Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part II.--His Youth
Chapter VII. Eric Ericson.
Robert sprang across the dividing chasm, clasped Ericson's hand in both of his, looked up into his face, and stood speechless. Ericson returned the salute with a still kindness--tender and still. His face was like a gray morning sky of summer from whose level cloud-fields rain will fall before noon.
'So it was you,' he said, 'playing the violin so well?'
'I was doin' my best,' answered Robert. 'But eh! Mr. Ericson, I wad hae dune better gin I had kent ye was hearkenin'.'
'You couldn't do better than your best,' returned Eric, smiling.
'Ay, but yer best micht aye grow better, ye ken,' persisted Robert.
'Come into my room,' said Ericson. 'This is Friday night, and there is nothing but chapel to-morrow. So we'll have talk instead of work.'
In another moment they were seated by a tiny coal fire in a room one side of which was the slope of the roof, with a large, low skylight in it looking seawards. The sound of the distant waves, unheard in Robert's room, beat upon the drum of the skylight, through all the world of mist that lay between it and them--dimly, vaguely--but ever and again with a swell of gathered force, that made the distant tumult doubtful no more.
'I am sorry I have nothing to offer you,' said Ericson.
'You remind me of Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate of the temple,' returned Robert, attempting to speak English like the Northerner, but breaking down as his heart got the better of him. 'Eh! Mr. Ericson, gin ye kent what it is to me to see the face o' ye, ye wadna speyk like that. Jist lat me sit an' leuk at ye. I want nae mair.'
A smile broke up the cold, sad, gray light of the young eagle-face. Stern at once and gentle when in repose, its smile was as the summer of some lovely land where neither the heat nor the sun shall smite them. The youth laid his hand upon the boy's head, then withdrew it hastily, and the smile vanished like the sun behind a cloud. Robert saw it, and as if he had been David before Saul, rose instinctively and said,
'I'll gang for my fiddle.--Hoots! I hae broken ane o' the strings. We maun bide till the morn. But I want nae fiddle mysel' whan I hear the great water oot there.'
'You're young yet, my boy, or you might hear voices in that water--! I've lived in the sound of it all my days. When I can't rest at night, I hear a moaning and crying in the dark, and I lie and listen till I can't tell whether I'm a man or some God-forsaken sea in the sunless north.'
'Sometimes I believe in naething but my fiddle,' answered Robert.
'Yes, yes. But when it comes into you, my boy! You won't hear much music in the cry of the sea after that. As long as you've got it at arm's length, it's all very well. It's interesting then, and you can talk to your fiddle about it, and make poetry about it,' said Ericson, with a smile of self-contempt. 'But as soon as the real earnest comes that is all over. The sea-moan is the cry of a tortured world then. Its hollow bed is the cup of the world's pain, ever rolling from side to side and dashing over its lip. Of all that might be, ought to be, nothing to be had!--I could get music out of it once. Look here. I could trifle like that once.'
He half rose, then dropped on his chair. But Robert's believing eyes justified confidence, and Ericson had never had any one to talk to. He rose again, opened a cupboard at his side, took out some papers, threw them on the table, and, taking his hat, walked towards the door.
'Which of your strings is broken?' he asked.
'The third,' answered Robert.
'I will get you one,' said Ericson; and before Robert could reply he was down the stair. Robert heard him cough, then the door shut, and he was gone in the rain and fog.
Bewildered, unhappy, ready to fly after him, yet irresolute, Robert almost mechanically turned over the papers upon the little deal table. He was soon arrested by the following verses, headed
A NOONDAY MELODY.
Everything goes to its rest;
The streams have forgotten the sea
The churchyard lies still in the heat,
The waves are asleep on the main,
His heart ready to burst with a sorrow, admiration, and devotion, which no criticism interfered to qualify, Robert rushed out into the darkness, and sped, fleet-footed, along the only path which Ericson could have taken. He could not bear to be left in the house while his friend was out in the rain.
He was sure of joining him before he reached the new town, for he was fleet-footed, and there was a path only on one side of the way, so that there was no danger of passing him in the dark. As he ran he heard the moaning of the sea. There must be a storm somewhere, away in the deep spaces of its dark bosom, and its lips muttered of its far unrest. When the sun rose it would be seen misty and gray, tossing about under the one rain cloud that like a thinner ocean overspread the heavens--tossing like an animal that would fain lie down and be at peace but could not compose its unwieldy strength.
