Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part III.--His Manhood
Chapter XVII. In the Country.
The next morning Falconer, who knew the country, took us out for a drive. We passed through lanes and gates out upon all open moor, where he stopped the carriage, and led us a few yards on one side. Suddenly, hundreds of feet below us, down what seemed an almost precipitous descent, we saw the wood-embosomed, stream-trodden valley we had left the day before. Enough had been cleft and scooped seawards out of the lofty table-land to give room for a few little conical hills with curious peaks of bare rock. At the bases of these hills flowed noisily two or three streams, which joined in one, and trotted out to sea over rocks and stones. The hills and the sides of the great cleft were half of them green with grass, and half of them robed in the autumnal foliage of thick woods. By the streams and in the woods nestled pretty houses; and away at the mouth of the valley and the stream lay the village. All around, on our level, stretched farm and moorland.
When Andrew Falconer stood so unexpectedly on the verge of the steep descent, he trembled and started back with fright. His son made him sit down a little way off, where yet we could see into the valley. The sun was hot, the air clear and mild, and the sea broke its blue floor into innumerable sparkles of radiance. We sat for a while in silence.
'Are you sure,' I said, in the hope of setting my friend talking, 'that there is no horrid pool down there? no half-trampled thicket, with broken pottery and shreds of tin lying about? no dead carcass, or dirty cottage, with miserable wife and greedy children? When I was a child, I knew a lovely place that I could not half enjoy, because, although hidden from my view, an ugly stagnation, half mud, half water, lay in a certain spot below me. When I had to pass it, I used to creep by with a kind of dull terror, mingled with hopeless disgust, and I have never got over the feeling.'
'You remind me much of a friend of mine of whom I have spoken to you before,' said Falconer, 'Eric Ericson. I have shown you many of his verses, but I don't think I ever showed you one little poem containing an expression of the same feeling. I think I can repeat it.
'Some men there are who cannot spare
And, waking, some will sigh to think
And some would call me coward-fool:
I sat thinking over the verses, for I found the feeling a little difficult to follow, although the last stanza was plain enough. Falconer resumed.
'I think this is as likely as any place,' he said, 'to be free of such physical blots. For the moral I cannot say. But I have learned, I hope, not to be too fastidious--I mean so as to be unjust to the whole because of the part. The impression made by a whole is just as true as the result of an analysis, and is greater and more valuable in every respect. If we rejoice in the beauty of the whole, the other is sufficiently forgotten. For moral ugliness, it ceases to distress in proportion as we labour to remove it, and regard it in its true relations to all that surrounds it. There is an old legend which I dare say you know. The Saviour and his disciples were walking along the way, when they came upon a dead dog. The disciples did not conceal their disgust. The Saviour said: "How white its teeth are!"'
'That is very beautiful,' I rejoined. 'Thank God for that. It is true, whether invented or not. But,' I added, 'it does not quite answer to the question about which we have been talking. The Lord got rid of the pain of the ugliness by finding the beautiful in it.'
'It does correspond, however, I think, in principle,' returned Falconer; 'only it goes much farther, making the exceptional beauty hallow the general ugliness--which is the true way, for beauty is life, and therefore infinitely deeper and more powerful than ugliness which is death. "A dram of sweet," says Spenser, 'is worth a pound of sour."'
It was so delightful to hear him talk--for what he said was not only far finer than my record of it, but the whole man spoke as well as his mouth--that I sought to start him again.
'I wish,' I said, 'that I could see things as you do--in great masses of harmonious unity. I am only able to see a truth sparkling here and there, and to try to lay hold of it. When I aim at more, I am like Noah's dove, without a place to rest the sole of my foot.'
'That is the only way to begin. Leave the large vision to itself, and look well after your sparkles. You will find them grow and gather and unite, until you are afloat on a sea of radiance--with cloud shadows no doubt.'
'And yet,' I resumed, 'I never seem to have room.'
'That is just why.'
'But I feel that I cannot find it. I know that if I fly to that bounding cape on the far horizon there, I shall only find a place--a place to want another in. There is no fortunate island out on that sea.'
