Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter XII. Robert's Plan of Salvation.
For some time after the loss of his friend, Robert went loitering and mooning about, quite neglecting the lessons to which he had not, it must be confessed, paid much attention for many weeks. Even when seated at his grannie's table, he could do no more than fix his eyes on his book: to learn was impossible; it was even disgusting to him. But his was a nature which, foiled in one direction, must, absolutely helpless against its own vitality, straightway send out its searching roots in another. Of all forces, that of growth is the one irresistible, for it is the creating power of God, the law of life and of being. Therefore no accumulation of refusals, and checks, and turnings, and forbiddings, from all the good old grannies in the world, could have prevented Robert from striking root downward, and bearing fruit upward, though, as in all higher natures, the fruit was a long way off yet. But his soul was only sad and hungry. He was not unhappy, for he had been guilty of nothing that weighed on his conscience. He had been doing many things of late, it is true, without asking leave of his grandmother, but wherever prayer is felt to be of no avail, there cannot be the sense of obligation save on compulsion. Even direct disobedience in such case will generally leave little soreness, except the thing forbidden should be in its own nature wrong, and then, indeed, 'Don Worm, the conscience,' may begin to bite. But Robert felt nothing immoral in playing upon his grandfather's violin, nor even in taking liberties with a piece of lumber for which nobody cared but possibly the dead; therefore he was not unhappy, only much disappointed, very empty, and somewhat gloomy. There was nothing to look forward to now, no secret full of riches and endless in hope--in short, no violin.
To feel the full force of his loss, my reader must remember that around the childhood of Robert, which he was fast leaving behind him, there had gathered no tenderness--none at least by him recognizable as such. All the women he came in contact with were his grandmother and Betty. He had no recollection of having ever been kissed. From the darkness and negation of such an embryo-existence, his nature had been unconsciously striving to escape--struggling to get from below ground into the sunlit air--sighing after a freedom he could not have defined, the freedom that comes, not of independence, but of love--not of lawlessness, but of the perfection of law. Of this beauty of life, with its wonder and its deepness, this unknown glory, his fiddle had been the type. It had been the ark that held, if not the tables of the covenant, yet the golden pot of angel's food, and the rod that budded in death. And now that it was gone, the gloomier aspect of things began to lay hold upon him; his soul turned itself away from the sun, and entered into the shadow of the under-world. Like the white-horsed twins of lake Regillus, like Phoebe, the queen of skyey plain and earthly forest, every boy and girl, every man and woman, that lives at all, has to divide many a year between Tartarus and Olympus.
For now arose within him, not without ultimate good, the evil phantasms of a theology which would explain all God's doings by low conceptions, low I mean for humanity even, of right, and law, and justice, then only taking refuge in the fact of the incapacity of the human understanding when its own inventions are impugned as undivine. In such a system, hell is invariably the deepest truth, and the love of God is not so deep as hell. Hence, as foundations must be laid in the deepest, the system is founded in hell, and the first article in the creed that Robert Falconer learned was, 'I believe in hell.' Practically, I mean, it was so; else how should it be that as often as a thought of religious duty arose in his mind, it appeared in the form of escaping hell, of fleeing from the wrath to come? For his very nature was hell, being not born in sin and brought forth in iniquity, but born sin and brought forth iniquity. And yet God made him. He must believe that. And he must believe, too, that God was just, awfully just, punishing with fearful pains those who did not go through a certain process of mind which it was utterly impossible they should go through without a help which he would give to some, and withhold from others, the reason of the difference not being such, to say the least of it, as to come within the reach of the persons concerned. And this God they said was love. It was logically absurd, of course, yet, thank God, they did say that God was love; and many of them succeeded in believing it, too, and in ordering their ways as if the first article of their creed had been 'I believe in God'; whence, in truth, we are bound to say it was the first in power and reality, if not in order; for what are we to say a man believes, if not what he acts upon? Still the former article was the one they brought chiefly to bear upon their children. This mortar, probably they thought, threw the shell straighter than any of the other field-pieces of the church-militant. Hence it was even in justification of God himself that a party arose to say that a man could believe without the help of God at all, and after believing only began to receive God's help--a heresy all but as dreary and barren as the former. No one dreamed of saying--at least such a glad word of prophecy never reached Rothieden--that, while nobody can do without the help of the Father any more than a new-born babe could of itself live and grow to a man, yet that in the giving of that help the very fatherhood of the Father finds its one gladsome labour; that for that the Lord came; for that the world was made; for that we were born into it; for that God lives and loves like the most loving man or woman on earth, only infinitely more, and in other ways and kinds besides, which we cannot understand; and that therefore to be a man is the soul of eternal jubilation.
