Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part III.--His Manhood
Chapter III. A Mere Glimpse.
At the close of a fortnight, Falconer thought it time to return to his duties in Aberdeen. The day before the steamer sailed, they found themselves, about six o'clock, in Gracechurch Street. It was a fine summer evening. The street was less crowded than earlier in the afternoon, although there was a continuous stream of waggons, omnibuses, and cabs both ways. As they stood on the curbstone, a little way north of Lombard Street, waiting to cross--
'You see, Shargar,' said Robert, 'Nature will have her way. Not all the hurry and confusion and roar can keep the shadows out. Look: wherever a space is for a moment vacant, there falls a shadow, as grotesque, as strange, as full of unutterable things as any shadow on a field of grass and daisies.'
'I remember feeling the same kind of thing in India,' returned Shargar, 'where nothing looked as if it belonged to the world I was born in, but my own shadow. In such a street as this, however, all the shadows look as if they belonged to another world, and had no business here.'
'I quite feel that,' returned Falconer. 'They come like angels from the lovely west and the pure air, to show that London cannot hurt them, for it too is within the Kingdom of God--to teach the lovers of nature, like the old orthodox Jew, St. Peter, that they must not call anything common or unclean.'
Shargar made no reply, and Robert glanced round at him. He was staring with wide eyes into, not at the crowd of vehicles that filled the street. His face was pale, and strangely like the Shargar of old days.
'What's the matter with you?' Robert asked in some bewilderment.
Receiving no answer, he followed Shargar's gaze, and saw a strange sight for London city.
In the middle of the crowd of vehicles, with an omnibus before them, and a brewer's dray behind them, came a line of three donkey-carts, heaped high with bundles and articles of gipsy-gear. The foremost was conducted by a middle-aged woman of tall, commanding aspect, and expression both cunning and fierce. She walked by the donkey's head carrying a short stick, with which she struck him now and then, but which she oftener waved over his head like the truncheon of an excited marshal on the battle-field, accompanying its movements now with loud cries to the animal, now with loud response to the chaff of the omnibus conductor, the dray driver, and the tradesmen in carts about her. She was followed by a very handsome, olive-complexioned, wild-looking young woman, with her black hair done up in a red handkerchief, who conducted her donkey more quietly. Both seemed as much at home in the roar of Gracechurch Street as if they had been crossing a wild common. A loutish-looking young man brought up the rear with the third donkey. From the bundles on the foremost cart peeped a lovely, fair-haired, English-looking child.
Robert took all this in in a moment. The same moment Shargar's spell was broken.
'Lord, it is my mither!' he cried, and darted under a horse's neck into the middle of the ruck.
He needled his way through till he reached the woman. She was swearing at a cabman whose wheel had caught the point of her donkey's shaft, and was hauling him round. Heedless of everything, Shargar threw his arms about her, crying,
'Nane o' yer blastit humbug!' she exclaimed, as, with a vigorous throw and a wriggle, she freed herself from his embrace and pushed him away.
The moment she had him at arm's length, however, her hand closed upon his arm, and her other hand went up to her brow. From underneath it her eyes shot up and down him from head to foot, and he could feel her hand closing and relaxing and closing again, as if she were trying to force her long nails into his flesh. He stood motionless, waiting the result of her scrutiny, utterly unconscious that he caused a congestion in the veins of London, for every vehicle within sight of the pair had stopped. Falconer said a strange silence fell upon the street, as if all the things in it had been turned into shadows.
A rough voice, which sounded as if all London must have heard it, broke the silence. It was the voice of the cabman who had been in altercation with the woman. Bursting into an insulting laugh, he used words with regard to her which it is better to leave unrecorded. The same instant Shargar freed himself from her grasp, and stood by the fore wheel of the cab.
'Get down!' he said, in a voice that was not the less impressive that it was low and hoarse.
The fellow saw what he meant, and whipped his horse. Shargar sprung on the box, and dragged him down all but headlong.
'Now,' he said, 'beg my mother's pardon.'
'Be damned if I do, &c., &c.,' said the cabman.
'Then defend yourself,' said Shargar. 'Robert.'
Falconer was watching it all, and was by his side in a moment.
'Come on, you, &c., &c.,' cried the cabman, plucking up heart and putting himself in fighting shape. He looked one of those insolent fellows whom none see discomfited more gladly than the honest men of his own class. The same moment he lay between his horse's feet.