'I fancy,' said Falconer, 'that until a man loves space, he will never be at peace in a place. At least so I have found it. I am content if you but give me room. All space to me throbs with being and life; and the loveliest spot on the earth seems but the compression of space till the meaning shines out of it, as the fire flies out of the air when you drive it close together. To seek place after place for freedom, is a constant effort to flee from space, and a vain one, for you are ever haunted by the need of it, and therefore when you seek most to escape it, fancy that you love it and want it.'
'You are getting too mystical for me now,' I said. 'I am not able to follow you.'
'I fear I was on the point of losing myself. At all events I can go no further now. And indeed I fear I have been but skirting the Limbo of Vanities.'
He rose, for we could both see that this talk was not in the least interesting to our companion. We got again into the carriage, which, by Falconer's orders, was turned and driven in the opposite direction, still at no great distance from the lofty edge of the heights that rose above the shore.
We came at length to a lane bounded with stone walls, every stone of which had its moss and every chink its fern. The lane grew more and more grassy; the walls vanished; and the track faded away into a narrow winding valley, formed by the many meeting curves of opposing hills. They were green to the top with sheep-grass, and spotted here and there with patches of fern, great stones, and tall withered foxgloves. The air was sweet and healthful, and Andrew evidently enjoyed it because it reminded him again of his boyhood. The only sound we heard was the tinkle of a few tender sheep-bells, and now and then the tremulous bleating of a sheep. With a gentle winding, the valley led us into a more open portion of itself, where the old man paused with a look of astonished pleasure.
Before us, seaward, rose a rampart against the sky, like the turreted and embattled wall of a huge eastern city, built of loose stones piled high, and divided by great peaky rocks. In the centre rose above them all one solitary curiously-shaped mass, one of the oddest peaks of the Himmalays in miniature. From its top on the further side was a sheer descent to the waters far below the level of the valley from which it immediately rose. It was altogether a strange freaky fantastic place, not without its grandeur. It looked like the remains of a frolic of the Titans, or rather as if reared by the boys and girls, while their fathers and mothers 'lay stretched out huge in length,' and in breadth too, upon the slopes around, and laughed thunderously at the sportive invention of their sons and daughters. Falconer helped his father up to the edge of the rampart that he might look over. Again he started back, 'afraid of that which was high,' for the lowly valley was yet at a great height above the diminished waves. On the outside of the rampart ran a narrow path whence the green hill-side went down steep to the sea. The gulls were screaming far below us; we could see the little flying streaks of white. Beyond was the great ocean. A murmurous sound came up from its shore.
We descended and seated ourselves on the short springy grass of a little mound at the foot of one of the hills, where it sank slowly, like the dying gush of a wave, into the hollowest centre of the little vale.
'Everything tends to the cone-shape here,' said Falconer,--'the oddest and at the same time most wonderful of mathematical figures.'
'Is it not strange,' I said, 'that oddity and wonder should come so near?'
'They often do in the human world as well,' returned he. 'Therefore it is not strange that Shelley should have been so fond of this place. It is told of him that repeated sketches of the spot were found on the covers of his letters. I know nothing more like Shelley's poetry than this valley--wildly fantastic and yet beautiful--as if a huge genius were playing at grandeur, and producing little models of great things. But there is one grand thing I want to show you a little further on.'
We rose, and walked out of the valley on the other side, along the lofty coast. When we reached a certain point, Falconer stood and requested us to look as far as we could, along the cliffs to the face of the last of them.
'What do you see?' he asked.
'A perpendicular rock, going right down into the blue waters,' I answered.
'Look at it: what is the outline of it like? Whose face is it?'
'Shakspere's, by all that is grand!' I cried.
'So it is,' said Andrew.
'Right. Now I'll tell you what I would do. If I were very rich, and there were no poor people in the country, I would give a commission to some great sculptor to attack that rock and work out its suggestion. Then, it I had any money left, we should find one for Bacon, and one for Chaucer, and one for Milton; and, as we are about it, we may fancy as many more as we like; so that from the bounding rocks of our island, the memorial faces of our great brothers should look abroad over the seas into the infinite sky beyond.'
'Well, now,' said the elder, 'I think it is grander as it is.'
'You are quite right, father,' said Robert. 'And so with many of our fancies for perfecting God's mighty sketches, which he only can finish.'
Again we seated ourselves and looked out over the waves.
