Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter XXV. The Gates of Paradise.
Robert had his first lesson the next Saturday afternoon. Eager and undismayed by the presence of Mrs, Forsyth, good-natured and contemptuous--for had he not a protecting angel by him?--he hearkened for every word of Miss St. John, combated every fault, and undermined every awkwardness with earnest patience. Nothing delighted Robert so much as to give himself up to one greater. His mistress was thoroughly pleased, and even Mrs. Forsyth gave him two of her soft finger tips to do something or other with--Robert did not know what, and let them go.
About eight o'clock that same evening, his heart beating like a captured bird's, he crept from grannie's parlour, past the kitchen, and up the low stair to the mysterious door. He had been trying for an hour to summon up courage to rise, feeling as if his grandmother must suspect where he was going. Arrived at the barrier, twice his courage failed him; twice he turned and sped back to the parlour. A third time he made the essay, a third time stood at the wondrous door--so long as blank as a wall to his careless eyes, now like the door of the magic Sesame that led to the treasure-cave of Ali Baba. He laid his hand on the knob, withdrew it, thought he heard some one in the transe, rushed up the garret stair, and stood listening, hastened down, and with a sudden influx of determination opened the door, saw that the trap was raised, closed the door behind him, and standing with his head on the level of the floor, gazed into the paradise of Miss St. John's room. To have one peep into such a room was a kind of salvation to the half-starved nature of the boy. All before him was elegance, richness, mystery. Womanhood radiated from everything. A fire blazed in the chimney. A rug of long white wool lay before it. A little way off stood the piano. Ornaments sparkled and shone upon the dressing-table. The door of a wardrobe had swung a little open, and discovered the sombre shimmer of a black silk dress. Something gorgeously red, a China crape shawl, hung glowing beyond it. He dared not gaze any longer. He had already been guilty of an immodesty. He hastened to ascend, and seated himself at the piano.
Let my reader aid me for a moment with his imagination--reflecting what it was to a boy like Robert, and in Robert's misery, to open a door in his own meagre dwelling and gaze into such a room--free to him. If he will aid me so, then let him aid himself by thinking that the house of his own soul has such a door into the infinite beauty, whether he has yet found it or not.
'Just think,' Robert said to himself, 'o' me in sic a place! It's a pailace. It's a fairy pailace. And that angel o' a leddy bides here, and sleeps there! I wonner gin she ever dreams aboot onything as bonny 's hersel'!'
Then his thoughts took another turn.
'I wonner gin the room was onything like this whan my mamma sleepit in 't? I cudna hae been born in sic a gran' place. But my mamma micht hae weel lien here.'
The face of the miniature, and the sad words written below the hymn, came back upon him, and he bowed his head upon his hands. He was sitting thus when Miss St. John came behind him, and heard him murmur the one word Mamma! She laid her hand on his shoulder. He started and rose.
'I beg yer pardon, mem. I hae no business to be here, excep' to play. But I cudna help thinkin' aboot my mother; for I was born in this room, mem. Will I gang awa' again?'
He turned towards the door.
'No, no,' said Miss St. John. 'I only came to see if you were here. I cannot stop now; but to-morrow you must tell me about your mother. Sit down, and don't lose any more time. Your grandmother will miss you. And then what would come of it?'
Thus was this rough diamond of a Scotch boy, rude in speech, but full of delicate thought, gathered under the modelling influences of the finished, refined, tender, sweet-tongued, and sweet-thoughted Englishwoman, who, if she had been less of a woman, would have been repelled by his uncouthness; if she had been less of a lady, would have mistaken his commonness for vulgarity. But she was just, like the type of womankind, a virgin-mother. She saw the nobility of his nature through its homely garments, and had been, indeed, sent to carry on the work from which his mother had been too early taken away.
'There's jist ae thing mem, that vexes me a wee, an' I dinna ken what to think aboot it,' said Robert, as Miss St. John was leaving the room. 'Maybe ye cud bide ae minute till I tell ye.'
'Yes, I can. What is it?'
'I'm nearhan' sure that whan I lea' the parlour, grannie 'ill think I'm awa' to my prayers; and sae she'll think better o' me nor I deserve. An' I canna bide that.'
'What should make you suppose that she will think so?'
'Fowk kens what ane anither's aboot, ye ken, mem.'
'Then she'll know you are not at your prayers.'
'Na. For sometimes I div gang to my prayers for a whilie like, but nae for lang, for I'm nae like ane o' them 'at he wad care to hear sayin' a lang screed o' a prayer till 'im. I hae but ae thing to pray aboot.'
'And what's that, Robert?'
