Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part II.--His Youth
Chapter XXII. Robert in Action.
It was late when he left his friend. As he walked through the Gallowgate, an ancient narrow street, full of low courts, some one touched him upon the arm. He looked round. It was a young woman. He turned again to walk on.
'Mr Faukner,' she said, in a trembling voice, which Robert thought he had heard before.
'I don't know you,' he said. 'I can't see your face. Tell me who you are.'
She returned no answer, but stood with her head aside. He could see that her hands shook.
'What do you want with me--if you won't say who you are?'
'I want to tell you something,' she said; 'but I canna speyk here. Come wi' me.'
'I won't go with you without knowing who you are or where you're going to take me.'
'Dinna ye ken me?' she said pitifully, turning a little towards the light of the gas-lamp, and looking up in his face.
'It canna be Jessie Hewson?' said Robert, his heart swelling at the sight of the pale worn countenance of the girl.
'I was Jessie Hewson ance,' she said, 'but naebody here kens me by that name but yersel'. Will ye come in? There's no a crater i' the hoose but mysel'.'
Robert turned at once. 'Go on,' he said.
She led the way up a narrow stone stair between two houses. A door high up in the gable admitted them. The boards bent so much under his weight that Robert feared the floor would fall.
'Bide ye there, sir, till I fess a licht,' she said.
This was Robert's first introduction to a phase of human life with which he became familiar afterwards.
'Mind hoo ye gang, sir,' she resumed, returning with a candle. 'There's nae flurin' there. Haud i' the middle efter me, or ye'll gang throu.'
She led him into a room, with nothing in it but a bed, a table, and a chair. On the table was a half-made shirt. In the bed lay a tiny baby, fast asleep. It had been locked up alone in the dreary garret. Robert approached to look at the child, for his heart felt very warm to poor Jessie.
'A bonnie bairnie,' he said,
'Isna he, sir? Think o' 'im comin' to me! Nobody can tell the mercy o' 't. Isna it strange that the verra sin suld bring an angel frae haven upo' the back o' 't to uphaud an' restore the sinner? Fowk thinks it's a punishment; but eh me! it's a mercifu' ane. It's a wonner he didna think shame to come to me. But he cam to beir my shame.'
Robert wondered at her words. She talked of her sin with such a meek openness! She looked her shame in the face, and acknowledged it hers. Had she been less weak and worn, perhaps she could not have spoken thus.
'But what am I aboot!' she said, checking herself. 'I didna fess ye here to speyk aboot mysel'. He's efter mair mischeef, and gin onything cud be dune to haud him frae 't--'
'Wha's efter mischeef, Jessie?' interrupted Robert.
'Lord Rothie. He's gaein' aff the nicht in Skipper Hornbeck's boat to Antwerp, I think they ca' 't, an' a bonnie young leddy wi' 'im. They war to sail wi' the first o' the munelicht.--Surely I'm nae ower late,' she added, going to the window. 'Na, the mune canna be up yet.'
'Na,' said Robert; 'I dinna think she rises muckle afore twa o'clock the nicht. But hoo ken ye? Are ye sure o' 't? It's an awfu' thing to think o'.'
'To convence ye, I maun jist tell ye the trowth. The hoose we're in hasna a gude character. We're middlin' dacent up here; but the lave o' the place is dreadfu'. Eh for the bonnie leys o' Bodyfauld! Gin ye see my father, tell him I'm nane waur than I was.'
'They think ye droont i' the Dyer's Pot, as they ca' 't.'
'There I am again!' she said--'miles awa' an' nae time to be lost!--My lord has a man they ca' Mitchell. Ower weel I ken him. There's a wuman doon the stair 'at he comes to see whiles; an' twa or three nichts ago, I heard them lauchin' thegither. Sae I hearkened. They war baith some fou, I'm thinkin'. I cudna tell ye a' 'at they said. That's a punishment noo, gin ye like--to see and hear the warst o' yer ain ill doin's. He tellt the limmer a heap o' his lord's secrets. Ay, he tellt her aboot me, an' hoo I had gane and droont mysel'. I could hear 'maist ilka word 'at he said; for ye see the flurin' here 's no verra soon', and I was jist 'at I cudna help hearkenin'. My lord's aff the nicht, as I tell ye. It's a queer gait, but a quaiet, he thinks, nae doobt. Gin onybody wad but tell her hoo mony een the baron's made sair wi' greitin'!'
'But hoo's that to be dune?' said Robert.
'I dinna ken. But I hae been watchin' to see you ever sin' syne. I hae seen ye gang by mony a time. Ye're the only man I ken 'at I could speyk till aboot it. Ye maun think what ye can do. The warst o' 't is I canna tell wha she is or whaur she bides.'