Robert consequently began to take fits of soul-saving, a most rational exercise, worldly wise and prudent--right too on the principles he had received, but not in the least Christian in its nature, or even God-fearing. His imagination began to busy itself in representing the dire consequences of not entering into the one refuge of faith. He made many frantic efforts to believe that he believed; took to keeping the Sabbath very carefully--that is, by going to church three times, and to Sunday-school as well; by never walking a step save to or from church; by never saying a word upon any subject unconnected with religion, chiefly theoretical; by never reading any but religious books; by never whistling; by never thinking of his lost fiddle, and so on--all the time feeling that God was ready to pounce upon him if he failed once; till again and again the intensity of his efforts utterly defeated their object by destroying for the time the desire to prosecute them with the power to will them. But through the horrible vapours of these vain endeavours, which denied God altogether as the maker of the world, and the former of his soul and heart and brain, and sought to worship him as a capricious demon, there broke a little light, a little soothing, soft twilight, from the dim windows of such literature as came in his way. Besides The Pilgrim's Progress there were several books which shone moon-like on his darkness, and lifted something of the weight of that Egyptian gloom off his spirit. One of these, strange to say, was Defoe's Religious Courtship, and one, Young's Night Thoughts. But there was another which deserves particular notice, inasmuch as it did far more than merely interest or amuse him, raising a deep question in his mind, and one worthy to be asked. This book was the translation of Klopstock's Messiah, to which I have already referred. It was not one of his grandmother's books, but had probably belonged to his father: he had found it in his little garret-room. But as often as she saw him reading it, she seemed rather pleased, he thought. As to the book itself, its florid expatiation could neither offend nor injure a boy like Robert, while its representation of our Lord was to him a wonderful relief from that given in the pulpit, and in all the religious books he knew. But the point for the sake of which I refer to it in particular is this: Amongst the rebel angels who are of the actors in the story, one of the principal is a cherub who repents of making his choice with Satan, mourns over his apostasy, haunts unseen the steps of our Saviour, wheels lamenting about the cross, and would gladly return to his lost duties in heaven, if only he might--a doubt which I believe is left unsolved in the volume, and naturally enough remained unsolved in Robert's mind:--Would poor Abaddon be forgiven and taken home again? For although naturally, that is, to judge by his own instincts, there could be no question of his forgiveness, according to what he had been taught there could be no question of his perdition. Having no one to talk to, he divided himself and went to buffets on the subject, siding, of course, with the better half of himself which supported the merciful view of the matter; for all his efforts at keeping the Sabbath, had in his own honest judgment failed so entirely, that he had no ground for believing himself one of the elect. Had he succeeded in persuading himself that he was, there is no saying to what lengths of indifference about others the chosen prig might have advanced by this time.
He made one attempt to open the subject with Shargar.
'Shargar, what think ye?' he said suddenly, one day. 'Gin a de'il war to repent, wad God forgie him?'
'There's no sayin' what fowk wad du till ance they're tried,' returned Shargar, cautiously.
Robert did not care to resume the question with one who so circumspectly refused to take a metaphysical or a priori view of the matter.
He made an attempt with his grandmother.
One Sunday, his thoughts, after trying for a time to revolve in due orbit around the mind of the Rev. Hugh Maccleary, as projected in a sermon which he had botched up out of a commentary, failed at last and flew off into what the said gentleman would have pronounced 'very dangerous speculation, seeing no man is to go beyond what is written in the Bible, which contains not only the truth, but the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, for this time and for all future time--both here and in the world to come.' Some such sentence, at least, was in his sermon that day, and the preacher no doubt supposed St. Matthew, not St. Matthew Henry, accountable for its origination. In the Limbo into which Robert's then spirit flew, it had been sorely exercised about the substitution of the sufferings of Christ for those which humanity must else have endured while ages rolled on--mere ripples on the ocean of eternity.