Suddenly Robert slackened his speed, ceased running, stood, gazed through the darkness at a figure a few yards before him.
An old wall, bowed out with age and the weight behind it, flanked the road in this part. Doors in this wall, with a few steps in front of them and more behind, led up into gardens upon a slope, at the top of which stood the houses to which they belonged. Against one of these doors the figure stood with its head bowed upon its hands. When Robert was within a few feet, it descended and went on.
'Mr. Ericson!' exclaimed Robert. 'Ye'll get yer deith gin ye stan' that gait i' the weet.'
'Amen,' said Ericson, turning with a smile that glimmered wan through the misty night. Then changing his tone, he went on: 'What are you after, Robert?'
'You,' answered Robert. 'I cudna bide to be left my lane whan I micht be wi' ye a' the time--gin ye wad lat me. Ye war oot o' the hoose afore I weel kent what ye was aboot. It's no a fit nicht for ye to be oot at a', mair by token 'at ye're no the ablest to stan' cauld an' weet.'
'I've stood a great deal of both in my time,' returned Ericson; 'but come along. We'll go and get that fiddle-string.'
'Dinna ye think it wad be fully better to gang hame?' Robert ventured to suggest.
'What would be the use? I'm in no mood for Plato to-night,' he answered, trying hard to keep from shivering.
'Ye hae an ill cauld upo' ye,' persisted Robert; 'an' ye maun be as weet 's a dishcloot.'
Ericson laughed--a strange, hollow laugh.
'Come along,' he said. 'A walk will do me good. We'll get the string, and then you shall play to me. That will do me more good yet.'
Robert ceased opposing him, and they walked together to the new town. Robert bought the string, and they set out, as he thought, to return.
But not yet did Ericson seem inclined to go home. He took the lead, and they emerged upon the quay.
There were not many vessels. One of them was the Antwerp tub, already known to Robert. He recognized her even in the dull light of the quay lamps. Her captain being a prudent and well-to-do Dutchman, never slept on shore; he preferred saving his money; and therefore, as the friends passed, Robert caught sight of him walking his own deck and smoking a long clay pipe before turning in.
'A fine nicht, capt'n,' said Robert.
'It does rain,' returned the captain. 'Will you come on board and have one schnapps before you turn in?'
'I hae a frien' wi' me here,' said Robert, feeling his way.
'Let him come and be welcomed.'
Ericson making no objection, they went on board, and down into the neat little cabin, which was all the roomier for the straightness of the vessel's quarter. The captain got out a square, coffin-shouldered bottle, and having respect to the condition of their garments, neither of the young men refused his hospitality, though Robert did feel a little compunction at the thought of the horror it would have caused his grandmother. Then the Dutchman got out his violin and asked Robert to play a Scotch air. But in the middle of it his eyes fell on Ericson, and he stopped at once. Ericson was sitting on a locker, leaning back against the side of the vessel: his eyes were open and fixed, and he seemed quite unconscious of what was passing. Robert fancied at first that the hollands he had taken had gone to his head, but he saw at the same moment, from his glass, that he had scarcely tasted the spirit. In great alarm they tried to rouse him, and at length succeeded. He closed his eyes, opened them again, rose up, and was going away.
'What's the maitter wi' ye, Mr. Ericson?' said Robert, in distress.
'Nothing, nothing,' answered Ericson, in a strange voice. 'I fell asleep, I believe. It was very bad manners, captain. I beg your pardon. I believe I am overtired.'
The Dutchman was as kind as possible, and begged Ericson to stay the night and occupy his berth. But he insisted on going home, although he was clearly unfit for such a walk. They bade the skipper good-night, went on shore, and set out, Ericson leaning rather heavily upon Robert's arm. Robert led him up Marischal Street.
The steep ascent was too much for Ericson. He stood still upon the bridge and leaned over the wall of it. Robert stood beside, almost in despair about getting him home.
'Have patience with me, Robert,' said Ericson, in his natural voice. 'I shall be better presently. I don't know what's come to me. If I had been a Celt now, I should have said I had a touch of the second sight. But I am, as far as I know, pure Northman.'
'What did you see?' asked Robert, with a strange feeling that miles of the spirit world, if one may be allowed such a contradiction in words, lay between him and his friend.
Ericson returned no answer. Robert feared he was going to have a relapse; but in a moment more he lifted himself up and bent again to the brae.
They got on pretty well till they were about the middle of the Gallowgate.
'I can't,' said Ericson feebly, and half leaned, half fell against the wall of a house.