'I have never yet heard,' I said, 'how you managed with that poor girl that wanted to drown herself--on Westminster Bridge, I mean--that night, you remember.'
'Miss St. John has got her in her own house at present. She has given her those two children we picked up at the door of the public-house to take care of. Poor little darlings! they are bringing back the life in her heart already. There is actually a little colour in her cheek--the dawn, I trust, of the eternal life. That is Miss St. John's way. As often as she gets hold of a poor hopeless woman, she gives her a motherless child. It is wonderful what the childless woman and motherless child do for each other.'
'I was much amused the other day with the lecture one of the police magistrates gave a poor creature who was brought before him for attempting to drown herself. He did give her a sovereign out of the poor box, though.'
'Well, that might just tide her over the shoal of self-destruction,' said Falconer. 'But I cannot help doubting whether any one has a right to prevent a suicide from carrying out his purpose, who is not prepared to do a good deal more for him than that. What would you think of the man who snatched the loaf from a hungry thief, threw it back into the baker's cart, and walked away to his club-dinner? Harsh words of rebuke, and the threat of severe punishment upon a second attempt--what are they to the wretch weary of life? To some of them the kindest punishment would be to hang them for it. It is something else than punishment that they need. If the comfortable alderman had but "a feeling of their afflictions," felt in himself for a moment how miserable he must be, what a waste of despair must be in his heart, before he would do it himself, before the awful river would appear to him a refuge from the upper air, he would change his tone. I fear he regards suicide chiefly as a burglarious entrance into the premises of the respectable firm of Vension, Port, & Co.'
'But you mustn't be too hard upon him, Falconer; for if his God is his belly, how can he regard suicide as other than the most awful sacrilege?'
'Of course not. His well-fed divinity gives him one great commandment: "Thou shalt love thyself with all thy heart. The great breach is to hurt thyself--worst of all to send thyself away from the land of luncheons and dinners, to the country of thought and vision." But, alas! he does not reflect on the fact that the god Belial does not feed all his votaries; that he has his elect; that the altar of his inner-temple too often smokes with no sacrifice of which his poor meagre priests may partake. They must uphold the Divinity which has been good to them, and not suffer his worship to fall into disrepute.'
'Really, Robert,' said his father, 'I am afraid to think what you will come to. You will end in denying there is a God at all. You don't believe in hell, and now you justify suicide. Really--I must say--to say the least of it--I have not been accustomed to hear such things.'
The poor old man looked feebly righteous at his wicked son. I verily believe he was concerned for his eternal fate. Falconer gave a pleased glance at me, and for a moment said nothing. Then he began, with a kind of logical composure:
'In the first place, father, I do not believe in such a God as some people say they believe in. Their God is but an idol of the heathen, modified with a few Christian qualities. For hell, I don't believe there is any escape from it but by leaving hellish things behind. For suicide, I do not believe it is wicked because it hurts yourself, but I do believe it is very wicked. I only want to put it on its own right footing.'
'And pray what do you consider its right footing?'
'My dear father, I recognize no duty as owing to a man's self. There is and can be no such thing. I am and can be under no obligation to myself. The whole thing is a fiction, and of evil invention. It comes from the upper circles of the hell of selfishness. Or, perhaps, it may with some be merely a form of metaphysical mistake; but an untruth it is. Then for the duty we do owe to other people: how can we expect the men or women who have found life to end, as it seems to them, in a dunghill of misery--how can we expect such to understand any obligation to live for the sake of the general others, to no individual of whom, possibly, do they bear an endurable relation? What remains?--The grandest, noblest duty from which all other duty springs: the duty to the possible God. Mind, I say possible God, for I judge it the first of my duties towards my neighbour to regard his duty from his position, not from mine.'
'But,' said I, 'how would you bring that duty to bear on the mind of a suicide?'
'I think some of the tempted could understand it, though I fear not one of those could who judge them hardly, and talk sententiously of the wrong done to a society which has done next to nothing for her, by the poor, starved, refused, husband-tortured wretch perhaps, who hurries at last to the might of the filthy flowing river which, the one thread of hope in the web of despair, crawls through the city of death. What should I say to him? I should say: "God liveth: thou art not thine own but his. Bear thy hunger, thy horror in his name. I in his name will help thee out of them, as I may. To go before he calleth thee, is to say 'Thou forgettest,' unto him who numbereth the hairs of thy head. Stand out in the cold and the sleet and the hail of this world, O son of man, till thy Father open the door and call thee. Yea, even if thou knowest him not, stand and wait, lest there should be, after all, such a loving and tender one, who, for the sake of a good with which thou wilt be all-content, and without which thou never couldst be content, permits thee there to stand--for a time--long to his sympathizing as well as to thy suffering heart."'
