Part II.--His Youth
Chapter XII. The Granite Church.
 

The next day was Sunday. Robert sat, after breakfast, by his friend's bed.

'You haven't been to church for a long time, Robert: wouldn't you like to go to-day?' said Ericson.

'I dinna want to lea' you, Mr. Ericson; I can bide wi' ye a' day the day, an' that's better nor goin' to a' the kirks in Aberdeen.'

'I should like you to go to-day, though; and see if, after all, there may not be a message for us. If the church be the house of God, as they call it, there should be, now and then at least, some sign of a pillar of fire about it, some indication of the presence of God whose house it is. I wish you would go and see. I haven't been to church for a long time, except to the college-chapel, and I never saw anything more than a fog there.'

'Michtna the fog be the torn-edge like, o' the cloody pillar?' suggested Robert.

'Very likely,' assented Ericson; 'for, whatever truth there may be in Christianity, I'm pretty sure the mass of our clergy have never got beyond Judaism. They hang on about the skirts of that cloud for ever.'

'Ye see, they think as lang 's they see the fog, they hae a grup o' something. But they canna get a grup o' the glory that excelleth, for it's not to luik at, but to lat ye see a' thing.'

Ericson regarded him with some surprise. Robert hastened to be honest.

'It's no that I ken onything aboot it, Mr. Ericson. I was only bletherin' (talking nonsense)--rizzonin' frae the twa symbols o' the cloud an' the fire--kennin' nothing aboot the thing itsel'. I'll awa' to the kirk, an' see what it's like. Will I gie ye a buik afore I gang?'

'No, thank you. I'll just lie quiet till you come back--if I can.'

Robert instructed Shargar to watch for the slightest sound from the sick-room, and went to church.

As he approached the granite cathedral, the only one in the world, I presume, its stern solidity, so like the country and its men, laid hold of his imagination for the first time. No doubt the necessity imposed by the unyielding material had its share, and that a large one, in the character of the building: whence else that simplest of west windows, seven lofty, narrow slits of light, parted by granite shafts of equal width, filling the space between the corner buttresses of the nave, and reaching from door to roof? whence else the absence of tracery in the windows--except the severely gracious curves into which the mullions divide?--But this cause could not have determined those towers, so strong that they might have borne their granite weight soaring aloft, yet content with the depth of their foundation, and aspiring not. The whole aspect of the building is an outcome, an absolute blossom of the northern nature.

There is but the nave of the church remaining. About 1680, more than a century after the Reformation, the great tower fell, destroying the choir, chancel, and transept, which have never been rebuilt. May the reviving faith of the nation in its own history, and God at the heart of it, lead to the restoration of this grand old monument of the belief of their fathers. Deformed as the interior then was with galleries, and with Gavin Dunbar's flat ceiling, an awe fell upon Robert as he entered it. When in after years he looked down from between the pillars of the gallery, that creeps round the church through the thickness of the wall, like an artery, and recalled the service of this Sunday morning, he felt more strongly than ever that such a faith had not reared that cathedral. The service was like the church only as a dead body is like a man. There was no fervour in it, no aspiration. The great central tower was gone.

That morning prayers and sermon were philosophically dull, and respectable as any after-dinner speech. Nor could it well be otherwise: one of the favourite sayings of its minister was, that a clergyman is nothing but a moral policeman. As such, however, he more resembled one of Dogberry's watch. He could not even preach hell with any vigour; for as a gentleman he recoiled from the vulgarity of the doctrine, yielding only a few feeble words on the subject as a sop to the Cerberus that watches over the dues of the Bible--quite unaware that his notion of the doctrine had been drawn from the Æneid, and not from the Bible.

'Well, have you got anything, Robert?' asked Ericson, as he entered his room.

'Nothing,' answered Robert.

'What was the sermon about?'

'It was all to prove that God is a benevolent being.'

'Not a devil, that is,' answered Ericson. 'Small consolation that.'

'Sma' eneuch,' responded Robert. 'I cudna help thinkin' I kent mony a tyke (dog) that God had made wi' mair o' what I wad ca' the divine natur' in him nor a' that Dr. Soulis made oot to be in God himsel'. He had no ill intentions wi' us--it amuntit to that. He wasna ill-willy, as the bairns say. But the doctor had some sair wark, I thoucht, to mak that oot, seein' we war a' the children o' wrath, accordin' to him, born in sin, and inheritin' the guilt o' Adam's first trespass. I dinna think Dr. Soulis cud say that God had dune the best he cud for 's. But he never tried to say onything like that. He jist made oot that he was a verra respectable kin' o' a God, though maybe no a'thing we micht wuss. We oucht to be thankfu' that he gae's a wee blink o' a chance o' no bein' brunt to a' eternity, wi' nae chance ava. I dinna say that he said that, but that's what it a' seemed to me to come till. He said a hantle aboot the care o' Providence, but a' the gude that he did seemed to me to be but a haudin' aff o' something ill that he had made as weel. Ye wad hae thocht the deevil had made the warl', and syne God had pitten us intil 't, and jist gied a bit wag o' 's han' whiles to haud the deevil aff o' 's whan he was like to destroy the breed a'thegither. For the grace that he spak aboot, that was less nor the nature an' the providence. I cud see unco little o' grace intil 't.'

