Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter XIII. Robert's Mother.
Early on the following morning, while Mrs. Falconer, Robert, and Shargar were at breakfast, Mr. Lammie came. He had delayed communicating the intelligence he had received till he should be more certain of its truth. Older than Andrew, he had been a great friend of his father, and likewise of some of Mrs. Falconer's own family. Therefore he was received with a kindly welcome. But there was a cloud on his brow which in a moment revealed that his errand was not a pleasant one.
'I haena seen ye for a lang time, Mr. Lammie. Gae butt the hoose, lads. Or I'm thinkin' it maun be schule-time. Sit ye doon, Mr. Lammie, and lat's hear yer news.'
'I cam frae Aberdeen last nicht, Mistress Faukner,' he began.
'Ye haena been hame sin' syne?' she rejoined.
'Na. I sleepit at The Boar's Heid.'
'What for did ye that? What gart ye be at that expense, whan ye kent I had a bed i' the ga'le-room?'
'Weel, ye see, they're auld frien's o' mine, and I like to gang to them whan I'm i' the gait o' 't.'
'Weel, they're a fine faimily, the Miss Napers. And, I wat, sin' they maun sell drink, they du 't wi' discretion. That's weel kent.'
Possibly Mr. Lammie, remembering what then occurred, may have thought the discretion a little in excess of the drink, but he had other matters to occupy him now. For a few moments both were silent.
'There's been some ill news, they tell me, Mrs. Faukner,' he said at length, when the silence had grown painful.
'Humph!' returned the old lady, her face becoming stony with the effort to suppress all emotion. 'Nae aboot Anerew?'
''Deed is 't, mem. An' ill news, I'm sorry to say.'
'Is he ta'en?'
'Ay is he--by a jyler that winna tyne the grup.'
'He's no deid, John Lammie? Dinna say 't.'
'I maun say 't, Mrs. Faukner. I had it frae Dr. Anderson, yer ain cousin. He hintit at it afore, but his last letter leaves nae room to doobt upo' the subjeck. I'm unco sorry to be the beirer o' sic ill news, Mrs. Faukner, but I had nae chice.'
'Ohone! Ohone! the day o' grace is by at last! My puir Anerew!' exclaimed Mrs. Falconer, and sat dumb thereafter.
Mr. Lammie tried to comfort her with some of the usual comfortless commonplaces. She neither wept nor replied, but sat with stony face staring into her lap, till, seeing that she was as one that heareth not, he rose and left her alone with her grief. A few minutes after he was gone, she rang the bell, and told Betty in her usual voice to send Robert to her.
'He's gane to the schule, mem.'
'Rin efter him, an' tell him to come hame.'
When Robert appeared, wondering what his grandmother could want with him, she said:
'Close the door, Robert. I canna lat ye gang to the schule the day. We maun lea' him oot noo.'
'Lea' wha oot, grannie?'
'Him, him--Anerew. Yer father, laddie. I think my hert 'll brak.'
'Lea' him oot o' what, grannie? I dinna unnerstan' ye.'
'Lea' him oot o' oor prayers, laddie, and I canna bide it.'
'What for that?'
'Are ye sure?'
'Ay, ower sure--ower sure, laddie.'
'Weel, I dinna believe 't.'
'What for that?'
''Cause I winna believe 't. I'm no bund to believe 't, am I?'
'What's the gude o' that? What for no believe 't? Dr. Anderson's sent hame word o' 't to John Lammie. Och hone! och hone!'
'I tell ye I winna believe 't, grannie, 'cep' God himsel' tells me. As lang 's I dinna believe 'at he's deid, I can keep him i' my prayers. I'm no gaein' to lea' him oot, I tell ye, grannie.'
'Weel, laddie, I canna argue wi' ye. I hae nae hert til 't. I doobt I maun greit! Come awa'.'
She took him by the hand and rose, then let him go again, saying,
'Sneck the door, laddie.'
Robert bolted the door, and his grandmother again taking his hand, led him to the usual corner. There they knelt down together, and the old woman's prayer was one great and bitter cry for submission to the divine will. She rose a little strengthened, if not comforted, saying,
'Ye maun pray yer lane, laddie. But oh be a guid lad, for ye're a' that I hae left; and gin ye gang wrang tu, ye'll bring doon my gray hairs wi' sorrow to the grave. They're gray eneuch, and they're near eneuch to the grave, but gin ye turn oot weel, I'll maybe haud up my heid a bit yet. But O Anerew! my son! my son! Would God I had died for thee!'
And the words of her brother in grief, the king of Israel, opened the floodgates of her heart, and she wept. Robert left her weeping, and closed the door quietly as if his dead father had been lying in the room.
He took his way up to his own garret, closed that door too, and sat down upon the floor, with his back against the empty bedstead.
There were no more castles to build now. It was all very well to say that he would not believe the news and would pray for his father, but he did believe them--enough at least to spoil the praying. His favourite employment, seated there, had hitherto been to imagine how he would grow a great man, and set out to seek his father, and find him, and stand by him, and be his son and servant. Oh! to have the man stroke his head and pat his cheek, and love him! One moment he imagined himself his indignant defender, the next he would be climbing on his knee, as if he were still a little child, and laying his head on his shoulder. For he had had no fondling his life long, and his heart yearned for it. But all this was gone now. A dreary time lay before him, with nobody to please, nobody to serve; with nobody to praise him. Grannie never praised him. She must have thought praise something wicked. And his father was in misery, for ever and ever! Only somehow that thought was not quite thinkable. It was more the vanishing of hope from his own life than a sense of his father's fate that oppressed him.