'In that case, I canna see what's to be dune.'
'Cudna ye watch them aboord, an' slip a letter intil her han'? Or ye cud gie 't to the skipper to gie her.'
'I ken the skipper weel eneuch. He's a respectable man. Gin he kent what the baron was efter, he wadna tak him on boord.'
'That wad do little guid. He wad only hae her aff some ither gait.'
'Weel,' said Robert, rising, 'I'll awa' hame, an' think aboot it as I gang.--Wad ye tak a feow shillin's frae an auld frien'?' he added with hesitation, putting his hand in his pocket.
'Na--no a baubee,' she answered. 'Nobody sall say it was for mysel' I broucht ye here. Come efter me, an' min' whaur ye pit doon yer feet. It's no sicker.'
She led him to the door. He bade her good-night.
'Tak care ye dinna fa' gaein' doon the stair. It's maist as steep 's a wa'.'
As Robert came from between the houses, he caught a glimpse of a man in a groom's dress going in at the street door of that he had left.
All the natural knighthood in him was roused. But what could he do? To write was a sneaking way. He would confront the baron. The baron and the girl would both laugh at him. The sole conclusion he could arrive at was to consult Shargar.
He lost no time in telling him the story.
'I tauld ye he was up to some deevilry or ither,' said Shargar. 'I can shaw ye the verra hoose he maun be gaein' to tak her frae.'
'Ye vratch! what for didna ye tell me that afore?'
'Ye wadna hear aboot ither fowk's affairs. Na, not you! But some fowk has no richt to consideration. The verra stanes they say 'ill cry oot ill secrets like brither Sandy's.'
'Whase hoose is 't?'
'I dinna ken. I only saw him come oot o' 't ance, an' Jock Mitchell was haudin' Black Geordie roon' the neuk. It canna be far frae Mr. Lindsay's 'at you an' Mr. Ericson used to gang till.'
'Come an' lat me see 't direckly,' cried Robert, starting up, with a terrible foreboding at his heart.
They were in the street in a moment. Shargar led the way by a country lane to the top of the hill on the right, and then turning to the left, brought him to some houses standing well apart from each other. It was a region unknown to Robert. They were the backs of the houses of which Mr. Lindsay's was one.
'This is the hoose,' said Shargar.
Robert rushed into action. He knocked at the door. Mr. Lindsay's Jenny opened it.
'Is yer mistress in, Jenny?' he asked at once.
'Na. Ay. The maister's gane to Bors Castle.'
'It's Miss Lindsay I want to see.'
'She's up in her ain room wi' a sair heid.'
Robert looked her hard in the face, and knew she was lying.
'I want to see her verra partic'lar,' he said.
'Weel, ye canna see her,' returned Jenny angrily. 'I'll tell her onything ye like.'
Concluding that little was to be gained by longer parley, but quite uncertain whether Mysie was in the house or not, Robert turned to Shargar, took him by the arm, and walked away in silence. When they were beyond earshot of Jenny, who stood looking after them,
'Ye're sure that's the hoose, Shargar?' said Robert quietly.
'As sure's deith, and maybe surer, for I saw him come oot wi' my ain een.'
'Weel, Shargar, it's grown something awfu' noo. It's Miss Lindsay. Was there iver sic a villain as that Lord Rothie--that brither o' yours!'
'I disoun 'im frae this verra 'oor,' said Shargar solemnly.
'Something maun be dune. We'll awa' to the quay, an' see what'll turn up. I wonner hoo's the tide.'
'The tide's risin'. They'll never try to win oot till it's slack watter--furbye 'at the Amphitrite, for as braid 's she is, and her bows modelled efter the cheeks o' a resurrection cherub upo' a gravestane, draws a heap o' watter: an' the bar they say 's waur to win ower nor usual: it's been gatherin' again.'
As they spoke, the boys were making for the new town, eagerly. Just opposite where the Amphitrite lay was a public-house: into that they made up their minds to go, and there to write a letter, which they would give to Miss Lindsay if they could, or, if not, leave with Skipper Hoornbeek. Before they reached the river, a thick rain of minute drops began to fall, rendering the night still darker, so that they could scarcely see the vessels from the pavement on the other side of the quay, along which they were hurrying, to avoid the cables, rings, and stone posts that made its margin dangerous in the dim light. When they came to The Smack Inn they crossed right over to reach the Amphitrite. A growing fear kept them silent as they approached her berth. It was empty. They turned and stared at each other in dismay.
One of those amphibious animals that loiter about the borders of the water was seated on a stone smoking, probably fortified against the rain by the whisky inside him.
