Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part III.--His Manhood
Chapter IV. The Doctor's Death.
But now that Falconer had a ground, even thus shadowy, for hoping--I cannot say believing--that his father might be in London, he could not return to Aberdeen. Moray, who had no heart to hunt for his mother, left the next day by the steamer. Falconer took to wandering about the labyrinthine city, and in a couple of months knew more about the metropolis--the west end excepted--than most people who had lived their lives in it. The west end is no doubt a considerable exception to make, but Falconer sought only his father, and the west end was the place where he was least likely to find him. Day and night he wandered into all sorts of places: the worse they looked the more attractive he found them. It became almost a craze with him. He could not pass a dirty court or low-browed archway. He might be there. Or he might have been there. Or it was such a place as he would choose for shelter. He knew to what such a life as his must have tended.
At first he was attracted only by tall elderly men. Such a man he would sometimes follow till his following made him turn and demand his object. If there was no suspicion of Scotch in his tone, Falconer easily apologized. If there was, he made such replies as might lead to some betrayal. He could not defend the course he was adopting: it had not the shadow of probability upon its side. Still the greatest successes the world has ever beheld had been at one time the greatest improbabilities! He could not choose but go on, for as yet he could think of no other way.
Neither could a man like Falconer long confine his interest to this immediate object, especially after he had, in following it, found opportunity of being useful. While he still made it his main object to find his father, that object became a centre from which radiated a thousand influences upon those who were as sheep that had no shepherd. He fell back into his old ways at Aberdeen, only with a boundless sphere to work in, and with the hope of finding his father to hearten him. He haunted the streets at night, went into all places of entertainment, often to the disgust of senses and soul, and made his way into the lowest forms of life without introduction or protection.
There was a certain stately air of the hills about him which was often mistaken for country inexperience, and men thought in consequence to make gain or game of him. But such found their mistake, and if not soon, then the more completely. Far from provoking or even meeting hostility, he soon satisfied those that persisted, that it was dangerous. In two years he became well known to the poor of a large district, especially on both sides of Shoreditch, for whose sake he made the exercise of his profession though not an object yet a ready accident.
He lived in lodgings in John Street--the same in which I found him when I came to know him. He made few acquaintances, and they were chiefly the house-surgeons of hospitals--to which he paid frequent visits.
He always carried a book in his pocket, but did not read much. On Sundays he generally went to some one of the many lonely heaths or commons of Surrey with his New Testament. When weary in London, he would go to the reading-room of the British Museum for an hour or two. He kept up a regular correspondence with Dr. Anderson.
At length he received a letter from him, which occasioned his immediate departure for Aberdeen. Until now, his friend, who was entirely satisfied with his mode of life, and supplied him freely with money, had not even expressed a wish to recall him, though he had often spoken of visiting him in London. It now appeared that, unwilling to cause him any needless anxiety, he had abstained from mentioning the fact that his health had been declining. He had got suddenly worse, and Falconer hastened to obey the summons he had sent him in consequence.
With a heavy heart he walked up to the hospitable door, recalling as he ascended the steps how he had stood there a helpless youth, in want of a few pounds to save his hopes, when this friend received him and bid him God-speed on the path he desired to follow. In a moment more he was shown into the study, and was passing through it to go to the cottage-room, when Johnston laid his hand on his arm.
'The maister's no up yet, sir,' he said, with a very solemn look. 'He's been desperate efter seein' ye, and I maun gang an' lat him ken 'at ye're here at last, for fear it suld be ower muckle for him, seein' ye a' at ance. But eh, sir!' he added, the tears gathering in his eyes, 'ye'll hardly ken 'im. He's that changed!'
Johnston left the study by the door to the cottage--Falconer had never known the doctor sleep there--and returning a moment after, invited him to enter. In the bed in the recess--the room unchanged, with its deal table, and its sanded floor--lay the form of his friend. Falconer hastened to the bedside, kneeled down, and took his hand speechless. The doctor was silent too, but a smile overspread his countenance, and revealed his inward satisfaction. Robert's heart was full, and he could only gaze on the worn face. At length he was able to speak.
'What for didna ye sen' for me?' he said. 'Ye never tellt me ye was ailin'.'
'Because you were doing good, Robert, my boy; and I who had done so little had no right to interrupt what you were doing. I wonder if God will give me another chance. I would fain do better. I don't think I could sit singing psalms to all eternity,' he added with a smile.
'Whatever good I may do afore my turn comes, I hae you to thank for 't. Eh, doctor, gin it hadna been for you!'
Robert's feelings overcame him. He resumed, brokenly,
'Ye gae me a man to believe in, whan my ain father had forsaken me, and my frien' was awa to God. Ye hae made me, doctor. Wi' meat an' drink an' learnin' an' siller, an' a'thing at ance, ye hae made me.'
