Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter XXIII. An Auto da Fé.
The morning at length arrived when Robert and Shargar must return to Rothieden. A keen autumnal wind was blowing far-off feathery clouds across a sky of pale blue; the cold freshened the spirits of the boys, and tightened their nerves and muscles, till they were like bow-strings. No doubt the winter was coming, but the sun, although his day's work was short and slack, was still as clear as ever. So gladsome was the world, that the boys received the day as a fresh holiday, and strenuously forgot to-morrow. The wind blew straight from Rothieden, and between sun and wind a bright thought awoke in Robert. The dragon should not be carried--he should fly home.
After they had said farewell, in which Shargar seemed to suffer more than Robert, and had turned the corner of the stable, they heard the good farmer shouting after them,
'There'll be anither hairst neist year, boys,' which wonderfully restored their spirits. When they reached the open road, Robert laid his violin carefully into a broom-bush. Then the tail was unrolled, and the dragon ascended steady as an angel whose work is done. Shargar took the stick at the end of the string, and Robert resumed his violin. But the creature was hard to lead in such a wind; so they made a loop on the string, and passed it round Shargar's chest, and he tugged the dragon home. Robert longed to take his share in the struggle, but he could not trust his violin to Shargar, and so had to walk beside ingloriously. On the way they laid their plans for the accommodation of the dragon. But the violin was the greater difficulty. Robert would not hear of the factory, for reasons best known to himself, and there were serious objections to taking it to Dooble Sanny. It was resolved that the only way was to seize the right moment, and creep upstairs with it before presenting themselves to Mrs. Falconer. Their intended manúuvres with the kite would favour the concealment of this stroke.
Before they entered the town they drew in the kite a little way, and cut off a dozen yards of the string, which Robert put in his pocket, with a stone tied to the end. When they reached the house, Shargar went into the little garden and tied the string of the kite to the paling between that and Captain Forsyth's. Robert opened the street door, and having turned his head on all sides like a thief, darted with his violin up the stairs. Having laid his treasure in one of the presses in Shargar's garret, he went to his own, and from the skylight threw the stone down into the captain's garden, fastening the other end of the string to the bedstead. Escaping as cautiously as he had entered, he passed hurriedly into their neighbour's garden, found the stone, and joined Shargar. The ends were soon united, and the kite let go. It sunk for a moment, then, arrested by the bedstead, towered again to its former 'pride of place,' sailing over Rothieden, grand and unconcerned, in the wastes of air.
But the end of its tether was in Robert's garret. And that was to him a sense of power, a thought of glad mystery. There was henceforth, while the dragon flew, a relation between the desolate little chamber, in that lowly house buried among so many more aspiring abodes, and the unmeasured depths and spaces, the stars, and the unknown heavens. And in the next chamber lay the fiddle free once more,--yet another magical power whereby his spirit could forsake the earth and mount heavenwards.
All that night, all the next day, all the next night, the dragon flew.
Not one smile broke over the face of the old lady as she received them. Was it because she did not know what acts of disobedience, what breaches of the moral law, the two children of possible perdition might have committed while they were beyond her care, and she must not run the risk of smiling upon iniquity? I think it was rather that there was no smile in her religion, which, while it developed the power of a darkened conscience, overlaid and half-smothered all the lovelier impulses of her grand nature. How could she smile? Did not the world lie under the wrath and curse of God? Was not her own son in hell for ever? Had not the blood of the Son of God been shed for him in vain? Had not God meant that it should be in vain? For by the gift of his Spirit could he not have enabled him to accept the offered pardon? And for anything she knew, was not Robert going after him to the place of misery? How could she smile?
'Noo be dooce,' she said, the moment she had shaken hands with them, with her cold hands, so clean and soft and smooth. With a volcanic heart of love, her outside was always so still and cold!--snow on the mountain sides, hot vein-coursing lava within. For her highest duty was submission to the will of God. Ah! if she had only known the God who claimed her submission! But there is time enough for every heart to know him.
