Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part II.--His Youth
Chapter II. The Stroke.
The following night, he left his books on the table, and the house itself behind him, and sped like a grayhound to Dooble Sanny's shop, lifted the latch, and entered.
By the light of a single dip set on a chair, he saw the shoemaker seated on his stool, one hand lying on the lap of his leathern apron, his other hand hanging down by his side, and the fiddle on the ground at his feet. His wife stood behind him, wiping her eyes with her blue apron. Through all its accumulated dirt, the face of the soutar looked ghastly, and they were eyes of despair that he lifted to the face of the youth as he stood holding the latch in his hand. Mrs. Alexander moved towards Robert, drew him in, and gently closed the door behind him, resuming her station like a sculptured mourner behind her motionless husband.
'What on airth's the maitter wi' ye, Sandy?' said Robert.
'Eh, Robert!' returned the shoemaker, and a tone of affection tinged the mournfulness with which he uttered the strange words--'eh, Robert! the Almichty will gang his ain gait, and I'm in his grup noo.'
'He's had a stroke,' said his wife, without removing her apron from her eyes.
'I hae gotten my pecks (blows),' resumed the soutar, in a despairing voice, which gave yet more effect to the fantastic eccentricity of conscience which from the midst of so many grave faults chose such a one as especially bringing the divine displeasure upon him: 'I hae gotten my pecks for cryin' doon my ain auld wife to set up your bonny leddy. The tane's gane a' to aise an' stew (ashes and dust), an' frae the tither,' he went on, looking down on the violin at his feet as if it had been something dead in its youth--'an' frae the tither I canna draw a cheep, for my richt han' has forgotten her cunnin' Man, Robert, I canna lift it frae my side.'
'Ye maun gang to yer bed,' said Robert, greatly concerned.
'Ow, ay, I maun gang to my bed, and syne to the kirkyaird, and syne to hell, I ken that weel eneuch. Robert, I lea my fiddle to you. Be guid to the auld wife, man--better nor I hae been. An auld wife's better nor nae fiddle.'
He stooped, lifted the violin with his left hand, gave it to Robert, rose, and made for the door. They helped him up the creaking stair, got him half-undressed, and laid him in his bed. Robert put the violin on the top of a press within sight of the sufferer, left him groaning, and ran for the doctor. Having seen him set out for the patient's dwelling, he ran home to his grandmother.
Now while Robert was absent, occasion had arisen to look for him: unusual occurrence, a visitor had appeared, no less a person than Mr. Innes, the school-master. Shargar had been banished in consequence from the parlour, and had seated himself outside Robert's room, never doubting that Robert was inside. Presently he heard the bell ring, and then Betty came up the stair, and said Robert was wanted. Thereupon Shargar knocked at the door, and as there was neither voice nor hearing, opened it, and found, with a well-known horror, that he had been watching an empty room. He made no haste to communicate the fact. Robert might return in a moment, and his absence from the house not be discovered. He sat down on the bedstead and waited. But Betty came up again, and before Shargar could prevent her, walked into the room with her candle in her hand. In vain did Shargar intreat her to go and say that Robert was coming. Betty would not risk the danger of discovery in connivance, and descended to open afresh the fountain of the old lady's anxiety. She did not, however, betray her disquietude to Mr. Innes.
She had asked the school-master to visit her, in order that she might consult him about Robert's future. Mr. Innes expressed a high opinion of the boy's faculties and attainments, and strongly urged that he should be sent to college. Mrs. Falconer inwardly shuddered at the temptations to which this course would expose him; but he must leave home or be apprentice to some trade. She would have chosen the latter, I believe, but for religion towards the boy's parents, who would never have thought of other than a profession for him. While the school-master was dwelling on the argument that he was pretty sure to gain a good bursary, and she would thus be relieved for four years, probably for ever, from further expense on his account, Robert entered.
'Whaur hae ye been, Robert?' asked Mrs. Falconer.
'At Dooble Sanny's,' answered the boy.
'What hae ye been at there?'
'Helpin' him till 's bed.'