Shargar turned to Robert, and saying only, 'There, Robert!' turned again towards the woman. The cabman rose bleeding, and, desiring no more of the same, climbed on his box, and went off, belabouring his horse, and pursued by a roar from the street, for the spectators were delighted at his punishment.
'Now, mother,' said Shargar, panting with excitement.
'What ca' they ye?' she asked, still doubtful, but as proud of being defended as if the coarse words of her assailant had had no truth in them. 'Ye canna be my lang-leggit Geordie.'
'What for no?'
'Ye're a gentleman, faith!'
'An' what for no, again?' returned Shargar, beginning to smile.
'Weel, it's weel speired. Yer father was ane ony gait--gin sae be 'at ye are as ye say.'
Moray put his head close to hers, and whispered some words that nobody heard but herself.
'It's ower lang syne to min' upo' that,' she said in reply, with a look of cunning consciousness ill settled upon her fine features. 'But ye can be naebody but my Geordie. Haith, man!' she went on, regarding him once more from head to foot, 'but ye're a credit to me, I maun alloo. Weel, gie me a sovereign, an' I s' never come near ye.'
Poor Shargar in his despair turned half mechanically towards Robert. He felt that it was time to interfere.
'You forget, mother,' said Shargar, turning again to her, and speaking English now, 'it was I that claimed you, and not you that claimed me.'
She seemed to have no idea of what he meant.
'Come up the road here, to oor public, an' tak a glaiss, wuman,' said Falconer. 'Dinna haud the fowk luikin' at ye.'
The temptation of a glass of something strong, and the hope of getting money out of them, caused an instant acquiescence. She said a few words to the young woman, who proceeded at once to tie her donkey's head to the tail of the other cart.
'Shaw the gait than,' said the elder, turning again to Falconer.
Shargar and he led the way to St. Paul's Churchyard, and the woman followed faithfully. The waiter stared when they entered.
'Bring a glass of whisky,' said Falconer, as he passed on to their private room. When the whisky arrived, she tossed it off, and looked as if she would like another glass.
'Yer father 'ill hae ta'en ye up, I'm thinkin', laddie?' she said, turning to her son.
'No,' answered Shargar, gloomily. 'There's the man that took me up.'
'An' wha may ye be?' she asked, turning to Falconer.
'Mr. Falconer,' said Shargar.
'No a son o' Anerew Faukner?' she asked again, with evident interest.
'The same,' answered Robert.
'Well, Geordie,' she said, turning once more to her son, 'it's like mither, like father to the twa o' ye.'
'Did you know my father?' asked Robert, eagerly.
Instead of answering him she made another remark to her son.
'He needna be ashamed o' your company, ony gait--queer kin' o' a mither 'at I am.'
'He never was ashamed of my company,' said Shargar, still gloomily.
'Ay, I kent yer father weel eneuch,' she said, now answering Robert--'mair by token 'at I saw him last nicht. He was luikin' nae that ill.'
Robert sprung from his seat, and caught her by the arm.
'Ow! ye needna gang into sic a flurry. He'll no come near ye, I s' warran'.'
'Tell me where he is,' said Robert. 'Where did you see him? I'll gie ye a' 'at I hae gin ye'll tak me till him.'
'Hooly! hooly! Wha's to gang luikin' for a thrum in a hay-sow?' returned she, coolly. 'I only said 'at I saw him.'
'But are ye sure it was him?' asked Falconer.
'Ay, sure eneuch,' she answered.
'What maks ye sae sure?'
''Cause I never was vrang yet. Set a man ance atween my twa een, an' that 'll be twa 'at kens him whan 's ain mither 's forgotten 'im.'
'Did you speak to him?'
'Maybe ay, an' maybe no. I didna come here to be hecklet afore a jury.'
'Tell me what he's like,' said Robert, agitated with eager hope.
'Gin ye dinna ken what he's like, what for suld ye tak the trouble to speir? But 'deed ye'll ken what he's like whan ye fa' in wi' him,' she added, with a vindictive laugh--vindictive because he had given her only one glass of strong drink.
With the laugh she rose, and made for the door. They rose at the same moment to detain her. Like one who knew at once to fight and flee, she turned and stunned them as with a blow.
'She's a fine yoong thing, yon sister o' yours, Geordie. She'll be worth siller by the time she's had a while at the schuil.'
The men looked at each other aghast. When they turned their eyes she had vanished. They rushed to the door, and, parting, searched in both directions. But they were soon satisfied that it was of no use. Probably she had found a back way into Paternoster Row, whence the outlets are numerous.