Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part II.--His Youth
Chapter X. A Father and a Daughter.
The presence at the street door of which Ericson's over-acute sense had been aware on a past evening, was that of Mr. Lindsay, walking home with bowed back and bowed head from the college library, where he was privileged to sit after hours as long as he pleased over books too big to be comfortably carried home to his cottage. He had called to inquire after Ericson, whose acquaintance he had made in the library, and cultivated until almost any Friday evening Ericson was to be found seated by Mr. Lindsay's parlour fire.
As he entered the room that same evening, a young girl raised herself from a low seat by the fire to meet him. There was a faint rosy flush on her cheek, and she held a volume in her hand as she approached her father. They did not kiss: kisses were not a legal tender in Scotland then: possibly there has been a depreciation in the value of them since they were.
'I've been to ask after Mr. Ericson,' said Mr. Lindsay.
'And how is he?' asked the girl.
'Very poorly indeed,' answered her father.
'I am sorry. You'll miss him, papa.'
'Yes, my dear. Tell Jenny to bring my lamp.'
'Won't you have your tea first, papa?'
'Oh yes, if it's ready.'
'The kettle has been boiling for a long time, but I wouldn't make the tea till you came in.'
Mr. Lindsay was an hour later than usual, but Mysie was quite unaware of that: she had been absorbed in her book, too much absorbed even to ring for better light than the fire afforded. When her father went to put off his long, bifurcated greatcoat, she returned to her seat by the fire, and forgot to make the tea. It was a warm, snug room, full of dark, old-fashioned, spider-legged furniture; low-pitched, with a bay-window, open like an ear to the cries of the German Ocean at night, and like an eye during the day to look out upon its wide expanse. This ear or eye was now curtained with dark crimson, and the room, in the firelight, with the young girl for a soul to it, affected one like an ancient book in which he reads his own latest thought.
Mysie was nothing over the middle height--delicately-fashioned, at once slender and round, with extremities neat as buds. Her complexion was fair, and her face pale, except when a flush, like that of a white rose, overspread it. Her cheek was lovelily curved, and her face rather short. But at first one could see nothing for her eyes. They were the largest eyes; and their motion reminded one of those of Sordello in the Purgatorio:
they seemed too large to move otherwise than with a slow turning like that of the heavens. At first they looked black, but if one ventured inquiry, which was as dangerous as to gaze from the battlements of Elsinore, he found them a not very dark brown. In her face, however, especially when flushed, they had all the effect of what Milton describes as
A wise observer would have been a little troubled in regarding her mouth. The sadness of a morbid sensibility hovered about it--the sign of an imagination wrought upon from the centre of self. Her lips were neither thin nor compressed--they closed lightly, and were richly curved; but there was a mobility almost tremulous about the upper lip that gave sign of the possibility of such an oscillation of feeling as might cause the whole fabric of her nature to rock dangerously.
The moment her father re-entered, she started from her stool on the rug, and proceeded to make the tea. Her father took no notice of her neglect, but drew a chair to the table, helped himself to a piece of oat-cake, hastily loaded it with as much butter as it could well carry, and while eating it forgot it and everything else in the absorption of a volume he had brought in with him from his study, in which he was tracing out some genealogical thread of which he fancied he had got a hold. Mysie was very active now, and lost the expression of far-off-ness which had hitherto characterized her countenance; till, having poured out the tea, she too plunged at once into her novel, and, like her father, forgot everything and everybody near her.
Mr. Lindsay was a mild, gentle man, whose face and hair seemed to have grown gray together. He was very tall, and stooped much. He had a mouth of much sensibility, and clear blue eyes, whose light was rarely shed upon any one within reach except his daughter--they were so constantly bent downwards, either on the road as he walked, or on his book as he sat. He had been educated for the church, but had never risen above the position of a parish school-master. He had little or no impulse to utterance, was shy, genial, and, save in reading, indolent. Ten years before this point of my history he had been taken up by an active lawyer in Edinburgh, from information accidentally supplied by Mr. Lindsay himself, as the next heir to a property to which claim was laid by the head of a county family of wealth. Probabilities were altogether in his favour, when he gave up the contest upon the offer of a comfortable annuity from the disputant. To leave his schooling and his possible estate together, and sit down comfortably by his own fireside, with the means of buying books, and within reach of a good old library--that of King's College by preference--was to him the sum of all that was desirable. The income offered him was such that he had no doubt of laying aside enough for his only child, Mysie; but both were so ill-fitted for saving, he from looking into the past, she from looking into--what shall I call it? I can only think of negatives--what was neither past, present, nor future, neither material nor eternal, neither imaginative in any true sense, nor actual in any sense, that up to the present hour there was nothing in the bank, and only the money for impending needs in the house. He could not be called a man of learning; he was only a great bookworm; for his reading lay all in the nebulous regions of history. Old family records, wherever he could lay hold upon them, were his favourite dishes; old, musty books, that looked as if they knew something everybody else had forgotten, made his eyes gleam, and his white taper-fingered hand tremble with eagerness. With such a book in his grasp he saw something ever beckoning him on, a dimly precious discovery, a wonderful fact just the shape of some missing fragment in the mosaic of one of his pictures of the past. To tell the truth, however, his discoveries seldom rounded themselves into pictures, though many fragments of the minutely dissected map would find their places, whereupon he rejoiced like a mild giant refreshed with soda-water. But I have already said more about him than his place justifies; therefore, although I could gladly linger over the portrait, I will leave it. He had taught his daughter next to nothing. Being his child, he had the vague feeling that she inherited his wisdom, and that what he knew she knew. So she sat reading novels, generally trashy ones, while he knew no more of what was passing in her mind than of what the Admirable Crichton might, at the moment, be disputing with the angels.
