Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter XX. Jessie Hewson.
The wound on Robert's foot festered, and had not yet healed when the sickle was first put to the barley. He hobbled out, however, to the reapers, for he could not bear to be left alone with his violin, so dreadfully oppressive was the knowledge that he could not use it after its nature. He began to think whether his incapacity was not a judgment upon him for taking it away from the soutar, who could do so much more with it, and to whom, consequently, it was so much more valuable. The pain in his foot, likewise, had been very depressing; and but for the kindness of his friends, especially of Miss Lammie, he would have been altogether 'a weary wight forlorn.'
Shargar was happier than ever he had been in his life. His white face hung on Miss Lammie's looks, and haunted her steps from spence (store-room, as in Devonshire) to milk-house, and from milk-house to chessel, surmounted by the glory of his red hair, which a farm-servant declared he had once mistaken for a fun-buss (whin-bush) on fire. This day she had gone to the field to see the first handful of barley cut, and Shargar was there, of course.
It was a glorious day of blue and gold, with just wind enough to set the barley-heads a-talking. But, whether from the heat of the sun, or the pain of his foot operating on the general discouragement under which he laboured, Robert turned faint all at once, and dragged himself away to a cottage on the edge of the field.
It was the dwelling of a cottar, whose family had been settled upon the farm of Bodyfauld from time immemorial. They were, indeed, like other cottars, a kind of feudal dependents, occupying an acre or two of the land, in return for which they performed certain stipulated labour, called cottar-wark. The greater part of the family was employed in the work of the farm, at the regular wages.
Alas for Scotland that such families are now to seek! Would that the parliaments of our country held such a proportion of noble-minded men as was once to be found in the clay huts on a hill-side, or grouped about a central farm, huts whose wretched look would move the pity of many a man as inferior to their occupants as a King Charles's lap-dog is to a shepherd's colley. The utensils of their life were mean enough: the life itself was often elixir vitae--a true family life, looking up to the high, divine life. But well for the world that such life has been scattered over it, east and west, the seed of fresh growth in new lands. Out of offence to the individual, God brings good to the whole; for he pets no nation, but trains it for the perfect globular life of all nations--of his world--of his universe. As he makes families mingle, to redeem each from its family selfishness, so will he make nations mingle, and love and correct and reform and develop each other, till the planet-world shall go singing through space one harmony to the God of the whole earth. The excellence must vanish from one portion, that it may be diffused through the whole. The seed ripens on one favoured mound, and is scattered over the plain. We console ourselves with the higher thought, that if Scotland is worse, the world is better. Yea, even they by whom the offence came, and who have first to reap the woe of that offence, because they did the will of God to satisfy their own avarice in laying land to land and house to house, shall not reap their punishment in having their own will, and standing therefore alone in the earth when the good of their evil deeds returns upon it; but the tears of men that ascended to heaven in the heat of their burning dwellings shall descend in the dew of blessing even on the hearts of them that kindled the fire.--'Something too much of this.'
Robert lifted the latch, and walked into the cottage. It was not quite so strange to him as it would be to most of my readers; still, he had not been in such a place before. A girl who was stooping by the small peat fire on the hearth looked up, and seeing that he was lame, came across the heights and hollows of the clay floor to meet him. Robert spoke so faintly that she could not hear.
'What's yer wull?' she asked; then, changing her tone,--'Eh! ye're no weel,' she said. 'Come in to the fire. Tak a haud o' me, and come yer wa's butt.'
She was a pretty, indeed graceful girl of about eighteen, with the elasticity rather than undulation of movement which distinguishes the peasant from the city girl. She led him to the chimla-lug (the ear of the chimney), carefully levelled a wooden chair to the inequalities of the floor, and said,
'Sit ye doon. Will I fess a drappy o' milk?'
'Gie me a drink o' water, gin ye please,' said Robert.
She brought it. He drank, and felt better. A baby woke in a cradle on the other side of the fire, and began to cry. The girl went and took him up; and then Robert saw what she was like. Light-brown hair clustered about a delicately-coloured face and hazel eyes. Later in the harvest her cheeks would be ruddy--now they were peach-coloured. A white neck rose above a pink print jacket, called a wrapper; and the rest of her visible dress was a blue petticoat. She ended in pretty, brown bare feet. Robert liked her, and began to talk. If his imagination had not been already filled, he would have fallen in love with her, I dare say, at once; for, except Miss St. John, he had never seen anything he thought so beautiful. The baby cried now and then.
'What ails the bairnie?' he asked.
'Ow, it's jist cuttin' its teeth. Gin it greits muckle, I maun jist tak it oot to my mither. She'll sune quaiet it. Are ye haudin' better?'
'Hoot, ay. I'm a' richt noo. Is yer mither shearin'?'
'Na. She's gatherin'. The shearin' 's some sair wark for her e'en noo. I suld hae been shearin', but my mither wad fain hae a day o' the hairst. She thocht it wud du her gude. But I s' warran' a day o' 't 'll sair (satisfy) her, and I s' be at it the morn. She's been unco dowie (ailing) a' the summer; and sae has the bairnie.'
'Ye maun hae had a sair time o' 't, than.'
