Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter XVII. Adventures.
Grannie's first action every evening, the moment the boys entered the room, was to glance up at the clock, that she might see whether they had arrived in reasonable time. This was not pleasant, because it admonished Robert how impossible it was for him to have a lesson on his own violin so long as the visit to Bodyfauld lasted. If they had only been allowed to sleep at Rothieden, what a universe of freedom would have been theirs! As it was, he had but two hours to himself, pared at both ends, in the middle of the day. Dooble Sanny might have given him a lesson at that time, but he did not dare to carry his instrument through the streets of Rothieden, for the proceeding would be certain to come to his grandmother's ears. Several days passed indeed before he made up his mind as to how he was to reap any immediate benefit from the recovery of the violin. For after he had made up his mind to run the risk of successive mid-day solos in the old factory--he was not prepared to carry the instrument through the streets, or be seen entering the place with it.
But the factory lay at the opposite corner of a quadrangle of gardens, the largest of which belonged to itself; and the corner of this garden touched the corner of Captain Forsyth's, which had formerly belonged to Andrew Falconer: he had had a door made in the walls at the point of junction, so that he could go from his house to his business across his own property: if this door were not locked, and Robert could pass without offence, what a north-west passage it would be for him! The little garden belonging to his grandmother's house had only a slight wooden fence to divide it from the other, and even in this fence there was a little gate: he would only have to run along Captain Forsyth's top walk to reach the door. The blessed thought came to him as he lay in bed at Bodyfauld: he would attempt the passage the very next day.
With his violin in its paper under his arm, he sped like a hare from gate to door, found it not even latched, only pushed to and rusted into such rest as it was dangerous to the hinges to disturb. He opened it, however, without any accident, and passed through; then closing it behind him, took his way more leisurely through the tangled grass of his grandmother's property. When he reached the factory, he judged it prudent to search out a more secret nook, one more full of silence, that is, whence the sounds would be less certain to reach the ears of the passers by, and came upon a small room, near the top, which had been the manager's bedroom, and which, as he judged from what seemed the signs of ancient occupation, a cloak hanging on the wall, and the ashes of a fire lying in the grate, nobody had entered for years: it was the safest place in the world. He undid his instrument carefully, tuned its strings tenderly, and soon found that his former facility, such as it was, had not ebbed away beyond recovery. Hastening back as he came, he was just in time for his dinner, and narrowly escaped encountering Betty in the transe. He had been tempted to leave the instrument, but no one could tell what might happen, and to doubt would be to be miserable with anxiety.
He did the same for several days without interruption--not, however, without observation. When, returning from his fourth visit, he opened the door between the gardens, he started back in dismay, for there stood the beautiful lady.
Robert hesitated for a moment whether to fly or speak. He was a Lowland country boy, and therefore rude of speech, but he was three parts a Celt, and those who know the address of the Irish or of the Highlanders, know how much that involves as to manners and bearing. He advanced the next instant and spoke.
'I beg yer pardon, mem. I thoucht naebody wad see me. I haena dune nae ill.'
'I had not the least suspicion of it, I assure you,' returned Miss St. John. 'But, tell me, what makes you go through here always at the same hour with the same parcel under your arm?'
'Ye winna tell naebody--will ye, mem, gin I tell you?'
Miss St. John, amused, and interested besides in the contrast between the boy's oddly noble face and good bearing on the one hand, and on the other the drawl of his bluntly articulated speech and the coarseness of his tone, both seeming to her in the extreme of provincialism, promised; and Robert, entranced by all the qualities of her voice and speech, and nothing disenchanted by the nearer view of her lovely face, confided in her at once.
'Ye see, mem,' he said, 'I cam' upo' my grandfather's fiddle. But my grandmither thinks the fiddle's no gude. And sae she tuik and she hed it. But I faun't it again. An' I daurna play i' the hoose, though my grannie's i' the country, for Betty hearin' me and tellin' her. And sae I gang to the auld fact'ry there. It belangs to my grannie, and sae does the yaird (garden). An' this hoose and yaird was ance my father's, and sae he had that door throu, they tell me. An' I thocht gin it suld be open, it wad be a fine thing for me, to haud fowk ohn seen me. But it was verra ill-bred to you, mem, I ken, to come throu your yaird ohn speirt leave. I beg yer pardon, mem, an' I'll jist gang back, and roon' by the ro'd. This is my fiddle I hae aneath my airm. We bude to pit back the case o' 't whaur it was afore, i' my grannie's bed, to haud her ohn kent 'at she had tint the grup o' 't.'
