Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter XIX. Robert Steals His Own.
The period of the hairst-play, that is, of the harvest holiday time, drew near, and over the north of Scotland thousands of half-grown hearts were beating with glad anticipation. Of the usual devices of boys to cheat themselves into the half-belief of expediting a blessed approach by marking its rate, Robert knew nothing: even the notching of sticks was unknown at Rothieden; but he had a mode notwithstanding. Although indifferent to the games of his school-fellows, there was one amusement, a solitary one nearly, and therein not so good as most amusements, into which he entered with the whole energy of his nature: it was kite-flying. The moment that the hairst-play approached near enough to strike its image through the eyes of his mind, Robert proceeded to make his kite, or draigon, as he called it. Of how many pleasures does pocket-money deprive the unfortunate possessor! What is the going into a shop and buying what you want, compared with the gentle delight of hours and days filled with gaining effort after the attainment of your end? Never boy that bought his kite, even if the adornment thereafter lay in his own hands, and the pictures were gorgeous with colour and gilding, could have half the enjoyment of Robert from the moment he went to the cooper's to ask for an old gird or hoop, to the moment when he said 'Noo, Shargar!' and the kite rose slowly from the depth of the a๋rial flood. The hoop was carefully examined, the best portion cut away from it, that pared to a light strength, its ends confined to the proper curve by a string, and then away went Robert to the wright's shop. There a slip of wood, of proper length and thickness, was readily granted to his request, free as the daisies of the field. Oh! those horrid town conditions, where nothing is given for the asking, but all sold for money! In Robert's kite the only thing that cost money was the string to fly it with, and that the grandmother willingly provided, for not even her ingenuity could discover any evil, direct or implicated, in kite-flying. Indeed, I believe the old lady felt not a little sympathy with the exultation of the boy when he saw his kite far aloft, diminished to a speck in the vast blue; a sympathy, it may be, rooted in the religious aspirations which she did so much at once to rouse and to suppress in the bosom of her grandchild. But I have not yet reached the kite-flying, for I have said nothing of the kite's tail, for the sake of which principally I began to describe the process of its growth.
As soon as the body of the dragon was completed, Robert attached to its spine the string which was to take the place of its caudal elongation, and at a proper distance from the body joined to the string the first of the cross-pieces of folded paper which in this animal represent the continued vertebral processes. Every morning, the moment he issued from his chamber, he proceeded to the garret where the monster lay, to add yet another joint to his tail, until at length the day should arrive when, the lessons over for a blessed eternity of five or six weeks, he would tip the whole with a piece of wood, to which grass, quantum suff., might be added from the happy fields.
Upon this occasion the dragon was a monster one. With a little help from Shargar, he had laid the skeleton of a six-foot specimen, and had carried the body to a satisfactory completion.
The tail was still growing, having as yet only sixteen joints, when Mr. Lammie called with an invitation for the boys to spend their holidays with him. It was fortunate for Robert that he was in the room when Mr. Lammie presented his petition, otherwise he would never have heard of it till the day of departure arrived, and would thus have lost all the delights of anticipation. In frantic effort to control his ecstasy, he sped to the garret, and with trembling hands tied the second joint of the day to the tail of the dragon--the first time he had ever broken the law of its accretion. Once broken, that law was henceforth an object of scorn, and the tail grew with frightful rapidity. It was indeed a great dragon. And none of the paltry fields about Rothieden should be honoured with its first flight, but from Bodyfauld should the majestic child of earth ascend into the regions of upper air.
My reader may here be tempted to remind me that Robert had been only too glad to return to Rothieden from his former visit. But I must in my turn remind him that the circumstances were changed. In the first place, the fiddle was substituted for grannie; and in the second, the dragon for the school.