I would not have my reader suppose that Mysie's mind was corrupted. It was so simple and childlike, leaning to what was pure, and looking up to what was noble, that anything directly bad in the books she happened--for it was all haphazard--to read, glided over her as a black cloud may glide over a landscape, leaving it sunny as before.
I cannot therefore say, however, that she was nothing the worse. If the darkening of the sun keep the fruits of the earth from growing, the earth is surely the worse, though it be blackened by no deposit of smoke. And where good things do not grow, the wild and possibly noxious will grow more freely. There may be no harm in the yellow tanzie--there is much beauty in the red poppy; but they are not good for food. The result in Mysie's case would be this--not that she would call evil good and good evil, but that she would take the beautiful for the true and the outer shows of goodness for goodness itself--not the worst result, but bad enough, and involving an awful amount of suffering and possibly of defilement. He who thinks to climb the hill of happiness thus, will find himself floundering in the blackest bog that lies at the foot of its precipices. I say he, not she, advisedly. All will acknowledge it of the woman: it is as true of the man, though he may get out easier. Will he? I say, checking myself. I doubt it much. In the world's eye, yes; but in God's? Let the question remain unanswered.
When he had eaten his toast, and drunk his tea, apparently without any enjoyment, Mr. Lindsay rose with his book in his hand, and withdrew to his study.
He had not long left the room when Mysie was startled by a loud knock at the back door, which opened on a lane, leading along the top of the hill. But she had almost forgotten it again, when the door of the room opened, and a gentleman entered without any announcement--for Jenny had never heard of the custom. When she saw him, Mysie started from her seat, and stood in visible embarrassment. The colour went and came on her lovely face, and her eyelids grew very heavy. She had never seen the visitor before: whether he had ever seen her before, I cannot certainly say. She felt herself trembling in his presence, while he advanced with perfect composure. He was a man no longer young, but in the full strength and show of manhood--the Baron of Rothie. Since the time of my first description of him, he had grown a moustache, which improved his countenance greatly, by concealing his upper lip with its tusky curves. On a girl like Mysie, with an imagination so cultivated, and with no opportunity of comparing its fancies with reality, such a man would make an instant impression.
'I beg your pardon, Miss--Lindsay, I presume?--for intruding upon you so abruptly. I expected to see your father--not one of the graces.'
She blushed all the colour of her blood now. The baron was quite enough like the hero of whom she had just been reading to admit of her imagination jumbling the two. Her book fell. He lifted it and laid it on the table. She could not speak even to thank him. Poor Mysie was scarcely more than sixteen.
'May I wait here till your father is informed of my visit?' he asked.
Her only answer was to drop again upon her low stool.
Now Jenny had left it to Mysie to acquaint her father with the fact of the baron's presence; but before she had time to think of the necessity of doing something, he had managed to draw her into conversation. He was as great a hypocrite as ever walked the earth, although he flattered himself that he was none, because he never pretended to cultivate that which he despised--namely, religion. But he was a hypocrite nevertheless; for the falser he knew himself, the more honour he judged it to persuade women of his truth.
It is unnecessary to record the slight, graceful, marrowless talk into which he drew Mysie, and by which he both bewildered and bewitched her. But at length she rose, admonished by her inborn divinity, to seek her father. As she passed him, the baron took her hand and kissed it. She might well tremble. Even such contact was terrible. Why? Because there was no love in it. When the sense of beauty which God had given him that he might worship, awoke in Lord Rothie, he did not worship, but devoured, that he might, as he thought, possess! The poison of asps was under those lips. His kiss was as a kiss from the grave's mouth, for his throat was an open sepulchre. This was all in the past, reader. Baron Rothie was a foam-flake of the court of the Prince Regent. There are no such men now-a-days! It is a shame to speak of such, and therefore they are not! Decency has gone so far to abolish virtue. Would to God that a writer could be decent and honest! St. Paul counted it a shame to speak of some things, and yet he did speak of them--because those to whom he spoke did them.
Lord Rothie had, in five minutes, so deeply interested Mr. Lindsay in a question of genealogy, that he begged his lordship to call again in a few days, when he hoped to have some result of research to communicate.
One of the antiquarian's weaknesses, cause and result both of his favourite pursuits, was an excessive reverence for rank. Had its claims been founded on mediated revelation, he could not have honoured it more. Hence when he communicated to his daughter the name of their visitor, it was 'with bated breath and whispering humbleness,' which deepened greatly the impression made upon her by the presence and conversation of the baron. Mysie was in danger.
Shargar was late that evening, for he had a job that detained him. As he handed over his money to Robert, he said,
'I saw Black Geordie the nicht again, stan'in' at a back door, an' Jock Mitchell, upo' Reid Rorie, haudin' him.'
'Wha's Jock Mitchell?' asked Robert.
'My brither Sandy's ill-faured groom,' answered Shargar. 'Whatever mischeef Sandy's up till, Jock comes in i' the heid or tail o' 't.'
'I wonner what he's up till noo.'
'Faith! nae guid. But I aye like waur to meet Sandy by himsel' upo' that reekit deevil o' his. Man, it's awfu' whan Black Geordie turns the white o' 's ee, an' the white o' 's teeth upo' ye. It's a' the white 'at there is about 'im.'
'Wasna yer brither i' the airmy, Shargar?'
'Ow, 'deed ay. They tell me he was at Watterloo. He's a cornel, or something like that.'
'Wha tellt ye a' that?'
'My mither whiles,' answered Shargar.