Certainly Miss St. John could not have understood the half of the words Robert used, but she understood his story notwithstanding. Herself an enthusiast in music, her sympathies were at once engaged for the awkward boy who was thus trying to steal an entrance into the fairy halls of sound. But she forbore any further allusion to the violin for the present, and contented herself with assuring Robert that he was heartily welcome to go through the garden as often as he pleased. She accompanied her words with a smile that made Robert feel not only that she was the most beautiful of all princesses in fairy-tales, but that she had presented him with something beyond price in the most self-denying manner. He took off his cap, thanked her with much heartiness, if not with much polish, and hastened to the gate of his grandmother's little garden. A few years later such an encounter might have spoiled his dinner: I have to record no such evil result of the adventure.
With Miss St. John, music was the highest form of human expression, as must often be the case with those whose feeling is much in advance of their thought, and to whom, therefore, may be called mental sensation is the highest known condition. Music to such is poetry in solution, and generates that infinite atmosphere, common to both musician and poet, which the latter fills with shining worlds.--But if my reader wishes to follow out for himself the idea herein suggested, he must be careful to make no confusion between those who feel musically or think poetically, and the musician or the poet. One who can only play the music of others, however exquisitely, is not a musician, any more than one who can read verse to the satisfaction, or even expound it to the enlightenment of the poet himself, is therefore a poet.--When Miss St. John would worship God, it was in music that she found the chariot of fire in which to ascend heavenward. Hence music was the divine thing in the world for her; and to find any one loving music humbly and faithfully was to find a brother or sister believer. But she had been so often disappointed in her expectations from those she took to be such, that of late she had become less sanguine. Still there was something about this boy that roused once more her musical hopes; and, however she may have restrained herself from the full indulgence of them, certain it is that the next day, when she saw Robert pass, this time leisurely, along the top of the garden, she put on her bonnet and shawl, and, allowing him time to reach his den, followed him, in the hope of finding out whether or not he could play. I do not know what proficiency the boy had attained, very likely not much, for a man can feel the music of his own bow, or of his own lines, long before any one else can discover it. He had already made a path, not exactly worn one, but trampled one, through the neglected grass, and Miss St. John had no difficulty in finding his entrance to the factory.
She felt a little eerie, as Robert would have called it, when she passed into the waste silent place; for besides the wasteness and the silence, motionless machines have a look of death about them, at least when they bear such signs of disuse as those that filled these rooms. Hearing no violin, she waited for a while in the ground-floor of the building; but still hearing nothing, she ascended to the first floor. Here, likewise, all was silence. She hesitated, but at length ventured up the next stair, beginning, however, to feel a little troubled as well as eerie, the silence was so obstinately persistent. Was it possible that there was no violin in that brown paper? But that boy could not be a liar. Passing shelves piled-up with stores of old thread, she still went on, led by a curiosity stronger than her gathering fear. At last she came to a little room, the door of which was open, and there she saw Robert lying on the floor with his head in a pool of blood.
Now Mary St. John was both brave and kind; and, therefore, though not insensible to the fact that she too must be in danger where violence had been used to a boy, she set about assisting him at once. His face was deathlike, but she did not think he was dead. She drew him out into the passage, for the room was close, and did all she could to recover him; but for some time he did not even breathe. At last his lips moved, and he murmured,
'Sandy, Sandy, ye've broken my bonnie leddy.'
Then he opened his eyes, and seeing a face to dream about bending in kind consternation over him, closed them again with a smile and a sigh, as if to prolong his dream.
The blood now came fast into his forsaken cheeks, and began to flow again from the wound in his head. The lady bound it up with her handkerchief. After a little he rose, though with difficulty, and stared wildly about him, saying, with imperfect articulation, 'Father! father!' Then he looked at Miss St. John with a kind of dazed inquiry in his eyes, tried several times to speak, and could not.
'Can you walk at all?' asked Miss St. John, supporting him, for she was anxious to leave the place.
'Yes, mem, weel eneuch,' he answered.
'Come along, then. I will help you home.'
'Na, na,' he said, as if he had just recalled something. 'Dinna min' me. Rin hame, mem, or he'll see ye!'
'Who will see me?'
Robert stared more wildly, put his hand to his head, and made no reply. She half led, half supported him down the stair, as far as the first landing, when he cried out in a tone of anguish,
'My bonny leddy!'
'What is it?' asked Miss St. John, thinking he meant her.
'My fiddle! my fiddle! She 'll be a' in bits,' he answered, and turned to go up again.
'Sit down here,' said Miss St. John, 'and I'll fetch it.'
Though not without some tremor, she darted back to the room. Then she turned faint for the first time, but determinedly supporting herself, she looked about, saw a brown-paper parcel on a shelf, took it, and hurried out with a shudder.
Robert stood leaning against the wall. He stretched out his hands eagerly.