The making of this dragon was a happy thing for Shargar, and a yet happier thing for Robert, in that it introduced again for a time some community of interest between them. Shargar was happier than he had been for many a day because Robert used him; and Robert was yet happier than Shargar in that his conscience, which had reproached him for his neglect of him, was now silent. But not even his dragon had turned aside his attentions from his violin; and many were the consultations between the boys as to how best she might be transported to Bodyfauld, where endless opportunities of holding communion with her would not be wanting. The difficulty was only how to get her clear of Rothieden.
The play commenced on a Saturday; but not till the Monday were they to be set at liberty. Wearily the hours of mental labour and bodily torpidity which the Scotch called the Sabbath passed away, and at length the millennial morning dawned. Robert and Shargar were up before the sun. But strenuous were the efforts they made to suppress all indications of excitement, lest grannie, fearing the immoral influence of gladness, should give orders to delay their departure for an awfully indefinite period, which might be an hour, a day, or even a week. Horrible conception! Their behaviour was so decorous that not even a hinted threat escaped the lips of Mrs. Falconer.
They set out three hours before noon, carrying the great kite, and Robert's school bag, of green baize, full of sundries: a cart from Bodyfauld was to fetch their luggage later in the day. As soon as they were clear of the houses, Shargar lay down behind a dyke with the kite, and Robert set off at full speed for Dooble Sanny's shop, making a half-circuit of the town to avoid the chance of being seen by grannie or Betty. Having given due warning before, he found the brown-paper parcel ready for him, and carried it off in fearful triumph. He joined Shargar in safety, and they set out on their journey as rich and happy a pair of tramps as ever tramped, having six weeks of their own in their pockets to spend and not spare.
A hearty welcome awaited them, and they were soon revelling in the glories of the place, the first instalment of which was in the shape of curds and cream, with oatcake and butter, as much as they liked. After this they would 'e'en to it like French falconers' with their kite, for the wind had been blowing bravely all the morning, having business to do with the harvest. The season of stubble not yet arrived, they were limited to the pasturage and moorland, which, however, large as their kite was, were spacious enough. Slowly the great-headed creature arose from the hands of Shargar, and ascended about twenty feet, when, as if seized with a sudden fit of wrath or fierce indignation, it turned right round and dashed itself with headlong fury to the earth, as if sooner than submit to such influences a moment longer it would beat out its brains at once.
'It hasna half tail eneuch,' cried Robert. 'It's queer 'at things winna gang up ohn hauden them doon. Pu' a guid han'fu' o' clover, Shargar. She's had her fa', an' noo she'll gang up a' richt. She's nane the waur o' 't.'
Upon the next attempt, the kite rose triumphantly. But just as it reached the length of the string it shot into a faster current of air, and Robert found himself first dragged along in spite of his efforts, and then lifted from his feet. After carrying him a few yards, the dragon broke its string, dropped him in a ditch, and, drifting away, went fluttering and waggling downwards in the distance.
'Luik whaur she gangs, Shargar,' cried Robert, from the ditch.
Experience coming to his aid, Shargar took landmarks of the direction in which it went; and ere long they found it with its tail entangled in the topmost branches of a hawthorn tree, and its head beating the ground at its foot. It was at once agreed that they would not fly it again till they got some stronger string.
Having heard the adventure, Mr. Lammie produced a shilling from the pocket of his corduroys, and gave it to Robert to spend upon the needful string. He resolved to go to the town the next morning and make a grand purchase of the same. During the afternoon he roamed about the farm with his hands in his pockets, revolving if not many memories, yet many questions, while Shargar followed like a pup at the heels of Miss Lammie, to whom, during his former visit, he had become greatly attached.
In the evening, resolved to make a confidant of Mr. Lammie, and indeed to cast himself upon the kindness of the household generally, Robert went up to his room to release his violin from its prison of brown paper. What was his dismay to find--not his bonny leddy, but her poor cousin, the soutar's auld wife! It was too bad. Dooble Sanny indeed!
