Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter VI. Mrs. Falconer.
Meantime Robert was seated in the parlour at the little dark mahogany table, in which the lamp, shaded towards his grandmother's side, shone brilliantly reflected. Her face being thus hidden both by the light and the shadow, he could not observe the keen look of stern benevolence with which, knowing that he could not see her, she regarded him as he ate his thick oat-cake of Betty's skilled manufacture, well loaded with the sweetest butter, and drank the tea which she had poured out and sugared for him with liberal hand. It was a comfortable little room, though its inlaid mahogany chairs and ancient sofa, covered with horsehair, had a certain look of hardness, no doubt. A shepherdess and lamb, worked in silks whose brilliance had now faded half-way to neutrality, hung in a black frame, with brass rosettes at the corners, over the chimney-piece--the sole approach to the luxury of art in the homely little place. Besides the muslin stretched across the lower part of the window, it was undefended by curtains. There was no cat in the room, nor was there one in the kitchen even; for Mrs. Falconer had such a respect for humanity that she grudged every morsel consumed by the lower creation. She sat in one of the arm-chairs belonging to the hairy set, leaning back in contemplation of her grandson, as she took her tea.
She was a handsome old lady--little, but had once been taller, for she was more than seventy now. She wore a plain cap of muslin, lying close to her face, and bordered a little way from the edge with a broad black ribbon, which went round her face, and then, turning at right angles, went round the back of her neck. Her gray hair peeped a little way from under this cap. A clear but short-sighted eye of a light hazel shone under a smooth thoughtful forehead; a straight and well-elevated, but rather short nose, which left the firm upper lip long and capable of expressing a world of dignified offence, rose over a well-formed mouth, revealing more moral than temperamental sweetness; while the chin was rather deficient than otherwise, and took little share in indicating the remarkable character possessed by the old lady.
After gazing at Robert for some time, she took a piece of oat-cake from a plate by her side, the only luxury in which she indulged, for it was made with cream instead of water--it was very little she ate of anything--and held it out to Robert in a hand white, soft, and smooth, but with square finger tips, and squat though pearly nails. 'Ha'e, Robert,' she said; and Robert received it with a 'Thank you, grannie'; but when he thought she did not see him, slipped it under the table and into his pocket. She saw him well enough, however, and although she would not condescend to ask him why he put it away instead of eating it, the endeavour to discover what could have been his reason for so doing cost her two hours of sleep that night. She would always be at the bottom of a thing if reflection could reach it, but she generally declined taking the most ordinary measures to expedite the process.
When Robert had finished his tea, instead of rising to get his books and betake himself to his lessons, in regard to which his grandmother had seldom any cause to complain, although she would have considered herself guilty of high treason against the boy's future if she had allowed herself once to acknowledge as much, he drew his chair towards the fire, and said:
'He's gaein' to tell me something,' said Mrs. Falconer to herself. 'Will 't be aboot the puir barfut crater they ca' Shargar, or will 't be aboot the piece he pat intil 's pooch?'
'Weel, laddie?' she said aloud, willing to encourage him.
'Is 't true that my gran'father was the blin' piper o' Portcloddie?'
'Ay, laddie; true eneuch. Hoots, na! nae yer grandfather, but yer father's grandfather, laddie--my husband's father.'
'Hoo cam that aboot?'
'Weel, ye see, he was oot i' the Forty-five; and efter the battle o' Culloden, he had to rin for 't. He wasna wi' his ain clan at the battle, for his father had broucht him to the Lawlands whan he was a lad; but he played the pipes till a reg'ment raised by the Laird o' Portcloddie. And for ooks (weeks) he had to hide amo' the rocks. And they tuik a' his property frae him. It wasna muckle--a wheen hooses, and a kailyard or twa, wi' a bit fairmy on the tap o' a cauld hill near the sea-shore; but it was eneuch and to spare; and whan they tuik it frae him, he had naething left i' the warl' but his sons. Yer grandfather was born the verra day o' the battle, and the verra day 'at the news cam, the mother deed. But yer great grandfather wasna lang or he merried anither wife. He was sic a man as ony woman micht hae been prood to merry. She was the dother (daughter) o' an episcopalian minister, and she keepit a school in Portcloddie. I saw him first mysel' whan I was aboot twenty--that was jist the year afore I was merried. He was a gey (considerably) auld man than, but as straucht as an ellwand, and jist pooerfu' beyon' belief. His shackle-bane (wrist) was as thick as baith mine; and years and years efter that, whan he tuik his son, my husband, and his grandson, my Anerew--'
'What ails ye, grannie? What for dinna ye gang on wi' the story?'