'Whaur's the Amphitrite, Alan?' asked Shargar, for Robert was dumb with disappointment and rage.
'Half doon to Stanehive by this time, I'm thinkin',' answered Alan. 'For a brewin' tub like her, she fummles awa nae ill wi' a licht win' astarn o' her. But I'm doobtin' afore she win across the herrin-pot her fine passengers 'll win at the boddom o' their stamacks. It's like to blaw a bonnetfu', and she rows awfu' in ony win'. I dinna think she cud capsize, but for wamlin' she's waur nor a bairn with the grips.'
In absolute helplessness, the boys had let him talk on: there was nothing more to be done; and Alan was in a talkative mood.
'Fegs! gin 't come on to blaw,' he resumed, 'I wadna wonner gin they got the skipper to set them ashore at Stanehive. I heard auld Horny say something aboot lyin' to there for a bit, to tak a keg or something aboord.'
The boys looked at each other, bade Alan good-night, and walked away.
'Hoo far is 't to Stonehaven, Shargar?' said Robert.
'I dinna richtly ken. Maybe frae twal to fifteen mile.'
Robert stood still. Shargar saw his face pale as death, and contorted with the effort to control his feelings.
'Shargar,' he said, 'what am I to do? I vowed to Mr. Ericson that, gin he deid, I wad luik efter that bonny lassie. An' noo whan he's lyin' a' but deid, I hae latten her slip throu' my fingers wi' clean carelessness. What am I to do? Gin I cud only win to Stonehaven afore the Amphitrite! I cud gang aboord wi' the keg, and gin I cud do naething mair, I wad hae tried to do my best. Gin I do naething, my hert 'll brak wi' the weicht o' my shame.'
Shargar burst into a roar of laughter. Robert was on the point of knocking him down, but took him by the throat as a milder proceeding, and shook him.
'Robert! Robert!' gurgled Shargar, as soon as his choking had overcome his merriment, 'ye're an awfu' Hielan'man. Hearken to me. I beg--g--g yer pardon. What I was thinkin' o' was--'
Robert relaxed his hold. But Shargar, notwithstanding the lesson Robert had given him, could hardly speak yet for the enjoyment of his own device.
'Gin we could only get rid o' Jock Mitchell!--' he crowed; and burst out again.
'He's wi' a wuman i' the Gallowgate,' said Robert.
'Losh, man!' exclaimed Shargar, and started off at full speed.
He was no match for his companion, however.
'Whaur the deevil are ye rinnin' till, ye wirrycow (scarecrow)?' panted Robert, as he laid hold of his collar.
'Lat me gang, Robert,' gasped Shargar. 'Losh, man! ye'll be on Black Geordie in anither ten meenits, an' me ahin' ye upo' Reid Rorie. An' faith gin we binna at Stanehive afore the Dutchman wi' 's boddom foremost, it'll be the faut o' the horse and no o' the men.'
Robert's heart gave a bound of hope.
'Hoo 'ill ye get them, Shargar?' he asked eagerly.
'Steal them,' answered Shargar, struggling to get away from the grasp still upon his collar.
'We micht be hanged for that.'
'Weel, Robert, I'll tak a' the wyte o' 't. Gin it hadna been for you, I micht ha' been hangt by this time for ill doin': for your sake I'll be hangt for weel doin', an' welcome. Come awa'. To steal a mairch upo' brither Sandy wi' aucht (eight) horse-huves o' 's ain! Ha! ha! ha!'
They sped along, now running themselves out of breath, now walking themselves into it again, until they reached a retired hostelry between the two towns. Warning Robert not to show himself, Shargar disappeared round the corner of the house.
Robert grew weary, and then anxious. At length Shargar's face came through the darkness.
'Robert,' he whispered, 'gie 's yer bonnet. I'll be wi' ye in a moment noo.'
Robert obeyed, too anxious to question him. In about three minutes more Shargar reappeared, leading what seemed the ghost of a black horse; for Robert could see only his eyes, and his hoofs made scarcely any noise. How he had managed it with a horse of Black Geordie's temper, I do not know, but some horses will let some persons do anything with them: he had drawn his own stockings over his fore feet, and tied their two caps upon his hind hoofs.
'Lead him awa' quaietly up the road till I come to ye,' said Shargar, as he took the mufflings off the horse's feet. 'An' min' 'at he doesna tak a nip o' ye. He's some ill for bitin'. I'll be efter ye direckly. Rorie's saiddlet an' bridled. He only wants his carpet-shune.'
Robert led the horse a few hundred yards, then stopped and waited. Shargar soon joined him, already mounted on Red Roderick.