He first stared, then went into a rage, and then came out of it to go into a resolution. He replaced the unwelcome fiddle in the parcel, and came down-stairs gloomy and still wrathful, but silent. The evening passed over, and the inhabitants of the farmhouse went early to bed. Robert tossed about fuming on his. He had not undressed.
About eleven o'clock, after all had been still for more than an hour, he took his shoes in one hand and the brown parcel in the other, and descending the stairs like a thief, undid the quiet wooden bar that secured the door, and let himself out. All was darkness, for the moon was not yet up, and he felt a strange sensation of ghostliness in himself--awake and out of doors, when he ought to be asleep and unconscious in bed. He had never been out so late before, and felt as if walking in the region of the dead, existing when and where he had no business to exist. For it was the time Nature kept for her own quiet, and having once put her children to bed--hidden them away with the world wiped out of them--enclosed them in her ebony box, as George Herbert says--she did not expect to have her hours of undress and meditation intruded upon by a venturesome school-boy. Yet she let him pass. He put on his shoes and hurried to the road. He heard a horse stamp in the stable, and saw a cat dart across the corn-yard as he went through. Those were all the signs of life about the place.
It was a cloudy night and still. Nothing was to be heard but his own footsteps. The cattle in the fields were all asleep. The larch and spruce trees on the top of the hill by the foot of which his road wound were still as clouds. He could just see the sky through their stems. It was washed with the faintest of light, for the moon, far below, was yet climbing towards the horizon. A star or two sparkled where the clouds broke, but so little light was there, that, until he had passed the moorland on the hill, he could not get the horror of moss-holes, and deep springs covered with treacherous green, out of his head. But he never thought of turning. When the fears of the way at length fell back and allowed his own thoughts to rise, the sense of a presence, or of something that might grow to a presence, was the first to awake in him. The stillness seemed to be thinking all around his head. But the way grew so dark, where it lay through a corner of the pine-wood, that he had to feel the edge of the road with his foot to make sure that he was keeping upon it, and the sense of the silence vanished. Then he passed a farm, and the motions of horses came through the dark, and a doubtful crow from a young inexperienced cock, who did not yet know the moon from the sun. Then a sleepy low in his ear startled him, and made him quicken his pace involuntarily.
By the time he reached Rothieden all the lights were out, and this was just what he wanted.
The economy of Dooble Sanny's abode was this: the outer door was always left on the latch at night, because several families lived in the house; the soutar's workshop opened from the passage, close to the outer door, therefore its door was locked; but the key hung on a nail just inside the soutar's bedroom. All this Robert knew.
Arrived at the house, he lifted the latch, closed the door behind him, took off his shoes once more, like a housebreaker, as indeed he was, although a righteous one, and felt his way to and up the stair to the bedroom. There was a sound of snoring within. The door was a little ajar. He reached the key and descended, his heart beating more and more wildly as he approached the realization of his hopes. Gently as he could he turned it in the lock. In a moment more he had his hands on the spot where the shoemaker always laid his violin. But his heart sank within him: there was no violin there. A blank of dismay held him both motionless and thoughtless; nor had he recovered his senses before he heard footsteps, which he well knew, approaching in the street. He slunk at once into a corner. Elshender entered, feeling his way carefully, and muttering at his wife. He was tipsy, most likely, but that had never yet interfered with the safety of his fiddle: Robert heard its faint echo as he laid it gently down. Nor was he too tipsy to lock the door behind him, leaving Robert incarcerated amongst the old boots and leather and rosin.
For one moment only did the boy's heart fail him. The next he was in action, for a happy thought had already struck him. Hastily, that he might forestall sleep in the brain of the soutar, he undid his parcel, and after carefully enveloping his own violin in the paper, took the old wife of the soutar, and proceeded to perform upon her a trick which in a merry moment his master had taught him, and which, not without some feeling of irreverence, he had occasionally practised upon his own bonny lady.
