Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part III.--His Manhood
Chapter XVI. Change of Scene.
But various reasons combined to induce Falconer to postpone yet for a period their journey to the North. Not merely did his father require an unremitting watchfulness, which it would be difficult to keep up in his native place amongst old friends and acquaintances, but his health was more broken than he had at first supposed, and change of air and scene without excitement was most desirable. He was anxious too that the change his mother must see in him should be as little as possible attributable to other causes than those that years bring with them. To this was added that his own health had begun to suffer from the watching and anxiety he had gone through, and for his father's sake, as well as for the labour which yet lay before him, he would keep that as sound as he might. He wrote to his grandmother and explained the matter. She begged him to do as he thought best, for she was so happy that she did not care if she should never see Andrew in this world: it was enough to die in the hope of meeting him in the other. But she had no reason to fear that death was at hand; for, although much more frail, she felt as well as ever.
By this time Falconer had introduced me to his father. I found him in some things very like his son; in others, very different. His manners were more polished; his pleasure in pleasing much greater: his humanity had blossomed too easily, and then run to seed. Alas, to no seed that could bear fruit! There was a weak expression about his mouth--a wavering interrogation: it was so different from the firmly-closed portals whence issued the golden speech of his son! He had a sly, sidelong look at times, whether of doubt or cunning, I could not always determine. His eyes, unlike his son's, were of a light blue, and hazy both in texture and expression. His hands were long-fingered and tremulous. He gave your hand a sharp squeeze, and the same instant abandoned it with indifference. I soon began to discover in him a tendency to patronize any one who showed him a particle of respect as distinguished from common-place civility. But under all outward appearances it seemed to me that there was a change going on: at least being very willing to believe it, I found nothing to render belief impossible.
He was very fond of the flute his son had given him, and on that sweetest and most expressionless of instruments he played exquisitely.
One evening when I called to see them, Falconer said,
'We are going out of town for a few weeks, Gordon: will you go with us?'
'I am afraid I can't.'
'Why? You have no teaching at present, and your writing you can do as well in the country as in town.'
'That is true; but still I don't see how I can. I am too poor for one thing.'
'Between you and me that is nonsense.'
'Well, I withdraw that,' I said. 'But there is so much to be done, specially as you will be away, and Miss St John is at the Lakes.'
'That is all very true; but you need a change. I have seen for some weeks that you are failing. Mind, it is our best work that He wants, not the dregs of our exhaustion. I hope you are not of the mind of our friend Mr. Watts, the curate of St. Gregory's.'
'I thought you had a high opinion of Mr. Watts,' I returned.
'So I have. I hope it is not necessary to agree with a man in everything before we can have a high opinion of him.'
'Of course not. But what is it you hope I am not of his opinion in?'
'He seems ambitious of killing himself with work--of wearing himself out in the service of his master--and as quickly as possible. A good deal of that kind of thing is a mere holding of the axe to the grindstone, not a lifting of it up against thick trees. Only he won't be convinced till it comes to the helve. I met him the other day; he was looking as white as his surplice. I took upon me to read him a lecture on the holiness of holidays. "I can't leave my poor," he said. "Do you think God can't do without you?" I asked. "Is he so weak that he cannot spare the help of a weary man? But I think he must prefer quality to quantity, and for healthy work you must be healthy yourself. How can you be the visible sign of the Christ-present amongst men, if you inhabit an exhausted, irritable brain? Go to God's infirmary and rest a while. Bring back health from the country to those that cannot go to it. If on the way it be transmuted into spiritual forms, so much the better. A little more of God will make up for a good deal less of you.'
'What did he say to that?'
'He said our Lord died doing the will of his Father. I told him--"Yes, when his time was come, not sooner. Besides, he often avoided both speech and action." "Yes," he answered, "but he could tell when, and we cannot." "Therefore," I rejoined, "you ought to accept your exhaustion as a token that your absence will be the best thing for your people. If there were no God, then perhaps you ought to work till you drop down dead--I don't know."'
'Is he gone yet?'
'No. He won't go. I couldn't persuade him.'
'When do you go?'
'I shall be ready, if you really mean it.'
'That's an if worthy only of a courtier. There may be much virtue in an if, as Touchstone says, for the taking up of a quarrel; but that if is bad enough to breed one,' said Falconer, laughing. 'Be at the Paddington Station at noon to-morrow. To tell the whole truth, I want you to help me with my father.'
This last was said at the door as he showed me out.
In the afternoon we were nearing Bristol. It was a lovely day in October. Andrew had been enjoying himself; but it was evidently rather the pleasure of travelling in a first-class carriage like a gentleman than any delight in the beauty of heaven and earth. The country was in the rich sombre dress of decay.
'Is it not remarkable,' said my friend to me, 'that the older I grow, I find autumn affecting me the more like spring?'
