Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part II.--His Youth
Chapter XIX. Robert Mediates.
One lovely evening in the first of the summer Miss St. John had dismissed him earlier than usual, and he had wandered out for a walk. After a round of a couple of miles, he returned by a fir-wood, through which went a pathway. He had heard Mary St. John say that she was going to see the wife of a labourer who lived at the end of this path. In the heart of the trees it was growing very dusky; but when he came to a spot where they stood away from each other a little space, and the blue sky looked in from above with one cloud floating in it from which the rose of the sunset was fading, he seated himself on a little mound of moss that had gathered over an ancient stump by the footpath, and drew out his friend's papers. Absorbed in his reading, he was not aware of an approach till the rustle of silk startled him. He lifted up his eyes, and saw Miss St. John a few yards from him on the pathway. He rose.
'It's almost too dark to read now, isn't it, Robert?' she said.
'Ah!' said. Robert, 'I know this writing so well that I could read it by moonlight. I wish I might read some of it to you. You would like it.'
'May I ask whose it is, then? Poetry, too!'
'It's Mr. Ericson's. But I'm feared he wouldna like me to read it to anybody but myself. And yet--'
'I don't think he would mind me,' returned Miss St. John. 'I do know him a little. It is not as if I were quite a stranger, you know. Did he tell you not?'
'No. But then he never thought of such a thing. I don't know if it's fair, for they are carelessly written, and there are words and lines here and there that I am sure he would alter if he cared for them ae hair.'
'Then if he doesn't care for them, he won't mind my hearing them. There!' she said, seating herself on the stump. 'You sit down on the grass and read me--one at least.'
'You'll remember they were never intended to be read?' urged Robert, not knowing what he was doing, and so fulfilling his destiny.
'I will be as jealous of his honour as ever you can wish,' answered Miss St. John gaily.
Robert laid himself on the grass at her feet, and read:--
MY TWO GENIUSES.
One is a slow and melancholy maid:
The other meets me in the public throng:
Maid with the poppies, must I let thee go?
Miss St. John did not speak.
'War ye able to follow him?' asked Robert.
'Quite, I assure you,' she answered, with a tremulousness in her voice which delighted Robert as evidence of his friend's success.
'But they're nae a' so easy to follow, I can tell ye, mem. Just hearken to this,' he said, with some excitement.
When the storm was proudest,
'That line, mem,' remarked Robert, ''s only jist scrattit in, as gin he had no intention o' leavin' 't, an' only set it there to keep room for anither. But we'll jist gang on wi' the lave o' 't. I ouchtna to hae interruppit it.'
When the day had ended,
Then slumber soft and holy
'There!' said Robert, ending, 'can ye mak onything o' that, Miss St. John?'
'I don't say I can in words,' she answered; 'but I think I could put it all into music.'
'But surely ye maun hae some notion o' what it's aboot afore you can do that.'
'Yes; but I have some notion of what it's about, I think. Just lend it to me; and by the time we have our next lesson, you will see whether I'm not able to show you I understand it. I shall take good care of it,' she added, with a smile, seeing Robert's reluctance to part with it. 'It doesn't matter my having it, you know, now that you've read it to me, I want to make you do it justice.--But it's quite time I were going home. Besides, I really don't think you can see to read any more.'
'Weel, it's better no to try, though I hae them maistly upo' my tongue: I might blunder, and that wad blaud them.--Will you let me go home with you?' he added, in pure tremulous English.
'Certainly, if you like,' she answered; and they walked towards the town.
Robert opened the fountain of his love for Ericson, and let it gush like a river from a hillside. He talked on and on about him, with admiration, gratitude, devotion. And Miss St. John was glad of the veil of the twilight over her face as she listened, for the boy's enthusiasm trembled through her as the wind through an Ĉolian harp. Poor Robert! He did not know, I say, what he was doing, and so was fulfilling his sacred destiny.
'Bring your manuscripts when you come next,' she said, as they walked along--gently adding, 'I admire your friend's verses very much, and should like to hear more of them.'
'I'll be sure an' do that,' answered Robert, in delight that he had found one to sympathize with him in his worship of Ericson, and that one his other idol.