The shoemaker's room was overhead; its thin floor of planks was the ceiling of the workshop. Ere Dooble Sanny was well laid by the side of his sleeping wife, he heard a frightful sound from below, as of some one tearing his beloved violin to pieces. No sound of rending coffin-planks or rising dead would have been so horrible in the ears of the soutar. He sprang from his bed with a haste that shook the crazy tenement to its foundation.
The moment Robert heard that, he put the violin in its place, and took his station by the door-cheek. The soutar came tumbling down the stair, and rushed at the door, but found that he had to go back for the key. When, with uncertain hand, he had opened at length, he went straight to the nest of his treasure, and Robert slipping out noiselessly, was in the next street before Dooble Sanny, having found the fiddle uninjured, and not discovering the substitution, had finished concluding that the whisky and his imagination had played him a very discourteous trick between them, and retired once more to bed. And not till Robert had cut his foot badly with a piece of glass, did he discover that he had left his shoes behind him. He tied it up with his handkerchief, and limped home the three miles, too happy to think of consequences.
Before he had gone far, the moon floated up on the horizon, large, and shaped like the broadside of a barrel. She stared at him in amazement to see him out at such a time of the night. But he grasped his violin and went on. He had no fear now, even when he passed again over the desolate moss, although he saw the stagnant pools glimmering about him in the moonlight. And ever after this he had a fancy for roaming at night. He reached home in safety, found the door as he had left it, and ascended to his bed, triumphant in his fiddle.
In the morning bloody prints were discovered on the stair, and traced to the door of his room. Miss Lammie entered in some alarm, and found him fast asleep on his bed, still dressed, with a brown-paper parcel in his arms, and one of his feet evidently enough the source of the frightful stain. She was too kind to wake him, and inquiry was postponed till they met at breakfast, to which he descended bare-footed, save for a handkerchief on the injured foot.
'Robert, my lad,' said Mr. Lammie, kindly, 'hoo cam ye by that bluidy fut?'
Robert began the story, and, guided by a few questions from his host, at length told the tale of the violin from beginning to end, omitting only his adventure in the factory. Many a guffaw from Mr. Lammie greeted its progress, and Miss Lammie laughed till the tears rolled unheeded down her cheeks, especially when Shargar, emboldened by the admiration Robert had awakened, imparted his private share in the comedy, namely, the entombment of Boston in a fifth-fold state; for the Lammies were none of the unco guid to be censorious upon such exploits. The whole business advanced the boys in favour at Bodyfauld; and the entreaties of Robert that nothing, should reach his grandmother's ears were entirely unnecessary.
After breakfast Miss Lammie dressed the wounded foot. But what was to be done for shoes, for Robert's Sunday pair had been left at home? Under ordinary circumstances it would have been no great hardship to him to go barefoot for the rest of the autumn, but the cut was rather a serious one. So his feet were cased in a pair of Mr. Lammie's Sunday boots, which, from their size, made it so difficult for him to get along, that he did not go far from the doors, but revelled in the company of his violin in the corn-yard amongst last year's ricks, in the barn, and in the hayloft, playing all the tunes he knew, and trying over one or two more from a very dirty old book of Scotch airs, which his teacher had lent him.
In the evening, as they sat together after supper, Mr. Lammie said,
'Weel, Robert, hoo's the fiddle?'
'Fine, I thank ye, sir,' answered Robert.
'Lat's hear what ye can do wi' 't.'
Robert fetched the instrument and complied.
'That's no that ill,' remarked the farmer. 'But eh! man, ye suld hae heard yer gran'father han'le the bow. That was something to hear--ance in a body's life. Ye wad hae jist thoucht the strings had been drawn frae his ain inside, he kent them sae weel, and han'led them sae fine. He jist fan' (felt) them like wi' 's fingers throu' the bow an' the horsehair an' a', an' a' the time he was drawin' the soun' like the sowl frae them, an' they jist did onything 'at he likit. Eh! to hear him play the Flooers o' the Forest wad hae garred ye greit.'