Here Ericson broke in--fearful, apparently, lest his boyfriend should be actually about to deny the God in whom he did not himself believe.

'Robert,' he said solemnly, 'one thing is certain: if there be a God at all, he is not like that. If there be a God at all, we shall know him by his perfection--his grand perfect truth, fairness, love--a love to make life an absolute good--not a mere accommodation of difficulties, not a mere preponderance of the balance on the side of well-being. Love only could have been able to create. But they don't seem jealous for the glory of God, those men. They don't mind a speck, or even a blot, here and there upon him. The world doesn't make them miserable. They can get over the misery of their fellow-men without being troubled about them, or about the God that could let such things be.[7] They represent a God who does wonderfully well, on the whole, after a middling fashion. I want a God who loves perfectly. He may kill; he may torture even; but if it be for love's sake, Lord, here am I. Do with me as thou wilt.'

Had Ericson forgotten that he had no proof of such a God? The next moment the intellectual demon was awake.

'But what's the good of it all?' he said. 'I don't even know that there is anything outside of me.'

'Ye ken that I'm here, Mr. Ericson,' suggested Robert.

'I know nothing of the sort. You may be another phantom--only clearer.'

'Ye speik to me as gin ye thocht me somebody.'

'So does the man to his phantoms, and you call him mad. It is but a yielding to the pressure of constant suggestion. I do not know--I cannot know if there is anything outside of me.'

'But gin there warna, there wad be naebody for ye to love, Mr. Ericson.'

'Of course not.'

'Nor naebody to love you, Mr. Ericson.'

'Of course not.'

'Syne ye wad be yer ain God, Mr. Ericson.'

'Yes. That would follow.'

'I canna imagine a waur hell--closed in amo' naething--wi' naething a' aboot ye, luikin' something a' the time--kennin' 'at it 's a' a lee, and nae able to win clear o' 't.'

'It is hell, my boy, or anything worse you can call it.'

'What for suld ye believe that, than, Mr. Ericson? I wadna believe sic an ill thing as that. I dinna think I cud believe 't, gin ye war to pruv 't to me.'

'I don't believe it. Nobody could prove that either, even if it were so. I am only miserable that I can't prove the contrary.'

'Suppose there war a God, Mr. Ericson, do ye think ye bude (behoved) to be able to pruv that? Do ye think God cud stan' to be pruved as gin he war something sma' eneuch to be turned roon' and roon', and luikit at upo' ilka side? Gin there war a God, wadna it jist be sae--that we cudna prove him to be, I mean?'

'Perhaps. That is something. I have often thought of that. But then you can't prove anything about it.'

'I canna help thinkin' o' what Mr. Innes said to me ance. I was but a laddie, but I never forgot it. I plaguit him sair wi' wantin' to unnerstan' ilka thing afore I wad gang on wi' my questons (sums). Says he, ae day, "Robert, my man, gin ye will aye unnerstan' afore ye du as ye're tellt, ye'll never unnerstan' onything. But gin ye du the thing I tell ye, ye'll be i' the mids o' 't afore ye ken 'at ye're gaein' intil 't." I jist thocht I wad try him. It was at lang division that I boglet maist. Weel, I gaed on, and I cud du the thing weel eneuch, ohn made ae mistak. And aye I thocht the maister was wrang, for I never kent the rizzon o' a' that beginnin' at the wrang en', an' takin' doon an' substrackin', an' a' that. Ye wad hardly believe me, Mr. Ericson: it was only this verra day, as I was sittin' i' the kirk--it was a lang psalm they war singin'--that ane wi' the foxes i' the tail o' 't--lang division came into my heid again; and first aye bit glimmerin' o' licht cam in, and syne anither, an' afore the psalm was dune I saw throu' the haill process o' 't. But ye see, gin I hadna dune as I was tauld, and learnt a' aboot hoo it was dune aforehan', I wad hae had naething to gang rizzonin' aboot, an' wad hae fun' oot naething.'

'That's good, Robert. But when a man is dying for food, he can't wait.'

'He micht try to get up and luik, though. He needna bide in 's bed till somebody comes an' sweirs till him 'at he saw a haddie (haddock) i' the press.'

'I have been looking, Robert--for years.'

'Maybe, like me, only for the rizzon o' 't, Mr. Ericson--gin ye'll forgie my impidence.'

