Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter XXIV. Boot for Bale.
Mary St. John was the orphan daughter of an English clergyman, who had left her money enough to make her at least independent. Mrs. Forsyth, hearing that her niece was left alone in the world, had concluded that her society would be a pleasure to herself and a relief to the housekeeping. Even before her father's death, Miss St. John, having met with a disappointment, and concluded herself dead to the world, had been looking about for some way of doing good. The prospect of retirement, therefore, and of being useful to her sick aunt, had drawn her northwards.
She was now about six-and-twenty, filled with two passions--one for justice, the other for music. Her griefs had not made her selfish, nor had her music degenerated into sentiment. The gentle style of the instruction she had received had never begotten a diseased self-consciousness; and if her religion lacked something of the intensity without which a character like hers could not be evenly balanced, its force was not spent on the combating of unholy doubts and selfish fears, but rose on the wings of her music in gentle thanksgiving. Tears had changed her bright-hued hopes into a dove-coloured submission, through which her mind was passing towards a rainbow dawn such as she had never dreamed of. To her as yet the Book of Common Prayer contained all the prayers that human heart had need to offer; what things lay beyond its scope must lie beyond the scope of religion. All such things must be parted with one day, and if they had been taken from her very soon, she was the sooner free from the painful necessity of watching lest earthly love should remove any of the old landmarks dividing what was God's from what was only man's. She had now retired within the pale of religion, and left the rest of her being, as she thought, 'to dull forgetfulness a prey.'
She had little comfort in the society of her aunt. Indeed, she felt strongly tempted to return again to England the same month, and seek a divine service elsewhere. But it was not at all so easy then as it is now for a woman to find the opportunity of being helpful in the world of suffering.
Mrs. Forsyth was one of those women who get their own way by the very vis inertiae of their silliness. No argument could tell upon her. She was so incapable of seeing anything noble that her perfect satisfaction with everything she herself thought, said, or did, remained unchallenged. She had just illness enough to swell her feeling of importance. She looked down upon Mrs. Falconer from such an immeasurable height that she could not be indignant with her for anything; she only vouchsafed a laugh now and then at her oddities, holding no further communication with her than a condescending bend of the neck when they happened to meet, which was not once a year. But, indeed, she would have patronized the angel Gabriel, if she had had a chance, and no doubt given him a hint or two upon the proper way of praising God. For the rest, she was good-tempered, looked comfortable, and quarrelled with nobody but her rough honest old bear of a husband, whom, in his seventieth year, she was always trying to teach good manners, with the frequent result of a storm of swearing.
But now Mary St. John was thoroughly interested in the strange boy whose growing musical pinions were ever being clipped by the shears of unsympathetic age and crabbed religion, and the idea of doing something for him to make up for the injustice of his grandmother awoke in her a slight glow of that interest in life which she sought only in doing good. But although ere long she came to love the boy very truly, and although Shargar's life was bound up in the favour of Robert, yet neither stooping angel nor foot-following dog ever loved the lad with the love of that old grandmother, who would for him have given herself to the fire to which she had doomed his greatest delight.
For some days Robert worked hard at his lessons, for he had nothing else to do. Life was very gloomy now. If he could only go to sea, or away to keep sheep on the stormy mountains! If there were only some war going on, that he might list! Any fighting with the elements, or with the oppressors of the nations, would make life worth having, a man worth being. But God did not heed. He leaned over the world, a dark care, an immovable fate, bearing down with the weight of his presence all aspiration, all budding delights of children and young persons: all must crouch before him, and uphold his glory with the sacrificial death of every impulse, every admiration, every lightness of heart, every bubble of laughter. Or--which to a mind like Robert's was as bad--if he did not punish for these things, it was because they came not within the sphere of his condescension, were not worth his notice: of sympathy could be no question.
But this gloom did not last long. When souls like Robert's have been ill-taught about God, the true God will not let them gaze too long upon the Moloch which men have set up to represent him. He will turn away their minds from that which men call him, and fill them with some of his own lovely thoughts or works, such as may by degrees prepare the way for a vision of the Father.
One afternoon Robert was passing the soutar's shop. He had never gone near him since his return. But now, almost mechanically, he went in at the open door.
'Weel, Robert, ye are a stranger. But what's the maitter wi' ye? Faith! yon was an ill plisky ye played me to brak into my chop an' steal the bonnie leddy.'
'Sandy,' said Robert, solemnly, 'ye dinna ken what ye hae dune by that trick ye played me. Dinna ever mention her again i' my hearin'.'
'The auld witch hasna gotten a grup o' her again?' cried the shoemaker, starting half up in alarm. 'She cam here to me aboot the shune, but I reckon I sortit her!'
