Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part II.--His Youth
Chapter XVI. A Strange Night.
The youths had not left the city a mile behind, when a thick snowstorm came on. It did not last long, however, and they fought their way through it into a glimpse of sun. To Robert, healthy, powerful, and except at rare times, hopeful, it added to the pleasure of the journey to contend with the storm, and there was a certain steely indifference about Ericson that carried him through. They trudged on steadily for three hours along a good turnpike road, with great black masses of cloud sweeping across the sky, which now sent them a glimmer of sunlight, and now a sharp shower of hail. The country was very dreary--a succession of undulations rising into bleak moorlands, and hills whose heather would in autumn flush the land with glorious purple, but which now looked black and cheerless, as if no sunshine could ever warm them. Now and then the moorland would sweep down to the edge of the road, diversified with dark holes from which peats were dug, and an occasional quarry of gray granite. At one moment endless pools would be shining in the sunlight, and the next the hail would be dancing a mad fantastic dance all about them: they pulled their caps over their brows, bent their heads, and struggled on.
At length they reached their first stage, and after a meal of bread and cheese and an offered glass of whisky, started again on their journey. They did not talk much, for their force was spent on their progress.
After some consultation whether to keep the road or take a certain short cut across the moors, which would lead them into it again with a saving of several miles, the sun shining out with a little stronger promise than he had yet given, they resolved upon the latter. But in the middle of the moorland the wind and the hail came on with increased violence, and they were glad to tack from one to another of the huge stones that lay about, and take a short breathing time under the lee of each; so that when they recovered the road, they had lost as many miles in time and strength as they had saved in distance. They did not give in, however, but after another rest and a little more refreshment, started again.
The evening was now growing dusk around them, and the fatigue of the day was telling so severely on Ericson, that when in the twilight they heard the blast of a horn behind them, and turning saw the two flaming eyes of a well-known four-horse coach come fluctuating towards them, Robert insisted on their getting up and riding the rest of the way.
'But I can't afford it,' said Ericson.
'But I can,' said Robert.
'I don't doubt it,' returned Ericson. 'But I owe you too much already.'
'Gin ever we win hame--I mean to the heart o' hame--ye can pay me there.'
'There will be no need then.'
'Whaur's the need than to mak sic a wark aboot a saxpence or twa atween this and that? I thocht ye cared for naething that time or space or sense could grip or measure. Mr. Ericson, ye're no half sic a philosopher as ye wad set up for.--Hillo!'
Ericson laughed a weary laugh, and as the coach stopped in obedience to Robert's hail, he scrambled up behind.
The guard knew Robert, was pitiful over the condition of the travellers, would have put them inside, but that there was a lady there, and their clothes were wet, got out a great horse-rug and wrapped Robert in it, put a spare coat of his own, about an inch thick, upon Ericson, drew out a flask, took a pull at it, handed it to his new passengers, and blew a vigorous blast on his long horn, for they were approaching a desolate shed where they had to change their weary horses for four fresh thorough-breds.
Away they went once more, careering through the gathering darkness. It was delightful indeed to have to urge one weary leg past the other no more, but be borne along towards food, fire, and bed. But their adventures were not so nearly over as they imagined. Once more the hail fell furiously--huge hailstones, each made of many, half-melted and welded together into solid lumps of ice. The coachman could scarcely hold his face to the shower, and the blows they received on their faces and legs, drove the thin-skinned, high-spirited horses nearly mad. At length they would face it no longer. At a turn in the road, where it crossed a brook by a bridge with a low stone wall, the wind met them right in the face with redoubled vehemence; the leaders swerved from it, and were just rising to jump over the parapet, when the coachman, whose hands were nearly insensible with cold, threw his leg over the reins, and pulled them up. One of the leaders reared, and fell backwards; one of the wheelers kicked vigorously; a few moments, and in spite of the guard at their heads, all was one struggling mass of bodies and legs, with a broken pole in the midst. The few passengers got down; and Robert, fearing that yet worse might happen and remembering the lady, opened the door. He found her quite composed. As he helped her out,
'What is the matter?' asked the voice dearest to him in the world--the voice of Miss St. John.
He gave a cry of delight. Wrapped in the horse-cloth, Miss St. John did not know him.
'What is the matter?' she repeated.
'Ow, naething, mem--naething. Only I doobt we winna get ye hame the nicht.'
