Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part II.--His Youth
Chapter IX. A Human Soul.
Ericson lay for several weeks, during which time Robert and Shargar were his only nurses. They contrived, by abridging both rest and labour, to give him constant attendance. Shargar went to bed early and got up early, so as to let Robert have a few hours' sleep before his classes began. Robert again slept in the evening, after Shargar came home, and made up for the time by reading while he sat by his friend. Mrs. Fyvie's attendance was in requisition only for the hours when he had to be at lectures. By the greatest economy of means, consisting of what Shargar brought in by jobbing about the quay and the coach-offices, and what Robert had from Dr. Anderson for copying his manuscript, they contrived to procure for Ericson all that he wanted. The shopping of the two boys, in their utter ignorance of such delicacies as the doctor told them to get for him, the blunders they made as to the shops at which they were to be bought, and the consultations they held, especially about the preparing of the prescribed nutriment, afforded them many an amusing retrospect in after years. For the house was so full of lodgers, that Robert begged Mrs. Fyvie to give herself no trouble in the matter. Her conscience, however, was uneasy, and she spoke to Dr. Anderson; but he assured her that she might trust the boys. What cooking they could not manage, she undertook cheerfully, and refused to add anything to the rent on Shargar's account.
Dr. Anderson watched everything, the two boys as much as his patient. He allowed them to work on, sending only the wine that was necessary from his own cellar. The moment the supplies should begin to fail, or the boys to look troubled, he was ready to do more. About Robert's perseverance he had no doubt: Shargar's faithfulness he wanted to prove.
Robert wrote to his grandmother to tell her that Shargar was with him, working hard. Her reply was somewhat cold and offended, but was inclosed in a parcel containing all Shargar's garments, and ended with the assurance that as long as he did well she was ready to do what she could.
Few English readers will like Mrs. Falconer; but her grandchild considered her one of the noblest women ever God made; and I, from his account, am of the same mind. Her care was fixed
And if one must choose between the how and the what, let me have the what, come of the how what may. I know of a man so sensitive, that he shuts his ears to his sister's griefs, because it spoils his digestion to think of them.
One evening Robert was sitting by the table in Ericson's room. Dr. Anderson had not called that day, and he did not expect to see him now, for he had never come so late. He was quite at his ease, therefore, and busy with two things at once, when the doctor opened the door and walked in. I think it is possible that he came up quietly with some design of surprising him. He found him with a stocking on one hand, a darning needle in the other, and a Greek book open before him. Taking no apparent notice of him, he walked up to the bedside, and Robert put away his work. After his interview with his patient was over, the doctor signed to him to follow him to the next room. There Shargar lay on the rug already snoring. It was a cold night in December, but he lay in his under-clothing, with a single blanket round him.
'Good training for a soldier,' said the doctor; 'and so was your work a minute ago, Robert.'
'Ay,' answered Robert, colouring a little; 'I was readin' a bit o' the Anabasis.'
The doctor smiled a far-off sly smile.
'I think it was rather the Katabasis, if one might venture to judge from the direction of your labours.'
'Weel,' answered Robert, 'what wad ye hae me do? Wad ye hae me lat Mr. Ericson gang wi' holes i' the heels o' 's hose, whan I can mak them a' snod, an' learn my Greek at the same time? Hoots, doctor! dinna lauch at me. I was doin' nae ill. A body may please themsel's--whiles surely, ohn sinned.'
'But it's such waste of time! Why don't you buy him new ones?'
''Deed that's easier said than dune. I hae eneuch ado wi' my siller as 'tis; an' gin it warna for you, doctor, I do not ken what wad come o' 's; for ye see I hae no richt to come upo' my grannie for ither fowk. There wad be nae en' to that.'
'But I could lend you the money to buy him some stockings.'
'An' whan wad I be able to pay ye, do ye think, doctor? In anither warl' maybe, whaur the currency micht be sae different there wad be no possibility o' reckonin' the rate o' exchange. Na, na.'
'But I will give you the money if you like.'
'Na, na. You hae dune eneuch already, an' mony thanks. Siller's no sae easy come by to be wastit, as lang's a darn 'll do. Forbye, gin ye began wi' his claes, ye wadna ken whaur to haud; for it wad jist be the new claith upo' the auld garment: ye micht as weel new cleed him at ance.'
'And why not if I choose, Mr. Falconer?'
'Speir ye that at him, an' see what ye'll get--a luik 'at wad fess a corbie (carrion crow) frae the lift (sky). I wadna hae ye try that. Some fowk's poverty maun be han'let jist like a sair place, doctor. He canna weel compleen o' a bit darnin'.--He canna tak that ill,' repeated Robert, in a tone that showed he yet felt some anxiety on the subject; 'but new anes! I wadna like to be by whan he fand that oot. Maybe he micht tak them frae a wuman; but frae a man body!--na, na; I maun jist darn awa'. But I'll mak them dacent eneuch afore I hae dune wi' them. A fiddler has fingers.'
The doctor smiled a pleased smile; but when he got into his carriage, again he laughed heartily.
The evening deepened into night. Robert thought Ericson was asleep. But he spoke.
'Who is that at the street door?' he said.
They were at the top of the house, and there was no window to the street. But Ericson's senses were preternaturally acute, as is often the case in such illnesses.
'I dinna hear onybody,' answered Robert.
'There was somebody,' returned Ericson.
From that moment he began to be restless, and was more feverish than usual throughout the night.
