Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter II. A Visitor.
It was a very bare little room in which the boy sat, but it was his favourite retreat. Behind the door, in a recess, stood an empty bedstead, without even a mattress upon it. This was the only piece of furniture in the room, unless some shelves crowded with papers tied up in bundles, and a cupboard in the wall, likewise filled with papers, could be called furniture. There was no carpet on the floor, no windows in the walls. The only light came from the door, and from a small skylight in the sloping roof, which showed that it was a garret-room. Nor did much light come from the open door, for there was no window on the walled stair to which it opened; only opposite the door a few steps led up into another garret, larger, but with a lower roof, unceiled, and perforated with two or three holes, the panes of glass filling which were no larger than the small blue slates which covered the roof: from these panes a little dim brown light tumbled into the room where the boy sat on the floor, with his head almost between his knees, thinking.
But there was less light than usual in the room now, though it was only half-past two o'clock, and the sun would not set for more than half-an-hour yet; for if Robert had lifted his head and looked up, it would have been at, not through, the skylight. No sky was to be seen. A thick covering of snow lay over the glass. A partial thaw, followed by frost, had fixed it there--a mass of imperfect cells and confused crystals. It was a cold place to sit in, but the boy had some faculty for enduring cold when it was the price to be paid for solitude. And besides, when he fell into one of his thinking moods, he forgot, for a season, cold and everything else but what he was thinking about--a faculty for which he was to be envied.
If he had gone down the stair, which described half the turn of a screw in its descent, and had crossed the landing to which it brought him, he could have entered another bedroom, called the gable or rather ga'le room, equally at his service for retirement; but, though carpeted and comfortably furnished, and having two windows at right angles, commanding two streets, for it was a corner house, the boy preferred the garret-room--he could not tell why. Possibly, windows to the streets were not congenial to the meditations in which, even now, as I have said, the boy indulged.
These meditations, however, though sometimes as abstruse, if not so continuous, as those of a metaphysician--for boys are not unfrequently more given to metaphysics than older people are able or, perhaps, willing to believe--were not by any means confined to such subjects: castle-building had its full share in the occupation of those lonely hours; and for this exercise of the constructive faculty, what he knew, or rather what he did not know, of his own history gave him scope enough, nor was his brain slow in supplying him with material corresponding in quantity to the space afforded. His mother had been dead for so many years that he had only the vaguest recollections of her tenderness, and none of her person. All he was told of his father was that he had gone abroad. His grandmother would never talk about him, although he was her own son. When the boy ventured to ask a question about where he was, or when he would return, she always replied--'Bairns suld haud their tongues.' Nor would she vouchsafe another answer to any question that seemed to her from the farthest distance to bear down upon that subject. 'Bairns maun learn to haud their tongues,' was the sole variation of which the response admitted. And the boy did learn to hold his tongue. Perhaps he would have thought less about his father if he had had brothers or sisters, or even if the nature of his grandmother had been such as to admit of their relationship being drawn closer--into personal confidence, or some measure of familiarity. How they stood with regard to each other will soon appear.
Whether the visions vanished from his brain because of the thickening of his blood with cold, or he merely acted from one of those undefined and inexplicable impulses which occasion not a few of our actions, I cannot tell, but all at once Robert started to his feet and hurried from the room. At the foot of the garret stair, between it and the door of the gable-room already mentioned, stood another door at right angles to both, of the existence of which the boy was scarcely aware, simply because he had seen it all his life and had never seen it open. Turning his back on this last door, which he took for a blind one, he went down a short broad stair, at the foot of which was a window. He then turned to the left into a long flagged passage or transe, passed the kitchen door on the one hand, and the double-leaved street door on the other; but, instead of going into the parlour, the door of which closed the transe, he stopped at the passage-window on the right, and there stood looking out.