'Is it you, Robert?' she said, gladly recognizing his voice.
'Ay, it's me, and Mr. Ericson. We'll tak care o' ye, mem.'
'But surely we shall get home!'
Robert had heard the crack of the breaking pole.
''Deed, I doobt no.'
'What are we to do, then?'
'Come into the lythe (shelter) o' the bank here, oot o' the gait o' thae brutes o' horses,' said Robert, taking off his horse-cloth and wrapping her in it.
The storm hissed and smote all around them. She took Robert's arm. Followed by Ericson, they left the coach and the struggling horses, and withdrew to a bank that overhung the road. As soon as they were out of the wind, Robert, who had made up his mind, said,
'We canna be mony yairds frae the auld hoose o' Bogbonnie. We micht win throu the nicht there weel eneuch. I'll speir at the gaird, the minute the horses are clear. We war 'maist ower the brig, I heard the coachman say.'
'I know quite well where the old house is,' said Ericson. 'I went in the last time I walked this way.'
'Was the door open?' asked Robert.
'I don't know,' answered Ericson. 'I found one of the windows open in the basement.'
'We'll get the len' o' ane o' the lanterns, an' gang direckly. It canna be mair nor the breedth o' a rig or twa frae the burn.'
'I can take you by the road,' said Ericson.
'It will be very cold,' said Miss St. John,--already shivering, partly from disquietude.
'There's timmer eneuch there to haud 's warm for a twalmonth,' said Robert.
He went back to the coach. By this time the horses were nearly extricated. Two of them stood steaming in the lamplight, with their sides going at twenty bellows' speed. The guard would not let him have one of the coach lamps, but gave him a small lantern of his own. When he returned with it, he found Ericson and Miss St. John talking together.
Ericson led the way, and the others followed.
'Whaur are ye gaein', gentlemen?' asked the guard, as they passed the coach.
'To the auld hoose,' answered Robert.
'Ye canna do better. I maun bide wi' the coch till the lave gang back to Drumheid wi' the horses, on' fess anither pole. Faith, it'll be weel into the mornin' or we win oot o' this. Tak care hoo ye gang. There's holes i' the auld hoose, I doobt.'
'We'll tak gude care, ye may be sure, Hector,' said Robert, as they left the bridge.
The house to which Ericson was leading them was in the midst of a field. There was just light enough to show a huge mass standing in the dark, without a tree or shelter of any sort. When they reached it, all that Miss St. John could distinguish was a wide broken stair leading up to the door, with glimpses of a large, plain, ugly, square front. The stones of the stair sloped and hung in several directions; but it was plain to a glance that the place was dilapidated through extraordinary neglect, rather than by the usual wear of time. In fact, it belonged only to the beginning of the preceding century, somewhere in Queen Anne's time. There was a heavy door to it, but fortunately for Miss St. John, who would not quite have relished getting in at the window of which Ericson had spoken, it stood a little ajar. The wind roared in the gap and echoed in the empty hall into which they now entered. Certainly Robert was right: there was wood enough to keep them warm; for that hall, and every room into which they went, from top to bottom of the huge house, was lined with pine. No paint-brush had ever passed upon it. Neither was there a spot to be seen upon the grain of the wood: it was clean as the day when the house was finished, only it had grown much browner. A close gallery, with window-frames which had never been glazed, at one story's height, leading across from the one side of the first floor to the other, looked down into the great echoing hall, which rose in the centre of the building to the height of two stories; but this was unrecognizable in the poor light of the guard's lantern. All the rooms on every floor opened each into the other;--but why should I give such a minute description, making my reader expect a ghost story, or at least a nocturnal adventure? I only want him to feel something of what our party felt as they entered this desolate building, which, though some hundred and twenty years old, bore not a single mark upon the smooth floors or spotless walls to indicate that article of furniture had ever stood in it, or human being ever inhabited it. There was a strange and unusual horror about the place--a feeling quite different from that belonging to an ancient house, however haunted it might be. It was like a body that had never had a human soul in it. There was no sense of a human history about it. Miss St. John's feeling of eeriness rose to the height when, in wandering through the many rooms in search of one where the windows were less broken, she came upon one spot in the floor. It was only a hole worn down through floor after floor, from top to bottom, by the drip of the rains from the broken roof: it looked like the disease of the desolate place, and she shuddered.