'Come into this shop,' said Robert. 'I ken the man. He'll lat ye sit doon.'
He managed to get him in. He was as pale as death. The bookseller got a chair, and he sank into it. Robert was almost at his wit's end. There was no such thing as a cab in Aberdeen for years and years after the date of my story. He was holding a glass of water to Ericson's lips,--when he heard his name, in a low earnest whisper, from the door. There, round the door-cheek, peered the white face and red head of Shargar.
'Robert! Robert!' said Shargar.
'I hear ye,' returned Robert coolly: he was too anxious to be surprised at anything. 'Haud yer tongue. I'll come to ye in a minute.'
Ericson recovered a little, refused the whisky offered by the bookseller, rose, and staggered out.
'If I were only home!' he said. 'But where is home?'
'We'll try to mak ane,' returned Robert. 'Tak a haud o' me. Lay yer weicht upo' me.--Gin it warna for yer len'th, I cud cairry ye weel eneuch. Whaur's that Shargar?' he muttered to himself, looking up and down the gloomy street.
But no Shargar was to be seen. Robert peered in vain into every dark court they crept past, till at length he all but came to the conclusion that Shargar was only 'fantastical.'
When they had reached the hollow, and were crossing then canal-bridge by Mount Hooly, Ericson's strength again failed him, and again he leaned upon the bridge. Nor had he leaned long before Robert found that he had fainted. In desperation he began to hoist the tall form upon his back, when he heard the quick step of a runner behind him and the words--
'Gie 'im to me, Robert; gie 'im to me. I can carry 'im fine.'
'Haud awa' wi' ye,' returned Robert; and again Shargar fell behind.
For a few hundred yards he trudged along manfully; but his strength, more from the nature of his burden than its weight, soon gave way. He stood still to recover. The same moment Shargar was by his side again.
'Noo, Robert,' he said, pleadingly.
Robert yielded, and the burden was shifted to Shargar's back.
How they managed it they hardly knew themselves; but after many changes they at last got Ericson home, and up to his own room. He had revived several times, but gone off again. In one of his faints, Robert undressed him and got him into bed. He had so little to cover him, that Robert could not help crying with misery. He himself was well provided, and would gladly have shared with Ericson, but that was hopeless. He could, however, make him warm in bed. Then leaving Shargar in charge, he sped back to the new town to Dr. Anderson. The doctor had his carriage out at once, wrapped Robert in a plaid and brought him home with him.
Ericson came to himself, and seeing Shargar by his bedside, tried to sit up, asking feebly,
'Where am I?'
'In yer ain bed, Mr. Ericson,' answered Shargar.
'And who are you?' asked Ericson again, bewildered.
Shargar's pale face no doubt looked strange under his crown of red hair.
'Ow! I'm naebody.'
'You must be somebody, or else my brain's in a bad state,' returned Ericson.
'Na, na, I'm naebody. Naething ava (at all). Robert 'll be hame in ae meenit.--I'm Robert's tyke (dog),' concluded Shargar, with a sudden inspiration.
This answer seemed to satisfy Ericson, for he closed his eyes and lay still; nor did he speak again till Robert arrived with the doctor.
Poor food, scanty clothing, undue exertion in travelling to and from the university, hard mental effort against weakness, disquietude of mind, all borne with an endurance unconscious of itself, had reduced Eric Ericson to his present condition. Strength had given way at last, and he was now lying in the low border wash of a dead sea of fever.
The last of an ancient race of poor men, he had no relative but a second cousin, and no means except the little he advanced him, chiefly in kind, to be paid for when Eric had a profession. This cousin was in the herring trade, and the chief assistance he gave him was to send him by sea, from Wick to Aberdeen, a small barrel of his fish every session. One herring, with two or three potatoes, formed his dinner as long as the barrel lasted. But at Aberdeen or elsewhere no one carried his head more erect than Eric Ericson--not from pride, but from simplicity and inborn dignity; and there was not a man during his curriculum more respected than he. An excellent classical scholar--as scholarship went in those days--he was almost the only man in the university who made his knowledge of Latin serve towards an acquaintance with the Romance languages. He had gained a small bursary, and gave lessons when he could.
