Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part II.--His Youth
Chapter XVII. Home Again.
When Robert opened the door of his grandmother's parlour, he found the old lady seated at breakfast. She rose, pushed back her chair, and met him in the middle of the room; put her old arms round him, offered her smooth white cheek to him, and wept. Robert wondered that she did not look older; for the time he had been away seemed an age, although in truth only eight months.
'Hoo are ye, laddie?' she said. 'I'm richt glaid, for I hae been thinkin' lang to see ye. Sit ye doon.'
Betty rushed in, drying her hands on her apron. She had not heard him enter.
'Eh losh!' she cried, and put her wet apron to her eyes. 'Sic a man as ye're grown, Robert! A puir body like me maunna be speykin to ye noo.'
'There's nae odds in me, Betty,' returned Robert.
''Deed but there is. Ye're sax feet an' a hairy ower, I s' warran'.'
'I said there was nae odds i' me, Betty,' persisted Robert, laughing.
'I kenna what may be in ye,' retorted Betty; 'but there's an unco' odds upo' ye.'
'Haud yer tongue, Betty,' said her mistress. 'Ye oucht to ken better nor stan' jawin' wi' young men. Fess mair o' the creamy cakes.'
'Maybe Robert wad like a drappy o' parritch.'
'Onything, Betty,' said Robert. 'I'm at deith's door wi' hunger.'
'Rin, Betty, for the cakes. An' fess a loaf o' white breid; we canna bide for the parritch.'
Robert fell to his breakfast, and while he ate--somewhat ravenously--he told his grandmother the adventures of the night, and introduced the question whether he might not ask Ericson to stay a few days with him.
'Ony frien' o' yours, laddie,' she replied, qualifying her words only with the addition--'gin he be a frien'.--Whaur is he noo?'
'He's up at Miss Naper's.'
'Hoots! What for didna ye fess him in wi' ye?--Betty!'
'Na, na, grannie. The Napers are frien's o' his. We maunna interfere wi' them. I'll gang up mysel' ance I hae had my brakfast.'
'Weel, weel, laddie. Eh! I'm blythe to see ye! Hae ye gotten ony prizes noo?'
'Ay have I. I'm sorry they're nae baith o' them the first. But I hae the first o' ane an' the third o' the ither.'
'I am pleased at that, Robert. Ye'll be a man some day gin ye haud frae drink an' frae--frae leein'.'
'I never tellt a lee i' my life, grannie.'
'Na. I dinna think 'at ever ye did.--An' what's that crater Shargar aboot?'
'Ow, jist gaein' to be a croon o' glory to ye, grannie. He vroucht like a horse till Dr. Anderson took him by the han', an' sent him to the schuil. An' he's gaein' to mak something o' 'im, or a' be dune. He's a fine crater, Shargar.'
'He tuik a munelicht flittin' frae here,' rejoined the old lady, in a tone of offence. 'He micht hae said gude day to me, I think.'
'Ye see he was feart at ye, grannie.'
'Feart at me, laddie! Wha ever was feart at me? I never feart onybody i' my life.'
So little did the dear old lady know that she was a terror to her neighbourhood!--simply because, being a law to herself, she would therefore be a law to other people,--a conclusion that cannot be concluded.
Mrs. Falconer's courtesy did not fail. Her grandson had ceased to be a child; her responsibility had in so far ceased; her conscience was relieved at being rid of it; and the humanity of her great heart came out to greet the youth. She received Ericson with perfect hospitality, made him at home as far as the stately respect she showed him would admit of his being so, and confirmed in him the impression of her which Robert had given him. They held many talks together; and such was the circumspection of Ericson that, not saying a word he did not believe, he so said what he did believe, or so avoided the points upon which they would have differed seriously, that although his theology was of course far from satisfying her, she yet affirmed her conviction that the root of the matter was in him. This distressed Ericson, however, for he feared he must have been deceitful, if not hypocritical.
It was with some grumbling that the Napiers, especially Miss Letty, parted with him to Mrs. Falconer. The hearts of all three had so taken to the youth, that he found himself more at home in that hostelry than anywhere else in the world. Miss Letty was the only one that spoke lightly of him--she even went so far as to make good-natured game of him sometimes--all because she loved him more than the others--more indeed than she cared to show, for fear of exposing 'an old woman's ridiculous fancy,' as she called her predilection.--'A lang-leggit, prood, landless laird,' she would say, with a moist glimmer in her loving eyes, 'wi' the maist ridiculous feet ye ever saw--hardly room for the five taes atween the twa! Losh!'
When Robert went forth into the streets, he was surprised to find how friendly every one was. Even old William MacGregor shook him kindly by the hand, inquired after his health, told him not to study too hard, informed him that he had a copy of a queer old book that he would like to see, &c., &c. Upon reflection Robert discovered the cause: though he had scarcely gained a bursary, he had gained prizes; and in a little place like Rothieden--long may there be such places!--everybody with any brains at all took a share in the distinction he had merited.
