduced at times. But nevertheless the soutar was a good and patient teacher; and although it took Robert rather more than a fortnight to redeem his pledge to Shargar, he did make progress. It could not, however, be rapid, seeing that an hour at a time, two evenings in the week, was all that he could give to the violin. Even with this moderation, the risk of his absence exciting his grandmother's suspicion and inquiry was far from small.
And now, were those really faded old memories of his grandfather and his merry kindness, all so different from the solemn benevolence of his grandmother, which seemed to revive in his bosom with the revivification of the violin? The instrument had surely laid up a story in its hollow breast, had been dreaming over it all the time it lay hidden away in the closet, and was now telling out its dreams about the old times in the ear of the listening boy. To him also it began to assume something of that mystery and life which had such a softening, and, for the moment at least, elevating influence on his master.
At length the love of the violin had grown upon him so, that he could not but cast about how he might enjoy more of its company. It would not do, for many reasons, to go oftener to the shoemaker's, especially now that the days were getting longer. Nor was that what he wanted. He wanted opportunity for practice. He wanted to be alone with the creature, to see if she would not say something more to him than she had ever said yet. Wafts and odours of melodies began to steal upon him ere he was aware in the half lights between sleeping and waking: if he could only entice them to creep out of the violin, and once 'bless his humble ears' with the bodily hearing of them! Perhaps he might--who could tell? But how? But where?
There was a building in Rothieden not old, yet so deserted that its very history seemed to have come to a standstill, and the dust that filled it to have fallen from the plumes of passing centuries. It was the property of Mrs. Falconer, left her by her husband. Trade had gradually ebbed away from the town till the thread-factory stood unoccupied, with all its machinery rusting and mouldering, just as the work-people had risen and left it one hot, midsummer day, when they were told that their services were no longer required. Some of the thread even remained upon the spools, and in the hollows of some of the sockets the oil had as yet dried only into a paste; although to Robert the desertion of the place appeared immemorial. It stood at a furlong's distance from the house, on the outskirt of the town. There was a large, neglected garden behind it, with some good fruit-trees, and plenty of the bushes which boys love for the sake of their berries. After grannie's jam-pots were properly filled, the remnant of these, a gleaning far greater than the gathering, was at the disposal of Robert, and, philosopher although in some measure he was already, he appreciated the privilege. Haunting this garden in the previous summer, he had for the first time made acquaintance with the interior of the deserted factory. The door to the road was always kept locked, and the key of it lay in one of grannie's drawers; but he had then discovered a back entrance less securely fastened, and with a strange mingling of fear and curiosity had from time to time extended his rambles over what seemed to him the huge desolation of the place. Half of it was well built of stone and lime, but of the other half the upper part was built of wood, which now showed signs of considerable decay. One room opened into another through the length of the place, revealing a vista of machines, standing with an air of the last folding of the wings of silence over them, and the sense of a deeper and deeper sinking into the soundless abyss. But their activity was not so far vanished but that by degrees Robert came to fancy that he had some time or other seen a woman seated at each of those silent powers, whose single hand set the whole frame in motion, with its numberless spindles and spools rapidly revolving--a vague mystery of endless threads in orderly complication, out of which came some desired, to him unknown, result, so that the whole place was full of a bewildering tumult of work, every little reel contributing its share, as the water-drops clashing together make the roar of a tempest. Now all was still as the church on a week-day, still as the school on a Saturday afternoon. Nay, the silence seemed to have settled down like the dust, and grown old and thick, so dead and old that the ghost of the ancient noise had arisen to haunt the place.
Thither would Robert carry his violin, and there would he woo her.
'I'm thinkin' I maun tak her wi' me the nicht, Sanders,' he said, holding the fiddle lovingly to his bosom, after he had finished his next lesson.
The shoemaker looked blank.
'Ye're no gaein' to desert me, are ye?'