'What's come ower him?'
'That's what comes o' playin' the fiddle.'
'I never heard o' a stroke comin' frae a fiddle, grannie. It comes oot o' a clood whiles. Gin he had hauden till 's fiddle, he wad hae been playin' her the nicht, in place o' 's airm lyin' at 's side like a lang lingel (ligneul--shoemaker's thread).'
'Hm!' said his grandmother, concealing her indignation at this freedom of speech, 'ye dinna believe in God's judgments!'
'Nae upo' fiddles,' returned Robert.
Mr. Innes sat and said nothing, with difficulty concealing his amusement at this passage of arms.
It was but within the last few days that Robert had become capable of speaking thus. His nature had at length arrived at the point of so far casting off the incubus of his grandmother's authority as to assert some measure of freedom and act openly. His very hopelessness of a hearing in heaven had made him indifferent to things on earth, and therefore bolder. Thus, strange as it may seem, the blessing of God descended on him in the despair which enabled him to speak out and free his soul from the weight of concealment. But it was not despair alone that gave him strength. On his way home from the shoemaker's he had been thinking what he could do for him; and had resolved, come of it what might, that he would visit him every evening, and try whether he could not comfort him a little by playing upon his violin. So that it was loving-kindness towards man, as well as despair towards God, that gave him strength to resolve that between him and his grandmother all should be above-board from henceforth.
'Nae upo' fiddles,' Robert had said.
'But upo' them 'at plays them,' returned his grandmother.
'Na; nor upo' them 'at burns them,' retorted Robert--impudently it must be confessed; for every man is open to commit the fault of which he is least capable.
But Mrs. Falconer had too much regard to her own dignity to indulge her feelings. Possibly too her sense of justice, which Falconer always said was stronger than that of any other woman he had ever known, as well as some movement of her conscience interfered. She was silent, and Robert rushed into the breach which his last discharge had effected.
'An' I want to tell ye, grannie, that I mean to gang an' play the fiddle to puir Sanny ilka nicht for the best pairt o' an hoor; an' excep' ye lock the door an' hide the key, I will gang. The puir sinner sanna be desertit by God an' man baith.'
He scarcely knew what he was saying before it was out of his mouth; and as if to cover it up, he hurried on.
'An' there's mair in 't.--Dr. Anderson gae Shargar an' me a sovereign the piece. An' Dooble Sanny s' hae them, to haud him ohn deid o' hunger an' cauld.'
'What for didna ye tell me 'at Dr. Anderson had gien ye sic a sicht o' siller? It was ill-faured o' ye--an' him as weel.'
''Cause ye wad hae sent it back till 'im; an' Shargar and me we thocht we wad raither keep it.'
'Considerin' 'at I'm at sae muckle expense wi' ye baith, it wadna hae been ill-contrived to hae brocht the siller to me, an' latten me du wi' 't as I thocht fit.--Gang na awa', laddie,' she added, as she saw Robert about to leave the room.
'I'll be back in a minute, grannie,' returned Robert.
'He's a fine lad, that!' said Mr. Innes; 'an' guid 'll come o' 'm, and that 'll be heard tell o'.'
'Gin he had but the grace o' God, there wadna be muckle to compleen o',' acquiesced his grandmother.
'There's time eneuch for that, Mrs. Faukner. Ye canna get auld heids upo' young shoothers, ye ken.'
''Deed for that maitter, ye may get mony an auld heid upo' auld shoothers, and nae a spark o' grace in 't to lat it see hoo to lay itsel' doon i' the grave.'
Robert returned before Mr. Innes had made up his mind as to whether the old lady intended a personal rebuke.
'Hae, grannie,' he said, going up to her, and putting the two sovereigns in her white palm.
He had found some difficulty in making Shargar give up his, else he would have returned sooner.
'What's this o' 't, laddie?' said Mrs. Falconer. 'Hoots! I'm nae gaein' to tak yer siller. Lat the puir soutar-craturs hae 't. But dinna gie them mair nor a shillin' or twa at ance--jist to haud them in life. They deserve nae mair. But they maunna sterve. And jist ye tell them, laddie, at gin they spen' ae saxpence o' 't upo' whusky, they s' get nae mair.'
