Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter XVIII. Nature Puts in a Claim.
Before the day of return arrived, Robert had taken care to remove the violin from his bedroom, and carry it once more to its old retreat in Shargar's garret. The very first evening, however, that grannie again spent in her own arm-chair, he hied from the house as soon as it grew dusk, and made his way with his brown-paper parcel to Sandy Elshender's.
Entering the narrow passage from which his shop door opened, and hearing him hammering away at a sole, he stood and unfolded his treasure, then drew a low sigh from her with his bow, and awaited the result. He heard the lap-stone fall thundering on the floor, and, like a spider from his cavern, Dooble Sanny appeared in the door, with the bend-leather in one hand, and the hammer in the other.
'Lordsake, man! hae ye gotten her again? Gie's a grup o' her!' he cried, dropping leather and hammer.
'Na, na,' returned Robert, retreating towards the outer door. 'Ye maun sweir upo' her that, whan I want her, I sall hae her ohn demur, or I sanna lat ye lay roset upo' her.'
'I swear 't, Robert; I sweir 't upo' her,' said the soutar hurriedly, stretching out both his hands as if to receive some human being into his embrace.
Robert placed the violin in those grimy hands. A look of heavenly delight dawned over the hirsute and dirt-besmeared countenance, which drooped into tenderness as he drew the bow across the instrument, and wiled from her a thin wail as of sorrow at their long separation. He then retreated into his den, and was soon sunk in a trance, deaf to everything but the violin, from which no entreaties of Robert, who longed for a lesson, could rouse him; so that he had to go home grievously disappointed, and unrewarded for the risk he had run in venturing the stolen visit.
Next time, however, he fared better; and he contrived so well that, from the middle of June to the end of August, he had two lessons a week, mostly upon the afternoons of holidays. For these his master thought himself well paid by the use of the instrument between. And Robert made great progress.
Occasionally he saw Miss St. John in the garden, and once or twice met her in the town; but her desire to find in him a pupil had been greatly quenched by her unfortunate conjecture as to the cause of his accident. She had, however, gone so far as to mention the subject to her aunt, who assured her that old Mrs. Falconer would as soon consent to his being taught gambling as music. The idea, therefore, passed away; and beyond a kind word or two when she met him, there was no further communication between them. But Robert would often dream of waking from a swoon, and finding his head lying on her lap, and her lovely face bending over him full of kindness and concern.
By the way, Robert cared nothing for poetry. Virgil was too troublesome to be enjoyed; and in English he had met with nothing but the dried leaves and gum-flowers of the last century. Miss Letty once lent him The Lady of the Lake; but before he had read the first canto through, his grandmother laid her hands upon it, and, without saying a word, dropped it behind a loose skirting-board in the pantry, where the mice soon made it a ruin sad to behold. For Miss Letty, having heard from the woful Robert of its strange disappearance, and guessing its cause, applied to Mrs. Falconer for the volume; who forthwith, the tongs aiding, extracted it from its hole, and, without shade of embarrassment, held it up like a drowned kitten before the eyes of Miss Letty, intending thereby, no doubt, to impress her with the fate of all seducing spirits that should attempt an entrance into her kingdom: Miss Letty only burst into merry laughter over its fate. So the lode of poetry failed for the present from Robert's life. Nor did it matter much; for had he not his violin?
I have, I think, already indicated that his grandfather had been a linen manufacturer. Although that trade had ceased, his family had still retained the bleachery belonging to it, commonly called the bleachfield, devoting it now to the service of those large calico manufactures which had ruined the trade in linen, and to the whitening of such yarn as the country housewives still spun at home, and the webs they got woven of it in private looms. To Robert and Shargar it was a wondrous pleasure when the pile of linen which the week had accumulated at the office under the ga'le-room, was on Saturday heaped high upon the base of a broad-wheeled cart, to get up on it and be carried to the said bleachfield, which lay along the bank of the river. Soft laid and high-borne, gazing into the blue sky, they traversed the streets in a holiday triumph; and although, once arrived, the manager did not fail to get some labour out of them, yet the store of amusement was endless. The great wheel, which drove the whole machinery; the plash-mill, or, more properly, wauk-mill--a word Robert derived from the resemblance of the mallets to two huge feet, and of their motion to walking--with the water plashing and squirting from the blows of their heels; the beatles thundering in arpeggio upon the huge cylinder round which the white cloth was wound--each was haunted in its turn and season. The pleasure of the water itself was inexhaustible. Here sweeping in a mass along the race; there divided into branches and hurrying through the walls of the various houses; here sliding through a wooden channel across the floor to fall into the river in a half-concealed cataract, there bubbling up through the bottom of a huge wooden cave or vat, there resting placid in another; here gurgling along a spout; there flowing in a narrow canal through the green expanse of the well-mown bleaehfield, or lifted from it in narrow curved wooden scoops, like fairy canoes with long handles, and flung in showers over the outspread yarn--the water was an endless delight.