'Here's yer bonnet, Robert. It's some foul, I doobt. But I cudna help it. Gang on, man. Up wi' ye. Maybe I wad hae better keepit Geordie mysel'. But ye can ride. Ance ye're on, he canna bite ye.'
But Robert needed no encouragement from Shargar. In his present mood he would have mounted a griffin. He was on horseback in a moment. They trotted gently through the streets, and out of the town. Once over the Dee, they gave their horses the rein, and off they went through the dark drizzle. Before they got half-way they were wet to the skin; but little did Robert, or Shargar either, care for that. Not many words passed between them.
'Hoo 'ill ye get the horse (plural) in again, Shargar?' asked Robert.
'Afore I get them back,' answered Shargar, 'they'll be tired eneuch to gang hame o' themsel's. Gin we had only had the luck to meet Jock!--that wad hae been gran'.'
'What for that?'
'I wad hae cawed Reid Rorie ower the heid o' 'm, an' left him lyin'--the coorse villain!'
The horses never flagged till they drew up in the main street of Stonehaven. Robert ran down to the harbour to make inquiry, and left Shargar to put them up.
The moon had risen, but the air was so full of vapour that she only succeeded in melting the darkness a little. The sea rolled in front, awful in its dreariness, under just light enough to show a something unlike the land. But the rain had ceased, and the air was clearer. Robert asked a solitary man, with a telescope in his hand, whether he was looking out for the Amphitrite. The man asked him gruffly in return what he knew of her. Possibly the nature of the keg to be put on board had something to do with his Scotch reply. Robert told him he was a friend of the captain, had missed the boat, and would give any one five shillings to put him on board. The man went away and returned with a companion. After some further questioning and bargaining, they agreed to take him. Robert loitered about the pier full of impatience. Shargar joined him.
Day began to break over the waves. They gleamed with a blue-gray leaden sheen. The men appeared coming along the harbour, and descended by a stair into a little skiff, where a barrel, or something like one, lay under a tarpaulin. Robert bade Shargar good-bye, and followed. They pushed off, rowed out into the bay, and lay on their oars waiting for the vessel. The light grew apace, and Robert fancied he could distinguish the two horses with one rider against the sky on the top of the cliffs, moving northwards. Turning his eyes to the sea, he saw the canvas of the brig, and his heart beat fast. The men bent to their oars. She drew nearer, and lay to. When they reached her he caught the rope the sailors threw, was on board in a moment, and went aft to the captain. The Dutchman stared. In a few words Robert made him understand his object, offering to pay for his passage, but the good man would not hear of it. He told him that the lady and gentleman had come on board as brother and sister: the baron was too knowing to run his head into the noose of Scotch law.
'I cannot throw him over the board,' said the skipper; 'and what am I to do? I am afraid it is of no use. Ah! poor thing!'
By this time the vessel was under way. The wind freshened. Mysie had been ill ever since they left the month of the river: now she was much worse. Before another hour passed, she was crying to be taken home to her papa. Still the wind increased, and the vessel laboured much.
Robert never felt better, and if it had not been for the cause of his sea-faring, would have thoroughly enjoyed it. He put on some sea-going clothes of the captain's, and set himself to take his share in working the brig, in which he was soon proficient enough to be useful. When the sun rose, they were in a tossing wilderness of waves. With the sunrise, Robert began to think he had been guilty of a great folly. For what could he do? How was he to prevent the girl from going off with her lover the moment they landed? But his poor attempt would verify his willingness.
The baron came on deck now and then, looking bored. He had not calculated on having to nurse the girl. Had Mysie been well, he could have amused himself with her, for he found her ignorance interesting. As it was, he felt injured, and indeed disgusted at the result of the experiment.
On the third day the wind abated a little; but towards night it blew hard again, and it was not until they reached the smooth waters of the Scheldt that Mysie made her appearance on deck, looking dreadfully ill, and altogether like a miserable, unhappy child. Her beauty was greatly gone, and Lord Rothie did not pay her much attention.
Robert had as yet made no attempt to communicate with her, for there was scarcely a chance of her concealing a letter from the baron. But as soon as they were in smooth water, he wrote one, telling her in the simplest language that the baron was a bad man, who had amused himself by making many women fall in love with him, and then leaving them miserable: he knew one of them himself.
Having finished his letter, he began to look abroad over the smooth water, and the land smooth as the water. He saw tall poplars, the spires of the forest, and rows of round-headed dumpy trees, like domes. And he saw that all the buildings like churches, had either spires like poplars, or low round domes like those other trees. The domes gave an eastern aspect to the country. The spire of Antwerp cathedral especially had the poplar for its model. The pinnacles which rose from the base of each successive start of its narrowing height were just the clinging, upright branches of the poplar--a lovely instance of Art following Nature's suggestion.