'Noo be dooce,' she repeated, 'an' sit doon, and tell me aboot the fowk at Bodyfauld. I houpe ye thankit them, or ye left, for their muckle kindness to ye.'
The boys were silent.
'Didna ye thank them?'
'No, grannie; I dinna think 'at we did.'
'Weel, that was ill-faured o' ye. Eh! but the hert is deceitfu' aboon a' thing, and desperately wicked. Who can know it? Come awa'. Come awa'. Robert, festen the door.'
And she led them to the corner for prayer, and poured forth a confession of sin for them and for herself, such as left little that could have been added by her own profligate son, had he joined in the prayer. Either there are no degrees in guilt, or the Scotch language was equal only to the confession of children and holy women, and could provide no more awful words for the contrition of the prodigal or the hypocrite. But the words did little harm, for Robert's mind was full of the kite and the violin, and was probably nearer God thereby than if he had been trying to feel as wicked as his grandmother told God that he was. Shargar was even more divinely employed at the time than either; for though he had not had the manners to thank his benefactor, his heart had all the way home been full of tender thoughts of Miss Lammie's kindness; and now, instead of confessing sins that were not his, he was loving her over and over, and wishing to be back with her instead of with this awfully good woman, in whose presence there was no peace, for all the atmosphere of silence and calm in which she sat.
Confession over, and the boys at liberty again, a new anxiety seized them. Grannie must find out that Robert's shoes were missing, and what account was to be given of the misfortune, for Robert would not, or could not lie? In the midst of their discussion a bright idea flashed upon Shargar, which, however, he kept to himself: he would steal them, and bring them home in triumph, emulating thus Robert's exploit in delivering his bonny leddy.
The shoemaker sat behind his door to be out of the draught: Shargar might see a great part of the workshop without being seen, and he could pick Robert's shoes from among a hundred. Probably they lay just where Robert had laid them, for Dooble Sanny paid attention to any job only in proportion to the persecution accompanying it.
So the next day Shargar contrived to slip out of school just as the writing lesson began, for he had great skill in conveying himself unseen, and, with his book-bag, slunk barefooted into the soutar's entry.
The shop door was a little way open, and the red eyes of Shargar had only the corner next it to go peering about in. But there he saw the shoes. He got down on his hands and knees, and crept nearer. Yes, they were beyond a doubt Robert's shoes. He made a long arm, like a beast of prey, seized them, and, losing his presence of mind upon possession, drew them too hastily towards him. The shoemaker saw them as they vanished through the door, and darted after them. Shargar was off at full speed, and Sandy followed with hue and cry. Every idle person in the street joined in the pursuit, and all who were too busy or too respectable to run crowded to door and windows. Shargar made instinctively for his mother's old lair; but bethinking himself when he reached the door, he turned, and, knowing nowhere else to go, fled in terror to Mrs. Falconer's, still, however, holding fast by the shoes, for they were Robert's.
As Robert came home from school, wondering what could have become of his companion, he saw a crowd about his grandmother's door, and pushing his way through it in some dismay, found Dooble Sanny and Shargar confronting each other before the stern justice of Mrs. Falconer.
'Ye're a leear,' the soutar was panting out. 'I haena had a pair o' shune o' Robert's i' my han's this three month. Thae shune--lat me see them--they're--Here's Robert himsel'. Are thae shune yours, noo, Robert?'
'Ay are they. Ye made them yersel'.'
'Hoo cam they in my chop, than?'
'Speir nae mair quest'ons nor's worth answerin',' said Robert, with a look meant to be significant. 'They're my shune, and I'll keep them. Aiblins ye dinna aye ken wha's shune ye hae, or whan they cam in to ye.'
'What for didna Shargar come an' speir efter them, than, in place o' makin' a thief o' himsel' that gait?'
'Ye may haud yer tongue,' returned Robert, with yet more significance.
'I was aye a gowk (idiot),' said Shargar, in apologetic reflection, looking awfully white, and afraid to lift an eye to Mrs. Falconer, yet reassured a little by Robert's presence.
