Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part II.--His Youth
Chapter I. Robert Knocks--and the Door is not opened.
The remainder of that winter was dreary indeed. Every time Robert went up the stair to his garret, he passed the door of a tomb. With that gray mortar Mary St. John was walled up, like the nun he had read of in the Marmion she had lent him. He might have rung the bell at the street door, and been admitted into the temple of his goddess, but a certain vague terror of his grannie, combined with equally vague qualms of conscience for having deceived her, and the approach in the far distance of a ghastly suspicion that violins, pianos, moonlight, and lovely women were distasteful to the over-ruling Fate, and obnoxious to the vengeance stored in the gray cloud of his providence, drove him from the awful entrance of the temple of his Isis.
Nor did Miss St. John dare to make any advances to the dreadful old lady. She would wait. For Mrs. Forsyth, she cared nothing about the whole affair. It only gave her fresh opportunity for smiling condescensions about 'poor Mrs. Falconer.' So Paradise was over and gone.
But though the loss of Miss St. John and the piano was the last blow, his sorrow did not rest there, but returned to brood over his bonny lady. She was scattered to the winds. Would any of her ashes ever rise in the corn, and moan in the ripening wind of autumn? Might not some atoms of the bonny leddy creep into the pines on the hill, whose 'soft and soul-like sounds' had taught him to play the Flowers of the Forest on those strings which, like the nerves of an amputated limb, yet thrilled through his being? Or might not some particle find its way by winds and waters to sycamore forest of Italy, there creep up through the channels of its life to some finely-rounded curve of noble tree, on the side that ever looks sunwards, and be chosen once again by the violin-hunter, to be wrought into a new and fame-gathering instrument?
Could it be that his bonny lady had learned her wondrous music in those forests, from the shine of the sun, and the sighing of the winds through the sycamores and pines? For Robert knew that the broad-leaved sycamore, and the sharp, needle-leaved pine, had each its share in the violin. Only as the wild innocence of human nature, uncorrupted by wrong, untaught by suffering, is to that nature struggling out of darkness into light, such and so different is the living wood, with its sweetest tones of obedient impulse, answering only to the wind which bloweth where it listeth, to that wood, chosen, separated, individualized, tortured into strange, almost vital shape, after a law to us nearly unknown, strung with strings from animal organizations, and put into the hands of man to utter the feelings of a soul that has passed through a like history. This Robert could not yet think, and had to grow able to think it by being himself made an instrument of God's music.
What he could think was that the glorious mystery of his bonny leddy was gone for ever--and alas! she had no soul. Here was an eternal sorrow. He could never meet her again. His affections, which must live for ever, were set upon that which had passed away. But the child that weeps because his mutilated doll will not rise from the dead, shall yet find relief from his sorrow, a true relief, both human and divine. He shall know that that which in the doll made him love the doll, has not passed away. And Robert must yet be comforted for the loss of his bonny leddy. If she had had a soul, nothing but her own self could ever satisfy him. As she had no soul, another body might take her place, nor occasion reproach of inconstancy.
But, in the meantime, the shears of Fate having cut the string of the sky-soaring kite of his imagination, had left him with the stick in his hand. And thus the rest of that winter was dreary enough. The glow was out of his heart; the glow was out of the world. The bleak, kindless wind was hissing through those pines that clothed the hill above Bodyfauld, and over the dead garden, where in the summer time the rose had looked down so lovingly on the heartsease. If he had stood once more at gloaming in that barley-stubble, not even the wail of Flodden-field would have found him there, but a keen sense of personal misery and hopeless cold. Was the summer a lie?
Not so. The winter restrains, that the summer may have the needful time to do its work well; for the winter is but the sleep of summer.
Now in the winter of his discontent, and in Nature finding no help, Robert was driven inwards--into his garret, into his soul. There, the door of his paradise being walled up, he began, vaguely, blindly, to knock against other doors--sometimes against stone-walls and rocks, taking them for doors--as travel-worn, and hence brain-sick men have done in a desert of mountains. A door, out or in, he must find, or perish.
It fell, too, that Miss St. John went to visit some friends who lived in a coast town twenty miles off; and a season of heavy snow followed by frost setting in, she was absent for six weeks, during which time, without a single care to trouble him from without, Robert was in the very desert of desolation. His spirits sank fearfully. He would pass his old music-master in the street with scarce a recognition, as if the bond of their relation had been utterly broken, had vanished in the smoke of the martyred violin, and all their affection had gone into the dust-heap of the past.
Dooble Sanny's character did not improve. He took more and more whisky, his bouts of drinking alternating as before with fits of hopeless repentance. His work was more neglected than ever, and his wife having no money to spend even upon necessaries, applied in desperation to her husband's bottle for comfort. This comfort, to do him justice, he never grudged her; and sometimes before midday they would both be drunk--a condition expedited by the lack of food. When they began to recover, they would quarrel fiercely; and at last they became a nuisance to the whole street. Little did the whisky-hating old lady know to what god she had really offered up that violin--if the consequences of the holocaust can be admitted as indicating the power which had accepted it.
