Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part II.--His Youth
Chapter XV. The Last of the Coals.
The next Sunday Robert went with Ericson to the episcopal chapel, and for the first time in his life heard the epic music of the organ. It was a new starting-point in his life. The worshipping instrument flooded his soul with sound, and he stooped beneath it as a bather on the shore stoops beneath the broad wave rushing up the land. But I will not linger over this portion of his history. It is enough to say that he sought the friendship of the organist, was admitted to the instrument; touched, trembled, exulted; grew dissatisfied, fastidious, despairing; gathered hope and tried again, and yet again; till at last, with constantly-recurring fits of self-despite, he could not leave the grand creature alone. It became a rival even to his violin. And once before the end of March, when the organist was ill, and another was not to be had, he ventured to occupy his place both at morning and evening service.
Dr. Anderson kept George Moray in bed for a few days, after which he went about for a while with his arm in a sling. But the season of bearing material burdens was over for him now. Dr. Anderson had an interview with the master of the grammar-school; a class was assigned to Moray, and with a delight, resting chiefly on his social approximation to Robert, which in one week elevated the whole character of his person and countenance and bearing, George Moray bent himself to the task of mental growth. Having good helpers at home, and his late-developed energy turning itself entirely into the new channel, he got on admirably. As there was no other room to be had in Mrs. Fyvie's house, he continued for the rest of the session to sleep upon the rug, for he would not hear of going to another house. The doctor had advised Robert to drop the nickname as much as possible; but the first time he called him Moray, Shargar threatened to cut his throat, and so between the two the name remained.
I presume that by this time Doctor Anderson had made up his mind to leave his money to Robert, but thought it better to say nothing about it, and let the boy mature his independence. He had him often to his house. Ericson frequently accompanied him; and as there was a good deal of original similarity between the doctor and Ericson, the latter soon felt his obligation no longer a burden. Shargar likewise, though more occasionally, made one of the party, and soon began, in his new circumstances, to develop the manners of a gentleman. I say develop advisedly, for Shargar had a deep humanity in him, as abundantly testified by his devotion to Robert, and humanity is the body of which true manners is the skin and ordinary manifestation: true manners are the polish which lets the internal humanity shine through, just as the polish on marble reveals its veined beauty. Many talks did the elderly man hold with the three youths, and his experience of life taught Ericson and Robert much, especially what he told them about his Brahmin friend in India. Moray, on the other hand, was chiefly interested in his tales of adventure when on service in the Indian army, or engaged in the field sports of that region so prolific in monsters. His gipsy blood and lawless childhood, spent in wandering familiarity with houseless nature, rendered him more responsive to these than the others, and his kindled eye and pertinent remarks raised in the doctor's mind an early question whether a commission in India might not be his best start in life.
Between Ericson and Robert, as the former recovered his health, communication from the deeper strata of human need became less frequent. Ericson had to work hard to recover something of his leeway; Robert had to work hard that prizes might witness for him to his grandmother and Miss St. John. To the latter especially, as I think I have said before, he was anxious to show well, wiping out the blot, as he considered it, of his all but failure in the matter of a bursary. For he looked up to her as to a goddess who just came near enough to the earth to be worshipped by him who dwelt upon it.
The end of the session came nigh. Ericson passed his examinations with honour. Robert gained the first Greek and third Latin prize. The evening of the last day arrived, and on the morrow the students would be gone--some to their homes of comfort and idleness, others to hard labour in the fields; some to steady reading, perhaps to school again to prepare for the next session, and others to be tutors all the summer months, and return to the wintry city as to freedom and life. Shargar was to remain at the grammar-school.
That last evening Robert sat with Ericson in his room. It was a cold night--the night of the last day of March. A bitter wind blew about the house, and dropped spiky hailstones upon the skylight. The friends were to leave on the morrow, but to leave together; for they had already sent their boxes, one by the carrier to Rothieden, the other by a sailing vessel to Wick, and had agreed to walk together as far as Robert's home, where he was in hopes of inducing his friend to remain for a few days if he found his grandmother agreeable to the plan. Shargar was asleep on the rug for the last time, and Robert had brought his coal-scuttle into Ericson's room to combine their scanty remains of well-saved fuel in a common glow, over which they now sat.
'I wonder what my grannie 'ill say to me,' said Robert.
'She'll be very glad to see you, whatever she may say,' remarked Ericson.
'She'll say "Noo, be dooce," the minute I hae shacken hands wi' her,' said Robert.
'Robert,' returned Ericson solemnly, 'if I had a grandmother to go home to, she might box my ears if she liked--I wouldn't care. You do not know what it is not to have a soul belonging to you on the face of the earth. It is so cold and so lonely!'
'But you have a cousin, haven't you?' suggested Robert.
Ericson laughed, but good-naturedly.