After a somewhat lengthened pause, Mrs. Falconer resumed as if she had not stopped at all.
'Ane in ilka han', jist for the fun o' 't, he kneipit their heids thegither, as gin they hed been twa carldoddies (stalks of ribgrass). But maybe it was the lauchin' o' the twa lads, for they thocht it unco fun. They were maist killed wi' lauchin'. But the last time he did it, the puir auld man hostit (coughed) sair efterhin, and had to gang and lie doon. He didna live lang efter that. But it wasna that 'at killed him, ye ken.'
'But hoo cam he to play the pipes?'
'He likit the pipes. And yer grandfather, he tuik to the fiddle.'
'But what for did they ca' him the blin' piper o' Portcloddie?'
'Because he turned blin' lang afore his en' cam, and there was naething ither he cud do. And he wad aye mak an honest baubee whan he cud; for siller was fell scarce at that time o' day amo' the Falconers. Sae he gaed throu the toon at five o'clock ilka mornin' playin' his pipes, to lat them 'at war up ken they war up in time, and them 'at warna, that it was time to rise. And syne he played them again aboot aucht o'clock at nicht, to lat them ken 'at it was time for dacent fowk to gang to their beds. Ye see, there wasna sae mony clocks and watches by half than as there is noo.'
'Was he a guid piper, grannie?'
'What for speir ye that?'
'Because I tauld that sunk, Lumley--'
'Ca' naebody names, Robert. But what richt had ye to be speikin' to a man like that?'
'He spak to me first.'
'Whaur saw ye him?'
'At The Boar's Heid.'
'And what richt had ye to gang stan'in' aboot? Ye oucht to ha' gane in at ance.'
'There was a half-dizzen o' fowk stan'in' aboot, and I bude (behoved) to speik whan I was spoken till.'
'But ye budena stop an' mak' ae fule mair.'
'Isna that ca'in' names, grannie?'
''Deed, laddie, I doobt ye hae me there. But what said the fallow Lumley to ye?'
'He cast up to me that my grandfather was naething but a blin' piper.'
'And what said ye?'
'I daured him to say 'at he didna pipe weel.'
'Weel dune, laddie! And ye micht say 't wi' a gude conscience, for he wadna hae been piper till 's regiment at the battle o' Culloden gin he hadna pipit weel. Yon's his kilt hingin' up i' the press i' the garret. Ye'll hae to grow, Robert, my man, afore ye fill that.'
'And whase was that blue coat wi' the bonny gowd buttons upo' 't?' asked Robert, who thought he had discovered a new approach to an impregnable hold, which he would gladly storm if he could.
'Lat the coat sit. What has that to do wi' the kilt? A blue coat and a tartan kilt gang na weel thegither.'
'Excep' in an auld press whaur naebody sees them. Ye wadna care, grannie, wad ye, gin I was to cut aff the bonnie buttons?'
'Dinna lay a finger upo' them. Ye wad be gaein' playin' at pitch and toss or ither sic ploys wi' them. Na, na, lat them sit.'
'I wad only niffer them for bools (exchange them for marbles).'
'I daur ye to touch the coat or onything 'ither that's i' that press.'
'Weel, weel, grannie. I s' gang and get my lessons for the morn.'
'It's time, laddie. Ye hae been jabberin' ower muckle. Tell Betty to come and tak' awa' the tay-things.'