When they reached the town, Miss St. John, calling to mind its natural propensity to gossip, especially on the evening of a market-day, when the shopkeepers, their labours over, would be standing in a speculative mood at their doors, surrounded by groups of friends and neighbours, felt shy of showing herself on the square with Robert, and proposed that they should part, giving as a by-the-bye reason that she had a little shopping to do as she went home. Too simple to suspect the real reason, but with a heart that delighted in obedience, Robert bade her good-night at once, and took another way.
As he passed the door of Merson the haberdasher's shop, there stood William MacGregor, the weaver, looking at nothing and doing nothing. We have seen something of him before: he was a remarkable compound of good nature and bad temper. People were generally afraid of him, because he had a biting satire at his command, amounting even to wit, which found vent in verse--not altogether despicable even from a literary point of view. The only person he, on his part, was afraid of, was his own wife; for upon her, from lack of apprehension, his keenest irony fell, as he said, like water on a duck's back, and in respect of her he had, therefore, no weapon of offence to strike terror withal. Her dulness was her defence. He liked Robert. When he saw him, he wakened up, laid hold of him by the button, and drew him in.
'Come in, lad,' he said, 'an' tak a pinch. I'm waitin' for Merson.' As he spoke he took from his pocket his mull, made of the end of a ram's horn, and presented it to Robert, who accepted the pledge of friendship. While he was partaking, MacGregor drew himself with some effort upon the counter, saying in a half-comical, half-admonitory tone,
'Weel, and hoo's the mathematics, Robert?'
'Thrivin',' answered Robert, falling into his humour.
'Weel, that's verra weel. Duv ye min', Robert, hoo, whan ye was aboot the age o' aucht year aul', ye cam to me ance at my shop aboot something yer gran'mither, honest woman, wantit, an' I, by way o' takin' my fun o' ye, said to ye, "Robert, ye hae grown desperate; ye're a man clean; ye hae gotten the breeks on." An' says ye, "Ay, Mr. MacGregor, I want naething noo but a watch an' a wife"?'
'I doobt I've forgotten a' aboot it, Mr. MacGregor,' answered Robert. 'But I've made some progress, accordin' to your story, for Dr. Anderson, afore I cam hame, gae me a watch. An' a fine crater it is, for it aye does its best, an' sae I excuse its shortcomin's.'
'There's just ae thing, an' nae anither,' returned the manufacturer, 'that I cannot excuse in a watch. Gin a watch gangs ower fest, ye fin' 't oot. Gin she gangs ower slow, ye fin' 't oot, an' ye can aye calculate upo' 't correck eneuch for maitters sublunairy, as Mr. Maccleary says. An' gin a watch stops a'thegither, ye ken it's failin', an' ye ken whaur it sticks, an' a' 'at ye say 's "Tut, tut, de'il hae 't for a watch!" But there's ae thing that God nor man canna bide in a watch, an' that's whan it stan's still for a bittock, an' syne gangs on again. Ay, ay! tic, tic, tic! wi' a fair face and a leein' hert. It wad gar ye believe it was a' richt, and time for anither tum'ler, whan it's twal o'clock, an' the kirkyaird fowk thinkin' aboot risin'. Fegs, I had a watch o' my father's, an' I regairdit it wi' a reverence mair like a human bein': the second time it played me that pliskie, I dang oot its guts upo' the loupin'-on-stane at the door o' the chop. But lat the watch sit: whaur's the wife? Ye canna be a man yet wantin' the wife--by yer ain statement.'
'The watch cam unsoucht, Mr. MacGregor, an' I'm thinkin' sae maun the wife,' answered Robert, laughing.
'Preserve me for ane frae a wife that comes unsoucht,' returned the weaver. 'But, my lad, there may be some wives that winna come whan they are soucht. Preserve me frae them too!--Noo, maybe ye dinna ken what I mean--but tak ye tent what ye're aboot. Dinna ye think 'at ilka bonnie lass 'at may like to haud a wark wi' ye 's jist ready to mairry ye aff han' whan ye say, "Noo, my dawtie."--An' ae word mair, Robert: Young men, especially braw lads like yersel', 's unco ready to fa' in love wi' women fit to be their mithers. An' sae ye see--'
He was interrupted by the entrance of a girl. She had a shawl over her head, notwithstanding it was summer weather, and crept in hesitatingly, as if she were not quite at one with herself as to her coming purchase. Approaching a boy behind the counter on the opposite side of the shop, she asked for something, and he proceeded to serve her. Robert could not help thinking, from the one glimpse of her face he had got through the dusk, that he had seen her before. Suddenly the vision of an earthen floor with a pool of brown sunlight upon it, bare feet, brown hair, and soft eyes, mingled with a musk odour wafted from Arabian fairyland, rose before him: it was Jessie Hewson.