'Yes,' he answered, 'a little man with a fishy smell, in a blue tail-coat with brass buttons, and a red and black nightcap.'
'But,' Robert ventured to hint, 'he might go in a kilt and top-boots, like Satan in my grannie's copy o' the Paradise Lost, for onything I would care.'
'Yes, but he's just like his looks. The first thing he'll do the next morning after I go home, will be to take me into his office, or shop, as he calls it, and get down his books, and show me how many barrels of herring I owe him, with the price of each. To do him justice, he only charges me wholesale.'
'What'll he do that for?'
'To urge on me the necessity of diligence, and the choice of a profession,' answered Ericson, with a smile of mingled sadness and irresolution. 'He will set forth what a loss the interest of the money is, even if I should pay the principal; and remind me that although he has stood my friend, his duty to his own family imposes limits. And he has at least a couple of thousand pounds in the county bank. I don't believe he would do anything for me but for the honour it will be to the family to have a professional man in it. And yet my father was the making of him.'
'Tell me about your father. What was he?'
'A gentle-minded man, who thought much and said little. He farmed the property that had been his father's own, and is now leased by my fishy cousin afore mentioned.'
'And your mother?'
'She died just after I was born, and my father never got over it.'
'And you have no brothers or sisters?'
'No, not one. Thank God for your grandmother, and do all you can to please her.'
A silence followed, during which Robert's heart swelled and heaved with devotion to Ericson; for notwithstanding his openness, there was a certain sad coldness about him that restrained Robert from letting out all the tide of his love. The silence became painful, and he broke it abruptly.
'What are you going to be, Mr. Ericson?'
'I wish you could tell me, Robert. What would you have me to be? Come now.'
Robert thought for a moment.
'Weel, ye canna be a minister, Mr. Ericson, 'cause ye dinna believe in God, ye ken,' he said simply.
'Don't say that, Robert,' Ericson returned, in a tone of pain with which no displeasure was mingled. 'But you are right. At best I only hope in God; I don't believe in him.'
'I'm thinkin' there canna be muckle differ atween houp an' faith,' said Robert. 'Mony a ane 'at says they believe in God has unco little houp o' onything frae 's han', I'm thinkin'.'
My reader may have observed a little change for the better in Robert's speech. Dr. Anderson had urged upon him the necessity of being able at least to speak English; and he had been trying to modify the antique Saxon dialect they used at Rothieden with the newer and more refined English. But even when I knew him, he would upon occasion, especially when the subject was religion or music, fall back into the broadest Scotch. It was as if his heart could not issue freely by any other gate than that of his grandmother tongue.
Fearful of having his last remark contradicted--for he had an instinctive desire that it should lie undisturbed where he had cast it in the field of Ericson's mind, he hurried to another question.
'What for shouldna ye be a doctor?'
'Now you'll think me a fool, Robert, if I tell you why.'
'Far be it frae me to daur think sic a word, Mr. Ericson!' said Robert devoutly.
'Well, I'll tell you, whether or not,' returned Ericson. 'I could, I believe, amputate a living limb with considerable coolness; but put a knife in a dead body I could not.'
'I think I know what you mean. Then you must he a lawyer.'
'A lawyer! O Lord!' said Ericson.
'Why not?' asked Robert, in some wonderment; for he could not imagine Ericson acting from mere popular prejudice or fancy.
'Just think of spending one's life in an atmosphere of squabbles. It's all very well when one gets to be a judge and dispense justice; but--well, it's not for me. I could not do the best for my clients. And a lawyer has nothing to do with the kingdom of heaven--only with his clients. He must be a party-man. He must secure for one so often at the loss of the rest. My duty and my conscience would always be at strife.'
'Then what will you be, Mr. Ericson?'
'To tell the truth, I would rather be a watchmaker than anything else I know. I might make one watch that would go right, I suppose, if I lived long enough. But no one would take an apprentice of my age. So I suppose I must be a tutor, knocked about from one house to another, patronized by ex-pupils, and smiled upon as harmless by mammas and sisters to the end of the chapter. And then something of a pauper's burial, I suppose. Che sara sara.'
Ericson had sunk into one of his worst moods. But when he saw Robert looking unhappy, he changed his tone, and would be--what he could not be--merry.
'But what's the use of talking about it?' he said. 'Get your fiddle, man, and play The Wind that shakes the Barley.'
'No, Mr. Ericson,' answered Robert; 'I have no heart for the fiddle. I would rather have some poetry.'
'Oh!--Poetry!' returned Ericson, in a tone of contempt--yet not very hearty contempt.
'We're gaein' awa', Mr. Ericson,' said Robert; 'an' the Lord 'at we ken naething aboot alane kens whether we'll ever meet again i' this place. And sae--'
'True enough, my boy,' interrupted Ericson. 'I have no need to trouble myself about the future. I believe that is the real secret of it after all. I shall never want a profession or anything else.'