'Gie me her. Gie me her.'
'You had better let me carry it. You are not able.'
'Na, na, mem. Ye dinna ken hoo easy she is to hurt.'
'Oh, yes, I do!' returned Miss St. John, smiling, and Robert could not withstand the smile.
'Weel, tak care o' her, as ye wad o' yer ain sel', mem,' he said, yielding.
He was now much better, and before he had been two minutes in the open air, insisted that he was quite well. When they reached Captain Forsyth's garden he again held out his hands for his violin.
'No, no,' said his new friend. 'You wouldn't have Betty see you like that, would you?'
'No, mem; but I'll put in the fiddle at my ain window, and she sanna hae a chance o' seein' 't,' answered Robert, not understanding her; for though he felt a good deal of pain, he had no idea what a dreadful appearance he presented.
'Don't you know that you have a wound on your head?' asked Miss St. John.
'Na! hev I?' said Robert, putting up his hand. 'But I maun gang--there's nae help for 't,' he added.--'Gin I cud only win to my ain room ohn Betty seen me!--Eh! mem, I hae blaudit (spoiled) a' yer bonny goon. That's a sair vex.'
'Never mind it,' returned Miss St. John, smiling. 'It is of no consequence. But you must come with me. I must see what I can do for your head. Poor boy!'
'Eh, mem! but ye are kin'! Gin ye speik like that ye'll gar me greit. Naebody ever spak' to me like that afore. Maybe ye kent my mamma. Ye're sae like her.'
This word mamma was the only remnant of her that lingered in his speech. Had she lived he would have spoken very differently. They were now walking towards the house.
'No, I did not know your mamma. Is she dead?'
'Lang syne, mem. And sae they tell me is yours.'
'Yes; and my father too. Your father is alive, I hope?'
Robert made no answer. Miss St. John turned.
The boy had a strange look, and seemed struggling with something in his throat. She thought he was going to faint again, and hurried him into the drawing-room. Her aunt had not yet left her room, and her uncle was out.
'Sit down,' she said--so kindly--and Robert sat down on the edge of a chair. Then she left the room, but presently returned with a little brandy. 'There,' she said, offering the glass, 'that will do you good.'
'What is 't, mem?'
'Brandy. There's water in it, of course.'
'I daurna touch 't. Grannie cudna bide me to touch 't,'
So determined was he, that Miss St. John was forced to yield. Perhaps she wondered that the boy who would deceive his grandmother about a violin should be so immovable in regarding her pleasure in the matter of a needful medicine. But in this fact I begin to see the very Falconer of my manhood's worship.
'Eh, mem! gin ye wad play something upo' her,' he resumed, pointing to the piano, which, although he had never seen one before, he at once recognized, by some hidden mental operation, as the source of the sweet sounds heard at the window, 'it wad du me mair guid than a haill bottle o' brandy, or whusky either.'
'How do you know that?' asked Miss St. John, proceeding to sponge the wound.
''Cause mony's the time I hae stud oot there i' the street, hearkenin'. Dooble Sanny says 'at ye play jist as gin ye war my gran'father's fiddle hersel', turned into the bonniest cratur ever God made.'
'How did you get such a terrible cut?'
She had removed the hair, and found that the injury was severe.
The boy was silent. She glanced round in his face. He was staring as if he saw nothing, heard nothing. She would try again.
'Did you fall? Or how did you cut your head?'
'Yes, yes, mem, I fell,' he answered, hastily, with an air of relief, and possibly with some tone of gratitude for the suggestion of a true answer.
'What made you fall?'
Utter silence again. She felt a kind of turn--I do not know another word to express what I mean: the boy must have fits, and either could not tell, or was ashamed to tell, what had befallen him. Thereafter she too was silent, and Robert thought she was offended. Possibly he felt a change in the touch of her fingers.
'Mem, I wad like to tell ye,' he said, 'but I daurna.'
'Oh! never mind,' she returned kindly.
'Wad ye promise nae to tell naebody?'
'I don't want to know,' she answered, confirmed in her suspicion, and at the same time ashamed of the alteration of feeling which the discovery had occasioned.
An uncomfortable silence followed, broken by Robert.
'Gin ye binna pleased wi' me, mem,' he said, 'I canna bide ye to gang on wi' siccan a job 's that.'
How Miss St. John could have understood him, I cannot think; but she did.
'Oh! very well,' she answered, smiling. 'Just as you please. Perhaps you had better take this piece of plaster to Betty, and ask her to finish the dressing for you.'
Robert took the plaster mechanically, and, sick at heart and speechless, rose to go, forgetting even his bonny leddy in his grief.