Some glimmering seemed now to have dawned upon the soutar, for he began to prepare a retreat. Meantime Mrs. Falconer sat silent, allowing no word that passed to escape her. She wanted to be at the bottom of the mysterious affair, and therefore held her peace.
'Weel, I'm sure, Robert, ye never tellt me aboot the shune,' said Alexander. 'I s' jist tak them back wi' me, and du what's wantit to them. And I'm sorry that I hae gien ye this tribble, Mistress Faukner; but it was a' that fule's wite there. I didna even ken it was him, till we war near-han' the hoose.'
'Lat me see the shune,' said Mrs. Falconer, speaking almost for the first time. 'What's the maitter wi' them?'
Examining the shoes, she saw they were in a perfectly sound state, and this confirmed her suspicion that there was more in the affair than had yet come out. Had she taken the straightforward measure of examining Robert, she would soon have arrived at the truth. But she had such a dread of causing a lie to be told, that she would adopt any roundabout way rather than ask a plain question of a suspected culprit. So she laid the shoes down beside her, saying to the soutar,
'There's naething amiss wi' the shune. Ye can lea' them.'
Thereupon Alexander went away, and Robert and Shargar would have given more than their dinner to follow him. Grannie neither asked any questions, however, nor made a single remark on what had passed. Dinner was served and eaten, and the boys returned to their afternoon school.
No sooner was she certain that they were safe under the school-master's eye than the old lady put on her black silk bonnet and her black woollen shawl, took her green cotton umbrella, which served her for a staff, and, refusing Betty's proffered assistance, set out for Dooble Sanny's shop.
As she drew near she heard the sounds of his violin. When she entered, he laid his auld wife carefully aside, and stood in an expectant attitude.
'Mr. Elshender, I want to be at the boddom o' this,' said Mrs. Falconer.
'Weel, mem, gang to the boddom o' 't,' returned Dooble Sanny, dropping on his stool, and taking his stone upon his lap and stroking it, as if it had been some quadrupedal pet. Full of rough but real politeness to women when in good humour, he lost all his manners along with his temper upon the slightest provocation, and her tone irritated him.
'Hoo cam Robert's shune to be i' your shop?'
'Somebody bude till hae brocht them, mem. In a' my expairience, and that's no sma', I never kent pair o' shune gang ohn a pair o' feet i' the wame o' them.'
'Hoots! what kin' o' gait 's that to speyk till a body? Whase feet was inside the shune?'
'De'il a bit o' me kens, mem.'
'Dinna sweir, whatever ye du.'
'De'il but I will sweir, mem; an' gin ye anger me, I'll jist sweir awfu'.'
'I'm sure I hae nae wuss to anger ye, man! Canna ye help a body to win at the boddom o' a thing ohn angert an' sworn?'
'Weel, I kenna wha brocht the shune, as I tellt ye a'ready.'
'But they wantit nae men'in'.'
'I micht hae men't them an' forgotten 't, mem.'
'Noo ye're leein'.'
'Gin ye gang on that gait, mem, I winna speyk a word o' trowth frae this moment foret.'
'Jist tell me what ye ken aboot thae shune, an' I'll no say anither word.'
'Weel, mem, I'll tell ye the trowth. The de'il brocht them in ae day in a lang taings; and says he, "Elshender, men' thae shune for puir Robby Faukner; an' dooble-sole them for the life o' ye; for that auld luckie-minnie o' his 'ill sune hae him doon oor gait, and the grun' 's het i' the noo; an' I dinna want to be ower sair upon him, for he's a fine chield, an' 'll mak a fine fiddler gin he live lang eneuch."'
Mrs. Falconer left the shop without another word, but with an awful suspicion which the last heedless words of the shoemaker had aroused in her bosom. She left him bursting with laughter over his lapstone. He caught up his fiddle and played The De'il's i' the Women lustily and with expression. But he little thought what he had done.