'Ay, some. But I aye got some sleep. I jist tuik the towie (string) into the bed wi' me, and whan the bairnie grat, I waukit, an' rockit it till 't fell asleep again. But whiles naething wad du but tak him till 's mammie.'
All the time she was hushing and fondling the child, who went on fretting when not actually crying.
'Is he yer brither, than?' asked Robert.
'Ay, what ither? I maun tak him, I see. But ye can sit there as lang 's ye like; and gin ye gang afore I come back, jist turn the key 'i the door to lat onybody ken that there's naebody i' the hoose.'
Robert thanked her, and remained in the shadow by the chimney, which was formed of two smoke-browned planks fastened up the wall, one on each side, and an inverted wooden funnel above to conduct the smoke through the roof. He sat for some time gloomily gazing at a spot of sunlight which burned on the brown clay floor. All was still as death. And he felt the white-washed walls even more desolate than if they had been smoke-begrimed.
Looking about him, he found over his head something which he did not understand. It was as big as the stump of a great tree. Apparently it belonged to the structure of the cottage, but he could not, in the imperfect light, and the dazzling of the sun-spot at which he had been staring, make out what it was, or how it came to be up there--unsupported as far as he could see. He rose to examine it, lifted a bit of tarpaulin which hung before it, and found a rickety box, suspended by a rope from a great nail in the wall. It had two shelves in it full of books.
Now, although there were more books in Mr. Lammie's house than in his grandmother's, the only one he had found that in the least enticed him to read, was a translation of George Buchanan's History of Scotland. This he had begun to read faithfully, believing every word of it, but had at last broken down at the fiftieth king or so. Imagine, then, the moon that arose on the boy when, having pulled a ragged and thumb-worn book from among those of James Hewson the cottar, he, for the first time, found himself in the midst of The Arabian Nights. I shrink from all attempt to set forth in words the rainbow-coloured delight that coruscated in his brain. When Jessie Hewson returned, she found him seated where she had left him, so buried in his volume that he did not lift his head when she entered.
'Ye hae gotten a buik,' she said.
'Ay have I,' answered Robert, decisively.
'It's a fine buik, that. Did ye ever see 't afore?'
'There's three wolums o' 't about, here and there,' said Jessie; and with the child on one arm, she proceeded with the other hand to search for them in the crap o' the wa', that is, on the top of the wall where the rafters rest.
There she found two or three books, which, after examining them, she placed on the dresser beside Robert.
'There's nane o' them there,' she said; 'but maybe ye wad like to luik at that anes.'
Robert thanked her, but was too busy to feel the least curiosity about any book in the world but the one he was reading. He read on, heart and soul and mind absorbed in the marvels of the eastern skald; the stories told in the streets of Cairo, amidst gorgeous costumes, and camels, and white-veiled women, vibrating here in the heart of a Scotch boy, in the darkest corner of a mud cottage, at the foot of a hill of cold-loving pines, with a barefooted girl and a baby for his companions.
But the pleasure he had been having was of a sort rather to expedite than to delay the subjective arrival of dinner-time. There was, however, happily no occasion to go home in order to appease his hunger; he had but to join the men and women in the barley-field: there was sure to be enough, for Miss Lammie was at the head of the commissariat.
When he had had as much milk-porridge as he could eat, and a good slice of swack (elastic) cheese, with a cap (wooden bowl) of ale, all of which he consumed as if the good of them lay in the haste of their appropriation, he hurried back to the cottage, and sat there reading The Arabian Nights, till the sun went down in the orange-hued west, and the gloamin' came, and with it the reapers, John and Elspet Hewson, and their son George, to their supper and early bed.
John was a cheerful, rough, Roman-nosed, black-eyed man, who took snuff largely, and was not careful to remove the traces of the habit. He had a loud voice, and an original way of regarding things, which, with his vivacity, made every remark sound like the proclamation of a discovery.
'Are ye there, Robert?' said he, as he entered. Robert rose, absorbed and silent.
'He's been here a' day, readin' like a colliginer,' said Jessie.
'What are ye readin' sae eident (diligent), man?' asked John.
'A buik o' stories, here,' answered Robert, carelessly, shy of being supposed so much engrossed with them as he really was.
I should never expect much of a young poet who was not rather ashamed of the distinction which yet he chiefly coveted. There is a modesty in all young delight. It is wild and shy, and would hide itself, like a boy's or maiden's first love, from the gaze of the people. Something like this was Robert's feeling over The Arabian Nights.
'Ay,' said John, taking snuff from a small bone spoon, 'it's a gran' buik that. But my son Charley, him 'at 's deid an' gane hame, wad hae tell't ye it was idle time readin' that, wi' sic a buik as that ither lyin' at yer elbuck.'
He pointed to one of the books Jessie had taken from the crap o' the wa' and laid down beside him on the well-scoured dresser. Robert took up the volume and opened it. There was no title-page.
'The Tempest?' he said. 'What is 't? Poetry?'
'Ay is 't. It's Shackspear.'
'I hae heard o' him,' said Robert. 'What was he?'