Ericson stayed only a few days. He went back to the twilight of the north, his fishy cousin, and his tutorship at Sir Olaf Petersen's. Robert accompanied him ten miles on his journey, and would have gone further, but that he was to play on his violin before Miss St. John the next day for the first time.
When he told his grandmother of the appointment he had made, she only remarked, in a tone of some satisfaction,
'Weel, she's a fine lass, Miss St. John; and gin ye tak to ane anither, ye canna do better.'
But Robert's thoughts were so different from Mrs. Falconer's that he did not even suspect what she meant. He no more dreamed of marrying Miss St. John than of marrying his forbidden grandmother. Yet she was no loss at this period the ruling influence of his life; and if it had not been for the benediction of her presence and power, this part of his history too would have been torn by inward troubles. It is not good that a man should batter day and night at the gate of heaven. Sometimes he can do nothing else, and then nothing else is worth doing; but the very noise of the siege will sometimes drown the still small voice that calls from the open postern. There is a door wide to the jewelled wall not far from any one of us, even when he least can find it.
Robert, however, notwithstanding the pedestal upon which Miss St. John stood in his worshipping regard, began to be aware that his feeling towards her was losing something of its placid flow, and I doubt whether Miss St. John did not now and then see that in his face which made her tremble a little, and doubt whether she stood on safe ground with a youth just waking into manhood--tremble a little, not for herself, but for him. Her fear would have found itself more than justified, if she had surprised him kissing her glove, and then replacing it where he had found it, with the air of one consciously guilty of presumption.
Possibly also Miss St. John may have had to confess to herself that had she not had her history already, and been ten years his senior, she might have found no little attraction in the noble bearing and handsome face of young Falconer. The rest of his features had now grown into complete harmony of relation with his whilom premature and therefore portentous nose; his eyes glowed and gleamed with humanity, and his whole countenance bore self-evident witness of being a true face and no mask, a revelation of his individual being, and not a mere inheritance from a fine breed of fathers and mothers. As it was, she could admire and love him without danger of falling in love with him; but not without fear lest he should not assume the correlative position. She saw no way of prevention, however, without running a risk of worse. She shrunk altogether from putting on anything; she abhorred tact, and pretence was impracticable with Mary St. John. She resolved that if she saw any definite ground for uneasiness she would return to England, and leave any impression she might have made to wear out in her absence and silence. Things did not seem to render this necessary yet.
Meantime the violin of the dead shoemaker blended its wails with the rich harmonies of Mary St. John's piano, and the soul of Robert went forth upon the level of the sound and hovered about the beauty of his friend. Oftener than she approved was she drawn by Robert's eagerness into these consorts.
But the heart of the king is in the hands of the Lord.
While Robert thus once more for a season stood behind the cherub with the flaming sword, Ericson was teaching two stiff-necked youths in a dreary house in the midst of one of the moors of Caithness. One day he had a slight attack of blood-spitting, and welcomed it as a sign from what heaven there might be beyond the grave.
He had not received the consolation of Miss St. John without, although unconsciously, leaving something in her mind in return. No human being has ever been allowed to occupy the position of a pure benefactor. The receiver has his turn, and becomes the giver. From her talk with Ericson, and even more from the influence of his sad holy doubt, a fresh touch of the actinism of the solar truth fell upon the living seed in her heart, and her life burst forth afresh, began to bud in new questions that needed answers, and new prayers that sought them.
But she never dreamed that Robert was capable of sympathy with such thoughts and feelings: he was but a boy. Nor in power of dealing with truth was he at all on the same level with her, for however poor he might have considered her theories, she had led a life hitherto, had passed through sorrow without bitterness, had done her duty without pride, had hoped without conceit of favour, had, as she believed, heard the voice of God saying, 'This is the way.' Hence she was not afraid when the mists of prejudice began to rise from around her path, and reveal a country very different from what she had fancied it. She was soon able to perceive that it was far more lovely and full of righteousness and peace than she had supposed. But this anticipates; only I shall have less occasion to speak of Miss St. John by the time she has come into this purer air of the uphill road.
Robert was happier than he ever could have expected to be in his grandmother's house. She treated him like an honoured guest, let him do as he would, and go where he pleased. Betty kept the gable-room in the best of order for him, and, pattern of housemaids, dusted his table without disturbing his papers. For he began to have papers; nor were they occupied only with the mathematics to which he was now giving his chief attention, preparing, with the occasional help of Mr. Innes, for his second session.
He had fits of wandering, though; visited all the old places; spent a week or two more than once at Bodyfauld; rode Mr. Lammie's half-broke filly; revelled in the glories of the summer once more; went out to tea occasionally, or supped with the school-master; and, except going to church on Sunday, which was a weariness to every inch of flesh upon his bones, enjoyed everything.