'Ay, ay, grannie,' responded Robert, with a glimmer of gladness in his heart. 'And what aboot the fiddlin', grannie?' he added, half playfully, hoping for some kind concession therein as well.
But he had gone too far. She vouchsafed no reply, and her face grew stern with offence. It was one thing to give bread to eat, another to give music and gladness. No music but that which sprung from effectual calling and the perseverance of the saints could be lawful in a world that was under the wrath and curse of God. Robert waited in vain for a reply.
'Gang yer wa's,' she said at length. 'Mr. Innes and me has some business to mak an en' o', an' we want nae assistance.'
Robert rejoined Shargar, who was still bemoaning the loss of his sovereign. His face brightened when he saw its well-known yellow shine once more, but darkened again as soon as Robert told him to what service it was now devoted.
'It's my ain,' he said, with a suppressed expostulatory growl.
Robert threw the coin on the floor.
'Tak yer filthy lucre!' he exclaimed with contempt, and turned to leave Shargar alone in the garret with his sovereign.
'Bob!' Shargar almost screamed, 'tak it, or I'll cut my throat.'
This was his constant threat when he was thoroughly in earnest.
'Cut it, an' hae dune wi' 't,' said Robert cruelly.
Shargar burst out crying.
'Len' me yer knife, than, Bob,' he sobbed, holding out his hand.
Robert burst into a roar of laughter, caught up the sovereign from the floor, sped with it to the baker's, who refused to change it because he had no knowledge of anything representing the sum of twenty shillings except a pound-note, succeeded in getting silver for it at the bank, and then ran to the soutar's.
After he left the parlour, the discussion of his fate was resumed and finally settled between his grandmother and the school-master. The former, in regard of the boy's determination to befriend the shoemaker in the matter of music as well as of money, would now have sent him at once to the grammar-school in Old Aberdeen, to prepare for the competition in the month of November; but the latter persuaded her that if the boy gave his whole attention to Latin till the next summer, and then went to the grammar-school for three months or so, he would have an excellent chance of success. As to the violin, the school-master said, wisely enough:
'He that will to Cupar maun to Cupar; and gin ye kep (intercept) him upo' the shore-road, he'll tak to the hill-road; an' I s' warran' a braw lad like Robert 'll get mony a ane in Ebberdeen 'll be ready eneuch to gie him a lift wi' the fiddle, and maybe tak him into waur company nor the puir bed-ridden soutar; an' wi' you an' me to hing on to the tail o' 'im like, he canna gang ower the scar (cliff) afore he learns wit.'
'Hm!' was the old lady's comprehensive response.
It was further arranged that Robert should be informed of their conclusion, and so roused to effort in anticipation of the trial upon which his course in life must depend.
Nothing could have been better for Robert than the prospect of a college education. But his first thought at the news was not of the delights of learning nor of the honourable course that would ensue, but of Eric Ericson, the poverty-stricken, friendless descendant of yarls and sea-rovers. He would see him--the only man that understood him! Not until the passion of this thought had abated, did he begin to perceive the other advantages before him. But so practical and thorough was he in all his proposals and means, that ere half-an-hour was gone, he had begun to go over his Rudiments again. He now wrote a version, or translation from English into Latin, five times a week, and read Caeser, Virgil, or Tacitus, every day. He gained permission from his grandmother to remove his bed to his own garret, and there, from the bedstead at which he no longer kneeled, he would often rise at four in the morning, even when the snow lay a foot thick on the skylight, kindle his lamp by means of a tinder-box and a splinter of wood dipped in sulphur, and sitting down in the keen cold, turn half a page of Addison into something as near Ciceronian Latin as he could effect. This would take him from an hour and a half to two hours, when he would tumble again into bed, blue and stiff, and sleep till it was time to get up and go to the morning school before breakfast. His health was excellent, else it could never have stood such treatment.