He cast his eyes, as in a hungry despair, around the empty room--or, rather, I should have said, in that faintness which makes food at once essential and loathsome; for despair has no proper hunger in it. The room seemed as empty as his life. There was nothing for his eyes to rest upon but those bundles and bundles of dust-browned papers on the shelves before him. What were they all about? He understood that they were his father's: now that he was dead, it would be no sacrilege to look at them. Nobody cared about them. He would see at least what they were. It would be something to do in this dreariness.
Bills and receipts, and everything ephemeral--to feel the interest of which, a man must be a poet indeed--was all that met his view. Bundle after bundle he tried, with no better success. But as he drew near the middle of the second shelf, upon which they lay several rows deep, he saw something dark behind, hurriedly displaced the packets between, and drew forth a small workbox. His heart beat like that of the prince in the fairy-tale, when he comes to the door of the Sleeping Beauty. This at least must have been hers. It was a common little thing, probably a childish possession, and kept to hold trifles worth more than they looked to be. He opened it with bated breath. The first thing he saw was a half-finished reel of cotton--a pirn, he called it. Beside it was a gold thimble. He lifted the tray. A lovely face in miniature, with dark hair and blue eyes, lay looking earnestly upward. At the lid of this coffin those eyes had looked for so many years! The picture was set all round with pearls in an oval ring. How Robert knew them to be pearls he could not tell, for he did not know that he had ever seen any pearls before, but he knew they were pearls, and that pearls had something to do with the New Jerusalem. But the sadness of it all at length overpowered him, and he burst out crying. For it was awfully sad that his mother's portrait should be in his own mother's box.
He took a bit of red tape off a bundle of the papers, put it through the eye of the setting, and hung the picture round his neck, inside his clothes, for grannie must not see it. She would take that away as she had taken his fiddle. He had a nameless something now for which he had been longing for years.
Looking again in the box, he found a little bit of paper, discoloured with antiquity, as it seemed to him, though it was not so old as himself. Unfolding it he found written upon it a well-known hymn, and at the bottom of the hymn, the words: 'O Lord! my heart is very sore.'--The treasure upon Robert's bosom was no longer the symbol of a mother's love, but of a woman's sadness, which he could not reach to comfort. In that hour, the boy made a great stride towards manhood. Doubtless his mother's grief had been the same as grannie's--the fear that she would lose her husband for ever. The hourly fresh griefs from neglect and wrong did not occur to him; only the never never more. He looked no farther, took the portrait from his neck and replaced it with the paper, put the box back, and walled it up in solitude once more with the dusty bundles. Then he went down to his grandmother, sadder and more desolate than ever.
He found her seated in her usual place. Her New Testament, a large-print octavo, lay on the table beside her unopened; for where within those boards could she find comfort for a grief like hers? That it was the will of God might well comfort any suffering of her own, but would it comfort Andrew? and if there was no comfort for Andrew, how was Andrew's mother to be comforted?
Yet God had given his first-born to save his brethren: how could he be pleased that she should dry her tears and be comforted? True, some awful unknown force of a necessity with which God could not cope came in to explain it; but this did not make God more kind, for he knew it all every time he made a man; nor man less sorrowful, for God would have his very mother forget him, or, worse still, remember him and be happy.
'Read a chapter till me, laddie,' she said.
Robert opened and read till he came to the words: 'I pray not for the world.'
'He was o' the world,' said the old woman; 'and gin Christ wadna pray for him, what for suld I?'
Already, so soon after her son's death, would her theology begin to harden her heart. The strife which results from believing that the higher love demands the suppression of the lower, is the most fearful of all discords, the absolute love slaying love--the house divided against itself; one moment all given up for the will of Him, the next the human tenderness rushing back in a flood. Mrs. Falconer burst into a very agony of weeping. From that day, for many years, the name of her lost Andrew never passed her lips in the hearing of her grandson, and certainly in that of no one else.
But in a few weeks she was more cheerful. It is one of the mysteries of humanity that mothers in her circumstances, and holding her creed, do regain not merely the faculty of going on with the business of life, but, in most cases, even cheerfulness. The infinite Truth, the Love of the universe, supports them beyond their consciousness, coming to them like sleep from the roots of their being, and having nothing to do with their opinions or beliefs. And hence spring those comforting subterfuges of hope to which they all fly. Not being able to trust the Father entirely, they yet say: 'Who can tell what took place at the last moment? Who can tell whether God did not please to grant them saving faith at the eleventh hour?'--that so they might pass from the very gates of hell, the only place for which their life had fitted them, into the bosom of love and purity! This God could do for all: this for the son beloved of his mother perhaps he might do!
O rebellious mother heart! dearer to God than that which beats laboriously solemn under Genevan gown or Lutheran surplice! if thou wouldst read by thine own large light, instead of the glimmer from the phosphorescent brains of theologians, thou mightst even be able to understand such a simple word as that of the Saviour, when, wishing his disciples to know that he had a nearer regard for them as his brethren in holier danger, than those who had not yet partaken of his light, and therefore praying for them not merely as human beings, but as the human beings they were, he said to his Father in their hearing: 'I pray not for the world, but for them,'--not for the world now, but for them--a meaningless utterance, if he never prayed for the world; a word of small meaning, if it was not his very wont and custom to pray for the world--for men as men. Lord Christ! not alone from the pains of hell, or of conscience--not alone from the outer darkness of self and all that is mean and poor and low, do we fly to thee; but from the anger that arises within us at the wretched words spoken in thy name, at the degradation of thee and of thy Father in the mouths of those that claim especially to have found thee, do we seek thy feet. Pray thou for them also, for they know not what they do.