Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter IV. Shargar.
Robert went out into the thin drift, and again crossing the wide desolate-looking square, turned down an entry leading to a kind of court, which had once been inhabited by a well-to-do class of the townspeople, but had now fallen in estimation. Upon a stone at the door of what seemed an outhouse he discovered the object of his search.
'What are ye sittin' there for, Shargar?'
Shargar is a word of Gaelic origin, applied, with some sense of the ridiculous, to a thin, wasted, dried-up creature. In the present case it was the nickname by which the boy was known at school; and, indeed, where he was known at all.
'What are ye sittin' there for, Shargar? Did naebody offer to tak ye in?'
'Na, nane o' them. I think they maun be a' i' their beds. I'm most dreidfu' cauld.'
The fact was, that Shargar's character, whether by imputation from his mother, or derived from his own actions, was none of the best. The consequence was, that, although scarcely one of the neighbours would have allowed him to sit there all night, each was willing to wait yet a while, in the hope that somebody else's humanity would give in first, and save her from the necessity of offering him a seat by the fireside, and a share of the oatmeal porridge which probably would be scanty enough for her own household. For it must be borne in mind that all the houses in the place were occupied by poor people, with whom the one virtue, Charity, was, in a measure, at home, and amidst many sins, cardinal and other, managed to live in even some degree of comfort.
'Get up, than, Shargar, ye lazy beggar! Or are ye frozen to the door-stane? I s' awa' for a kettle o' bilin' water to lowse ye.'
'Na, na, Bob. I'm no stucken. I'm only some stiff wi' the cauld; for wow, but I am cauld!' said Shargar, rising with difficulty. 'Gie 's a haud o' yer han', Bob.'
Robert gave him his hand, and Shargar was straightway upon his feet.
'Come awa' noo, as fest and as quaiet 's ye can.'
'What are ye gaein' to du wi' me, Bob?'
'What's that to you, Shargar?'
'Naything. Only I wad like to ken.'
'Hae patience, and ye will ken. Only mind ye do as I tell ye, and dinna speik a word.'
Shargar followed in silence.
On the way Robert remembered that Miss Napier had not, after all, given him the receipt for which his grandmother had sent him. So he returned to The Boar's Head, and, while he went in, left Shargar in the archway, to shiver, and try in vain to warm his hands by the alternate plans of slapping them on the opposite arms, and hiding them under them.
When Robert came out, he saw a man talking to him under the lamp. The moment his eyes fell upon the two, he was struck by a resemblance between them. Shargar was right under the lamp, the man to the side of it, so that Shargar was shadowed by its frame, and the man was in its full light. The latter turned away, and passing Robert, went into the inn.
'Wha's that?' asked Robert.
'I dinna ken,' answered Shargar. 'He spak to me or ever I kent he was there, and garred my hert gie sic a loup 'at it maist fell into my breeks.'
'And what said he to ye?'
'He said was the deevil at my lug, that I did naething but caw my han's to bits upo' my shoothers.'
'And what said ye to that?'
'I said I wissed he was, for he wad aiblins hae some spare heat aboot him, an' I hadna freely (quite) eneuch.'
'Weel dune, Shargar! What said he to that?'
'He leuch, and speirt gin I wad list, and gae me a shillin'.'
'Ye didna tak it, Shargar?' asked Robert in some alarm.
'Ay did I. Catch me no taking a shillin'!'
'But they'll haud ye till 't.'
'Na, na. I'm ower shochlin' (in-kneed) for a sodger. But that man was nae sodger.'
'And what mair said he?'
'He speirt what I wad do wi' the shillin'.'
'And what said ye?'
'Ow! syne ye cam' oot, and he gaed awa'.'
'And ye dinna ken wha it was?' repeated Robert.
'It was some like my brither, Lord Sandy; but I dinna ken,' said Shargar.
By this time they had arrived at Yule the baker's shop.
'Bide ye here,' said Robert, who happened to possess a few coppers, 'till I gang into Eel's.'
Shargar stood again and shivered at the door, till Robert came out with a penny loaf in one hand, and a twopenny loaf in the other.
'Gie's a bit, Bob,' said Shargar. 'I'm as hungry as I am cauld.'
'Bide ye still,' returned Robert. 'There's a time for a' thing, and your time 's no come to forgather wi' this loaf yet. Does na it smell fine? It's new frae the bakehoose no ten minutes ago. I ken by the fin' (feel) o' 't.'
'Lat me fin' 't,' said Shargar, stretching out one hand, and feeling his shilling with the other.
'Na. Yer han's canna be clean. And fowk suld aye eat clean, whether they gang clean or no.'
'I'll awa' in an' buy ane oot o' my ain shillin',' said Shargar, in a tone of resolute eagerness.
'Ye'll do naething o' the kin',' returned Robert, darting his hand at his collar. 'Gie me the shillin'. Ye'll want it a' or lang.'
Shargar yielded the coin and slunk behind, while Robert again led the way till they came to his grandmother's door.
'Gang to the ga'le o' the hoose there, Shargar, and jist keek roon' the neuk at me; and gin I whustle upo' ye, come up as quaiet 's ye can. Gin I dinna, bide till I come to ye.'
Robert opened the door cautiously. It was never locked except at night, or when Betty had gone to the well for water, or to the butcher's or baker's, or the prayer-meeting, upon which occasions she put the key in her pocket, and left her mistress a prisoner. He looked first to the right, along the passage, and saw that his grandmother's door was shut; then across the passage to the left, and saw that the kitchen door was likewise shut, because of the cold, for its normal position was against the wall. Thereupon, closing the door, but keeping the handle in his hand, and the bolt drawn back, he turned to the street and whistled soft and low. Shargar had, in a moment, dragged his heavy feet, ready to part company with their shoes at any instant, to Robert's side. He bent his ear to Robert's whisper.