One of his silences had seized him. He looked confused, and turned away.
'Never mind,' said Miss St. John, anxious to relieve him, and establish a comfortable relation between them; 'you will tell me another time.'
'I doobt no, mem,' answered Robert, with what most people would think an excess of honesty.
But Miss St. John made a better conjecture as to his apparent closeness.
'At all events,' she said, 'don't mind what your grannie may think, so long as you have no wish to make her think it. Good-night.'
Had she been indeed an angel from heaven, Robert could not have worshipped her more. And why should he? Was she less God's messenger that she had beautiful arms instead of less beautiful wings?
He practised his scales till his unaccustomed fingers were stiff, then shut the piano with reverence, and departed, carefully peeping into the disenchanted region without the gates to see that no enemy lay in wait for him as he passed beyond them. He closed the door gently; and in one moment the rich lovely room and the beautiful lady were behind him, and before him the bare stair between two white-washed walls, and the long flagged transe that led to his silent grandmother seated in her arm-chair, gazing into the red coals--for somehow grannie's fire always glowed, and never blazed--with her round-toed shoes pointed at them from the top of her little wooden stool. He traversed the stair and the transe, entered the parlour, and sat down to his open book as though nothing had happened. But his grandmother saw the light in his face, and did think he had just come from his prayers. And she blessed God that he had put it into her heart to burn the fiddle.
The next night Robert took with him the miniature of his mother, and showed it to Miss St. John, who saw at once that, whatever might be his present surroundings, his mother must have been a lady. A certain fancied resemblance in it to her own mother likewise drew her heart to the boy. Then Robert took from his pocket the gold thimble, and said,
'This thimmel was my mamma's. Will ye tak it, mem, for ye ken it's o' nae use to me.'
Miss St. John hesitated for a moment.
'I will keep it for you, if you like,' she said, for she could not bear to refuse it.
'Na, mem; I want ye to keep it to yersel'; for I'm sure my mamma wad hae likit you to hae 't better nor ony ither body.'
'Well, I will use it sometimes for your sake. But mind, I will not take it from you; I will only keep it for you.'
'Weel, weel, mem; gin ye'll keep it till I speir for 't, that'll du weel eneuch,' answered Robert, with a smile.
He laboured diligently; and his progress corresponded to his labour. It was more than intellect that guided him: Falconer had genius for whatever he cared for.
Meantime the love he bore his teacher, and the influence of her beauty, began to mould him, in his kind and degree, after her likeness, so that he grew nice in his person and dress, and smoothed the roughness and moderated the broadness of his speech with the amenities of the English which she made so sweet upon her tongue. He became still more obedient to his grandmother, and more diligent at school; gathered to himself golden opinions without knowing it, and was gradually developing into a rustic gentleman.
Nor did the piano absorb all his faculties. Every divine influence tends to the rounded perfection of the whole. His love of Nature grew more rapidly. Hitherto it was only in summer that he had felt the presence of a power in her and yet above her: in winter, now, the sky was true and deep, though the world was waste and sad; and the tones of the wind that roared at night about the goddess-haunted house, and moaned in the chimneys of the lowly dwelling that nestled against it, woke harmonies within him which already he tried to spell out falteringly. Miss St. John began to find that he put expressions of his own into the simple things she gave him to play, and even dreamed a little at his own will when alone with the passive instrument. Little did Mrs. Falconer think into what a seventh heaven of accursed music she had driven her boy.
But not yet did he tell his friend, much as he loved and much as he trusted her, the little he knew of his mother's sorrows and his father's sins, or whose the hand that had struck him when she found him lying in the waste factory.
For a time almost all his trouble about God went from him. Nor do I think that this was only because he rarely thought of him at all: God gave him of himself in Miss St. John. But words dropped now and then from off the shelves where his old difficulties lay, and they fell like seeds upon the heart of Miss St. John, took root, and rose in thoughts: in the heart of a true woman the talk of a child even will take life.
One evening Robert rose from the table, not unwatched of his grandmother, and sped swiftly and silently through the dark, as was his custom, to enter the chamber of enchantment. Never before had his hand failed to alight, sure as a lark on its nest, upon the brass handle of the door that admitted him to his paradise. It missed it now, and fell on something damp, and rough, and repellent instead. Horrible, but true suspicion! While he was at school that day, his grandmother, moved by what doubt or by what certainty she never revealed, had had the doorway walled up. He felt the place all over. It was to his hands the living tomb of his mother's vicar on earth.
He returned to his book, pale as death, but said never a word. The next day the stones were plastered over.
Thus the door of bliss vanished from the earth. And neither the boy nor his grandmother ever said that it had been.