What might be seen from this window certainly could not be called a very pleasant prospect. A broad street with low houses of cold gray stone is perhaps as uninteresting a form of street as any to be found in the world, and such was the street Robert looked out upon. Not a single member of the animal creation was to be seen in it, not a pair of eyes to be discovered looking out at any of the windows opposite. The sole motion was the occasional drift of a vapour-like film of white powder, which the wind would lift like dust from the snowy carpet that covered the street, and wafting it along for a few yards, drop again to its repose, till another stronger gust, prelusive of the wind about to rise at sun-down,--a wind cold and bitter as death--would rush over the street, and raise a denser cloud of the white water-dust to sting the face of any improbable person who might meet it in its passage. It was a keen, knife-edged frost, even in the house, and what Robert saw to make him stand at the desolate window, I do not know, and I believe he could not himself have told. There he did stand, however, for the space of five minutes or so, with nothing better filling his outer eyes at least than a bald spot on the crown of the street, whence the wind had swept away the snow, leaving it brown and bare, a spot of March in the middle of January.
He heard the town drummer in the distance, and let the sound invade his passive ears, till it crossed the opening of the street, and vanished 'down the town.'
'There's Dooble Sanny,' he said to himself--'wi' siccan cauld han's, 'at he's playin' upo' the drum-heid as gin he was loupin' in a bowie (leaping in a cask).'
Then he stood silent once more, with a look as if anything would be welcome to break the monotony.
While he stood a gentle timorous tap came to the door, so gentle indeed that Betty in the kitchen did not hear it, or she, tall and Roman-nosed as she was, would have answered it before the long-legged dreamer could have reached the door, though he was not above three yards from it. In lack of anything better to do, Robert stalked to the summons. As he opened the door, these words greeted him:
'Is Robert at--eh! it's Bob himsel'! Bob, I'm byous (exceedingly) cauld.'
'What for dinna ye gang hame, than?'
'What for wasna ye at the schuil the day?'
'I spier ae queston at you, and ye answer me wi' anither.'
'Weel, I hae nae hame to gang till.'
'Weel, and I had a sair heid (a headache). But whaur's yer hame gane till than?'
'The hoose is there a' richt, but whaur my mither is I dinna ken. The door's lockit, an' Jeames Jaup, they tell me 's tane awa' the key. I doobt my mither's awa' upo' the tramp again, and what's to come o' me, the Lord kens.'
'What's this o' 't?' interposed a severe but not unmelodious voice, breaking into the conversation between the two boys; for the parlour door had opened without Robert's hearing it, and Mrs. Falconer, his grandmother, had drawn near to the speakers.
'What's this o' 't?' she asked again. 'Wha's that ye're conversin' wi' at the door, Robert? Gin it be ony decent laddie, tell him to come in, and no stan' at the door in sic a day 's this.'
As Robert hesitated with his reply, she looked round the open half of the door, but no sooner saw with whom he was talking than her tone changed. By this time Betty, wiping her hands in her apron, had completed the group by taking her stand in the kitchen door.
'Na, na,' said Mrs. Falconer. 'We want nane sic-like here. What does he want wi' you, Robert? Gie him a piece, Betty, and lat him gang.--Eh, sirs! the callant hasna a stockin'-fit upo' 'im--and in sic weather!'
For, before she had finished her speech, the visitor, as if in terror of her nearer approach, had turned his back, and literally showed her, if not a clean pair of heels, yet a pair of naked heels from between the soles and uppers of his shoes: if he had any stockings at all, they ceased before they reached his ankles.
'What ails him at me?' continued Mrs. Falconer, 'that he rins as gin I war a boodie? But it's nae wonner he canna bide the sicht o' a decent body, for he's no used till 't. What does he want wi' you, Robert?'
But Robert had a reason for not telling his grandmother what the boy had told him: he thought the news about his mother would only make her disapprove of him the more. In this he judged wrong. He did not know his grandmother yet.
'He's in my class at the schuil,' said Robert, evasively.
'Him? What class, noo?'
Robert hesitated one moment, but, compelled to give some answer, said, with confidence,
'I thocht as muckle! What gars ye play at hide and seek wi' me? Do ye think I dinna ken weel eneuch there's no a lad or a lass at the schuil but 's i' the Bible-class? What wants he here?'
'Ye hardly gae him time to tell me, grannie. Ye frichtit him.'
'Me fricht him! What for suld I fricht him, laddie? I'm no sic ferlie (wonder) that onybody needs be frichtit at me.'