'I am thankful to say,' interposed Andrew, with a smile in which was mingled a shade of superiority, 'that no change of the seasons ever affects me.'
'Are you sure you are right in being thankful for that, father?' asked his son.
His father gazed at him for a moment, seemed to bethink himself after some feeble fashion or other, and rejoined,
'Well, I must confess I did feel a touch of the rheumatism this morning.'
How I pitied Falconer! Would he ever see of the travail of his soul in this man? But he only smiled a deep sweet smile, and seemed to be thinking divine things in that great head of his.
At Bristol we went on board a small steamer, and at night were landed at a little village on the coast of North Devon. The hotel to which we went was on the steep bank of a tumultuous little river, which tumbled past its foundation of rock, like a troop of watery horses galloping by with ever-dissolving limbs. The elder Falconer retired almost as soon as we had had supper. My friend and I lighted our pipes, and sat by the open window, for although the autumn was so far advanced, the air here was very mild. For some time we only listened to the sound of the waters.
'There are three things,' said Falconer at last, taking his pipe out of his mouth with a smile, 'that give a peculiarly perfect feeling of abandonment: the laughter of a child; a snake lying across a fallen branch; and the rush of a stream like this beneath us, whose only thought is to get to the sea.'
We did not talk much that night, however, but went soon to bed. None of us slept well. We agreed in the morning that the noise of the stream had been too much for us all, and that the place felt close and torpid. Andrew complained that the ceaseless sound wearied him, and Robert that he felt the aimless endlessness of it more than was good for him. I confess it irritated me like an anodyne unable to soothe. We were clearly all in want of something different. The air between the hills clung to them, hot and moveless. We would climb those hills, and breathe the air that flitted about over their craggy tops.
As soon as we had breakfasted, we set out. It was soon evident that Andrew could not ascend the steep road. We returned and got a carriage. When we reached the top, it was like a resurrection, like a dawning of hope out of despair. The cool friendly wind blew on our faces, and breathed strength into our frames. Before us lay the ocean, the visible type of the invisible, and the vessels with their white sails moved about over it like the thoughts of men feebly searching the unknown. Even Andrew Falconer spread out his arms to the wind, and breathed deep, filling his great chest full.
'I feel like a boy again,' he said.
His son strode to his side, and laid his arm over his shoulders.
'So do I, father,' he returned; 'but it is because I have got you.'
The old man turned and looked at him with a tenderness I had never seen on his face before. As soon as I saw that, I no longer doubted that he could be saved.
We found rooms in a farm-house on the topmost height.
'These are poor little hills, Falconer,' I said. 'Yet they help one like mountains.'
'The whole question is,' he returned, 'whether they are high enough to lift you out of the dirt. Here we are in the airs of heaven--that is all we need.'
'They make me think how often, amongst the country people of Scotland, I have wondered at the clay-feet upon which a golden head of wisdom stood! What poor needs, what humble aims, what a narrow basement generally, was sufficient to support the statues of pure-eyed Faith and white-handed Hope,'
'Yes,' said Falconer: 'he who is faithful over a few things is a lord of cities. It does not matter whether you preach in Westminster Abbey, or teach a ragged class, so you be faithful. The faithfulness is all.'
After an early dinner we went out for a walk, but we did not go far before we sat down upon the grass. Falconer laid himself at full length and gazed upwards.
'When I look like this into the blue sky,' he said, after a moment's silence, 'it seems so deep, so peaceful, so full of a mysterious tenderness, that I could lie for centuries, and wait for the dawning of the face of God out of the awful loving-kindness.'
I had never heard Falconer talk of his own present feelings in this manner; but glancing at the face of his father with a sense of his unfitness to hear such a lofty utterance, I saw at once that it was for his sake that he had thus spoken. The old man had thrown himself back too, and was gazing into the sky, puzzling himself, I could see, to comprehend what his son could mean. I fear he concluded, for the time, that Robert was not gifted with the amount of common-sense belonging of right to the Falconer family, and that much religion had made him a dreamer. Still, I thought I could see a kind of awe pass like a spiritual shadow across his face as he gazed into the blue gulfs over him. No one can detect the first beginnings of any life, and those of spiritual emotion must more than any lie beyond our ken: there is infinite room for hope. Falconer said no more. We betook ourselves early within doors, and he read King Lear to us, expounding the spiritual history of the poor old king after a fashion I had never conceived--showing us how the said history was all compressed, as far as human eye could see of it, into the few months that elapsed between his abdication and his death; how in that short time he had to learn everything that he ought to have been learning all his life; and how, because he had put it off so long, the lessons that had then to be given him were awfully severe.
I thought what a change it was for the old man to lift his head into the air of thought and life, out of the sloughs of misery in which he had been wallowing for years.