But having no level channel for the outgoing of the waters of one of the tenderest hearts that ever lived, those waters had sought to break a passage upwards. Herein his experience corresponded in a considerable degree to that of Robert; only Eric's more fastidious and more instructed nature bred a thousand difficulties which he would meet one by one, whereas Robert, less delicate and more robust, would break through all the oppositions of theological science falsely so called, and take the kingdom of heaven by force. But indeed the ruins of the ever falling temple of theology had accumulated far more heavily over Robert's well of life, than over that of Ericson: the obstructions to his faith were those that rolled from the disintegrating mountains of humanity, rather than the rubbish heaped upon it by the careless masons who take the quarry whence they hew the stones for the temple--built without hands eternal in the heavens.
When Dr. Anderson entered, Ericson opened his eyes wide. The doctor approached, and taking his hand began to feel his pulse. Then first Ericson comprehended his visit.
'I can't,' he said, withdrawing his hand. 'I am not so ill as to need a doctor.'
'My dear sir,' said Dr. Anderson, courteously, 'there will be no occasion to put you to any pain.'
'Sir,' said Eric, 'I have no money.'
The doctor laughed.
'And I have more than I know how to make a good use of.'
'I would rather be left alone,' persisted Ericson, turning his face away.
'Now, my dear sir,' said the doctor, with gentle decision, 'that is very wrong. With what face can you offer a kindness when your turn comes, if you won't accept one yourself?'
Ericson held out his wrist. Dr. Anderson questioned, prescribed, and, having given directions, went home, to call again in the morning.
And now Robert was somewhat in the position of the old woman who 'had so many children she didn't know what to do.' Dr. Anderson ordered nourishment for Ericson, and here was Shargar upon his hands as well! Shargar and he could share, to be sure, and exist: but for Ericson--?
Not a word did Robert exchange with Shargar till he had gone to the druggist's and got the medicine for Ericson, who, after taking it, fell into a troubled sleep. Then, leaving the two doors open, Robert joined Shargar in his own room. There he made up a good fire, and they sat and dried themselves.
'Noo, Shargar,' said Robert at length, 'hoo cam ye here?'
His question was too like one of his grandmother's to be pleasant to Shargar.
'Dinna speyk to me that gait, Robert, or I'll cut my throat' he returned.
'Hoots! I maun ken a' aboot it,' insisted Robert, but with much modified and partly convicted tone.
'Weel, I never said I wadna tell ye a' aboot it. The fac' 's this--an' I'm no' up to the leein' as I used to be, Robert: I hae tried it ower an' ower, but a lee comes rouch throw my thrapple (windpipe) noo. Faith! I cud hae leed ance wi' onybody, barrin' the de'il. I winna lee. I'm nae leein'. The fac's jist this: I cudna bide ahin' ye ony langer.'
'But what, the muckle lang-tailed deevil! am I to do wi' ye?' returned Robert, in real perplexity, though only pretended displeasure.
'Gie me something to ate, an' I'll tell ye what to do wi' me,' answered Shargar. 'I dinna care a scart (scratch) what it is.'
Robert rang the bell and ordered some porridge, and while it was preparing, Shargar told his story--how having heard a rumour of apprenticeship to a tailor, he had the same night dropped from the gable window to the ground, and with three halfpence in his pocket had wandered and begged his way to Aberdeen, arriving with one halfpenny left.
'But what am I to do wi' ye?' said Robert once more, in as much perplexity as ever.
'Bide till I hae tellt ye, as I said I wad,' answered Shargar. 'Dinna ye think I'm the haveless (careless and therefore helpless) crater I used to be. I hae been in Aberdeen three days! Ay, an' I hae seen you ilka day in yer reid goon, an' richt braw it is. Luik ye here!'
He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out what amounted to two or three shillings, chiefly in coppers, which he exposed with triumph on the table.
'Whaur got ye a' that siller, man?' asked Robert.
'Here and there, I kenna whaur; but I hae gien the weicht o' 't for 't a' the same--rinnin' here an' rinnin' there, cairryin' boxes till an' frae the smacks, an' doin' a'thing whether they bade me or no. Yesterday mornin' I got thrippence by hingin' aboot the Royal afore the coches startit. I luikit a' up and doon the street till I saw somebody hine awa wi' a porkmanty. Till 'im I ran, an' he was an auld man, an' maist at the last gasp wi' the weicht o' 't, an' gae me 't to carry. An' wha duv ye think gae me a shillin' the verra first nicht?--Wha but my brither Sandy?'
'Ay, faith. I kent him weel eneuch, but little he kent me. There he was upo' Black Geordie. He's turnin' auld noo.'