'But what's to be done in this case, Robert? Where's the work that you can do in order to understand? Where's your long division, man?'

'Ye're ayont me noo. I canna tell that, Mr. Ericson. It canna be gaein' to the kirk, surely. Maybe it micht be sayin' yer prayers and readin' yer Bible.'

Ericson did not reply, and the conversation dropped. Is it strange that neither of these disciples should have thought of turning to the story of Jesus, finding some word that he had spoken, and beginning to do that as a first step towards a knowledge of the doctrine that Jesus was the incarnate God, come to visit his people--a very unlikely thing to man's wisdom, yet an idea that has notwithstanding ascended above man's horizon, and shown itself the grandest idea in his firmament?

In the evening Ericson asked again for his papers, from which he handed Robert the following poem:--

WORDS IN THE NIGHT.

I woke at midnight, and my heart,
My beating heart said this to me:
Thou seest the moon how calm and bright
The world is fair by day and night,
But what is that to thee?
One touch to me--down dips the light
Over the land and sea.
All is mine, all is my own!
Toss the purple fountain high!
The breast of man is a vat of stone;
I am alive, I, only I!

One little touch and all is dark;
The winter with its sparkling moons
The spring with all her violets,
The crimson dawns and rich sunsets,
The autumn's yellowing noons.
I only toss my purple jets,
And thou art one that swoons
Upon a night of gust and roar,
Shipwrecked among the waves, and seems
Across the purple hills to roam;
Sweet odours touch him from the foam,
And downward sinking still he dreams
He walks the clover field at home,
And hears the rattling teams.
All is mine; all is my own!
Toss the purple fountain high!
The breast of man is a vat of stone;
I am alive, I, only I!

Thou hast beheld a throated fountain spout
Full in the air, and in the downward spray
A hovering Iris span the marble tank,
Which as the wind came, ever rose and sank
Violet and red; so my continual play
Makes beauty for the Gods with many a prank
Of human excellence, while they,
Weary of all the noon, in shadows sweet
Supine and heavy-eyed rest in the boundless heat:
Let the world's fountain play!
Beauty is pleasant in the eyes of Jove;
Betwixt the wavering shadows where he lies
He marks the dancing column with his eyes
Celestial, and amid his inmost grove
Upgathers all his limbs, serenely blest,
Lulled by the mellow noise of the great world's unrest.

One heart beats in all nature, differing
But in the work it works; its doubts and clamours
Are but the waste and brunt of instruments
Wherewith a work is done; or as the hammers
On forge Cyclopean plied beneath the rents
Of lowest Etna, conquering into shape
The hard and scattered ore:
Choose thou narcotics, and the dizzy grape
Outworking passion, lest with horrid crash
Thy life go from thee in a night of pain.
So tutoring thy vision, shall the flash
Of dove white-breasted be to thee no more
Than a white stone heavy upon the plain.

Hark the cock crows loud!
And without, all ghastly and ill,
Like a man uplift in his shroud,
The white white morn is propped on the hill;
And adown from the eaves, pointed and chill,
The icicles 'gin to glitter;
And the birds with a warble short and shrill,
Pass by the chamber-window still--
With a quick uneasy twitter.
Let me pump warm blood, for the cold is bitter;
And wearily, wearily, one by one,
Men awake with the weary sun.

Life is a phantom shut in thee;
I am the master and keep the key;
So let me toss thee the days of old,
Crimson and orange and green and gold;
So let me fill thee yet again
With a rush of dreams from my spout amain;
For all is mine; all is my own;
Toss the purple fountain high!
The breast of man is a vat of stone;
And I am alive, I, only I.

Robert having read, sat and wept in silence. Ericson saw him, and said tenderly,

'Robert, my boy, I'm not always so bad as that. Read this one--though I never feel like it now. Perhaps it may come again some day, though. I may once more deceive myself and be happy.'

'Dinna say that, Mr. Ericson. That's waur than despair. That's flat unbelief. Ye no more ken that ye're deceivin' yersel' than ye ken that ye're no doin' 't.'

Ericson did not reply; and Robert read the following sonnet aloud, feeling his way delicately through its mazes:--

Lie down upon the ground, thou hopeless one!
Press thy face in the grass, and do not speak.
Dost feel the green globe whirl? Seven times a week
Climbeth she out of darkness to the sun,
Which is her god; seven times she doth not shun
Awful eclipse, laying her patient cheek
Upon a pillow ghost-beset with shriek
Of voices utterless which rave and run
Through all the star-penumbra, craving light
And tidings of the dawn from East and West.
Calmly she sleepeth, and her sleep is blest
With heavenly visions, and the joy of Night
Treading aloft with moons. Nor hath she fright
Though cloudy tempests beat upon her breast.

Ericson turned his face to the wall, and Robert withdrew to his own chamber.