'You had better take your violin with you,' said Miss St. John, urged to the cruel experiment by a strong desire to see what the strange boy would do.
He turned. The tears were streaming down his odd face. They went to her heart, and she was bitterly ashamed of herself.
'Come along. Do sit down again. I only wanted to see what you would do. I am very sorry,' she said, in a tone of kindness such as Robert had never imagined.
He sat down instantly, saying,
'Eh, mem! it's sair to bide;' meaning, no doubt, the conflict between his inclination to tell her all, and his duty to be silent.
The dressing was soon finished, his hair combed down over it, and Robert looking once more respectable.
'Now, I think that will do,' said his nurse.
'Eh, thank ye, mem!' answered Robert, rising. 'Whan I'm able to play upo' the fiddle as weel 's ye play upo' the piana, I'll come and play at yer window ilka nicht, as lang 's ye like to hearken.'
She smiled, and he was satisfied. He did not dare again ask her to play to him. But she said of herself, 'Now I will play something to you, if you like,' and he resumed his seat devoutly.
When she had finished a lovely little air, which sounded to Robert like the touch of her hands, and her breath on his forehead, she looked round, and was satisfied, from the rapt expression of the boy's countenance, that at least he had plenty of musical sensibility. As if despoiled of volition, he stood motionless till she said,
'Now you had better go, or Betty will miss you.'
Then he made her a bow in which awkwardness and grace were curiously mingled, and taking up his precious parcel, and holding it to his bosom as if it had been a child for whom he felt an access of tenderness, he slowly left the room and the house.
Not even to Shargar did he communicate his adventure. And he went no more to the deserted factory to play there. Fate had again interposed between him and his bonny leddy.
When he reached Bodyfauld he fancied his grandmother's eyes more watchful of him than usual, and he strove the more to resist the weariness, and even faintness, that urged him to go to bed. Whether he was able to hide as well a certain trouble that clouded his spirit I doubt. His wound he did manage to keep a secret, thanks to the care of Miss St. John, who had dressed it with court-plaster.
When he woke the next morning, it was with the consciousness of having seen something strange the night before, and only when he found that he was not in his own room at his grandmother's, was he convinced that it must have been a dream and no vision. For in the night, he had awaked there as he thought, and the moon was shining with such clearness, that although it did not shine into his room, he could see the face of the clock, and that the hands were both together at the top. Close by the clock stood the bureau, with its end against the partition forming the head of his grannie's bed.
All at once he saw a tall man, in a blue coat and bright buttons, about to open the lid of the bureau. The same moment he saw a little elderly man in a brown coat and a brown wig, by his side, who sought to remove his hand from the lock. Next appeared a huge stalwart figure, in shabby old tartans, and laid his hand on the head of each. But the wonder widened and grew; for now came a stately Highlander with his broadsword by his side, and an eagle's feather in his bonnet, who laid his hand on the other Highlander's arm.
When Robert looked in the direction whence this last had appeared, the head of his grannie's bed had vanished, and a wild hill-side, covered with stones and heather, sloped away into the distance. Over it passed man after man, each with an ancestral air, while on the gray sea to the left, galleys covered with Norsemen tore up the white foam, and dashed one after the other up to the strand. How long he gazed, he did not know, but when he withdrew his eyes from the extended scene, there stood the figure of his father, still trying to open the lid of the bureau, his grandfather resisting him, the blind piper with his hand on the head of both, and the stately chief with his hand on the piper's arm. Then a mist of forgetfulness gathered over the whole, till at last he awoke and found himself in the little wooden chamber at Bodyfauld, and not in the visioned room. Doubtless his loss of blood the day before had something to do with the dream or vision, whichever the reader may choose to consider it. He rose, and after a good breakfast, found himself very little the worse, and forgot all about his dream, till a circumstance which took place not long after recalled it vividly to his mind.
The enchantment of Bodyfauld soon wore off. The boys had no time to enter into the full enjoyment of country ways, because of those weary lessons, over the getting of which Mrs. Falconer kept as strict a watch as ever; while to Robert the evening journey, his violin and Miss St. John left at Rothieden, grew more than tame. The return was almost as happy an event to him as the first going. Now he could resume his lessons with the soutar.
With Shargar it was otherwise. The freedom for so much longer from Mrs. Falconer's eyes was in itself so much of a positive pleasure, that the walk twice a day, the fresh air, and the scents and sounds of the country, only came in as supplementary. But I do not believe the boy even then had so much happiness as when he was beaten and starved by his own mother. And Robert, growing more and more absorbed in his own thoughts and pursuits, paid him less and less attention as the weeks went on, till Shargar at length judged it for a time an evil day on which he first had slept under old Ronald Falconer's kilt.