'Eh, Robert!' said the dying man, half rising on his elbow, 'to think what God maks us a' to ane anither! My father did ten times for me what I hae dune for you. As I lie here thinkin' I may see him afore a week's ower, I'm jist a bairn again.'
As he spoke, the polish of his speech was gone, and the social refinement of his countenance with it. The face of his ancestors, the noble, sensitive, heart-full, but rugged, bucolic, and weather-beaten through centuries of windy ploughing, hail-stormed sheep-keeping, long-paced seed-sowing, and multiform labour, surely not less honourable in the sight of the working God than the fighting of the noble, came back in the face of the dying physician. From that hour to his death he spoke the rugged dialect of his fathers.
A day or two after this, Robert again sitting by his bedside,
'I dinna ken,' he said, 'whether it's richt--but I hae nae fear o' deith, an' yet I canna say I'm sure aboot onything. I hae seen mony a ane dee that cud hae no faith i' the Saviour; but I never saw that fear that some gude fowk wud hae ye believe maun come at the last. I wadna like to tak to ony papistry; but I never cud mak oot frae the Bible--and I read mair at it i' the jungle than maybe ye wad think--that it's a' ower wi' a body at their deith. I never heard them bring foret ony text but ane--the maist ridiculous hash 'at ever ye heard--to justifee 't.'
'I ken the text ye mean--"As the tree falleth so it shall lie," or something like that--'at they say King Solomon wrote, though better scholars say his tree had fa'en mony a lang year afore that text saw the licht. I dinna believe sic a thocht was i' the man's heid when he wrote it. It is as ye say--ower contemptible to ca' an argument. I'll read it to ye ance mair.'
Robert got his Bible, and read the following portion from that wonderful book, so little understood, because it is so full of wisdom--the Book of Ecclesiastes:--
'Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.
'Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.
'If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth: and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.
'He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.
'As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.
'In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.'
'Ay, ay; that's it,' said Dr. Anderson. 'Weel, I maun say again that they're ill aff for an argument that taks that for ane upo' sic a momentous subjec'. I prefer to say, wi' the same auld man, that I know not the works of God who maketh all. But I wish I could say I believed onything for certain sure. But whan I think aboot it--wad ye believe 't? the faith o' my father's mair to me nor ony faith o' my ain. That soonds strange. But it's this: I'm positeeve that that godly great auld man kent mair aboot a' thae things--I cud see 't i' the face o' 'm--nor ony ither man 'at ever I kent. An' it's no by comparison only. I'm sure he did ken. There was something atween God and him. An' I think he wasna likely to be wrang; an' sae I tak courage to believe as muckle as I can, though maybe no sae muckle as I fain wad.'
Robert, who from experience of himself, and the observations he had made by the bedsides of not a few dying men and women, knew well that nothing but the truth itself can carry its own conviction; that the words of our Lord are a body as it were in which the spirit of our Lord dwells, or rather the key to open the heart for the entrance of that spirit, turned now from all argumentation to the words of Jesus. He himself had said of them, 'They are spirit and they are life;' and what folly to buttress life and spirit with other powers than their own! From that day to the last, as often and as long as the dying man was able to listen to him, he read from the glad news just the words of the Lord. As he read thus, one fading afternoon, the doctor broke out with,
'Eh, Robert, the patience o' him! He didna quench the smokin' flax. There's little fire aboot me, but surely I ken in my ain hert some o' the risin' smoke o' the sacrifice. Eh! sic words as they are! An' he was gaein' doon to the grave himsel', no half my age, as peacefu', though the road was sae rouch, as gin he had been gaein' hame till 's father.'
'Sae he was,' returned Robert.
'Ay; but here am I lyin' upo' my bed, slippin' easy awa. An' there was he--'
The old man ceased. The sacred story was too sacred for speech. Robert sat with the New Testament open before him on the bed.
'The mair the words o' Jesus come into me,' the doctor began again, 'the surer I am o' seein' my auld Brahmin frien', Robert. It's true I thought his religion not only began but ended inside him. It was a' a booin' doon afore and an aspirin' up into the bosom o' the infinite God. I dinna mean to say 'at he wasna honourable to them aboot him. And I never saw in him muckle o' that pride to the lave (rest) that belangs to the Brahmin. It was raither a stately kin'ness than that condescension which is the vice o' Christians. But he had naething to do wi' them. The first comman'ment was a' he kent. He loved God--nae a God like Jesus Christ, but the God he kent--and that was a' he could. The second comman'ment--that glorious recognition o' the divine in humanity makin' 't fit and needfu' to be loved, that claim o' God upon and for his ain bairns, that love o' the neebour as yer'sel--he didna ken. Still there was religion in him; and he who died for the sins o' the whole world has surely been revealed to him lang er' noo, and throu the knowledge o' him, he noo dwalls in that God efter whom he aspired.'
Here was the outcome of many talks which Robert and the doctor had had together, as they laboured amongst the poor.