Robert went to the kitchen, got a couple of hot potatoes and a candle, and carried them up-stairs to Shargar, who was fast asleep. But the moment the light shone upon his face, he started up, with his eyes, if not his senses, wide awake.
'It wasna me, mither! I tell ye it wasna me!'
And he covered his head with both arms, as if to defend it from a shower of blows.
'Haud yer tongue, Shargar. It's me.'
But before Shargar could come to his senses, the light of the candle falling upon the blue coat made the buttons flash confused suspicions into his mind.
'Mither, mither,' he said, 'ye hae gane ower far this time. There's ower mony o' them, and they're no the safe colour. We'll be baith hangt, as sure's there's a deevil in hell.'
As he said thus, he went on trying to pick the buttons from the coat, taking them for sovereigns, though how he could have seen a sovereign at that time in Scotland I can only conjecture. But Robert caught him by the shoulders, and shook him awake with no gentle hands, upon which he began to rub his eyes, and mutter sleepily:
'Is that you, Bob? I hae been dreamin', I doobt.'
'Gin ye dinna learn to dream quaieter, ye'll get you and me tu into mair trouble nor I care to hae aboot ye, ye rascal. Haud the tongue o' ye, and eat this tawtie, gin ye want onything mair. And here's a bit o' reamy cakes tu ye. Ye winna get that in ilka hoose i' the toon. It's my grannie's especial.'
Robert felt relieved after this, for he had eaten all the cakes Miss Napier had given him, and had had a pain in his conscience ever since.
'Hoo got ye a haud o' 't?' asked Shargar, evidently supposing he had stolen it.
'She gies me a bit noo and than.'
'And ye didna eat it yersel'? Eh, Bob!'
Shargar was somewhat overpowered at this fresh proof of Robert's friendship. But Robert was still more ashamed of what he had not done.
He took the blue coat carefully from the bed, and hung it in its place again, satisfied now, from the way his grannie had spoken, or, rather, declined to speak, about it, that it had belonged to his father.
'Am I to rise?' asked Shargar, not understanding the action.
'Na, na, lie still. Ye'll be warm eneuch wantin' thae sovereigns. I'll lat ye oot i' the mornin' afore grannie's up. And ye maun mak' the best o't efter that till it's dark again. We'll sattle a' aboot it at the schuil the morn. Only we maun be circumspec', ye ken.'
'Ye cudna lay yer han's upo' a drap o' whusky, cud ye, Bob?'
Robert stared in horror. A boy like that asking for whisky! and in his grandmother's house, too!
'Shargar,' he said solemnly, 'there's no a drap o' whusky i' this hoose. It's awfu' to hear ye mention sic a thing. My grannie wad smell the verra name o' 't a mile awa'. I doobt that's her fit upo' the stair a'ready.'
Robert crept to the door, and Shargar sat staring with horror, his eyes looking from the gloom of the bed like those of a half-strangled dog. But it was a false alarm, as Robert presently returned to announce.
'Gin ever ye sae muckle as mention whusky again, no to say drink ae drap o' 't, you and me pairt company, and that I tell you, Shargar,' said he, emphatically.
'I'll never luik at it; I'll never mint at dreamin' o' 't,' answered Shargar, coweringly. 'Gin she pits 't intil my moo', I'll spit it oot. But gin ye strive wi' me, Bob, I'll cut my throat--I will; an' that'll be seen and heard tell o'.'
All this time, save during the alarm of Mrs. Falconer's approach, when he sat with a mouthful of hot potato, unable to move his jaws for terror, and the remnant arrested half-way in its progress from his mouth after the bite--all this time Shargar had been devouring the provisions Robert had brought him, as if he had not seen food that day. As soon as they were finished, he begged for a drink of water, which Robert managed to procure for him. He then left him for the night, for his longer absence might have brought his grandmother after him, who had perhaps only too good reasons for being doubtful, if not suspicious, about boys in general, though certainly not about Robert in particular. He carried with him his books from the other garret-room where he kept them, and sat down at the table by his grandmother, preparing his Latin and geography by her lamp, while she sat knitting a white stocking with fingers as rapid as thought, never looking at her work, but staring into the fire, and seeing visions there which Robert would have given everything he could call his own to see, and then would have given his life to blot out of the world if he had seen them. Quietly the evening passed, by the peaceful lamp and the cheerful fire, with the Latin on the one side of the table, and the stocking on the other, as if ripe and purified old age and hopeful unstained youth had been the only extremes of humanity known to the world. But the bitter wind was howling by fits in the chimney, and the offspring of a nobleman and a gipsy lay asleep in the garret, covered with the cloak of an old Highland rebel.
