Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part II.--His Youth
Chapter IV. The Aberdeen Garret.
Miss St. John had long since returned from her visit, but having heard how much Robert was taken up with his dying friend, she judged it better to leave her intended proposal of renewing her lessons alone for the present. Meeting him, however, soon after Alexander's death, she introduced the subject, and Robert was enraptured at the prospect of the re-opening of the gates of his paradise. If he did not inform his grandmother of the fact, neither did he attempt to conceal it; but she took no notice, thinking probably that the whole affair would be effectually disposed of by his departure. Till that period arrived, he had a lesson almost every evening, and Miss St. John was surprised to find how the boy had grown since the door was built up. Robert's gratitude grew into a kind of worship.
The evening before his departure for Bodyfauld--whence his grandmother had arranged that he should start for Aberdeen, in order that he might have the company of Mr. Lammie, whom business drew thither about the same time--as he was having his last lesson, Mrs. Forsyth left the room. Thereupon Robert, who had been dejected all day at the thought of the separation from Miss St. John, found his heart beating so violently that he could hardly breathe. Probably she saw his emotion, for she put her hand on the keys, as if to cover it by showing him how some movement was to be better effected. He seized her hand and lifted it to his lips. But when he found that instead of snatching it away, she yielded it, nay gently pressed it to his face, he burst into tears, and dropped on his knees, as if before a goddess.
'Hush, Robert! Don't be foolish,' she said, quietly and tenderly. 'Here is my aunt coming.'
The same moment he was at the piano again, playing My Bonny Lady Ann, so as to astonish Miss St. John, and himself as well. Then he rose, bade her a hasty good-night, and hurried away.
A strange conflict arose in his mind at the prospect of leaving the old place, on every house of whose streets, on every swell of whose surrounding hills he left the clinging shadows of thought and feeling. A faintly purpled mist arose, and enwrapped all the past, changing even his grayest troubles into tales of fairyland, and his deepest griefs into songs of a sad music. Then he thought of Shargar, and what was to become of him after he was gone. The lad was paler and his eyes were redder than ever, for he had been weeping in secret. He went to his grandmother and begged that Shargar might accompany him to Bodyfauld.
'He maun bide at hame an' min' his beuks,' she answered; 'for he winna hae them that muckle langer. He maun be doin' something for himsel'.'
So the next morning the boys parted--Shargar to school, and Robert to Bodyfauld--Shargar left behind with his desolation, his sun gone down in a west that was not even stormy, only gray and hopeless, and Robert moving towards an east which reflected, like a faint prophecy, the west behind him tinged with love, death, and music, but mingled the colours with its own saffron of coming dawn.
When he reached Bodyfauld he marvelled to find that all its glory had returned. He found Miss Lammie busy among the rich yellow pools in her dairy, and went out into the garden, now in the height of its summer. Great cabbage roses hung heavy-headed splendours towards purple-black heartseases, and thin-filmed silvery pods of honesty; tall white lilies mingled with the blossoms of currant bushes, and at their feet the narcissi of old classic legend pressed their warm-hearted paleness into the plebeian thicket of the many-striped gardener's garters. It was a lovely type of a commonwealth indeed, of the garden and kingdom of God. His whole mind was flooded with a sense of sunny wealth. The farmer's neglected garden blossomed into higher glory in his soul. The bloom and the richness and the use were all there; but instead of each flower was a delicate ethereal sense or feeling about that flower. Of these how gladly would he have gathered a posy to offer Miss St. John! but, alas! he was no poet; or rather he had but the half of the poet's inheritance--he could see: he could not say. But even if he had been full of poetic speech, he would yet have found that the half of his posy remained ungathered, for although we have speech enough now to be 'cousin to the deed,' as Chaucer says it must always be, we have not yet enough speech to cousin the tenth part of our feelings. Let him who doubts recall one of his own vain attempts to convey that which made the oddest of dreams entrancing in loveliness--to convey that aroma of thought, the conscious absence of which made him a fool in his own eyes when he spoke such silly words as alone presented themselves for the service. I can no more describe the emotion aroused in my mind by a gray cloud parting over a gray stone, by the smell of a sweetpea, by the sight of one of those long upright pennons of striped grass with the homely name, than I can tell what the glory of God is who made these things. The man whose poetry is like nature in this, that it produces individual, incommunicable moods and conditions of mind--a sense of elevated, tender, marvellous, and evanescent existence, must be a poet indeed. Every dawn of such a feeling is a light-brushed bubble rendering visible for a moment the dark unknown sea of our being which lies beyond the lights of our consciousness, and is the stuff and region of our eternal growth. But think what language must become before it will tell dreams!--before it will convey the delicate shades of fancy that come and go in the brain of a child!--before it will let a man know wherein one face differeth from another face in glory! I suspect, however, that for such purposes it is rather music than articulation that is needful--that, with a hope of these finer results, the language must rather be turned into music than logically extended.
The next morning he awoke at early dawn, hearing the birds at his window. He rose and went out. The air was clear and fresh as a new-made soul. Bars of mottled cloud were bent across the eastern quarter of the sky, which lay like a great ethereal ocean ready for the launch of the ship of glory that was now gliding towards its edge. Everything was waiting to conduct him across the far horizon to the south, where lay the stored-up wonder of his coming life. The lark sang of something greater than he could tell; the wind got up, whispered at it, and lay down to sleep again; the sun was at hand to bathe the world in the light and gladness alone fit to typify the radiance of Robert's thoughts. The clouds that formed the shore of the upper sea were already burning from saffron into gold. A moment more and the first insupportable sting of light would shoot from behind the edge of that low blue hill, and the first day of his new life would be begun. He watched, and it came. The well-spring of day, fresh and exuberant as if now first from the holy will of the Father of Lights, gushed into the basin of the world, and the world was more glad than tongue or pen can tell. The supernal light alone, dawning upon the human heart, can exceed the marvel of such a sunrise.
