Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter XVI. Mr. Lammie's Farm.
One of the first warm mornings in the beginning of summer, the boy woke early, and lay awake, as was his custom, thinking. The sun, in all the indescribable purity of its morning light, had kindled a spot of brilliance just about where his grannie's head must be lying asleep in its sad thoughts, on the opposite side of the partition.
He lay looking at the light. There came a gentle tapping at his window. A long streamer of honeysuckle, not yet in blossom, but alive with the life of the summer, was blown by the air of the morning against his window-pane, as if calling him to get up and look out. He did get up and look out.
But he started back in such haste that he fell against the side of his bed. Within a few yards of his window, bending over a bush, was the loveliest face he had ever seen--the only face, in fact, he had ever yet felt to be beautiful. For the window looked directly into the garden of the next house: its honeysuckle tapped at his window, its sweet-peas grew against his window-sill. It was the face of the angel of that night; but how different when illuminated by the morning sun from then, when lighted up by a chamber-candle! The first thought that came to him was the half-ludicrous, all-fantastic idea of the shoemaker about his grandfather's violin being a woman. A vaguest dream-vision of her having escaped from his grandmother's aumrie (store-closet), and wandering free amidst the wind and among the flowers, crossed his mind before he had recovered sufficiently from his surprise to prevent Fancy from cutting any more of those too ridiculous capers in which she indulged at will in sleep, and as often besides as she can get away from the spectacles of old Grannie Judgment.
But the music of her revelation was not that of the violin; and Robert vaguely felt this, though he searched no further for a fitting instrument to represent her. If he had heard the organ indeed!--but he knew no instrument save the violin: the piano he had only heard through the window. For a few moments her face brooded over the bush, and her long, finely-modelled fingers travelled about it as if they were creating a flower upon it--probably they were assisting the birth or blowing of some beauty--and then she raised herself with a lingering look, and vanished from the field of the window.
But ever after this, when the evening grew dark, Robert would steal out of the house, leaving his book open by his grannie's lamp, that its patient expansion might seem to say, 'He will come back presently,' and dart round the corner with quick quiet step, to hear if Miss St. John was playing. If she was not, he would return to the Sabbath stillness of the parlour, where his grandmother sat meditating or reading, and Shargar sat brooding over the freedom of the old days ere Mrs. Falconer had begun to reclaim him. There he would seat himself once more at his book--to rise again ere another hour had gone by, and hearken yet again at her window whether the stream might not be flowing now. If he found her at her instrument he would stand listening in earnest delight, until the fear of being missed drove him in: this secret too might be discovered, and this enchantress too sent, by the decree of his grandmother, into the limbo of vanities. Thus strangely did his evening life oscillate between the two peaceful negations of grannie's parlour and the vital gladness of the unknown lady's window. And skilfully did he manage his retreats and returns, curtailing his absences with such moderation that, for a long time, they awoke no suspicion in the mind of his grandmother.
I suspect myself that the old lady thought he had gone to his prayers in the garret. And I believe she thought that he was praying for his dead father; with which most papistical, and, therefore, most unchristian observance, she yet dared not interfere, because she expected Robert to defend himself triumphantly with the simple assertion that he did not believe his father was dead. Possibly the mother was not sorry that her poor son should be prayed for, in case he might be alive after all, though she could no longer do so herself--not merely dared not, but persuaded herself that she would not. Robert, however, was convinced enough, and hopeless enough, by this time, and had even less temptation to break the twentieth commandment by praying for the dead, than his grandmother had; for with all his imaginative outgoings after his father, his love to him was as yet, compared to that father's mother's, 'as moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine.'
Shargar would glance up at him with a queer look as he came in from these excursions, drop his head over his task again, look busy and miserable, and all would glide on as before.
When the first really summer weather came, Mr. Lammie one day paid Mrs. Falconer a second visit. He had not been able to get over the remembrance of the desolation in which he had left her. But he could do nothing for her, he thought, till it was warm weather. He was accompanied by his daughter, a woman approaching the further verge of youth, bulky and florid, and as full of tenderness as her large frame could hold. After much, and, for a long time, apparently useless persuasion, they at last believed they had prevailed upon her to pay them a visit for a fortnight. But she had only retreated within another of her defences.
'I canna leave thae twa laddies alane. They wad be up to a' mischeef.'
'There's Betty to luik efter them,' suggested Miss Lammie.
'Betty!' returned Mrs. Falconer, with scorn. 'Betty's naething but a bairn hersel'--muckler and waur faured (worse favoured).'