Up to this time he had spoken little, was depressed with a suffering to which he could give no name--not pain, he said--but such that he could rouse no mental effort to meet it: his endurance was passive altogether. This night his brain was more affected. He did not rave, but often wandered; never spoke nonsense, but many words that would have seemed nonsense to ordinary people: to Robert they seemed inspired. His imagination, which was greater than any other of his fine faculties, was so roused that he talked in verse--probably verse composed before and now recalled. He would even pray sometimes in measured lines, and go on murmuring petitions, till the words of the murmur became undistinguishable, and he fell asleep. But even in his sleep he would speak; and Robert would listen in awe; for such words, falling from such a man, were to him as dim breaks of coloured light from the rainbow walls of the heavenly city.
'If God were thinking me,' said Ericson, 'ah! But if he be only dreaming me, I shall go mad.'
Ericson's outside was like his own northern clime--dark, gentle, and clear, with gray-blue seas, and a sun that seems to shine out of the past, and know nothing of the future. But within glowed a volcanic angel of aspiration, fluttering his half-grown wings, and ever reaching towards the heights whence all things are visible, and where all passions are safe because true, that is divine. Iceland herself has her Hecla.
Robert listened with keenest ear. A mist of great meaning hung about the words his friend had spoken. He might speak more. For some minutes he listened in vain, and was turning at last towards his book in hopelessness, when he did speak yet again: Robert's ear soon detected the rhythmic motion of his speech.
'Come in the glory of thine excellence;
Breathless for fear of losing a word, Robert yet remembered that he had seen something like these words in the papers Ericson had given him to read on the night when his illness began. When he had fallen asleep and silent, he searched and found the poem from which I give the following extracts. He had not looked at the papers since that night.
O Lord, my God, how long
I would be a wind,
Lord, clothe me with thy truth as with a robe.
I have seen
O Lord, my soul is a forgotten well;
O First and Last, O glorious all in all,
Most mighty One,
Lo! now I see
Hear me, O Lord,
Oh, dost thou hold each individual soul
Here came the passage Robert had heard him repeat, and then the following paragraph:
Lord, thy strange mysteries come thickening down
The creeds lie in the hollow of men's hearts
O wilt thou hear me when I cry to thee?
There was more of it, as my type indicates. Full of faults, I have given so much to my reader, just as it stood upon Ericson's blotted papers, the utterance of a true soul 'crying for the light.' But I give also another of his poems, which Robert read at the same time, revealing another of his moods when some one of the clouds of holy doubt and questioning love which so often darkened his sky, did at length
They are blind and they are dead:
They are tired of what is old:
Ye that have a pleasant voice,
Ye that cannot pipe or sing,
As Robert read, the sweetness of the rhythm seized upon him, and, almost unconsciously, he read the last stanza aloud. Looking up from the paper with a sigh of wonder and delight--there was the pale face of Ericson gazing at him from the bed! He had risen on one arm, looking like a dead man called to life against his will, who found the world he had left already stranger to him than the one into which he had but peeped.
'Yes,' he murmured; 'I could say that once. It's all gone now. Our world is but our moods.'
He fell back on his pillow. After a little, he murmured again:
'I might fool myself with faith again. So it is better not. I would not be fooled. To believe the false and be happy is the very belly of misery. To believe the true and be miserable, is to be true--and miserable. If there is no God, let me know it. I will not be fooled. I will not believe in a God that does not exist. Better be miserable because I am, and cannot help it.--O God!'
Yet in his misery, he cried upon God.
These words came upon Robert with such a shock of sympathy, that they destroyed his consciousness for the moment, and when he thought about them, he almost doubted if he had heard them. He rose and approached the bed. Ericson lay with his eyes closed, and his face contorted as by inward pain. Robert put a spoonful of wine to his lips. He swallowed it, opened his eyes, gazed at the boy as if he did not know him, closed them again, and lay still.
Some people take comfort from the true eyes of a dog--and a precious thing to the loving heart is the love of even a dumb animal. What comfort then must not such a boy as Robert have been to such a man as Ericson! Often and often when he was lying asleep as Robert thought, he was watching the face of his watcher. When the human soul is not yet able to receive the vision of the God-man, God sometimes--might I not say always?--reveals himself, or at least gives himself, in some human being whose face, whose hands are the ministering angels of his unacknowledged presence, to keep alive the fire of love on the altar of the heart, until God hath provided the sacrifice--that is, until the soul is strong enough to draw it from the concealing thicket. Here were two, each thinking that God had forsaken him, or was not to be found by him, and each the very love of God, commissioned to tend the other's heart. In each was he present to the other. The one thought himself the happiest of mortals in waiting upon his big brother, whose least smile was joy enough for one day; the other wondered at the unconscious goodness of the boy, and while he gazed at his ruddy-brown face, believed in God.
For some time after Ericson was taken ill, he was too depressed and miserable to ask how he was cared for. But by slow degrees it dawned upon him that a heart deep and gracious, like that of a woman, watched over him. True, Robert was uncouth, but his uncouthness was that of a half-fledged angel. The heart of the man and the heart of the boy were drawn close together. Long before Ericson was well he loved Robert enough to be willing to be indebted to him, and would lie pondering--not how to repay him, but how to return his kindness.
How much Robert's ambition to stand well in the eyes of Miss St. John contributed to his progress I can only imagine; but certainly his ministrations to Ericson did not interfere with his Latin and Greek. I venture to think that they advanced them, for difficulty adds to result, as the ramming of the powder sends the bullet the further. I have heard, indeed, that when a carrier wants to help his horse up hill, he sets a boy on his back.
Ericson made little direct acknowledgment to Robert: his tones, his gestures, his looks, all thanked him; but he shrunk from words, with the maidenly shamefacedness that belongs to true feeling. He would even assume the authoritative, and send him away to his studies, but Robert knew how to hold his own. The relation of elder brother and younger was already established between them. Shargar likewise took his share in the love and the fellowship, worshipping in that he believed.