'Did ye never try,' Robert asked, 'to lat him ken aboot the comin' o' God to his world in Jesus Christ?'
'I couldna do muckle that way honestly, my ain faith was sae poor and sma'. But I tellt him what Christians believed. I tellt him aboot the character and history o' Christ. But it didna seem to tak muckle hauld o' him. It wasna interesstin' till him. Just ance whan I tellt him some things he had said aboot his relation to God--sic as, "I and my Father are one,"--and aboot the relation o' a' his disciples to God and himsel'--"I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one," he said, wi' a smile, "The man was a good Brahmin."
'It's little,' said Robert, 'the one great commandment can do withoot the other. It's little we can ken what God to love, or hoo to love him, withoot "thy neighbour as thyself." Ony ane o' them withoot the ither stan's like the ae factor o' a multiplication, or ae wing upo' a laverock (lark).'
Towards the close of the week, he grew much feebler. Falconer scarcely left his room. He woke one midnight, and murmured as follows, with many pauses for breath and strength:
'Robert, my time's near, I'm thinkin'; for, wakin' an' sleepin', I'm a bairn again. I can hardly believe whiles 'at my father hasna a grup o' my han'. A meenute ago I was traivellin' throu a terrible driftin' o' snaw--eh, hoo it whustled and sang! and the cauld o' 't was stingin'; but my father had a grup o' me, an' I jist despised it, an' was stampin' 't doon wi' my wee bit feet, for I was like saven year auld or thereaboots. An' syne I thocht I heard my mither singin', and kent by that that the ither was a dream. I'm thinkin' a hantle 'ill luik dreamy afore lang. Eh! I wonner what the final waukin' 'ill be like.'
After a pause he resumed,
'Robert, my dear boy, ye're i' the richt gait. Haud on an' lat naething turn ye aside. Man, it's a great comfort to me to think that ye're my ain flesh and blude, an' nae that far aff. My father an' your great-gran'father upo' the gran'mither's side war ain brithers. I wonner hoo far doon it wad gang. Ye're the only ane upo' my father's side, you and yer father, gin he be alive, that I hae sib to me. My will's i' the bottom drawer upo' the left han' i' my writin' table i' the leebrary:--I hae left ye ilka plack 'at I possess. Only there's ae thing that I want ye to do. First o' a', ye maun gang on as yer doin' in London for ten year mair. Gin deein' men hae ony o' that foresicht that's been attreebuted to them in a' ages, it's borne in upo' me that ye wull see yer father again. At a' events, ye'll be helpin' some ill-faured sowls to a clean face and a bonny. But gin ye dinna fa' in wi' yer father within ten year, ye maun behaud a wee, an' jist pack up yer box, an' gang awa' ower the sea to Calcutta, an' du what I hae tellt ye to do i' that wull. I bind ye by nae promise, Robert, an' I winna hae nane. Things micht happen to put ye in a terrible difficulty wi' a promise. I'm only tellin' ye what I wad like. Especially gin ye hae fund yer father, ye maun gang by yer ain jeedgment aboot it, for there 'll be a hantle to do wi' him efter ye hae gotten a grup o' 'im. An' noo, I maun lie still, an' maybe sleep again, for I hae spoken ower muckle.'
Hoping that he would sleep and wake yet again, Robert sat still. After an hour, he looked, and saw that, although hitherto much oppressed, he was now breathing like a child. There was no sign save of past suffering: his countenance was peaceful as if he had already entered into his rest. Robert withdrew, and again seated himself. And the great universe became to him as a bird brooding over the breaking shell of the dying man.
On either hand we behold a birth, of which, as of the moon, we see but half. We are outside the one, waiting for a life from the unknown; we are inside the other, watching the departure of a spirit from the womb of the world into the unknown. To the region whither he goes, the man enters newly born. We forget that it is a birth, and call it a death. The body he leaves behind is but the placenta by which he drew his nourishment from his mother Earth. And as the child-bed is watched on earth with anxious expectancy, so the couch of the dying, as we call them, may be surrounded by the birth-watchers of the other world, waiting like anxious servants to open the door to which this world is but the wind-blown porch.
Extremes meet. As a man draws nigh to his second birth, his heart looks back to his childhood. When Dr. Anderson knew that he was dying, he retired into the simulacrum of his father's benn end.
As Falconer sat thinking, the doctor spoke. They were low, faint, murmurous sounds, for the lips were nearly at rest. Wanted no more for utterance, they were going back to the holy dust, which is God's yet.
'Father, father!' he cried quickly, in the tone and speech of a Scotch laddie, 'I'm gaein' doon. Haud a grup o' my han'.'
When Robert hurried to the bedside, he found that the last breath had gone in the words. The thin right hand lay partly closed, as if it had been grasping a larger hand. On the face lay confidence just ruffled with apprehension: the latter melted away, and nothing remained but that awful and beautiful peace which is the farewell of the soul to its servant.
Robert knelt and thanked God for the noble man.