'Noo, be douce,' said Mrs. Falconer, solemnly, as Robert, a trifle lighter at heart from the result of his cogitations than usual, sat down to dinner: he had happened to smile across the table to Shargar. And he was douce, and smiled no more.
They ate their broth, or, more properly, supped it, with horn spoons, in absolute silence; after which Mrs. Falconer put a large piece of meat on the plate of each, with the same formula:
'Hae. Ye s' get nae mair.'
The allowance was ample in the extreme, bearing a relation to her words similar to that which her practice bore to her theology. A piece of cheese, because it was the Sabbath, followed, and dinner was over.
When the table had been cleared by Betty, they drew their chairs to the fire, and Robert had to read to his grandmother, while Shargar sat listening. He had not read long, however, before he looked up from his Bible and began the following conversation:--
'Wasna it an ill trick o' Joseph, gran'mither, to put that cup, an' a siller ane tu, into the mou' o' Benjamin's seck?'
'What for that, laddie? He wanted to gar them come back again, ye ken.'
'But he needna hae gane aboot it in sic a playactor-like gait. He needna hae latten them awa' ohn tellt (without telling) them that he was their brither.'
'They had behaved verra ill till him.'
'He used to clype (tell tales) upo' them, though.'
'Laddie, tak ye care what ye say aboot Joseph, for he was a teep o' Christ.'
'Hoo was that, gran'mither?'
'They sellt him to the Ishmeleets for siller, as Judas did him.'
'Did he beir the sins o' them 'at sellt him?'
'Ye may say, in a mainner, 'at he did; for he was sair afflickit afore he wan up to be the King's richt han'; an' syne he keepit a hantle o' ill aff o' 's brithren.'
'Sae, gran'mither, ither fowk nor Christ micht suffer for the sins o' their neebors?'
'Ay, laddie, mony a ane has to do that. But no to mak atonement, ye ken. Naething but the sufferin' o' the spotless cud du that. The Lord wadna be saitisfeet wi' less nor that. It maun be the innocent to suffer for the guilty.'
'I unnerstan' that,' said Robert, who had heard it so often that he had not yet thought of trying to understand it. 'But gin we gang to the gude place, we'll be a' innocent, willna we, grannie?'
'Ay, that we will--washed spotless, and pure, and clean, and dressed i' the weddin' garment, and set doon at the table wi' him and wi' his Father. That's them 'at believes in him, ye ken.'
'Of coorse, grannie.--Weel, ye see, I hae been thinkin' o' a plan for maist han' toomin' (almost emptying) hell.'
'What's i' the bairn's heid noo? Troth, ye're no blate, meddlin' wi' sic subjecks, laddie!'
'I didna want to say onything to vex ye, grannie. I s' gang on wi' the chapter.'
'Ow, say awa'. Ye sanna say muckle 'at's wrang afore I cry haud,' said Mrs. Falconer, curious to know what had been moving in the boy's mind, but watching him like a cat, ready to spring upon the first visible hair of the old Adam.
And Robert, recalling the outbreak of terrible grief which he had heard on that memorable night, really thought that his project would bring comfort to a mind burdened with such care, and went on with the exposition of his plan.
'A' them 'at sits doon to the supper o' the Lamb 'll sit there because Christ suffert the punishment due to their sins--winna they, grannie?'
'But it'll he some sair upo' them to sit there aitin' an' drinkin' an' talkin' awa', an' enjoyin' themsel's, whan ilka noo an' than there'll come a sough o' wailin' up frae the ill place, an' a smell o' burnin' ill to bide.'
'What put that i' yer heid, laddie? There's no rizzon to think 'at hell's sae near haven as a' that. The Lord forbid it!'
'Weel, but, grannie, they'll ken 't a' the same, whether they smell 't or no. An' I canna help thinkin' that the farrer awa' I thoucht they war, the waur I wad like to think upo' them. 'Deed it wad be waur.'