'What do you mean, Mr. Ericson?' asked Robert, in half-defined terror.
'I mean, my boy, that I shall not live long. I know that--thank God!'
'How do you know it?'
'My father died at thirty, and my mother at six-and-twenty, both of the same disease. But that's not how I know it.'
'How do you know it then?'
Ericson returned no answer. He only said--
'Death will be better than life. One thing I don't like about it though,' he added, 'is the coming on of unconsciousness. I cannot bear to lose my consciousness even in sleep. It is such a terrible thing!'
'I suppose that's ane o' the reasons that we canna be content withoot a God,' responded Robert. 'It's dreidfu' to think even o' fa'in' asleep withoot some ane greater an' nearer than the me watchin' ower 't. But I'm jist sayin' ower again what I hae read in ane o' your papers, Mr. Ericson. Jist lat me luik.'
Venturing more than he had ever yet ventured, Robert rose and went to the cupboard where Ericson's papers lay. His friend did not check him. On the contrary, he took the papers from his hand, and searched for the poem indicated.
'I'm not in the way of doing this sort of thing, Robert,' he said.
'I know that,' answered Robert.
And Ericson read.
Oh, is it Death that comes
For I shall lie as dead,
Or if my life should break
Why should I fall asleep?
O, busy, busy things!
And all the long night through,
Even thus, but silently,
My senses fail with sleep;
Oh, solemn mystery!
'Rubbish!' said Ericson, as he threw down the sheets, disgusted with his own work, which so often disappoints the writer, especially if he is by any chance betrayed into reading it aloud.
'Dinna say that, Mr. Ericson,' returned Robert. 'Ye maunna say that. Ye hae nae richt to lauch at honest wark, whether it be yer ain or ony ither body's. The poem noo--'
'Don't call it a poem,' interrupted Ericson. 'It's not worthy of the name.'
'I will ca' 't a poem,' persisted Robert; 'for it's a poem to me, whatever it may be to you. An' hoo I ken 'at it's a poem is jist this: it opens my een like music to something I never saw afore.'
'What is that?' asked Ericson, not sorry to be persuaded that there might after all be some merit in the productions painfully despised of himself.
'Jist this: it's only whan ye dinna want to fa' asleep 'at it luiks fearsome to ye. An' maybe the fear o' death comes i' the same way: we're feared at it 'cause we're no a'thegither ready for 't; but whan the richt time comes, it'll be as nat'ral as fa'in' asleep whan we're doonricht sleepy. Gin there be a God to ca' oor Father in heaven, I'm no thinkin' that he wad to sae mony bonny tunes pit a scraich for the hinder end. I'm thinkin', gin there be onything in 't ava--ye ken I'm no sayin', for I dinna ken--we maun jist lippen till him to dee dacent an' bonny, an' nae sic strange awfu' fash aboot it as some fowk wad mak a religion o' expeckin'.'
Ericson looked at Robert with admiration mingled with something akin to merriment.
'One would think it was your grandfather holding forth, Robert,' he said. 'How came you to think of such things at your age?'
'I'm thinkin',' answered Robert, 'ye warna muckle aulder nor mysel' whan ye took to sic things, Mr. Ericson. But, 'deed, maybe my luckie-daddie (grandfather) pat them i' my heid, for I had a heap ado wi' his fiddle for a while. She's deid noo.'
Not understanding him, Ericson began to question, and out came the story of the violins. They talked on till the last of their coals was burnt out, and then they went to bed.
Shargar had undertaken to rouse them early, that they might set out on their long walk with a long day before them. But Robert was awake before Shargar. The all but soulless light of the dreary season awoke him, and he rose and looked out. Aurora, as aged now as her loved Tithonus, peered, gray-haired and desolate, over the edge of the tossing sea, with hardly enough of light in her dim eyes to show the broken crests of the waves that rushed shorewards before the wind of her rising. Such an east wind was the right breath to issue from such a pale mouth of hopeless revelation as that which opened with dead lips across the troubled sea on the far horizon. While he gazed, the east darkened; a cloud of hail rushed against the window; and Robert retreated to his bed. But ere he had fallen asleep, Ericson was beside him; and before he was dressed, Ericson appeared again, with his stick in his hand. They left Shargar still asleep, and descended the stairs, thinking to leave the house undisturbed. But Mrs. Fyvie was watching for them, and insisted on their taking the breakfast she had prepared. They then set out on their journey of forty miles, with half a loaf in their pockets, and money enough to get bread and cheese, and a bottle of the poorest ale, at the far-parted roadside inns.
When Shargar awoke, he wept in desolation, then crept into Robert's bed, and fell fast asleep again.