'Na, weel I wat!' returned Robert. 'But I want to try her at hame. I maun get used till her a bittie, ye ken, afore I can du onything wi' her.'
'I wiss ye had na brought her here ava. What I am to du wantin' her!'
'What for dinna ye get yer ain back?'
'I haena the siller, man. And, forbye, I doobt I wadna be that sair content wi' her noo gin I had her. I used to think her gran'. But I'm clean oot o' conceit o' her. That bonnie leddy's ta'en 't clean oot o' me.'
'But ye canna hae her aye, ye ken, Sanders. She's no mine. She's my grannie's, ye ken.'
'What's the use o' her to her? She pits nae vailue upon her. Eh, man, gin she wad gie her to me, I wad haud her i' the best o' shune a' the lave o' her days.'
'That wadna be muckle, Sanders, for she hasna had a new pair sin' ever I mind.'
'But I wad haud Betty in shune as weel.'
'Betty pays for her ain shune, I reckon.'
'Weel, I wad haud you in shune, and yer bairns, and yer bairns' bairns,' cried the soutar, with enthusiasm.
'Hoot, toot, man! Lang or that ye'll be fiddlin' i' the new Jeroozlem.'
'Eh, man!' said Alexander, looking up--he had just cracked the roset-ends off his hands, for he had the upper leather of a boot in the grasp of the clams, and his right hand hung arrested on its blind way to the awl--'duv ye think there'll be fiddles there? I thocht they war a' hairps, a thing 'at I never saw, but it canna be up till a fiddle.'
'I dinna ken,' answered Robert; 'but ye suld mak a pint o' seein' for yersel'.'
'Gin I thoucht there wad be fiddles there, faith I wad hae a try. It wadna be muckle o' a Jeroozlem to me wantin' my fiddle. But gin there be fiddles, I daursay they'll be gran' anes. I daursay they wad gi' me a new ane--I mean ane as auld as Noah's 'at he played i' the ark whan the de'il cam' in by to hearken. I wad fain hae a try. Ye ken a' aboot it wi' that grannie o' yours: hoo's a body to begin?'
'By giein' up the drink, man.'
'Ay--ay--ay--I reckon ye're richt. Weel, I'll think aboot it whan ance I'm throu wi' this job. That'll be neist ook, or thereabouts, or aiblins twa days efter. I'll hae some leiser than.'
Before he had finished speaking he had caught up his awl and begun to work vigorously, boring his holes as if the nerves of feeling were continued to the point of the tool, inserting the bristles that served him for needles with a delicacy worthy of soft-skinned fingers, drawing through the rosined threads with a whisk, and untwining them with a crack from the leather that guarded his hands.
'Gude nicht to ye,' said Robert, with the fiddle-case under his arm.
The shoemaker looked up, with his hands bound in his threads.
'Ye're no gaein' to tak her frae me the nicht?'
'Ay am I, but I'll fess her back again. I'm no gaein' to Jericho wi' her.'
'Gang to Hecklebirnie wi' her, and that's three mile ayont hell.'
'Na; we maun win farther nor that. There canna, be muckle fiddlin' there.'
'Weel, tak her to the new Jeroozlem. I s' gang doon to Lucky Leary's, and fill mysel' roarin' fou, an' it'll be a' your wyte (blame).'
'I doobt ye'll get the straiks (blows) though. Or maybe ye think Bell 'ill tak them for ye.'
Dooble Sanny caught up a huge boot, the sole of which was filled with broad-headed nails as thick as they could be driven, and, in a rage, threw it at Robert as he darted out. Through its clang against the door-cheek, the shoemaker heard a cry from the instrument. He cast everything from him and sprang after Robert. But Robert was down the wynd like a long-legged grayhound, and Elshender could only follow like a fierce mastiff. It was love and grief, though, and apprehension and remorse, not vengeance, that winged his heels. He soon saw that pursuit was vain.