'What are ye drivin' at, laddie? I canna unnerstan' ye,' said Mrs. Falconer, feeling very uncomfortable, and yet curious, almost anxious, to hear what would come next. 'I trust we winna hae to think muckle--'
But here, I presume, the thought of the added desolation of her Andrew if she, too, were to forget him, as well as his Father in heaven, checked the flow of her words. She paused, and Robert took up his parable and went on, first with yet another question.
'Duv ye think, grannie, that a body wad be allooed to speik a word i' public, like, there--at the lang table, like, I mean?'
'What for no, gin it was dune wi' moedesty, and for a guid rizzon? But railly, laddie, I doobt ye're haverin' a'thegither. Ye hard naething like that, I'm sure, the day, frae Mr. Maccleary.'
'Na, na; he said naething aboot it. But maybe I'll gang and speir at him, though.'
'What I'm gaein' to tell ye, grannie.'
'Weel, tell awa', and hae dune wi' 't. I'm growin' tired o' 't.'
It was something else than tired she was growing.
'Weel, I'm gaein' to try a' that I can to win in there.'
'I houp ye will. Strive and pray. Resist the deevil. Walk in the licht. Lippen not to yersel', but trust in Christ and his salvation.'
'Ay, ay, grannie.--Weel--'
'Are ye no dune yet?'
'Na. I'm but jist beginnin'.'
'Beginnin', are ye? Humph!'
'Weel, gin I win in there, the verra first nicht I sit doon wi' the lave o' them, I'm gaein' to rise up an' say--that is, gin the Maister, at the heid o' the table, disna bid me sit doon--an' say: "Brithers an' sisters, the haill o' ye, hearken to me for ae minute; an', O Lord! gin I say wrang, jist tak the speech frae me, and I'll sit doon dumb an' rebukit. We're a' here by grace and no by merit, save his, as ye a' ken better nor I can tell ye, for ye hae been langer here nor me. But it's jist ruggin' an' rivin' at my hert to think o' them 'at's doon there. Maybe ye can hear them. I canna. Noo, we hae nae merit, an' they hae nae merit, an' what for are we here and them there? But we're washed clean and innocent noo; and noo, whan there's no wyte lying upo' oursel's, it seems to me that we micht beir some o' the sins o' them 'at hae ower mony. I call upo' ilk ane o' ye 'at has a frien' or a neebor down yonner, to rise up an' taste nor bite nor sup mair till we gang up a'thegither to the fut o' the throne, and pray the Lord to lat's gang and du as the Maister did afore 's, and beir their griefs, and cairry their sorrows doon in hell there; gin it maybe that they may repent and get remission o' their sins, an' come up here wi' us at the lang last, and sit doon wi' 's at this table, a' throuw the merits o' oor Saviour Jesus Christ, at the heid o' the table there. Amen."'
Half ashamed of his long speech, half overcome by the feelings fighting within him, and altogether bewildered, Robert burst out crying like a baby, and ran out of the room--up to his own place of meditation, where he threw himself on the floor. Shargar, who had made neither head nor tail of it all, as he said afterwards, sat staring at Mrs. Falconer. She rose, and going into Robert's little bedroom, closed the door, and what she did there is not far to seek.
When she came out, she rang the bell for tea, and sent Shargar to look for Robert. When he appeared, she was so gentle to him that it woke quite a new sensation in him. But after tea was over, she said:
'Noo, Robert, lat's hae nae mair o' this. Ye ken as weel 's I du that them 'at gangs there their doom is fixed, and noething can alter 't. An' we're not to alloo oor ain fancies to cairry 's ayont the Scripter. We hae oor ain salvation to work oot wi' fear an' trimlin'. We hae naething to do wi' what's hidden. Luik ye till 't 'at ye win in yersel'. That's eneuch for you to min'.--Shargar, ye can gang to the kirk. Robert's to bide wi' me the nicht.'
Mrs. Falconer very rarely went to church, for she could not hear a word, and found it irksome.
When Robert and she were alone together,
'Laddie,' she said, 'be ye waure o' judgin' the Almichty. What luiks to you a' wrang may be a' richt. But it's true eneuch 'at we dinna ken a'thing; an' he's no deid yet--I dinna believe 'at he is--and he'll maybe win in yet.'