'But what for shouldna ye fess the lads wi' ye?' suggested Mr. Lammie.
'I hae no richt to burden you wi' them.'
'Weel, I hae aften wonnert what gart ye burden yersel' wi' that Shargar, as I understan' they ca' him,' said Mr. Lammie.
'Jist naething but a bit o' greed,' returned the old lady, with the nearest approach to a smile that had shown itself upon her face since Mr. Lammie's last visit.
'I dinna understan' that, Mistress Faukner,' said Miss Lammie.
'I'm sae sure o' haein' 't back again, ye ken,--wi' interest,' returned Mrs. Falconer.
'Hoo's that? His father winna con ye ony thanks for haudin' him in life.'
'He that giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord, ye ken, Miss Lammie.'
'Atweel, gin ye like to lippen to that bank, nae doobt ae way or anither it'll gang to yer accoont,' said Miss Lammie.
'It wad ill become us, ony gait,' said her father, 'nae to gie him shelter for your sake, Mrs. Faukner, no to mention ither names, sin' it's yer wull to mak the puir lad ane o' the family.--They say his ain mither's run awa' an' left him.'
''Deed she's dune that.'
'Can ye mak onything o' 'im?'
'He's douce eneuch. An' Robert says he does nae that ill at the schuil.'
'Weel, jist fess him wi' ye. We'll hae some place or ither to put him intil, gin it suld be only a shak'-doon upo' the flure.'
'Na, na. There's the schuilin'--what's to be dune wi' that?'
'They can gang i' the mornin', and get their denner wi' Betty here; and syne come hame to their fower-hoors (four o'clock tea) whan the schule's ower i' the efternune. 'Deed, mem, ye maun jist come for the sake o' the auld frien'ship atween the faimilies.'
'Weel, gin it maun be sae, it maun be sae,' yielded Mrs. Falconer, with a sigh.
She had not left her own house for a single night for ten years. Nor is it likely she would have now given in, for immovableness was one of the most marked of her characteristics, had she not been so broken by mental suffering, that she did not care much about anything, least of all about herself.
Innumerable were the instructions in propriety of behaviour which she gave the boys in prospect of this visit. The probability being that they would behave just as well as at home, these instructions were considerably unnecessary, for Mrs. Falconer was a strict enforcer of all social rules. Scarcely less unnecessary were the directions she gave as to the conduct of Betty, who received them all in erect submission, with her hands under her apron. She ought to have been a young girl instead of an elderly woman, if there was any propriety in the way her mistress spoke to her. It proved at least her own belief in the description she had given of her to Miss Lammie.
'Noo, Betty, ye maun be dooce. An' dinna stan' at the door i' the gloamin'. An' dinna stan' claikin' an' jawin' wi' the ither lasses whan ye gang to the wall for watter. An' whan ye gang intil a chop, dinna hae them sayin' ahint yer back, as sune's yer oot again, "She's her ain mistress by way o'," or sic like. An' min' ye hae worship wi' yersel', whan I'm nae here to hae 't wi' ye. Ye can come benn to the parlour gin ye like. An' there's my muckle Testament. And dinna gie the lads a' thing they want. Gie them plenty to ait, but no ower muckle. Fowk suld aye lea' aff wi' an eppiteet.'
Mr. Lammie brought his gig at last, and took grannie away to Bodyfauld. When the boys returned from school at the dinner-hour, it was to exult in a freedom which Robert had never imagined before. But even he could not know what a relief it was to Shargar to eat without the awfully calm eyes of Mrs. Falconer watching, as it seemed to him, the progress of every mouthful down that capacious throat of his. The old lady would have been shocked to learn how the imagination of the ill-mothered lad interpreted her care over him, but she would not have been surprised to know that the two were merry in her absence. She knew that, in some of her own moods, it would be a relief to think that that awful eye of God was not upon her. But she little thought that even in the lawless proceedings about to follow, her Robert, who now felt such a relief in her absence, would be walking straight on, though blindly, towards a sunrise of faith, in which he would know that for the eye of his God to turn away from him for one moment would be the horror of the outer darkness.
Merriment, however, was not in Robert's thoughts, and still less was mischief. For the latter, whatever his grandmother might think, he had no capacity. The world was already too serious, and was soon to be too beautiful for mischief. After that, it would be too sad, and then, finally, until death, too solemn glad. The moment he heard of his grandmother's intended visit, one wild hope and desire and intent had arisen within him.