At nine o'clock, Mrs. Falconer rang the bell for Betty, and they had worship. Robert read a chapter, and his grandmother prayed an extempore prayer, in which they that looked at the wine when it was red in the cup, and they that worshipped the woman clothed in scarlet and seated upon the seven hills, came in for a strange mixture, in which the vengeance yielded only to the pity.
'Lord, lead them to see the error of their ways,' she cried. 'Let the rod of thy wrath awake the worm of their conscience that they may know verily that there is a God that ruleth in the earth. Dinna lat them gang to hell, O Lord, we beseech thee.'
As soon as prayers were over, Robert had a tumbler of milk and some more oat-cake, and was sent to bed; after which it was impossible for him to hold any further communication with Shargar. For his grandmother, little as one might suspect it who entered the parlour in the daytime, always slept in that same room, in a bed closed in with doors like those of a large press in the wall, while Robert slept in a little closet, looking into a garden at the back of the house, the door of which opened from the parlour close to the head of his grandmother's bed. It was just large enough to hold a good-sized bed with curtains, a chest of drawers, a bureau, a large eight-day clock, and one chair, leaving in the centre about five feet square for him to move about in. There was more room as well as more comfort in the bed. He was never allowed a candle, for light enough came through from the parlour, his grandmother thought; so he was soon extended between the whitest of cold sheets, with his knees up to his chin, and his thoughts following his lost father over all spaces of the earth with which his geography-book had made him acquainted.
He was in the habit of leaving his closet and creeping through his grandmother's room before she was awake--or at least before she had given any signs to the small household that she was restored to consciousness, and that the life of the house must proceed. He therefore found no difficulty in liberating Shargar from his prison, except what arose from the boy's own unwillingness to forsake his comfortable quarters for the fierce encounter of the January blast which awaited him. But Robert did not turn him out before the last moment of safety had arrived; for, by the aid of signs known to himself, he watched the progress of his grandmother's dressing--an operation which did not consume much of the morning, scrupulous as she was with regard to neatness and cleanliness--until Betty was called in to give her careful assistance to the final disposition of the mutch, when Shargar's exit could be delayed no longer. Then he mounted to the foot of the second stair, and called in a keen whisper,
'Noo, Shargar, cut for the life o' ye.'
And down came the poor fellow, with long gliding steps, ragged and reluctant, and, without a word or a look, launched himself out into the cold, and sped away he knew not whither. As he left the door, the only suspicion of light was the dull and doubtful shimmer of the snow that covered the street, keen particles of which were blown in his face by the wind, which, having been up all night, had grown very cold, and seemed delighted to find one unprotected human being whom it might badger at its own bitter will. Outcast Shargar! Where he spent the interval between Mrs. Falconer's door and that of the school, I do not know. There was a report amongst his school-fellows that he had been found by Scroggie, the fish-cadger, lying at full length upon the back of his old horse, which, either from compassion or indifference, had not cared to rise up under the burden. They said likewise that, when accused by Scroggie of housebreaking, though nothing had to be broken to get in, only a string with a peculiar knot, on the invention of which the cadger prided himself, to be undone, all that Shargar had to say in his self-defence was, that he had a terrible sair wame, and that the horse was warmer nor the stanes i' the yard; and he had dune him nae ill, nae even drawn a hair frae his tail--which would have been a difficult feat, seeing the horse's tail was as bare as his hoof.