'A player kin' o' a chiel', wi' an unco sicht o' brains,' answered John. 'He cudna hae had muckle time to gang skelpin' and sornin' aboot the country like maist o' thae cattle, gin he vrote a' that, I'm thinkin'.'
'Whaur did he bide?'
'Awa' in Englan'--maistly aboot Lonnon, I'm thinkin'. That's the place for a' by-ordinar fowk, they tell me.'
'Hoo lang is 't sin he deid?'
'I dinna ken. A hunner year or twa, I s' warran'. It's a lang time. But I'm thinkin' fowk than was jist something like what they are noo. But I ken unco little aboot him, for the prent 's some sma', and I'm some ill for losin' my characters, and sae I dinna win that far benn wi' him. Geordie there 'll tell ye mair aboot him.'
But George Hewson had not much to communicate, for he had but lately landed in Shakspere's country, and had got but a little way inland yet. Nor did Robert much care, for his head was full of The Arabian Nights. This, however, was his first introduction to Shakspere.
Finding himself much at home, he stopped yet a while, shared in the supper, and resumed his seat in the corner when the book was brought out for worship. The iron lamp, with its wick of rush-pith, which hung against the side of the chimney, was lighted, and John sat down to read. But as his eyes and the print, too, had grown a little dim with years, the lamp was not enough, and he asked for a 'fir-can'le.' A splint of fir dug from the peat-bog was handed to him. He lighted it at the lamp, and held it in his hand over the page. Its clear resinous flame enabled him to read a short psalm. Then they sang a most wailful tune, and John prayed. If I were to give the prayer as he uttered it, I might make my reader laugh, therefore I abstain, assuring him only that, although full of long words--amongst the rest, aspiration and ravishment--the prayer of the cheerful, joke-loving cottar contained evidence of a degree of religious development rare, I doubt, amongst bishops.
When Robert left the cottage, he found the sky partly clouded and the air cold. The nearest way home was across the barley-stubble of the day's reaping, which lay under a little hill covered with various species of the pine. His own soul, after the restful day he had spent, and under the reaction from the new excitement of the stories he had been reading, was like a quiet, moonless night. The thought of his mother came back upon him, and her written words, 'O Lord, my heart is very sore'; and the thought of his father followed that, and he limped slowly home, laden with mournfulness. As he reached the middle of the field, the wind was suddenly there with a low sough from out of the north-west. The heads of barley in the sheaves leaned away with a soft rustling from before it; and Robert felt for the first time the sadness of a harvest-field. Then the wind swept away to the pine-covered hill, and raised a rushing and a wailing amongst its thin-clad branches, and to the ear of Robert the trees were singing over again in their night solitudes the air sung by the cottar's family. When he looked to the north-west, whence the wind came, he saw nothing but a pale cleft in the sky. The meaning, the music of the night awoke in his soul; he forgot his lame foot, and the weight of Mr. Lammie's great boots, ran home and up the stair to his own room, seized his violin with eager haste, nor laid it down again till he could draw from it, at will, a sound like the moaning of the wind over the stubble-field. Then he knew that he could play the Flowers of the Forest. The Wind that Shakes the Barley cannot have been named from the barley after it was cut, but while it stood in the field: the Flowers of the Forest was of the gathered harvest.
He tried the air once over in the dark, and then carried his violin down to the room where Mr. and Miss Lammie sat.
'I think I can play 't noo, Mr. Lammie,' he said abruptly.
'Play what, callant?' asked his host.
'The Flooers o' the Forest.'
'Play awa' than.'
And Robert played--not so well as he had hoped. I dare say it was a humble enough performance, but he gave something at least of the expression Mr. Lammie desired. For, the moment the tune was over, he exclaimed,
'Weel dune, Robert man! ye'll be a fiddler some day yet!'
And Robert was well satisfied with the praise.
'I wish yer mother had been alive,' the farmer went on. 'She wad hae been rael prood to hear ye play like that. Eh! she likit the fiddle weel. And she culd play bonny upo' the piana hersel'. It was something to hear the twa o' them playing thegither, him on the fiddle--that verra fiddle o' 's father's 'at ye hae i' yer han'--and her on the piana. Eh! but she was a bonnie wuman as ever I saw, an' that quaiet! It's my belief she never thocht aboot her ain beowty frae week's en' to week's en', and that's no sayin' little--is 't, Aggy?'
'I never preten't ony richt to think aboot sic,' returned Miss Lammie, with a mild indignation.
'That's richt, lass. Od, ye're aye i' the richt--though I say 't 'at sudna.'
Miss Lammie must indeed have been good-natured, to answer only with a genuine laugh. Shargar looked explosive with anger. But Robert would fain hear more of his mother.
'What was my mother like, Mr. Lammie?' he asked.
'Eh, my man! ye suld hae seen her upon a bonnie bay mere that yer father gae her. Faith! she sat as straught as a rash, wi' jist a hing i' the heid o' her, like the heid o' a halm o' wild aits.'
'My father wasna that ill till her than?' suggested Robert.
'Wha ever daured say sic a thing?' returned Mr. Lammie, but in a tone so far from satisfactory to Robert, that he inquired no more in that direction.
I need hardly say that from that night Robert was more than ever diligent with his violin.