'I ken that lassie,' he said, and moved to get down from the counter on which he too had seated himself.
'Na, na,' whispered the manufacturer, laying, like the Ancient Mariner, a brown skinny hand of restraint upon Robert's arm--'na, na, never heed her. Ye maunna speyk to ilka lass 'at ye ken.--Poor thing! she's been doin' something wrang, to gang slinkin' aboot i' the gloamin' like a baukie (bat), wi' her plaid ower her heid. Dinna fash wi' her.'
'Nonsense!' returned Robert, with indignation. 'What for shouldna I speik till her? She's a decent lassie--a dochter o' James Hewson, the cottar at Bodyfauld. I ken her fine.'
He said this in a whisper; but the girl seemed to hear it, for she left the shop with a perturbation which the dimness of the late twilight could not conceal. Robert hesitated no longer, but followed her, heedless of the louder expostulations of MacGregor. She was speeding away down the street, but he took longer strides than she, and was almost up with her, when she drew her shawl closer about her head, and increased her pace.
'Jessie!' said Robert, in a tone of expostulation. But she made no answer. Her head sunk lower on her bosom, and she hurried yet faster. He gave a long stride or two and laid his hand on her shoulder. She stood still, trembling.
'Jessie, dinna ye ken me--Robert Faukner? Dinna be feart at me. What's the maitter wi' ye, 'at ye winna speik till a body? Hoo's a' the fowk at hame?'
She burst out crying, cast one look into Robert's face, and fled. What a change was in that face? The peach-colour was gone from her cheek; it was pale and thin. Her eyes were hollow, with dark shadows under them, the shadows of a sad sunset. A foreboding of the truth arose in his heart, and the tears rushed up into his eyes. The next moment the eidolon of Mary St. John, moving gracious and strong, clothed in worship and the dignity which is its own defence, appeared beside that of Jessie Hewson, her bowed head shaken with sobs, and her weak limbs urged to ungraceful flight. As if walking in the vision of an eternal truth, he went straight to Captain Forsyth's door.
'I want to speak to Miss St. John, Isie,' said Robert.
'She'll be doon in a minit.'
'But isna yer mistress i' the drawin'-room?--I dinna want to see her.'
'Ow, weel,' said the girl, who was almost fresh from the country, 'jist rin up the stair, an' chap at the door o' her room.'
With the simplicity of a child, for what a girl told him to do must be right, Robert sped up the stair, his heart going like a fire-engine. He had never approached Mary's room from this side, but instinct or something else led him straight to her door. He knocked.
'Come in,' she said, never doubting it was the maid, and Robert entered.
She was brushing her hair by the light of a chamber candle. Robert was seized with awe, and his limbs trembled. He could have kneeled before her--not to beg forgiveness, he did not think of that--but to worship, as a man may worship a woman. It is only a strong, pure heart like Robert's that ever can feel all the inroad of the divine mystery of womanhood. But he did not kneel. He had a duty to perform. A flush rose in Miss St. John's face, and sank away, leaving it pale. It was not that she thought once of her own condition, with her hair loose on her shoulders, but, able only to conjecture what had brought him thither, she could not but regard Robert's presence with dismay. She stood with her ivory brush in her right hand uplifted, and a great handful of hair in her left. She was soon relieved, however, although what with his contemplated intercession, the dim vision of Mary's lovely face between the masses of her hair, and the lavender odour that filled the room--perhaps also a faint suspicion of impropriety sufficient to give force to the rest--Robert was thrown back into the abyss of his mother-tongue, and out of this abyss talked like a Behemoth.
'Robert!' said Mary, in a tone which, had he not been so eager after his end, he might have interpreted as one of displeasure.