Here her voice failed her. And Robert had nothing to say now. He had said all his say before.
'Pray, Robert, pray for yer father, laddie,' she resumed; 'for we hae muckle rizzon to be anxious aboot 'im. Pray while there's life an' houp. Gie the Lord no rist. Pray till 'im day an' nicht, as I du, that he wad lead 'im to see the error o' his ways, an' turn to the Lord, wha's ready to pardon. Gin yer mother had lived, I wad hae had mair houp, I confess, for she was a braw leddy and a bonny, and that sweet-tongued! She cud hae wiled a maukin frae its lair wi' her bonnie Hielan' speech. I never likit to hear nane o' them speyk the Erse (Irish, that is, Gaelic), it was aye sae gloggie and baneless; and I cudna unnerstan' ae word o' 't. Nae mair cud yer father--hoot! yer gran'father, I mean--though his father cud speyk it weel. But to hear yer mother--mamma, as ye used to ca' her aye, efter the new fashion--to hear her speyk English, that was sweet to the ear; for the braid Scotch she kent as little o' as I do o' the Erse. It was hert's care aboot him that shortent her days. And a' that'll be laid upo' him. He'll hae 't a' to beir an' accoont for. Och hone! Och hone! Eh! Robert, my man, be a guid lad, an' serve the Lord wi' a' yer hert, an' sowl, an' stren'th, an' min'; for gin ye gang wrang, yer ain father 'll hae to beir naebody kens hoo muckle o' the wyte o' 't, for he's dune naething to bring ye up i' the way ye suld gang, an' haud ye oot o' the ill gait. For the sake o' yer puir father, haud ye to the richt road. It may spare him a pang or twa i' the ill place. Eh, gin the Lord wad only tak me, and lat him gang!'
Involuntarily and unconsciously the mother's love was adopting the hope which she had denounced in her grandson. And Robert saw it, but he was never the man when I knew him to push a victory. He said nothing. Only a tear or two at the memory of the wayworn man, his recollection of whose visit I have already recorded, rolled down his cheeks. He was at such a distance from him!--such an impassable gulf yawned between them!--that was the grief! Not the gulf of death, nor the gulf that divides hell from heaven, but the gulf of abjuration by the good because of his evil ways. His grandmother, herself weeping fast and silently, with scarce altered countenance, took her neatly-folded handkerchief from her pocket, and wiped her grandson's fresh cheeks, then wiped her own withered face; and from that moment Robert knew that he loved her.
Then followed the Sabbath-evening prayer that she always offered with the boy, whichever he was, who kept her company. They knelt down together, side by side, in a certain corner of the room, the same, I doubt not, in which she knelt at her private devotions, before going to bed. There she uttered a long extempore prayer, rapid in speech, full of divinity and Scripture-phrases, but not the less earnest and simple, for it flowed from a heart of faith. Then Robert had to pray after her, loud in her ear, that she might hear him thoroughly, so that he often felt as if he were praying to her, and not to God at all.
She had begun to teach him to pray so early that the custom reached beyond the confines of his memory. At first he had had to repeat the words after her; but soon she made him construct his own utterances, now and then giving him a suggestion in the form of a petition when he seemed likely to break down, or putting a phrase into what she considered more suitable language. But all such assistance she had given up long ago.
On the present occasion, after she had ended her petitions with those for Jews and pagans, and especially for the 'Pop' o' Rom',' in whom with a rare liberality she took the kindest interest, always praying God to give him a good wife, though she knew perfectly well the marriage-creed of the priesthood, for her faith in the hearer of prayer scorned every theory but that in which she had herself been born and bred, she turned to Robert with the usual 'Noo, Robert!' and Robert began. But after he had gone on for some time with the ordinary phrases, he turned all at once into a new track, and instead of praying in general terms for 'those that would not walk in the right way,' said,
'O Lord! save my father,' and there paused.
'If it be thy will,' suggested his grandmother.
But Robert continued silent. His grandmother repeated the subjunctive clause.
