Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part II.--His Youth
Chapter V. The Competition.
I could linger with gladness even over this part of my hero's history. If the school work, was dry it was thorough. If that academy had no sweetly shadowing trees; if it did stand within a parallelogram of low stone walls, containing a roughly-gravelled court; if all the region about suggested hot stones and sand--beyond still was the sea and the sky; and that court, morning and afternoon, was filled with the shouts of eager boys, kicking the football with mad rushings to and fro, and sometimes with wounds and faintings--fit symbol of the equally resultless ambition with which many of them would follow the game of life in the years to come. Shock-headed Highland colts, and rough Lowland steers as many of them were, out of that group, out of the roughest of them, would emerge in time a few gentlemen--not of the type of your trim, self-contained, clerical exquisite--but large-hearted, courteous gentlemen, for whom a man may thank God. And if the master was stern and hard, he was true; if the pupils feared him, they yet cared to please him; if there might be found not a few more widely-read scholars than he, it would be hard to find a better teacher.
Robert leaned to the collar and laboured, not greatly moved by ambition, but much by the hope of the bursary and the college life in the near distance. Not unfrequently he would rush into the thick of the football game, fight like a maniac for one short burst, and then retire and look on. He oftener regarded than mingled. He seldom joined his fellows after school hours, for his work lay both upon his conscience and his hopes; but if he formed no very deep friendships amongst them, at least he made no enemies, for he was not selfish, and in virtue of the Celtic blood in him was invariably courteous. His habits were in some things altogether irregular. He never went out for a walk; but sometimes, looking up from his Virgil or his Latin version, and seeing the blue expanse in the distance breaking into white under the viewless wing of the summer wind, he would fling down his dictionary or his pen, rush from his garret, and fly in a straight line, like a sea-gull weary of lake and river, down to the waste shore of the great deep. This was all that stood for the Arabian Nights of moon-blossomed marvel; all the rest was Aberdeen days of Latin and labour.
Slowly the hours went, and yet the dreaded, hoped-for day came quickly. The quadrangle of the stone-crowned college grew more awful in its silence and emptiness every time Robert passed it; and the professors' houses looked like the sentry-boxes of the angels of learning, soon to come forth and judge the feeble mortals who dared present a claim to their recognition. October faded softly by, with its keen fresh mornings, and cold memorial green-horizoned evenings, whose stars fell like the stray blossoms of a more heavenly world, from some ghostly wind of space that had caught them up on its awful shoreless sweep. November came, 'chill and drear,' with its heartless, hopeless nothingness; but as if to mock the poor competitors, rose, after three days of Scotch mist, in a lovely 'halcyon day' of 'St. Martin's summer,' through whose long shadows anxious young faces gathered in the quadrangle, or under the arcade, each with his Ainsworth's Dictionary, the sole book allowed, under his arm. But when the sacrist appeared and unlocked the public school, and the black-gowned professors walked into the room, and the door was left open for the candidates to follow, then indeed a great awe fell upon the assembly, and the lads crept into their seats as if to a trial for life before a bench of the incorruptible. They took their places; a portion of Robertson's History of Scotland was given them to turn into Latin; and soon there was nothing to be heard in the assembly but the turning of the leaves of dictionaries, and the scratching of pens constructing the first rough copy of the Latinized theme.
It was done. Four weary hours, nearly five, one or two of which passed like minutes, the others as if each minute had been an hour, went by, and Robert, in a kind of desperation, after a final reading of the Latin, gave in his paper, and left the room. When he got home, he asked his landlady to get him some tea. Till it was ready he would take his violin. But even the violin had grown dull, and would not speak freely. He returned to the torture--took out his first copy, and went over it once more. Horror of horrors! a maxie!--that is a maximus error. Mary Queen of Scots had been left so far behind in the beginning of the paper, that she forgot the rights of her sex in the middle of it, and in the accusative of a future participle passive--I do not know if more modern grammarians have a different name for the growth--had submitted to be dum, and her rightful dam was henceforth and for ever debarred.
He rose, rushed out of the house, down through the garden, across two fields and a wide road, across the links, and so to the moaning lip of the sea--for it was moaning that night. From the last bulwark of the sandhills he dropped upon the wet sands, and there he paced up and down--how long, God only, who was watching him, knew--with the low limitless form of the murmuring lip lying out and out into the sinking sky like the life that lay low and hopeless before him, for the want at most of twenty pounds a year (that was the highest bursary then) to lift him into a region of possible well-being. Suddenly a strange phenomenon appeared within him. The subject hitherto became the object to a new birth of consciousness. He began to look at himself. 'There's a sair bit in there,' he said, as if his own bosom had been that of another mortal. 'What's to be dune wi' 't? I doobt it maun bide it. Weel, the crater had better bide it quaietly, and no cry oot. Lie doon, an' hand yer tongue. Soror tua haud meretrix est, ye brute!' He burst out laughing, after a doubtful and ululant fashion, I dare say; but he went home, took up his auld wife, and played 'Tullochgorum' some fifty times over, with extemporized variations.
The next day he had to translate a passage from Tacitus; after executing which somewhat heartlessly, he did not open a Latin book for a whole week. The very sight of one was disgusting to him. He wandered about the New Town, along Union Street, and up and down the stairs that led to the lower parts, haunted the quay, watched the vessels, learned their forms, their parts and capacities, made friends with a certain Dutch captain whom he heard playing the violin in his cabin, and on the whole, notwithstanding the wretched prospect before him, contrived to spend the week with considerable enjoyment. Nor does an occasional episode of lounging hurt a life with any true claims to the epic form.
The day of decision at length arrived. Again the black-robed powers assembled, and again the hoping, fearing lads--some of them not lads, men, and mere boys--gathered to hear their fate. Name after name was called out;--a twenty pound bursary to the first, one of seventeen to the next, three or four of fifteen and fourteen, and so on, for about twenty, and still no Robert Falconer. At last, lagging wearily in the rear, he heard his name, went up listlessly, and was awarded five pounds. He crept home, wrote to his grandmother, and awaited her reply. It was not long in coming; for although the carrier was generally the medium of communication, Miss Letty had contrived to send the answer by coach. It was to the effect that his grandmother was sorry that he had not been more successful, but that Mr. Innes thought it would be quite worth while to try again, and he must therefore come home for another year.
This was mortifying enough, though not so bad as it might have been. Robert began to pack his box. But before he had finished it he shut the lid and sat upon it. To meet Miss St. John thus disgraced, was more than he could bear. If he remained, he had a chance of winning prizes at the end of the session, and that would more than repair his honour. The five pound bursars were privileged in paying half fees; and if he could only get some teaching, he could manage. But who would employ a bejan when a magistrand might be had for next to nothing? Besides, who would recommend him? The thought of Dr. Anderson flashed into his mind, and he rushed from the house without even knowing where he lived.