'Ye maun hearken till me, mem.--Whan I was oot at Bodyfauld,' he began methodically, and Mary, bewildered, gave one hasty brush to her handful of hair and again stood still: she could imagine no connection between this meeting and their late parting--'Whan I was was oot at Bodyfauld ae simmer, I grew acquant wi' a bonnie lassie there, the dochter o' Jeames Hewson, an honest cottar, wi' Shakspeare an' the Arabian Nichts upo' a skelf i' the hoose wi' 'im. I gaed in ae day whan I wasna weel; an' she jist ministert to me, as nane ever did but yersel', mem. An' she was that kin' an' mither-like to the wee bit greitin' bairnie 'at she had to tak care o' 'cause her mither was oot wi' the lave shearin'! Her face was jist like a simmer day, an' weel I likit the luik o' the lassie!--I met her again the nicht. Ye never saw sic a change. A white face, an' nothing but greitin' to come oot o' her. She ran frae me as gin I had been the de'il himsel'. An' the thocht o' you, sae bonnie an' straucht an' gran', cam ower me.'
Yielding to a masterful impulse, Robert did kneel now. As if sinner, and not mediator, he pressed the hem of her garment to his lips.
'Dinna be angry at me, Miss St. John,' he pleaded, 'but be mercifu' to the lassie. Wha's to help her that can no more luik a man i' the face, but the clear-e'ed lass that wad luik the sun himsel' oot o' the lift gin he daured to say a word against her. It's ae woman that can uphaud anither. Ye ken what I mean, an' I needna say mair.'
He rose and turned to leave the room.
Bewildered and doubtful, Miss St. John did not know what to answer, but felt that she must make some reply.
'You haven't told me where to find the girl, or what you want me to do with her.'
'I'll fin' oot whaur she bides,' he said, moving again towards the door.
'But what am I to do with her, Robert?'
'That's your pairt. Ye maun fin' oot what to do wi' her. I canna tell ye that. But gin I was you, I wad gie her a kiss to begin wi'. She's nane o' yer brazen-faced hizzies, yon. A kiss wad be the savin' o' her.'
'But you may be--. But I have nothing to go upon. She would resent my interference.'
'She's past resentin' onything. She was gaein' aboot the toon like ane o' the deid 'at hae naething to say to onybody, an' naebody onything to say to them. Gin she gangs on like that she'll no be alive lang.'
That night Jessie Hewson disappeared. A mile or two up the river under a high bank, from which the main current had receded, lay an awful, swampy place--full of reeds, except in the middle where was one round space full of dark water and mud. Near this Jessie Hewson was seen about an hour after Robert had thus pled for her with his angel.
The event made a deep impression upon Robert. The last time that he saw them, James and his wife were as cheerful as usual, and gave him a hearty welcome. Jessie was in service, and doing well, they said. The next time he opened the door of the cottage it was like the entrance to a haunted tomb. Not a smile was in the place. James's cheeriness was all gone. He was sitting at the table with his head leaning on his hand. His Bible was open before him, but he was not reading a word. His wife was moving listlessly about. They looked just as Jessie had looked that night--as if they had died long ago, but somehow or other could not get into their graves and be at rest. The child Jessie had nursed with such care was toddling about, looking rueful with loss. George had gone to America, and the whole of that family's joy had vanished from the earth.
The subject was not resumed between Miss St. John and Robert. The next time he saw her, he knew by her pale troubled face that she had heard the report that filled the town; and she knew by his silence that it had indeed reference to the same girl of whom he had spoken to her. The music would not go right that evening. Mary was distraite, and Robert was troubled. It was a week or two before there came a change. When the turn did come, over his being love rushed up like a spring-tide from the ocean of the Infinite.
He was accompanying her piano with his violin. He made blunders, and her playing was out of heart. They stopped as by consent, and a moment's silence followed. All at once she broke out with something Robert had never heard before. He soon found that it was a fantasy upon Ericson's poem. Ever through a troubled harmony ran a silver thread of melody from far away. It was the caverns drinking from the tempest overhead, the grasses growing under the snow, the stars making music with the dark, the streams filling the night with the sounds the day had quenched, the whispering call of the dreams left behind in 'the fields of sleep,'--in a word, the central life pulsing in aeonian peace through the outer ephemeral storms. At length her voice took up the theme. The silvery thread became song, and through all the opposing, supporting harmonies she led it to the solution of a close in which the only sorrow was in the music itself, for its very life is an 'endless ending.' She found Robert kneeling by her side. As she turned from the instrument his head drooped over her knee. She laid her hand on his clustering curls, bethought herself, and left the room. Robert wandered out as in a dream. At midnight he found himself on a solitary hill-top, seated in the heather, with a few tiny fir-trees about him, and the sounds of a wind, ethereal as the stars overhead, flowing through their branches: he heard the sound of it, but it did not touch him.
Where was God?
In him and his question.