Here they must pass the night, with the wind roaring awfully through the echoing emptiness, and every now and then the hail clashing against what glass remained in the windows. They found one room with the window well boarded up, for until lately some care had been taken of the place to keep it from the weather. There Robert left his companions, who presently heard the sounds of tearing and breaking below, necessity justifying him in the appropriation of some of the wood-work for their own behoof. He tore a panel or two from the walls, and returning with them, lighted a fire on the empty hearth, where, from the look of the stone and mortar, certainly never fire had blazed before. The wood was dry as a bone, and burnt up gloriously.
Then first Robert bethought himself that they had nothing to eat. He himself was full of merriment, and cared nothing about eating; for had he not Miss St. John and Ericson there? but for them something must be provided. He took his lantern and went back through the storm. The hail had ceased, but the wind blew tremendously. The coach stood upon the bridge like a stranded vessel, its two lamps holding doubtful battle with the wind, now flaring out triumphantly, now almost yielding up the ghost. Inside, the guard was snoring in defiance of the pother o'er his head.
'Hector! Hector!' cried Robert.
'Ay, ay,' answered Hector. 'It's no time to wauken yet.'
'Hae ye nae basket, Hector, wi' something to eat in 't--naething gaein' to Rothieden 'at a body micht say by yer leave till?'
'Ow! it's you, is 't?' returned Hector, rousing himself. 'Na. Deil ane. An' gin I had, I daurna gie ye 't.'
'I wad mak free to steal 't, though, an' tak my chance,' said Robert. 'But ye say ye hae nane?'
'Nane, I tell ye. Ye winna hunger afore the mornin', man.'
'I'll stan' hunger as weel 's you ony day, Hector. It's no for mysel'. There's Miss St. John.'
'Hoots!' said Hector, peevishly, for he wanted to go to sleep again, 'gang and mak luve till her. Nae lass 'll think o' meat as lang 's ye do that. That 'll haud her ohn hungert.'
The words were like blasphemy in Robert's ear. He make love to Miss St. John! He turned from the coach-door in disgust. But there was no place he knew of where anything could be had, and he must return empty-handed.
The light of the fire shone through a little hole in the boards that closed the window. His lamp had gone out, but, guided by that, he found the road again, and felt his way up the stairs. When he entered the room he saw Miss St. John sitting on the floor, for there was nowhere else to sit, with the guard's coat under her. She had taken off her bonnet. Her back leaned against the side of the chimney, and her eyes were bent thoughtfully on the ground. In their shine Robert read instinctively that Ericson had said something that had set her thinking. He lay on the floor at some distance, leaning on his elbow, and his eye had the flash in it that indicates one who has just ceased speaking. They had not found his absence awkward at least.
'I hae been efter something to eat,' said Robert; 'but I canna fa' in wi' onything. We maun jist tell stories or sing sangs, as fowk do in buiks, or else Miss St. John 'ill think lang.'
They did sing songs, and they did tell stories. I will not trouble my reader with more than the sketch of one which Robert told--the story of the old house wherein they sat--a house without a history, save the story of its no history. It had been built for the jointure-house of a young countess, whose husband was an old man. A lover to whom she had turned a deaf ear had left the country, begging ere he went her acceptance of a lovely Italian grayhound. She was weak enough to receive the animal. Her husband died the same year, and before the end of it the dog went mad, and bit her. According to the awful custom of the time they smothered her between two feather-beds, just as the house of Bogbonnie was ready to receive her furniture, and become her future dwelling. No one had ever occupied it.
If Miss St. John listened to story and song without as much show of feeling as Mysie Lindsay would have manifested, it was not that she entered into them less deeply. It was that she was more, not felt less.
Listening at her window once with Robert, Eric Ericson had heard Mary St. John play: this was their first meeting. Full as his mind was of Mysie, he could not fail to feel the charm of a noble, stately womanhood that could give support, instead of rousing sympathy for helplessness. There was in the dignified simplicity of Mary St. John that which made every good man remember his mother; and a good man will think this grand praise, though a fast girl will take it for a doubtful compliment.
Seeing her begin to look weary, the young men spread a couch for her as best they could, made up the fire, and telling her they would be in the hall below, retired, kindled another fire, and sat down to wait for the morning. They held a long talk. At length Robert fell asleep on the floor.