'I winna speir what ye said,' returned Robert. 'It's no maitter noo.'
And the tears rose to his eyes. His bonny lady!
'The Lord guide 's!' exclaimed the soutar. 'What is the maitter wi' the bonnie leddy?'
'There's nae bonnie leddy ony mair. I saw her brunt to death afore my verra ain een.'
The shoemaker sprang to his feet and caught up his paring knife.
'For God's sake, say 'at yer leein'!' he cried.
'I wish I war leein',' returned Robert.
The soutar uttered a terrible oath, and swore--
'I'll murder the auld--.' The epithet he ended with is too ugly to write.
'Daur to say sic a word in ae breath wi' my grannie,' cried Robert, snatching up the lapstone, 'an' I'll brain ye upo' yer ain shop-flure.'
Sandy threw the knife on his stool, and sat down beside it. Robert dropped the lapstone. Sandy took it up and burst into tears, which before they were half down his face, turned into tar with the blackness of the same.
'I'm an awfu' sinner,' he said, 'and vengeance has owerta'en me. Gang oot o' my chop! I wasna worthy o' her. Gang oot, I say, or I'll kill ye.'
Robert went. Close by the door he met Miss St. John. He pulled off his cap, and would have passed her. But she stopped him.
'I am going for a walk a little way,' she said. 'Will you go with me?'
She had come out in the hope of finding him, for she had seen him go up the street.
'That I wull,' returned Robert, and they walked on together.
When they were beyond the last house, Miss St. John said,
'Would you like to play on the piano, Robert?'
'Eh, mem!' said Robert, with a deep suspiration. Then, after a pause: 'But duv ye think I cud?'
'There's no fear of that. Let me see your hands.'
'They're some black, I doobt, mem,' he remarked, rubbing them hard upon his trowsers before he showed them; 'for I was amaist cawin' oot the brains o' Dooble Sanny wi' his ain lapstane. He's an ill-tongued chield. But eh! mem, ye suld hear him play upo' the fiddle! He's greitin' his een oot e'en noo for the bonnie leddy.'
Not discouraged by her inspection of his hands, black as they were, Miss St. John continued,
'But what would your grandmother say?' she asked.
'She maun ken naething aboot it, mem. I can-not tell her a'thing. She wad greit an' pray awfu', an' lock me up, I daursay. Ye see, she thinks a' kin' o' music 'cep' psalm-singin' comes o' the deevil himsel'. An' I canna believe that. For aye whan I see onything by ordinar bonnie, sic like as the mune was last nicht, it aye gars me greit for my brunt fiddle.'
'Well, you must come to me every day for half-an-hour at least, and I will give you a lesson on my piano. But you can't learn by that. And my aunt could never bear to hear you practising. So I'll tell you what you must do. I have a small piano in my own room. Do you know there is a door from your house into my room?'
'Ay,' said Robert. 'That hoose was my father's afore your uncle bought it. My father biggit it.'
'Is it long since your father died?'
'I dinna ken.'
'Where did he die?'
'I dinna ken.'
'Do you remember it?'
'Well, if you will come to my room, you shall practise there. I shall be down-stairs with my aunt. But perhaps I may look up now and then, to see how you are getting on. I will leave the door unlocked, so that you can come in when you like. If I don't want you, I will lock the door. You understand? You mustn't be handling things, you know.'
''Deed, mem, ye may lippen (trust) to me. But I'm jist feared to lat ye hear me lay a finger upo' the piana, for it's little I cud do wi' my fiddle, an', for the piana! I'm feart I'll jist scunner (disgust) ye.'
'If you really want to learn, there will be no fear of that,' returned Miss St. John, guessing at the meaning of the word scunner. 'I don't think I am doing anything wrong,' she added, half to herself, in a somewhat doubtful tone.
''Deed no, mem. Ye're jist an angel unawares. For I maist think sometimes that my grannie 'll drive me wud (mad); for there's naething to read but guid buiks, an' naething to sing but psalms; an' there's nae fun aboot the hoose but Betty; an' puir Shargar's nearhan' dementit wi' 't. An' we maun pray till her whether we will or no. An' there's no comfort i' the place but plenty to ate; an' that canna be guid for onybody. She likes flooers, though, an' wad like me to gar them grow; but I dinna care aboot it: they tak sic a time afore they come to onything.'
Then Miss St. John inquired about Shargar, and began to feel rather differently towards the old lady when she had heard the story. But how she laughed at the tale, and how light-hearted Robert went home, are neither to be told.
The next Sunday, the first time for many years, Dooble Sanny was at church with his wife, though how much good he got by going would be a serious question to discuss.