Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter XIV. Mary St. John.
After this, day followed day in calm, dull progress. Robert did not care for the games through which his school-fellows forgot the little they had to forget, and had therefore few in any sense his companions. So he passed his time out of school in the society of his grandmother and Shargar, except that spent in the garret, and the few hours a week occupied by the lessons of the shoemaker. For he went on, though half-heartedly, with those lessons, given now upon Sandy's redeemed violin which he called his old wife, and made a little progress even, as we sometimes do when we least think it.
He took more and more to brooding in the garret; and as more questions presented themselves for solution, he became more anxious to arrive at the solution, and more uneasy as he failed in satisfying himself that he had arrived at it; so that his brain, which needed quiet for the true formation of its substance, as a cooling liquefaction or an evaporating solution for the just formation of its crystals, became in danger of settling into an abnormal arrangement of the cellular deposits.
I believe that even the new-born infant is, in some of his moods, already grappling with the deepest metaphysical problems, in forms infinitely too rudimental for the understanding of the grown philosopher--as far, in fact, removed from his ken on the one side, that of intelligential beginning, the germinal subjective, as his abstrusest speculations are from the final solutions of absolute entity on the other. If this be the case, it is no wonder that at Robert's age the deepest questions of his coming manhood should be in active operation, although so surrounded with the yoke of common belief and the shell of accredited authority, that the embryo faith, which in minds like his always takes the form of doubt, could not be defined any more than its existence could be disproved. I have given a hint at the tendency of his mind already, in the fact that one of the most definite inquiries to which he had yet turned his thoughts was, whether God would have mercy upon a repentant devil. An ordinary puzzle had been--if his father were to marry again, and it should turn out after all that his mother was not dead, what was his father to do? But this was over now. A third was, why, when he came out of church, sunshine always made him miserable, and he felt better able to be good when it rained or snowed hard. I might mention the inquiry whether it was not possible somehow to elude the omniscience of God; but that is a common question with thoughtful children, and indicates little that is characteristic of the individual. That he puzzled himself about the perpetual motion may pass for little likewise; but one thing which is worth mentioning, for indeed it caused him considerable distress, was, that in reading the Paradise Lost he could not help sympathizing with Satan, and feeling--I do not say thinking--that the Almighty was pompous, scarcely reasonable, and somewhat revengeful.
He was recognized amongst his school-fellows as remarkable for his love of fair-play; so much so, that he was their constant referee. Add to this that, notwithstanding his sympathy with Satan, he almost invariably sided with his master, in regard of any angry reflection or seditious movement, and even when unjustly punished himself, the occasional result of a certain backwardness in self-defence, never showed any resentment--a most improbable statement, I admit, but nevertheless true--and I think the rest of his character may be left to the gradual dawn of its historical manifestation.
He had long ere this discovered who the angel was that had appeared to him at the top of the stair upon that memorable night; but he could hardly yet say that he had seen her; for, except one dim glimpse he had had of her at the window as he passed in the street, she had not appeared to him save in the vision of that night. During the whole winter she scarcely left the house, partly from the state of her health, affected by the sudden change to a northern climate, partly from the attention required by her aunt, to aid in nursing whom she had left the warmer south. Indeed, it was only to return the visits of a few of Mrs. Forsyth's chosen, that she had crossed the threshold at all; and those visits were paid at a time when all such half-grown inhabitants as Robert were gathered under the leathery wing of Mr. Innes.
But long before the winter was over, Rothieden had discovered that the stranger, the English lady, Mary St. John, outlandish, almost heathenish as her lovely name sounded in its ears, had a power as altogether strange and new as her name. For she was not only an admirable performer on the pianoforte, but such a simple enthusiast in music, that the man must have had no music or little heart in him in whom her playing did not move all that there was of the deepest.
Occasionally there would be quite a small crowd gathered at night by the window of Mrs. Forsyth's drawing-room, which was on the ground-floor, listening to music such as had never before been heard in Rothieden. More than once, when Robert had not found Sandy Elshender at home on the lesson-night, and had gone to seek him, he had discovered him lying in wait, like a fowler, to catch the sweet sounds that flew from the opened cage of her instrument. He leaned against the wall with his ear laid over the edge, and as near the window as he dared to put it, his rough face, gnarled and blotched, and hirsute with the stubble of neglected beard--his whole ursine face transfigured by the passage of the sweet sounds through his chaotic brain, which they swept like the wind of God, when of old it moved on the face of the waters that clothed the void and formless world.
'Haud yer tongue!' he would say in a hoarse whisper, when Robert sought to attract his attention; 'haud yer tongue, man, and hearken. Gin yon bonny leddy 'at yer grannie keeps lockit up i' the aumry war to tak to the piano, that's jist hoo she wad play. Lord, man! pit yer sowl i' yer lugs, an' hearken.'
The soutar was all wrong in this; for if old Mr. Falconer's violin had taken woman-shape, it would have been that of a slight, worn, swarthy creature, with wild black eyes, great and restless, a voice like a bird's, and thin fingers that clawed the music out of the wires like the quills of the old harpsichord; not that of Mary St. John, who was tall, and could not help being stately, was large and well-fashioned, as full of repose as Handel's music, with a contralto voice to make you weep, and eyes that would have seemed but for their maidenliness to be always ready to fold you in their lucid gray depths.
Robert stared at the soutar, doubting at first whether he had not been drinking. But the intoxication of music produces such a different expression from that of drink, that Robert saw at once that if he had indeed been drinking, at least the music had got above the drink. As long as the playing went on, Elshender was not to be moved from the window.
But to many of the people of Rothieden the music did not recommend the musician; for every sort of music, except the most unmusical of psalm-singing, was in their minds of a piece with 'dancin' an' play-actin', an' ither warldly vainities an' abominations.' And Robert, being as yet more capable of melody than harmony, grudged to lose a lesson on Sandy's 'auld wife o' a fiddle' for any amount of Miss St. John's playing.