Ericson rose. One of his fits of impatient doubt was upon him. In the dying embers of the fire he strode up and down the waste hall, with the storm raving around it. He was destined to an early death; he would leave no one of his kin to mourn for him; the girl whose fair face had possessed his imagination, would not give one sigh to his memory, wandering on through the regions of fancy all the same; and the death-struggle over, he might awake in a godless void, where, having no creative power in himself, he must be tossed about, a conscious yet helpless atom, to eternity. It was not annihilation he feared, although he did shrink from the thought of unconsciousness; it was life without law that he dreaded, existence without the bonds of a holy necessity, thought without faith, being without God.
For all her fatigue Miss St. John could not sleep. The house quivered in the wind which howled more and more madly through its long passages and empty rooms; and she thought she heard cries in the midst of the howling. In vain she reasoned with herself: she could not rest. She rose and opened the door of her room, with a vague notion of being nearer to the young men.
It opened upon the narrow gallery, already mentioned as leading from one side of the first floor to the other at mid-height along the end of the hall. The fire below shone into this gallery, for it was divided from the hall only by a screen of crossing bars of wood, like unglazed window-frames, possibly intended to hold glass. Of the relation of the passage to the hall Mary St. John knew nothing, till, approaching the light, she found herself looking down into the red dusk below. She stood riveted; for in the centre of the hall, with his hands clasped over his head like the solitary arch of a ruined Gothic aisle, stood Ericson.
His agony had grown within him--the agony of the silence that brooded immovable throughout the infinite, whose sea would ripple to no breath of the feeble tempest of his prayers. At length it broke from him in low but sharp sounds of words.
'O God,' he said, 'if thou art, why dost thou not speak? If I am thy handiwork--dost thou forget that which thou hast made?'
He paused, motionless, then cried again:
'There can be no God, or he would hear.'
'God has heard me!' said a full-toned voice of feminine tenderness somewhere in the air. Looking up, Ericson saw the dim form of Mary St. John half-way up the side of the lofty hall. The same moment she vanished--trembling at the sound of her own voice.
Thus to Ericson as to Robert had she appeared as an angel.
And was she less of a divine messenger because she had a human body, whose path lay not through the air? The storm of misery folded its wings in Eric's bosom, and, at the sound of her voice, there was a great calm. Nor if we inquire into the matter shall we find that such an effect indicated anything derogatory to the depth of his feelings or the strength of his judgment. It is not through the judgment that a troubled heart can be set at rest. It needs a revelation, a vision; a something for the higher nature that breeds and infolds the intellect, to recognize as of its own, and lay hold of by faithful hope. And what fitter messenger of such hope than the harmonious presence of a woman, whose form itself tells of highest law, and concord, and uplifting obedience; such a one whose beauty walks the upper air of noble loveliness; whose voice, even in speech, is one of the 'sphere-born harmonious sisters? The very presence of such a being gives Unbelief the lie, deep as the throat of her lying. Harmony, which is beauty and law, works necessary faith in the region capable of truth. It needs the intervention of no reasoning. It is beheld. This visible Peace, with that voice of woman's truth, said, 'God has heard me!' What better testimony could an angel have brought him? Or why should an angel's testimony weigh more than such a woman's? The mere understanding of a man like Ericson would only have demanded of an angel proof that he was an angel, proof that angels knew better than he did in the matter in question, proof that they were not easy-going creatures that took for granted the rumours of heaven. The best that a miracle can do is to give hope; of the objects of faith it can give no proof; one spiritual testimony is worth a thousand of them. For to gain the sole proof of which these truths admit, a man must grow into harmony with them. If there are no such things he cannot become conscious of a harmony that has no existence; he cannot thus deceive himself; if there are, they must yet remain doubtful until the harmony between them and his own willing nature is established. The perception of this harmony is their only and incommunicable proof. For this process time is needful; and therefore we are saved by hope. Hence it is no wonder that before another half-hour was over, Ericson was asleep by Robert's side.
They were aroused in the cold gray light of the morning by the blast of Hector's horn. Miss St. John was ready in a moment. The coach was waiting for them at the end of the grassy road that led from the house. Hector put them all inside. Before they reached Rothieden the events of the night began to wear the doubtful aspect of a dream. No allusion was made to what had occurred while Robert slept; but all the journey Ericson felt towards Miss St. John as Wordsworth felt towards the leech-gatherer, who, he says, was
And Robert saw a certain light in her eyes which reminded him of how she looked when, having repented of her momentary hardness towards him, she was ministering to his wounded head.