'Robert! Robert!' he cried; 'I canna win up wi' ye. Stop, for God's sake! Is she hurtit?'
Robert stopped at once.
'Ye hae made a bonny leddy o' her--a lameter (cripple) I doobt, like yer wife,' he answered, with indignation.
'Dinna be aye flingin' a man's fau'ts in 's face. It jist maks him 'at he canna, bide himsel' or you eyther. Lat's see the bonny crater.'
Robert complied, for he too was anxious. They were now standing in the space in front of Shargar's old abode, and there was no one to be seen. Elshender took the box, opened it carefully, and peeped in with a face of great apprehension.
'I thocht that was a'!' he said with some satisfaction. 'I kent the string whan I heard it. But we'll sune get a new thairm till her,' he added, in a tone of sorrowful commiseration and condolence, as he took the violin from the case, tenderly as if it had been a hurt child.
One touch of the bow, drawing out a goul of grief, satisfied him that she was uninjured. Next a hurried inspection showed him that there was enough of the catgut twisted round the peg to make up for the part that was broken off. In a moment he had fastened it to the tail-piece, tightened and tuned it. Forthwith he took the bow from the case-lid, and in jubilant guise he expatiated upon the wrong he had done his bonny leddy, till the doors and windows around were crowded with heads peering through the dark to see whence the sounds came, and a little child toddled across from one of the lowliest houses with a ha'penny for the fiddler. Gladly would Robert have restored it with interest, but, alas! there was no interest in his bank, for not a ha'penny had he in the world. The incident recalled Sandy to Rothieden and its cares. He restored the violin to its case, and while Robert was fearing he would take it under his arm and walk away with it, handed it back with a humble sigh and a 'Praise be thankit;' then, without another word, turned and went to his lonely stool and home 'untreasured of its mistress.' Robert went home too, and stole like a thief to his room.
The next day was a Saturday, which, indeed, was the real old Sabbath, or at least the half of it, to the schoolboys of Rothieden. Even Robert's grannie was Jew enough, or rather Christian enough, to respect this remnant of the fourth commandment--divine antidote to the rest of the godless money-making and soul-saving week--and he had the half-day to himself. So as soon as he had had his dinner, he managed to give Shargar the slip, left him to the inroads of a desolate despondency, and stole away to the old factory-garden. The key of that he had managed to purloin from the kitchen where it hung; nor was there much danger of its absence being discovered, seeing that in winter no one thought of the garden. The smuggling of the violin out of the house was the 'dearest danger'--the more so that he would not run the risk of carrying her out unprotected, and it was altogether a bulky venture with the case. But by spying and speeding he managed it, and soon found himself safe within the high walls of the garden.
It was early spring. There had been a heavy fall of sleet in the morning, and now the wind blew gustfully about the place. The neglected trees shook showers upon him as he passed under them, trampling down the rank growth of the grass-walks. The long twigs of the wall-trees, which had never been nailed up, or had been torn down by the snow and the blasts of winter, went trailing away in the moan of the fitful wind, and swung back as it sunk to a sigh. The currant and gooseberry bushes, bare and leafless, and 'shivering all for cold,' neither reminded him of the feasts of the past summer, nor gave him any hope for the next. He strode careless through it all to gain the door at the bottom. It yielded to a push, and the long grass streamed in over the threshold as he entered. He mounted by a broad stair in the main part of the house, passing the silent clock in one of its corners, now expiating in motionlessness the false accusations it had brought against the work-people, and turned into the chaos of machinery.