But now began to appear in Robert the first signs of a practical outcome of such truth as his grandmother had taught him, operating upon the necessities of a simple and earnest nature. Reality, however lapt in vanity, or even in falsehood, cannot lose its power. It is--the other is not. She had taught him to look up--that there was a God. He would put it to the test. Not that he doubted it yet: he only doubted whether there was a hearing God. But was not that worse? It was, I think. For it is of far more consequence what kind of a God, than whether a God or no. Let not my reader suppose I think it possible there could be other than a perfect God--perfect--even to the vision of his creatures, the faith that supplies the lack of vision being yet faithful to that vision. I speak from Robert's point of outlook. But, indeed, whether better or worse is no great matter, so long as he would see it or what there was. He had no comfort, and, without reasoning about it, he felt that life ought to have comfort--from which point he began to conclude that the only thing left was to try whether the God in whom his grandmother believed might not help him. If the God would but hear him, it was all he had yet learned to require of his Godhood. And that must ever be the first thing to require. More demands would come, and greater answers he would find. But now--if God would but hear him! If he spoke to him but one kind word, it would be the very soul of comfort; he could no more be lonely. A fountain of glad imaginations gushed up in his heart at the thought. What if, from the cold winter of his life, he had but to open the door of his garret-room, and, kneeling by the bare bedstead, enter into the summer of God's presence! What if God spoke to him face to face! He had so spoken to Moses. He sought him from no fear of the future, but from present desolation; and if God came near to him, it would not be with storm and tempest, but with the voice of a friend. And surely, if there was a God at all, that is, not a power greater than man, but a power by whose power man was, he must hear the voice of the creature whom he had made, a voice that came crying out of the very need which he had created. Younger people than Robert are capable of such divine metaphysics. Hence he continued to disappear from his grandmother's parlour at much the same hour as before. In the cold, desolate garret, he knelt and cried out into that which lay beyond the thought that cried, the unknowable infinite, after the God that may be known as surely as a little child knows his mysterious mother. And from behind him, the pale-blue, star-crowded sky shone upon his head, through the window that looked upwards only.
Mrs. Falconer saw that he still went away as he had been wont, and instituted observations, the result of which was the knowledge that he went to his own room. Her heart smote her, and she saw that the boy looked sad and troubled. There was scarce room in her heart for increase of love, but much for increase of kindness, and she did increase it. In truth, he needed the smallest crumb of comfort that might drop from the table of God's 'feastful friends.'
Night after night he returned to the parlour cold to the very heart. God was not to be found, he said then. He said afterwards that even then 'God was with him though he knew it not.'
For the very first night, the moment that he knelt and cried, 'O Father in heaven, hear me, and let thy face shine upon me'--like a flash of burning fire the words shot from the door of his heart: 'I dinna care for him to love me, gin he doesna love ilka body;' and no more prayer went from the desolate boy that night, although he knelt an hour of agony in the freezing dark. Loyal to what he had been taught, he struggled hard to reduce his rebellious will to what he supposed to be the will of God. It was all in vain. Ever a voice within him--surely the voice of that God who he thought was not hearing--told him that what he wanted was the love belonging to his human nature, his human needs--not the preference of a court-favourite. He had a dim consciousness that he would be a traitor to his race if he accepted a love, even from God, given him as an exception from his kind. But he did not care to have such a love. It was not what his heart yearned for. It was not love. He could not love such a love. Yet he strove against it all--fought for religion against right as he could; struggled to reduce his rebellious feelings, to love that which was unlovely, to choose that which was abhorrent, until nature almost gave way under the effort. Often would he sink moaning on the floor, or stretch himself like a corpse, save that it was face downwards, on the boards of the bedstead. Night after night he returned to the battle, but with no permanent success. What a success that would have been! Night after night he came pale and worn from the conflict, found his grandmother and Shargar composed, and in the quietness of despair sat down beside them to his Latin version.
He little thought, that every night, at the moment when he stirred to leave the upper room, a pale-faced, red-eyed figure rose from its seat on the top of the stair by the door, and sped with long-legged noiselessness to resume its seat by the grandmother before he should enter. Shargar saw that Robert was unhappy, and the nearest he could come to the sharing of his unhappiness was to take his place outside the door within which he had retreated. Little, too, did Shargar, on his part, think that Robert, without knowing it, was pleading for him inside--pleading for him and for all his race in the weeping that would not be comforted.
Robert had not the vaguest fancy that God was with him--the spirit of the Father groaning with the spirit of the boy in intercession that could not be uttered. If God had come to him then and comforted him with the assurance of individual favour--but the very supposition is a taking of his name in vain--had Robert found comfort in the fancied assurance that God was his friend in especial, that some private favour was granted to his prayers, that, indeed, would have been to be left to his own inventions, to bring forth not fruits meet for repentance, but fruits for which repentance alone is meet. But God was with him, and was indeed victorious in the boy when he rose from his knees, for the last time, as he thought, saying, 'I cannot yield--I will pray no more.'--With a burst of bitter tears he sat down on the bedside till the loudest of the storm was over, then dried his dull eyes, in which the old outlook had withered away, and trod unknowingly in the silent footsteps of Shargar, who was ever one corner in advance of him, down to the dreary lessons and unheeded prayers; but, thank God, not to the sleepless night, for some griefs bring sleep the sooner.