As soon as she reached her own room, she went straight to her bed and disinterred the bonny leddy's coffin. She was gone; and in her stead, horror of horrors! lay in the unhallowed chest that body of divinity known as Boston's Fourfold State. Vexation, anger, disappointment, and grief possessed themselves of the old woman's mind. She ranged the house like the 'questing beast' of the Round Table, but failed in finding the violin before the return of the boys. Not a word did she say all that evening, and their oppressed hearts foreboded ill. They felt that there was thunder in the clouds, a sleeping storm in the air; but how or when it would break they had no idea.
Robert came home to dinner the next day a few minutes before Shargar. As he entered his grandmother's parlour, a strange odour greeted his sense. A moment more, and he stood rooted with horror, and his hair began to rise on his head. His violin lay on its back on the fire, and a yellow tongue of flame was licking the red lips of a hole in its belly. All its strings were shrivelled up save one, which burst as he gazed. And beside, stern as a Druidess, sat his grandmother in her chair, feeding her eyes with grim satisfaction on the detestable sacrifice. At length the rigidity of Robert's whole being relaxed in an involuntary howl like that of a wild beast, and he turned and rushed from the house in a helpless agony of horror. Where he was going he knew not, only a blind instinct of modesty drove him to hide his passion from the eyes of men.
From her window Miss St. John saw him tearing like one demented along the top walk of the captain's garden, and watched for his return. He came far sooner than she expected.
Before he arrived at the factory, Robert began to hear strange sounds in the desolate place. When he reached the upper floor, he found men with axe and hammer destroying the old woodwork, breaking the old jennies, pitching the balls of lead into baskets, and throwing the spools into crates. Was there nothing but destruction in the world? There, most horrible! his 'bonny leddy' dying of flames, and here, the temple of his refuge torn to pieces by unhallowed hands! What could it mean? Was his grandmother's vengeance here too? But he did not care. He only felt like the dove sent from the ark, that there was no rest for the sole of his foot, that there was no place to hide his head in his agony--that he was naked to the universe; and like a heartless wild thing hunted till its brain is of no more use, he turned and rushed back again upon his track. At one end was the burning idol, at the other the desecrated temple.
No sooner had he entered the captain's garden than Miss St. John met him.
'What is the matter with you, Robert?' she asked, kindly.
'Oh, mem!' gasped Robert, and burst into a very storm of weeping.
It was long before he could speak. He cowered before Miss St. John as if conscious of an unfriendly presence, and seeking to shelter himself by her tall figure from his grandmother's eyes. For who could tell but at the moment she might be gazing upon him from some window, or even from the blue vault above? There was no escaping her. She was the all-seeing eye personified--the eye of the God of the theologians of his country, always searching out the evil, and refusing to acknowledge the good. Yet so gentle and faithful was the heart of Robert, that he never thought of her as cruel. He took it for granted that somehow or other she must be right. Only what a terrible thing such righteousness was! He stood and wept before the lady.
Her heart was sore for the despairing boy. She drew him to a little summer-seat. He entered with her, and sat down, weeping still. She did her best to soothe him. At last, sorely interrupted by sobs, he managed to let her know the fate of his 'bonnie leddy.' But when he came to the words, 'She's burnin' in there upo' granny's fire,' he broke out once more with that wild howl of despair, and then, ashamed of himself, ceased weeping altogether, though he could not help the intrusion of certain chokes and sobs upon his otherwise even, though low and sad speech.
Knowing nothing of Mrs. Falconer's character, Miss St. John set her down as a cruel and heartless as well as tyrannical and bigoted old woman, and took the mental position of enmity towards her. In a gush of motherly indignation she kissed Robert on the forehead.
From that chrism he arose a king.
He dried his eyes; not another sob even broke from him; he gave one look, but no word of gratitude, to Miss St. John; bade her good-bye; and walked composedly into his grandmother's parlour, where the neck of the violin yet lay upon the fire only half consumed. The rest had vanished utterly.
'What are they duin' doon at the fact'ry, grannie?' he asked.