It is strange how some individual broidery or figure upon Nature's garment will delight a boy long before he has ever looked Nature in the face, or begun to love herself. But Robert was soon to become dimly conscious of a life within these things--a life not the less real that its operations on his mind had been long unrecognized.
On the grassy bank of the gently-flowing river, at the other edge of whose level the little canal squabbled along, and on the grassy brae which rose immediately from the canal, were stretched, close beside each other, with scarce a stripe of green betwixt, the long white webs of linen, fastened down to the soft mossy ground with wooden pegs, whose tops were twisted into their edges. Strangely would they billow in the wind sometimes, like sea-waves, frozen and enchanted flat, seeking to rise and wallow in the wind with conscious depth and whelming mass. But generally they lay supine, saturated with light and its cleansing power. Falconer's jubilation in the white and green of a little boat, as we lay, one bright morning, on the banks of the Thames between Richmond and Twickenham, led to such a description of the bleachfield that I can write about it as if I had known it myself.
One Saturday afternoon in the end of July, when the westering sun was hotter than at midday, he went down to the lower end of the field, where the river was confined by a dam, and plunged from the bank into deep water. After a swim of half-an-hour, he ascended the higher part of the field, and lay down upon a broad web to bask in the sun. In his ears was the hush rather than rush of the water over the dam, the occasional murmur of a belt of trees that skirted the border of the field, and the dull continuous sound of the beatles at their work below, like a persistent growl of thunder on the horizon.
Had Robert possessed a copy of Robinson Crusoe, or had his grandmother not cast The Lady of the Lake, mistaking it for an idol, if not to the moles and the bats, yet to the mice and the black-beetles, he might have been lying reading it, blind and deaf to the face and the voice of Nature, and years might have passed before a response awoke in his heart. It is good that children of faculty, as distinguished from capacity, should not have too many books to read, or too much of early lessoning. The increase of examinations in our country will increase its capacity and diminish its faculty. We shall have more compilers and reducers and fewer thinkers; more modifiers and completers, and fewer inventors.
He lay gazing up into the depth of the sky, rendered deeper and bluer by the masses of white cloud that hung almost motionless below it, until he felt a kind of bodily fear lest he should fall off the face of the round earth into the abyss. A gentle wind, laden with pine odours from the sun-heated trees behind him, flapped its light wing in his face: the humanity of the world smote his heart; the great sky towered up over him, and its divinity entered his soul; a strange longing after something 'he knew not nor could name' awoke within him, followed by the pang of a sudden fear that there was no such thing as that which he sought, that it was all a fancy of his own spirit; and then the voice of Shargar broke the spell, calling to him from afar to come and see a great salmon that lay by a stone in the water. But once aroused, the feeling was never stilled; the desire never left him; sometimes growing even to a passion that was relieved only by a flood of tears.
Strange as it may sound to those who have never thought of such things save in connection with Sundays and Bibles and churches and sermons, that which was now working in Falconer's mind was the first dull and faint movement of the greatest need that the human heart possesses--the need of the God-Man. There must be truth in the scent of that pine-wood: some one must mean it. There must be a glory in those heavens that depends not upon our imagination: some power greater than they must dwell in them. Some spirit must move in that wind that haunts us with a kind of human sorrow; some soul must look up to us from the eye of that starry flower. It must be something human, else not to us divine.
Little did Robert think that such was his need--that his soul was searching after One whose form was constantly presented to him, but as constantly obscured and made unlovely by the words without knowledge spoken in the religious assemblies of the land; that he was longing without knowing it on the Saturday for that from which on the Sunday he would be repelled without knowing it. Years passed before he drew nigh to the knowledge of what he sought.
For weeks the mood broken by the voice of his companion did not return, though the forms of Nature were henceforth full of a pleasure he had never known before. He loved the grass; the water was more gracious to him; he would leave his bed early, that he might gaze on the clouds of the east, with their borders gold-blasted with sunrise; he would linger in the fields that the amber and purple, and green and red, of the sunset, might not escape after the sun unseen. And as long as he felt the mystery, the revelation of the mystery lay before and not behind him.
And Shargar--had he any soul for such things? Doubtless; but how could he be other than lives behind Robert? For the latter had ancestors--that is, he came of people with a mental and spiritual history; while the former had been born the birth of an animal; of a noble sire, whose family had for generations filled the earth with fire, famine, slaughter, and licentiousness; and of a wandering outcast mother, who blindly loved the fields and woods, but retained her affection for her offspring scarcely beyond the period while she suckled them. The love of freedom and of wild animals that she had given him, however, was far more precious than any share his male ancestor had borne in his mental constitution. After his fashion he as well as Robert enjoyed the sun and the wind and the water and the sky; but he had sympathies with the salmon and the rooks and the wild rabbits even stronger than those of Robert.