I fear that my readers will expect, from the minuteness with which I recount these particulars, that, after all, I am going to describe a rendezvous with a lady, or a ghost at least. I will not plead in excuse that I, too, have been infected with Sandy's mode of regarding her, but I plead that in the mind of Robert the proceeding was involved in something of that awe and mystery with which a youth approaches the woman he loves. He had not yet arrived at the period when the feminine assumes its paramount influence, combining in itself all that music, colour, form, odour, can suggest, with something infinitely higher and more divine; but he had begun to be haunted with some vague aspirations towards the infinite, of which his attempts on the violin were the outcome. And now that he was to be alone, for the first time, with this wonderful realizer of dreams and awakener of visions, to do with her as he would, to hint by gentle touches at the thoughts that were fluttering in his soul, and listen for her voice that by the echoes in which she strove to respond he might know that she understood him, it was no wonder if he felt an ethereal foretaste of the expectation that haunts the approach of souls.
But I am not even going to describe his first tête-à-tête with his violin. Perhaps he returned from it somewhat disappointed. Probably he found her coy, unready to acknowledge his demands on her attention. But not the less willingly did he return with her to the solitude of the ruinous factory. On every safe occasion, becoming more and more frequent as the days grew longer, he repaired thither, and every time returned more capable of drawing the coherence of melody from that matrix of sweet sounds.
At length the people about began to say that the factory was haunted; that the ghost of old Mr. Falconer, unable to repose while neglect was ruining the precious results of his industry, visited the place night after night, and solaced his disappointment by renewing on his favourite violin strains not yet forgotten by him in his grave, and remembered well by those who had been in his service, not a few of whom lived in the neighbourhood of the forsaken building.
One gusty afternoon, like the first, but late in the spring, Robert repaired as usual to this his secret haunt. He had played for some time, and now, from a sudden pause of impulse, had ceased, and begun to look around him. The only light came from two long pale cracks in the rain-clouds of the west. The wind was blowing through the broken windows, which stretched away on either hand. A dreary, windy gloom, therefore, pervaded the desolate place; and in the dusk, and their settled order, the machines looked multitudinous. An eerie sense of discomfort came over him as he gazed, and he lifted his violin to dispel the strange unpleasant feeling that grew upon him. But at the first long stroke across the strings, an awful sound arose in the further room; a sound that made him all but drop the bow, and cling to his violin. It went on. It was the old, all but forgotten whirr of bobbins, mingled with the gentle groans of the revolving horizontal wheel, but magnified in the silence of the place, and the echoing imagination of the boy, into something preternaturally awful. Yielding for a moment to the growth of goose-skin, and the insurrection of hair, he recovered himself by a violent effort, and walked to the door that connected the two compartments. Was it more or less fearful that the jenny was not going of itself? that the figure of an old woman sat solemnly turning and turning the hand-wheel? Not without calling in the jury of his senses, however, would he yield to the special plea of his imagination, but went nearer, half expecting to find that the mutch, with its big flapping borders, glimmering white in the gloom across many a machine, surrounded the face of a skull. But he was soon satisfied that it was only a blind woman everybody knew--so old that she had become childish. She had heard the reports of the factory being haunted, and groping about with her half-withered brain full of them, had found the garden and the back door open, and had climbed to the first-floor by a farther stair, well known to her when she used to work that very machine. She had seated herself instinctively, according to ancient wont, and had set it in motion once more.
Yielding to an impulse of experiment, Robert began to play again. Thereupon her disordered ideas broke out in words. And Robert soon began to feel that it could hardly be more ghastly to look upon a ghost than to be taken for one.
'Ay, ay, sir,' said the old woman, in a tone of commiseration, 'it maun be sair to bide. I dinna wonner 'at ye canna lie still. But what gars ye gang daunerin' aboot this place? It's no yours ony langer. Ye ken whan fowk's deid, they tyne the grip (loose hold). Ye suld gang hame to yer wife. She micht say a word to quaiet yer auld banes, for she's a douce an' a wice woman--the mistress.'
Then followed a pause. There was a horror about the old woman's voice, already half dissolved by death, in the desolate place, that almost took from Robert the power of motion. But his violin sent forth an accidental twang, and that set her going again.