'What's wha duin', laddie?' returned his grandmother, curtly.
'They're takin' 't doon.'
'Takin' what doon?' she returned, with raised voice.
'Takin' doon the hoose.'
The old woman rose.
'Robert, ye may hae spite in yer hert for what I hae dune this mornin', but I cud do no ither. An' it's an ill thing to tak sic amen's o' me, as gin I had dune wrang, by garrin' me troo 'at yer grandfather's property was to gang the gait o' 's auld, useless, ill-mainnert scraich o' a fiddle.'
'She was the bonniest fiddle i' the country-side, grannie. And she never gae a scraich in her life 'cep' whan she was han'let in a mainner unbecomin'. But we s' say nae mair aboot her, for she's gane, an' no by a fair strae-deith (death on one's own straw) either. She had nae blude to cry for vengeance; but the snappin' o' her strings an' the crackin' o' her banes may hae made a cry to gang far eneuch notwithstandin'.'
The old woman seemed for one moment rebuked under her grandson's eloquence. He had made a great stride towards manhood since the morning.
'The fiddle's my ain,' she said, in a defensive tone. 'And sae is the fact'ry,' she added, as if she had not quite reassured herself concerning it.
'The fiddle's yours nae mair, grannie. And for the fact'ry--ye winna believe me: gang and see yersel'.'
Therewith Robert retreated to his garret.
When he opened the door of it, the first thing he saw was the string of his kite, which, strange to tell, so steady had been the wind, was still up in the air--still tugging at the bedpost. Whether it was from the stinging thought that the true sky-soarer, the violin, having been devoured by the jaws of the fire-devil, there was no longer any significance in the outward and visible sign of the dragon, or from a dim feeling that the time of kites was gone by and manhood on the threshold, I cannot tell; but he drew his knife from his pocket, and with one down-stroke cut the string in twain. Away went the dragon, free, like a prodigal, to his ruin. And with the dragon, afar into the past, flew the childhood of Robert Falconer. He made one remorseful dart after the string as it swept out of the skylight, but it was gone beyond remeid. And never more, save in twilight dreams, did he lay hold on his childhood again. But he knew better and better, as the years rolled on, that he approached a deeper and holier childhood, of which that had been but the feeble and necessarily vanishing type.
As the kite sank in the distance, Mrs. Falconer issued from the house, and went down the street towards the factory.
Before she came back the cloth was laid for dinner, and Robert and Shargar were both in the parlour awaiting her return. She entered heated and dismayed, went into Robert's bedroom, and shut the door hastily. They heard her open the old bureau. In a moment after she came out with a more luminous expression upon her face than Robert had ever seen it bear. It was as still as ever, but there was a strange light in her eyes, which was not confined to her eyes, but shone in a measure from her colourless forehead and cheeks as well. It was long before Robert was able to interpret that change in her look, and that increase of kindness towards himself and Shargar, apparently such a contrast with the holocaust of the morning. Had they both been Benjamins they could not have had more abundant platefuls than she gave them that day. And when they left her to return to school, instead of the usual 'Noo be douce,' she said, in gentle, almost loving tones, 'Noo, be good lads, baith o' ye.'
The conclusion at which Falconer did arrive was that his grandmother had hurried home to see whether the title-deeds of the factory were still in her possession, and had found that they were gone--taken, doubtless, by her son Andrew. At whatever period he had appropriated them, he must have parted with them but recently. And the hope rose luminous that her son had not yet passed into the region 'where all life dies, death lives.' Terrible consolation! Terrible creed, which made the hope that he was still on this side of the grave working wickedness, light up the face of the mother, and open her hand in kindness. Is it suffering, or is it wickedness, that is the awful thing? 'Ah! but they are both combined in the other world.' And in this world too, I answer; only, according to Mrs. Falconer's creed, in the other world God, for the sake of the suffering, renders the wickedness eternal!
The old factory was in part pulled down, and out of its remains a granary constructed. Nor did the old lady interpose a word to arrest the alienation of her property.