'Na. He's young eneuch for ony mischeef; but Black Geordie. What on earth gars him gang stravaguin' aboot upo' that deevil? I doobt he's a kelpie, or a hell-horse, or something no canny o' that kin'; for faith! brither Sandy's no ower canny himsel', I'm thinkin'. But Geordie--the aulder the waur set (inclined). An' sae I'm thinkin' wi' his maister.'
'Did ye iver see yer father, Shargar?'
'Na. Nor I dinna want to see 'im. I'm upo' my mither's side. But that's naething to the pint. A' that I want o' you 's to lat me come hame at nicht, an' lie upo' the flure here. I sweir I'll lie i' the street gin ye dinna lat me. I'll sleep as soun' 's Peter MacInnes whan Maccleary's preachin'. An' I winna ate muckle--I hae a dreidfu' pooer o' aitin'--an' a' 'at I gether I'll fess hame to you, to du wi' 't as ye like.--Man, I cairriet a heap o' things the day till the skipper o' that boat 'at ye gaed intil wi' Maister Ericson the nicht. He's a fine chiel' that skipper!'
Robert was astonished at the change that had passed upon Shargar. His departure had cast him upon his own resources, and allowed the individuality repressed by every event of his history, even by his worship of Robert, to begin to develop itself. Miserable for a few weeks, he had revived in the fancy that to work hard at school would give him some chance of rejoining Robert. Thence, too, he had watched to please Mrs. Falconer, and had indeed begun to buy golden opinions from all sorts of people. He had a hope in prospect. But into the midst fell the whisper of the apprenticeship like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky. He fled at once.
'Weel, ye can hae my bed the nicht,' said Robert, 'for I maun sit up wi' Mr. Ericson.'
''Deed I'll hae naething o' the kin'. I'll sleep upo' the flure, or else upo' the door-stane. Man, I'm no clean eneuch efter what I've come throu sin' I drappit frae the window-sill i' the ga'le-room. But jist len' me yer plaid, an' I'll sleep upo' the rug here as gin I war i' Paradees. An' faith, sae I am, Robert. Ye maun gang to yer bed some time the nicht forby (besides), or ye winna be fit for yer wark the morn. Ye can jist gie me a kick, an' I'll be up afore ye can gie me anither.'
Their supper arrived from below, and, each on one side of the fire, they ate the porridge, conversing all the while about old times--for the youngest life has its old times, its golden age--and old adventures,--Dooble Sanny, Betty, &c., &c. There were but two subjects which Robert avoided--Miss St. John and the Bonnie Leddy. Shargar was at length deposited upon the little bit of hearthrug which adorned rather than enriched the room, with Robert's plaid of shepherd tartan around him, and an Ainsworth's dictionary under his head for a pillow.
'Man, I fin' mysel' jist like a muckle colley (sheep-dog),' he said. 'Whan I close my een, I'm no sure 'at I'm no i' the inside o' yer auld luckie-daiddie's kilt. The Lord preserve me frae ever sic a fricht again as yer grannie an' Betty gae me the nicht they fand me in 't! I dinna believe it's in natur' to hae sic a fricht twise in ae lifetime. Sae I'll fa' asleep at ance, an' say nae mair--but as muckle o' my prayers as I can min' upo' noo 'at grannie's no at my lug.'
'Haud yer impidence, an' yer tongue thegither,' said Robert. 'Min' 'at my grannie's been the best frien' ye ever had.'
''Cep' my ain mither,' returned Shargar, with a sleepy doggedness in his tone.
During their conference, Ericson had been slumbering. Robert had visited him from time to time, but he had not awaked. As soon as Shargar was disposed of, he took his candle and sat down by him. He grew more uneasy. Robert guessed that the candle was the cause, and put it out. Ericson was quieter. So Robert sat in the dark.
But the rain had now ceased. Some upper wind had swept the clouds from the sky, and the whole world of stars was radiant over the earth and its griefs.
'O God, where art thou?' he said in his heart, and went to his own room to look out.
There was no curtain, and the blind had not been drawn down, therefore the earth looked in at the storm-window. The sea neither glimmered nor shone. It lay across the horizon like a low level cloud, out of which came a moaning. Was this moaning all of the earth, or was there trouble in the starry places too? thought Robert, as if already he had begun to suspect the truth from afar--that save in the secret place of the Most High, and in the heart that is hid with the Son of Man in the bosom of the Father, there is trouble--a sacred unrest--everywhere--the moaning of a tide setting homewards, even towards the bosom of that Father.