'Ye was aye a douce honest gentleman yersel', an' I dinna wonner ye canna bide it. But I wad hae thoucht glory micht hae hauden ye in. But yer ain son! Eh ay! And a braw lad and a bonnie! It's a sod thing he bude to gang the wrang gait; and it's no wonner, as I say, that ye lea' the worms to come an' luik efter him. I doobt--I doobt it winna be to you he'll gang at the lang last. There winna be room for him aside ye in Awbrahawm's boasom. And syne to behave sae ill to that winsome wife o' his! I dinna wonner 'at ye maun be up! Eh na! But, sir, sin ye are up, I wish ye wad speyk to John Thamson no to tak aff the day 'at I was awa' last ook, for 'deed I was verra unweel, and bude to keep my bed.'
Robert was beginning to feel uneasy as to how he should get rid of her, when she rose, and saying, 'Ay, ay, I ken it's sax o'clock,' went out as she had come in. Robert followed, and saw her safe out of the garden, but did not return to the factory.
So his father had behaved ill to his mother too!
'But what for hearken to the havers o' a dottled auld wife?' he said to himself, pondering as he walked home.
Old Janet told a strange story of how she had seen the ghost, and had had a long talk with him, and of what he said, and of how he groaned and played the fiddle between. And finding that the report had reached his grandmother's ears, Robert thought it prudent, much to his discontent, to intermit his visits to the factory. Mrs. Falconer, of course, received the rumour with indignant scorn, and peremptorily refused to allow any examination of the premises.
But how have the violin by him and not hear her speak? One evening the longing after her voice grow upon him till he could resist it no longer. He shut the door of his garret-room, and, with Shargar by him, took her out and began to play softly, gently--oh so softly, so gently! Shargar was enraptured. Robert went on playing.
Suddenly the door opened, and his grannie stood awfully revealed before them. Betty had heard the violin, and had flown to the parlour in the belief that, unable to get any one to heed him at the factory, the ghost had taken Janet's advice, and come home. But his wife smiled a smile of contempt, went with Betty to the kitchen--over which Robert's room lay--heard the sounds, put off her creaking shoes, stole up-stairs on her soft white lambswool stockings, and caught the pair. The violin was seized, put in its case, and carried off; and Mrs. Falconer rejoiced to think she had broken a gin set by Satan for the unwary feet of her poor Robert. Little she knew the wonder of that violin--how it had kept the soul of her husband alive! Little she knew how dangerous it is to shut an open door, with ever so narrow a peep into the eternal, in the face of a son of Adam! And little she knew how determinedly and restlessly a nature like Robert's would search for another, to open one possibly which she might consider ten times more dangerous than that which she had closed.
When Alexander heard of the affair, he was at first overwhelmed with the misfortune; but gathering a little heart at last, he set to 'working,' as he said himself, 'like a verra deevil'; and as he was the best shoemaker in the town, and for the time abstained utterly from whisky, and all sorts of drink but well-water, he soon managed to save the money necessary, and redeem the old fiddle. But whether it was from fancy, or habit, or what, even Robert's inexperienced ear could not accommodate itself, save under protest, to the instrument which once his teacher had considered all but perfect; and it needed the master's finest touch to make its tone other than painful to the sense of the neophyte.
No one can estimate too highly the value of such a resource to a man like the shoemaker, or a boy like Robert. Whatever it be that keeps the finer faculties of the mind awake, wonder alive, and the interest above mere eating and drinking, money-making and money-saving; whatever it be that gives gladness, or sorrow, or hope--this, be it violin, pencil, pen, or, highest of all, the love of woman, is simply a divine gift of holy influence for the salvation of that being to whom it comes, for the lifting of him out of the mire and up on the rock. For it keeps a way open for the entrance of deeper, holier, grander influences, emanating from the same riches of the Godhead. And though many have genius that have no grace, they will only be so much the worse, so much the nearer to the brute, if you take from them that which corresponds to Dooble Sanny's fiddle.