When Betty came to the parlour door to lay the cloth for their dinner, she found it locked.
'Open the door!' she cried, but cried in vain. From impatience she passed to passion; but it was of no avail: there came no more response than from the shrine of the deaf Baal. For to the boys it was an opportunity not at any risk to be lost. Dull Betty never suspected what they were about. They were ranging the place like two tiger-cats whose whelps had been carried off in their absence--questing, with nose to earth and tail in air, for the scent of their enemy. My simile has carried me too far: it was only a dead old gentleman's violin that a couple of boys was after--but with what eagerness, and, on the part of Robert, what alternations of hope and fear! And Shargar was always the reflex of Robert, so far as Shargar could reflect Robert. Sometimes Robert would stop, stand still in the middle of the room, cast a mathematical glance of survey over its cubic contents, and then dart off in another inwardly suggested direction of search. Shargar, on the other hand, appeared to rummage blindly without a notion of casting the illumination of thought upon the field of search. Yet to him fell the success. When hope was growing dim, after an hour and a half of vain endeavour, a scream of utter discordance heralded the resurrection of the lady of harmony. Taught by his experience of his wild mother's habits to guess at those of douce Mrs. Falconer, Shargar had found the instrument in her bed at the foot, between the feathers and the mattress. For one happy moment Shargar was the benefactor, and Robert the grateful recipient of favour. Nor, I do believe, was this thread of the still thickening cable that bound them ever forgotten: broken it could not be.
Robert drew the recovered treasure from its concealment, opened the case with trembling eagerness, and was stooping, with one hand on the neck of the violin, and the other on the bow, to lift them from it, when Shargar stopped him.
His success had given him such dignity, that for once he dared to act from himself.
'Betty 'll hear ye,' he said.
'What care I for Betty? She daurna tell. I ken hoo to manage her.'
'But wadna 't be better 'at she didna ken?'
'She's sure to fin' oot whan she mak's the bed. She turns 't ower and ower jist like a muckle tyke (dog) worryin' a rottan (rat).'
'De'il a bit o' her s' be a hair wiser! Ye dinna play tunes upo' the boxie, man.'
Robert caught at the idea. He lifted the 'bonny leddy' from her coffin; and while he was absorbed in the contemplation of her risen beauty, Shargar laid his hands on Boston's Four-fold State, the torment of his life on the Sunday evenings which it was his turn to spend with Mrs. Falconer, and threw it as an offering to the powers of Hades into the case, which he then buried carefully, with the feather-bed for mould, the blankets for sod, and the counterpane studiously arranged for stone, over it. He took heed, however, not to let Robert know of the substitution of Boston for the fiddle, because he knew Robert could not tell a lie. Therefore, when he murmured over the volume some of its own words which he had read the preceding Sunday, it was in a quite inaudible whisper: 'Now is it good for nothing but to cumber the ground, and furnish fuel for Tophet.'
Robert must now hide the violin better than his grannie had done, while at the same time it was a more delicate necessity, seeing it had lost its shell, and he shrunk from putting her in the power of the shoemaker again. It cost him much trouble to fix on the place that was least unsuitable. First he put it into the well of the clock-case, but instantly bethought him what the awful consequence would be if one of the weights should fall from the gradual decay of its cord. He had heard of such a thing happening. Then he would put it into his own place of dreams and meditations. But what if Betty should take a fancy to change her bed? or some friend of his grannie's should come to spend the night? How would the bonny leddy like it? What a risk she would run! If he put her under the bed, the mice would get at her strings--nay, perhaps, knaw a hole right through her beautiful body. On the top of the clock, the brass eagle with outspread wings might scratch her, and there was not space to conceal her. At length he concluded--wrapped her in a piece of paper, and placed her on the top of the chintz tester of his bed, where there was just room between it and the ceiling: that would serve till he bore her to some better sanctuary. In the meantime she was safe, and the boy was the blessedest boy in creation.
These things done, they were just in the humour to have a lark with Betty. So they unbolted the door, rang the bell, and when Betty appeared, red-faced and wrathful, asked her very gravely and politely whether they were not going to have some dinner before they went back to school: they had now but twenty minutes left. Betty was so dumfoundered with their impudence that she could not say a word. She did make haste with the dinner, though, and revealed her indignation only in her manner of putting the things on the table. As the boys left her, Robert contented himself with the single hint:
'Betty, Bodyfauld 's i' the perris o' Kettledrum. Min' ye that.'
Betty glowered and said nothing.