'Cud my father play?' asked Robert.
'Ay, weel eneuch for him. He could do onything he likit to try, better nor middlin'. I never saw sic a man. He played upo' the bagpipes, an' the flute, an' the bugle, an' I kenna what a'; but a'thegither they cam' na within sicht o' his father upo' the auld fiddle. Lat's hae a luik at her.'
He took the instrument in his hands reverently, turned it over and over, and said,
'Ay, ay; it's the same auld mill, an' I wat it grun' (ground) bonny meal.--That sma' crater noo 'ill be worth a hunner poun', I s' warran',' he added, as he restored it carefully into Robert's hands, to whom it was honey and spice to hear his bonny lady paid her due honours. 'Can ye play the Flooers o' the Forest, no?' he added yet again.
'Ay can I,' answered Robert, with some pride, and laid the bow on the violin, and played the air through without blundering a single note.
'Weel, that's verra weel,' said Mr. Lammie. 'But it's nae mair like as yer gran'father played it, than gin there war twa sawyers at it, ane at ilka lug o' the bow, wi' the fiddle atween them in a saw-pit.'
Robert's heart sank within him; but Mr. Lammie went on:
'To hear the bow croudin' (cooing), and wailin', an' greitin' ower the strings, wad hae jist garred ye see the lands o' braid Scotlan' wi' a' the lasses greitin' for the lads that lay upo' reid Flodden side; lasses to cut, and lasses to gether, and lasses to bin', and lasses to stook, and lasses to lead, and no a lad amo' them a'. It's just the murnin' o' women, doin' men's wark as weel 's their ain, for the men that suld hae been there to du 't; and I s' warran' ye, no a word to the orra (exceptional, over-all) lad that didna gang wi' the lave (rest).'
Robert had not hitherto understood it--this wail of a pastoral and ploughing people over those who had left their side to return no more from the field of battle. But Mr. Lammie's description of his grandfather's rendering laid hold of his heart.
'I wad raither be grutten for nor kissed,' said he, simply.
'Haud ye to that, my lad,' returned Mr. Lammie. 'Lat the lasses greit for ye gin they like; but haud oot ower frae the kissin'. I wadna mell wi' 't.'
'Hoot, father, dinna put sic nonsense i' the bairns' heids,' said Miss Lammie.
'Whilk 's the nonsense, Aggy?' asked her father, slily. 'But I doobt,' he added, 'he'll never play the Flooers o' the Forest as it suld be playt, till he's had a taste o' the kissin', lass.'
'Weel, it's a queer instructor o' yowth, 'at says an' onsays i' the same breith.'
'Never ye min'. I haena contradickit mysel' yet; for I hae said naething. But, Robert, my man, ye maun pit mair sowl into yer fiddlin'. Ye canna play the fiddle till ye can gar 't greit. It's unco ready to that o' 'ts ain sel'; an' it's my opingon that there's no anither instrument but the fiddle fit to play the Flooers o' the Forest upo', for that very rizzon, in a' his Maijesty's dominions.--My father playt the fiddle, but no like your gran'father.'
Robert was silent. He spent the whole of the next morning in reiterated attempts to alter his style of playing the air in question, but in vain--as far at least as any satisfaction to himself was the result. He laid the instrument down in despair, and sat for an hour disconsolate upon the bedside. His visit had not as yet been at all so fertile in pleasure as he had anticipated. He could not fly his kite; he could not walk; he had lost his shoes; Mr. Lammie had not approved of his playing; and, although he had his will of the fiddle, he could not get his will out of it. He could never play so as to please Miss St. John. Nothing but manly pride kept him from crying. He was sorely disappointed and dissatisfied; and the world might be dreary even at Bodyfauld.
Few men can wait upon the bright day in the midst of the dull one. Nor can many men even wait for it.