And shall life itself be less beautiful than one of its days? Do not believe it, young brother. Men call the shadow, thrown upon the universe where their own dusky souls come between it and the eternal sun, life, and then mourn that it should be less bright than the hopes of their childhood. Keep thou thy soul translucent, that thou mayest never see its shadow; at least never abuse thyself with the philosophy which calls that shadow life. Or, rather would I say, become thou pure in heart, and thou shalt see God, whose vision alone is life.
Just as the sun rushed across the horizon he heard the tramp of a heavy horse in the yard, passing from the stable to the cart that was to carry his trunk to the turnpike road, three miles off, where the coach would pass. Then Miss Lammie came and called him to breakfast, and there sat the farmer in his Sunday suit of black, already busy. Robert was almost too happy to eat; yet he had not swallowed two mouthfuls before the sun rose unheeded, the lark sang unheeded, and the roses sparkled with the dew that bowed yet lower their heavy heads, all unheeded. By the time they had finished, Mr. Lammie's gig was at the door, and they mounted and followed the cart. Not even the recurring doubt and fear that hollowness was at the heart of it all, for that God could not mean such reinless gladness, prevented the truth of the present joy from sinking deep into the lad's heart. In his mind he saw a boat moored to a rock, with no one on board, heaving on the waters of a rising tide, and waiting to bear him out on the sea of the unknown. The picture arose of itself: there was no paradise of the west in his imagination, as in that of a boy of the sixteenth century, to authorize its appearance. It rose again and again; the dew glittered as if the light were its own; the sun shone as he had never seen him shine before; the very mare that sped them along held up her head and stepped out as if she felt it the finest of mornings. Had she also a future, poor old mare? Might there not be a paradise somewhere? and if in the furthest star instead of next-door America, why, so much the more might the Atlantis of the nineteenth century surpass Manoa the golden of the seventeenth!
The gig and the cart reached the road together. One of the men who had accompanied the cart took the gig; and they were left on the road-side with Robert's trunk and box--the latter a present from Miss Lammie.
Their places had been secured, and the guard knew where he had to take them up. Long before the coach appeared, the notes of his horn, as like the colour of his red coat as the blindest of men could imagine, came echoing from the side of the heathery, stony hill under which they stood, so that Robert turned wondering, as if the chariot of his desires had been coming over the top of Drumsnaig, to carry him into a heaven where all labour was delight. But round the corner in front came the four-in-hand red mail instead. She pulled up gallantly; the wheelers lay on their hind quarters, and the leaders parted theirs from the pole; the boxes were hoisted up; Mr. Lammie climbed, and Robert scrambled to his seat; the horn blew; the coachman spake oracularly; the horses obeyed; and away went the gorgeous symbol of sovereignty careering through the submissive region. Nor did Robert's delight abate during the journey--certainly not when he saw the blue line of the sea in the distance, a marvel and yet a fact.
Mrs. Falconer had consulted the Misses Napier, who had many acquaintances in Aberdeen, as to a place proper for Robert, and suitable to her means. Upon this point Miss Letty, not without a certain touch of design, as may appear in the course of my story, had been able to satisfy her. In a small house of two floors and a garret, in the old town, Mr. Lammie took leave of Robert.
It was from a garret window still, but a storm-window now that Robert looked--eastward across fields and sand-hills, to the blue expanse of waters--not blue like southern seas, but slaty blue, like the eyes of northmen. It was rather dreary; the sun was shining from overhead now, casting short shadows and much heat; the dew was gone up, and the lark had come down; he was alone; the end of his journey was come, and was not anything very remarkable. His landlady interrupted his gaze to know what he would have for dinner, but he declined to use any discretion in the matter. When she left the room he did not return to the window, but sat down upon his box. His eye fell upon the other, a big wooden cube. Of its contents he knew nothing. He would amuse himself by making inquisition. It was nailed up. He borrowed a screwdriver and opened it. At the top lay a linen bag full of oatmeal; underneath that was a thick layer of oat-cake; underneath that two cheeses, a pound of butter, and six pots of jam, which ought to have tasted of roses, for it came from the old garden where the roses lived in such sweet companionship with the currant bushes; underneath that, &c.; and underneath, &c., a box which strangely recalled Shargar's garret, and one of the closets therein. With beating heart he opened it, and lo, to his marvel, and the restoration of all the fair day, there was the violin which Dooble Sanny had left him when he forsook her for--some one or other of the queer instruments of Fra Angelico's angels?
In a flutter of delight he sat down on his trunk again and played the most mournful of tunes. Two white pigeons, which had been talking to each other in the heat on the roof, came one on each side of the window and peeped into the room; and out between them, as he played, Robert saw the sea, and the blue sky above it. Is it any wonder that, instead of turning to the lying pages and contorted sentences of the Livy which he had already unpacked from his box, he forgot all about school, and college, and bursary, and went on playing till his landlady brought up his dinner, which he swallowed hastily that he might return to the spells of his enchantress!