My reader must not mistake my use of the words especial and private, or suppose that I do not believe in an individual relation between every man and God, yes, a peculiar relation, differing from the relation between every other man and God! But this very individuality and peculiarity can only be founded on the broadest truths of the Godhood and the manhood.
Mrs. Falconer, ere she went to sleep, gave thanks that the boys had been at their prayers together. And so, in a very deep sense, they had.
And well they might have been; for Shargar was nearly as desolate as Robert, and would certainly, had his mother claimed him now, have gone on the tramp with her again. Wherein could this civilized life show itself to him better than that to which he had been born? For clothing he cared little, and he had always managed to kill his hunger or thirst, if at longer intervals, then with greater satisfaction. Wherein is the life of that man who merely does his eating and drinking and clothing after a civilized fashion better than that of the gipsy or tramp? If the civilized man is honest to boot, and gives good work in return for the bread or turtle on which he dines, and the gipsy, on the other hand, steals his dinner, I recognize the importance of the difference; but if the rich man plunders the community by exorbitant profits, or speculation with other people's money, while the gipsy adds a fowl or two to the produce of his tinkering; or, once again, if the gipsy is as honest as the honest citizen, which is not so rare a case by any means as people imagine, I return to my question: Wherein, I say, is the warm house, the windows hung with purple, and the table covered with fine linen, more divine than the tent or the blue sky, and the dipping in the dish? Why should not Shargar prefer a life with the mother God had given him to a life with Mrs. Falconer? Why should he prefer geography to rambling, or Latin to Romany? His purposelessness and his love for Robert alone kept him where he was.
The next evening, having given up his praying, Robert sat with his Sallust before him. But the fount of tears began to swell, and the more he tried to keep it down, the more it went on swelling till his throat was filled with a lump of pain. He rose and left the room. But he could not go near the garret. That door too was closed. He opened the house door instead, and went out into the street. There, nothing was to be seen but faint blue air full of moonlight, solid houses, and shining snow. Bareheaded he wandered round the corner of the house to the window whence first he had heard the sweet sounds of the pianoforte. The fire within lighted up the crimson curtains, but no voice of music came forth. The window was as dumb as the pale, faintly befogged moon overhead, itself seeming but a skylight through which shone the sickly light of the passionless world of the dead. Not a form was in the street. The eyes of the houses gleamed here and there upon the snow. He leaned his elbow on the window-sill behind which stood that sealed fountain of lovely sound, looked up at the moon, careless of her or of aught else in heaven or on earth, and sunk into a reverie, in which nothing was consciously present but a stream of fog-smoke that flowed slowly, listlessly across the face of the moon, like the ghost of a dead cataract. All at once a wailful sound arose in his head. He did not think for some time whether it was born in his brain, or entered it from without. At length he recognized the Flowers of the Forest, played as only the soutar could play it. But alas! the cry responsive to his bow came only from the auld wife--no more from the bonny leddy! Then he remembered that there had been a humble wedding that morning on the opposite side of the way; in the street department of the jollity of which Shargar had taken a small share by firing a brass cannon, subsequently confiscated by Mrs. Falconer. But this was a strange tune to play at a wedding! The soutar half-way to his goal of drunkenness, had begun to repent for the fiftieth time that year, had with his repentance mingled the memory of the bonny leddy ruthlessly tortured to death for his wrong, and had glided from a strathspey into that sorrowful moaning. The lament interpreted itself to his disconsolate pupil as he had never understood it before, not even in the stubble-field; for it now spoke his own feelings of waste misery, forsaken loneliness. Indeed Robert learned more of music in those few minutes of the foggy winter night and open street, shut out of all doors, with the tones of an ancient grief and lamentation floating through the blotted moonlight over his ever-present sorrow, than he could have learned from many lessons even of Miss St. John. He was cold to the heart, yet went in a little comforted.
Things had gone ill with him. Outside of Paradise, deserted of his angel, in the frost and the snow, the voice of the despised violin once more the source of a sad comfort! But there is no better discipline than an occasional descent from what we count well-being, to a former despised or less happy condition. One of the results of this taste of damnation in Robert was, that when he was in bed that night, his heart began to turn gently towards his old master. How much did he not owe him, after all! Had he not acted ill and ungratefully in deserting him? His own vessel filled to the brim with grief, had he not let the waters of its bitterness overflow into the heart of the soutar? The wail of that violin echoed now in Robert's heart, not for Flodden, not for himself, but for the debased nature that drew forth the plaint. Comrades in misery, why should they part? What right had he to forsake an old friend and benefactor because he himself was unhappy? He would go and see him the very next night. And he would make friends once more with the much 'suffering instrument' he had so wrongfully despised.