'Gang in there, and creep like a moose to the fit o' the stair. I maun close the door ahin' 's,' said he, opening the door as he spoke.
'I'm fleyt (frightened), Robert.'
'Dinna be a fule. Grannie winna bite aff yer heid. She had ane till her denner, the day, an' it was ill sung (singed).'
'What ane o'?'
'A sheep's heid, ye gowk (fool). Gang in direckly.'
Shargar persisted no longer, but, taking about four steps a minute, slunk past the kitchen like a thief--not so carefully, however, but that one of his soles yet looser than the other gave one clap upon the flagged passage, when Betty straightway stood in the kitchen door, a fierce picture in a deal frame. By this time Robert had closed the outer door, and was following at Shargar's heels.
'What's this?' she cried, but not so loud as to reach the ears of Mrs. Falconer; for, with true Scotch foresight, she would not willingly call in another power before the situation clearly demanded it. 'Whaur's Shargar gaein' that gait?'
'Wi' me. Dinna ye see me wi' him? I'm nae a thief, nor yet's Shargar.'
'There may be twa opingons upo' that, Robert. I s' jist awa' benn to the mistress. I s' hae nae sic doin's i' my hoose.'
'It's nae your hoose, Betty. Dinna lee.'
'Weel, I s' hae nae sic things gang by my kitchie door. There, Robert! what 'll ye mak' o' that? There's nae offence, there, I houp, gin it suldna be a'thegither my ain hoose. Tak Shargar oot o' that, or I s' awa' benn the hoose, as I tell ye.'
Meantime Shargar was standing on the stones, looking like a terrified white rabbit, and shaking from head to foot with cold and fright combined.
'I'll tak him oot o' this, but it's up the stair, Betty. An' gin ye gang benn the hoose aboot it, I sweir to ye, as sure 's death, I'll gang doon to Muckledrum upo' Setterday i' the efternune.'
'Gang awa' wi' yer havers. Only gin the mistress speirs onything aboot it, what am I to say?'
'Bide till she speirs. Auld Spunkie says, "Ready-made answers are aye to seek." And I say, Betty, hae ye a cauld pitawta (potato)?'
'I'll luik and see. Wadna ye like it het up?'
'Ow ay, gin ye binna lang aboot it.'
Suddenly a bell rang, shrill and peremptory, right above Shargar's head, causing in him a responsive increase of trembling.
'Haud oot o' my gait. There's the mistress's bell,' said Betty.
'Jist bide till we're roon' the neuk and on to the stair,' said Robert, now leading the way.
Betty watched them safe round the corner before she made for the parlour, little thinking to what she had become an unwilling accomplice, for she never imagined that more than an evening's visit was intended by Shargar, which in itself seemed to her strange and improper enough even for such an eccentric boy as Robert to encourage.
Shargar followed in mortal terror, for, like Christian in The Pilgrim's Progress, he had no armour to his back. Once round the corner, two strides of three steps each took them to the top of the first stair, Shargar knocking his head in the darkness against the never-opened door. Again three strides brought them to the top of the second flight; and turning once more, still to the right, Robert led Shargar up the few steps into the higher of the two garrets.
Here there was just glimmer enough from the sky to discover the hollow of a close bedstead, built in under the sloping roof, which served it for a tester, while the two ends and most of the front were boarded up to the roof. This bedstead fortunately was not so bare as the one in the other room, although it had not been used for many years, for an old mattress covered the boards with which it was bottomed.
'Gang in there, Shargar. Ye'll be warmer there than upo' the door-step ony gait. Pit aff yer shune.'
Shargar obeyed, full of delight at finding himself in such good quarters. Robert went to a forsaken press in the room, and brought out an ancient cloak of tartan, of the same form as what is now called an Inverness cape, a blue dress-coat, with plain gilt buttons, which shone even now in the all but darkness, and several other garments, amongst them a kilt, and heaped them over Shargar as he lay on the mattress. He then handed him the twopenny and the penny loaves, which were all his stock had reached to the purchase of, and left him, saying,--
'I maun awa' to my tay, Shargar. I'll fess ye a cauld tawtie het again, gin Betty has ony. Lie still, and whatever ye do, dinna come oot o' that.'
The last injunction was entirely unnecessary.
'Eh, Bob, I'm jist in haven!' said the poor creature, for his skin began to feel the precious possibility of reviving warmth in the distance.
Now that he had gained a new burrow, the human animal soon recovered from his fears as well. It seemed to him, in the novelty of the place, that he had made so many doublings to reach it, that there could be no danger of even the mistress of the house finding him out, for she could hardly be supposed to look after such a remote corner of her dominions. And then he was boxed in with the bed, and covered with no end of warm garments, while the friendly darkness closed him and his shelter all round. Except the faintest blue gleam from one of the panes in the roof, there was soon no hint of light anywhere; and this was only sufficient to make the darkness visible, and thus add artistic effect to the operation of it upon Shargar's imagination--a faculty certainly uneducated in Shargar, but far, very far from being therefore non-existent. It was, indeed, actively operative, although, like that of many a fine lady and gentleman, only in relation to such primary questions as: 'What shall we eat? And what shall we drink? And wherewithal shall we be clothed?' But as he lay and devoured the new 'white breid,' his satisfaction--the bare delight of his animal existence--reached a pitch such as even this imagination, stinted with poverty, and frost-bitten with maternal oppression, had never conceived possible. The power of enjoying the present without anticipation of the future or regard of the past, is the especial privilege of the animal nature, and of the human nature in proportion as it has not been developed beyond the animal. Herein lies the happiness of cab horses and of tramps: to them the gift of forgetfulness is of worth inestimable. Shargar's heaven was for the present gained.