'I'm tryin', grandmother,' said Robert, 'but I canna say 't. I daurna say an if aboot it. It wad be like giein' in till 's damnation. We maun hae him saved, grannie!'
'Laddie! laddie! haud yer tongue!' said Mrs. Falconer, in a tone of distressed awe. 'O Lord, forgie 'im. He's young and disna ken better yet. He canna unnerstan' thy ways, nor, for that maitter, can I preten' to unnerstan' them mysel'. But thoo art a' licht, and in thee is no darkness at all. And thy licht comes into oor blin' een, and mak's them blinner yet. But, O Lord, gin it wad please thee to hear oor prayer...eh! hoo we wad praise thee! And my Andrew wad praise thee mair nor ninety and nine o' them 'at need nae repentance.'
A long pause followed. And then the only words that would come were: 'For Christ's sake. Amen.'
When she said that God was light, instead of concluding therefrom that he could not do the deeds of darkness, she was driven, from a faith in the teaching of Jonathan Edwards as implicit as that of 'any lay papist of Loretto,' to doubt whether the deeds of darkness were not after all deeds of light, or at least to conclude that their character depended not on their own nature, but on who did them.
They rose from their knees, and Mrs. Falconer sat down by her fire, with her feet on her little wooden stool, and began, as was her wont in that household twilight, ere the lamp was lighted, to review her past life, and follow her lost son through all conditions and circumstances to her imaginable. And when the world to come arose before her, clad in all the glories which her fancy, chilled by education and years, could supply, it was but to vanish in the gloom of the remembrance of him with whom she dared not hope to share its blessedness. This at least was how Falconer afterwards interpreted the sudden changes from gladness to gloom which he saw at such times on her countenance.
But while such a small portion of the universe of thought was enlightened by the glowworm lamp of the theories she had been taught, she was not limited for light to that feeble source. While she walked on her way, the moon, unseen herself behind the clouds, was illuminating the whole landscape so gently and evenly, that the glowworm being the only visible point of radiance, to it she attributed all the light. But she felt bound to go on believing as she had been taught; for sometimes the most original mind has the strongest sense of law upon it, and will, in default of a better, obey a beggarly one--only till the higher law that swallows it up manifests itself. Obedience was as essential an element of her creed as of that of any purest-minded monk; neither being sufficiently impressed with this: that, while obedience is the law of the kingdom, it is of considerable importance that that which is obeyed should be in very truth the will of God. It is one thing, and a good thing, to do for God's sake that which is not his will: it is another thing, and altogether a better thing--how much better, no words can tell--to do for God's sake that which is his will. Mrs. Falconer's submission and obedience led her to accept as the will of God, lest she should be guilty of opposition to him, that which it was anything but giving him honour to accept as such. Therefore her love to God was too like the love of the slave or the dog; too little like the love of the child, with whose obedience the Father cannot be satisfied until he cares for his reason as the highest form of his will. True, the child who most faithfully desires to know the inward will or reason of the Father, will be the most ready to obey without it; only for this obedience it is essential that the apparent command at least be such as he can suppose attributable to the Father. Of his own self he is bound to judge what is right, as the Lord said. Had Abraham doubted whether it was in any case right to slay his son, he would have been justified in doubting whether God really required it of him, and would have been bound to delay action until the arrival of more light. True, the will of God can never be other than good; but I doubt if any man can ever be sure that a thing is the will of God, save by seeing into its nature and character, and beholding its goodness. Whatever God does must be right, but are we sure that we know what he does? That which men say he does may be very wrong indeed.
This burden she in her turn laid upon Robert--not unkindly, but as needful for his training towards well-being. Her way with him was shaped after that which she recognized as God's way with her. 'Speir nae questons, but gang an' du as ye're tellt.' And it was anything but a bad lesson for the boy. It was one of the best he could have had--that of authority. It is a grand thing to obey without asking questions, so long as there is nothing evil in what is commanded. Only grannie concealed her reasons without reason; and God makes no secrets. Hence she seemed more stern and less sympathetic than she really was.
She sat with her feet on the little wooden stool, and Robert sat beside her staring into the fire, till they heard the outer door open, and Shargar and Betty come in from church.