But the delight of the walk of three miles over hill and dale and moor and farm to Mr. Lammie's! The boys, if not as wild as colts--that is, as wild as most boys would have been--were only the more deeply excited. That first summer walk, with a goal before them, in all the freshness of the perfecting year, was something which to remember in after days was to Falconer nothing short of ecstasy. The westering sun threw long shadows before them as they trudged away eastward, lightly laden with the books needful for the morrow's lessons. Once beyond the immediate purlieus of the town and the various plots of land occupied by its inhabitants, they crossed a small river, and entered upon a region of little hills, some covered to the top with trees, chiefly larch, others cultivated, and some bearing only heather, now nursing in secret its purple flame for the outburst of the autumn. The road wound between, now swampy and worn into deep ruts, now sandy and broken with large stones. Down to its edge would come the dwarfed oak, or the mountain ash, or the silver birch, single and small, but lovely and fresh; and now green fields, fenced with walls of earth as green as themselves, or of stones overgrown with moss, would stretch away on both sides, sprinkled with busily-feeding cattle. Now they would pass through a farm-steading, perfumed with the breath of cows, and the odour of burning peat--so fragrant! though not yet so grateful to the inner sense as it would be when encountered in after years and in foreign lands. For the smell of burning and the smell of earth are the deepest underlying sensuous bonds of the earth's unity, and the common brotherhood of them that dwell thereon. Now the scent of the larches would steal from the hill, or the wind would waft the odour of the white clover, beloved of his grandmother, to Robert's nostrils, and he would turn aside to pull her a handful. Then they clomb a high ridge, on the top of which spread a moorland, dreary and desolate, brightened by nothing save 'the canna's hoary beard' waving in the wind, and making it look even more desolate from the sympathy they felt with the forsaken grass. This crossed, they descended between young plantations of firs and rowan-trees and birches, till they reached a warm house on the side of the slope, with farm-offices and ricks of corn and hay all about it, the front overgrown with roses and honeysuckle, and a white-flowering plant unseen of their eyes hitherto, and therefore full of mystery. From the open kitchen door came the smell of something good. But beyond all to Robert was the welcome of Miss Lammie, whose small fat hand closed upon his like a very love-pudding, after partaking of which even his grandmother's stately reception, followed immediately by the words 'Noo be dooce,' could not chill the warmth in his bosom.
I know but one writer whose pen would have been able worthily to set forth the delights of the first few days at Bodyfauld--Jean Paul. Nor would he have disdained to make the gladness of a country school-boy the theme of that pen. Indeed, often has he done so. If the writer has any higher purpose than the amusement of other boys, he will find the life of a country boy richer for his ends than that of a town boy. For example, he has a deeper sense of the marvel of Nature, a tenderer feeling of her feminality. I do not mean that the other cannot develop this sense, but it is generally feeble, and there is consequently less chance of its surviving. As far as my experience goes, town girls and country boys love Nature most. I have known town girls love her as passionately as country boys. Town boys have too many books and pictures. They see Nature in mirrors--invaluable privilege after they know herself, not before. They have greater opportunity of observing human nature; but here also the books are too many and various. They are cleverer than country boys, but they are less profound; their observation may be quicker; their perception is shallower. They know better what to do on an emergency; they know worse how to order their ways. Of course, in this, as in a thousand other matters, Nature will burst out laughing in the face of the would-be philosopher, and bringing forward her town boy, will say, 'Look here!' For the town boys are Nature's boys after all, at least so long as doctrines of self-preservation and ambition have not turned them from children of the kingdom into dirt-worms. But I must stop, for I am getting up to the neck in a bog of discrimination. As if I did not know the nobility of some townspeople, compared with the worldliness of some country folk. I give it up. We are all good and all bad. God mend all. Nothing will do for Jew or Gentile, Frenchman or Englishman, Negro or Circassian, town boy or country boy, but the kingdom of heaven which is within him, and must come thence to the outside of him.
To a boy like Robert the changes of every day, from country to town with the gay morning, from town to country with the sober evening--for country as Rothieden might be to Edinburgh, much more was Bodyfauld country to Rothieden--were a source of boundless delight. Instead of houses, he saw the horizon; instead of streets or walled gardens, he roamed over fields bathed in sunlight and wind. Here it was good to get up before the sun, for then he could see the sun get up. And of all things those evening shadows lengthening out over the grassy wildernesses--for fields of a very moderate size appeared such to an imagination ever ready at the smallest hint to ascend its solemn throne--were a deepening marvel. Town to country is what a ceiling is to a cælum.