The old lady turned with visible, though by no means profound offence upon her calm forehead, and walking back into her parlour, where Robert could see the fire burning right cheerily, shut the door, and left him and Betty standing together in the transe. The latter returned to the kitchen, to resume the washing of the dinner-dishes; and the former returned to his post at the window. He had not stood more than half a minute, thinking what was to be done with his school-fellow deserted of his mother, when the sound of a coach-horn drew his attention to the right, down the street, where he could see part of the other street which crossed it at right angles, and in which the gable of the house stood. A minute after, the mail came in sight--scarlet, spotted with snow--and disappeared, going up the hill towards the chief hostelry of the town, as fast as four horses, tired with the bad footing they had had through the whole of the stage, could draw it after them. By this time the twilight was falling; for though the sun had not yet set, miles of frozen vapour came between him and this part of the world, and his light was never very powerful so far north at this season of the year.
Robert turned into the kitchen, and began to put on his shoes. He had made up his mind what to do.
'Ye're never gaein' oot, Robert?' said Betty, in a hoarse tone of expostulation.
''Deed am I, Betty. What for no?'
'You 'at's been in a' day wi' a sair heid! I'll jist gang benn the hoose and tell the mistress, and syne we'll see what she'll please to say till 't.'
'Ye'll do naething o' the kin', Betty. Are ye gaein' to turn clash-pyet (tell-tale) at your age?'
'What ken ye aboot my age? There's never a man-body i' the toon kens aught aboot my age.'
'It's ower muckle for onybody to min' upo' (remember), is 't, Betty?'
'Dinna be ill-tongued, Robert, or I'll jist gang benn the hoose to the mistress.'
'Betty, wha began wi' bein' ill-tongued? Gin ye tell my grandmither that I gaed oot the nicht, I'll gang to the schuilmaister o' Muckledrum, and get a sicht o' the kirstenin' buik; an' gin yer name binna there, I'll tell ilkabody I meet 'at oor Betty was never kirstened; and that'll be a sair affront, Betty.'
'Hoot! was there ever sic a laddie!' said Betty, attempting to laugh it off. 'Be sure ye be back afore tay-time, 'cause yer grannie 'ill be speirin' efter ye, and ye wadna hae me lee aboot ye?'
'I wad hae naebody lee about me. Ye jist needna lat on 'at ye hear her. Ye can be deif eneuch when ye like, Betty. But I s' be back afore tay-time, or come on the waur.'
Betty, who was in far greater fear of her age being discovered than of being unchristianized in the search, though the fact was that she knew nothing certain about the matter, and had no desire to be enlightened, feeling as if she was thus left at liberty to hint what she pleased,--Betty, I say, never had any intention of going 'benn the hoose to the mistress.' For the threat was merely the rod of terror which she thought it convenient to hold over the back of the boy, whom she always supposed to be about some mischief except he were in her own presence and visibly reading a book: if he were reading aloud, so much the better. But Robert likewise kept a rod for his defence, and that was Betty's age, which he had discovered to be such a precious secret that one would have thought her virtue depended in some cabalistic manner upon the concealment of it. And, certainly, nature herself seemed to favour Betty's weakness, casting such a mist about the number of her years as the goddesses of old were wont to cast about a wounded favourite; for some said Betty was forty, others said she was sixty-five, and, in fact, almost everybody who knew her had a different belief on the matter.
By this time Robert had conquered the difficulty of induing boots as hard as a thorough wetting and as thorough a drying could make them, and now stood prepared to go. His object in setting out was to find the boy whom his grandmother had driven from the door with a hastier and more abject flight than she had in the least intended. But, if his grandmother should miss him, as Betty suggested, and inquire where he had been, what was he to say? He did not mind misleading his grannie, but he had a great objection to telling her a lie. His grandmother herself delivered him from this difficulty.
'Robert, come here,' she called from the parlour door. And Robert obeyed.
'Is 't dingin' on, Robert?' she asked.
'No, grannie; it's only a starnie o' drift.'
The meaning of this was that there was no fresh snow falling, or beating on, only a little surface snow blowing about.
'Weel, jist pit yer shune on, man, and rin up to Miss Naper's upo' the Squaur, and say to Miss Naper, wi' my compliments, that I wad be sair obleeged till her gin she wad len' me that fine receipt o' hers for crappit heids, and I'll sen' 't back safe the morn's mornin'. Rin, noo.'
This commission fell in admirably with Robert's plans, and he started at once.