Here Falconer paused, and when he spoke again it was from the ordinary level of conversation. Indeed I fancied that he was a little uncomfortable at the excitement into which his feelings had borne him.
'Not many of them could understand this, I dare say: but I think most of them could feel it without understanding it. Certainly the "belly with good capon lined" will neither understand nor feel it. Suicide is a sin against God, I repeat, not a crime over which human laws have any hold. In regard to such, man has a duty alone--that, namely, of making it possible for every man to live. And where the dread of death is not sufficient to deter, what can the threat of punishment do? Or what great thing is gained if it should succeed? What agonies a man must have gone through in whom neither the horror of falling into such a river, nor of the knife in the flesh instinct with life, can extinguish the vague longing to wrap up his weariness in an endless sleep!'
'But,' I remarked, 'you would, I fear, encourage the trade in suicide. Your kindness would be terribly abused. What would you do with the pretended suicides?'
'Whip them, for trifling with and trading upon the feelings of their kind.'
'Then you would drive them to suicide in earnest.'
'Then they might be worth something, which they were not before.'
'We are a great deal too humane for that now-a-days, I fear. We don't like hurting people.'
'No. We are infested with a philanthropy which is the offspring of our mammon-worship. But surely our tender mercies are cruel. We don't like to hang people, however unfit they may be to live amongst their fellows. A weakling pity will petition for the life of the worst murderer--but for what? To keep him alive in a confinement as like their notion of hell as they dare to make it--namely, a place whence all the sweet visitings of the grace of God are withdrawn, and the man has not a chance, so to speak, of growing better. In this hell of theirs they will even pamper his beastly body.'
'They have the chaplain to visit them.'
'I pity the chaplain, cut off in his labours from all the aids which God's world alone can give for the teaching of these men. Human beings have not the right to inflict such cruel punishment upon their fellow-man. It springs from a cowardly shrinking from responsibility, and from mistrust of the mercy of God;--perhaps first of all from an over-valuing of the mere life of the body. Hanging is tenderness itself to such a punishment.'
'I think you are hardly fair, though, Falconer. It is the fear of sending them to hell that prevents them from hanging them.'
'Yes. You are right, I dare say. They are not of David's mind, who would rather fall into the hands of God than of men. They think their hell is not so hard as his, and may be better for them. But I must not, as you say, forget that they do believe their everlasting fate hangs upon their hands, for if God once gets his hold of them by death, they are lost for ever.'
'But the chaplain may awake them to a sense of their sins.'
'I do not think it is likely that talk will do what the discipline of life has not done. It seems to me, on the contrary, that the clergyman has no commission to rouse people to a sense of their sins. That is not his work. He is far more likely to harden them by any attempt in that direction. Every man does feel his sins, though he often does not know it. To turn his attention away from what he does feel by trying to rouse in him feelings which are impossible to him in his present condition, is to do him a great wrong. The clergyman has the message of salvation, not of sin, to give. Whatever oppression is on a man, whatever trouble, whatever conscious something that comes between him and the blessedness of life, is his sin; for whatever is not of faith is sin; and from all this He came to save us. Salvation alone can rouse in us a sense of our sinfulness. One must have got on a good way before he can be sorry for his sins. There is no condition of sorrow laid down as necessary to forgiveness. Repentance does not mean sorrow: it means turning away from the sins. Every man can do that, more or less. And that every man must do. The sorrow will come afterwards, all in good time. Jesus offers to take us out of our own hands into his, if we will only obey him.'
The eyes of the old man were fixed on his son as he spoke, He did seem to be thinking. I could almost fancy that a glimmer of something like hope shone in his eyes.
It was time to go home, and we were nearly silent all the way.
The next morning was so wet that we could not go out, and had to amuse ourselves as we best might in-doors. But Falconer's resources never failed. He gave us this day story after story about the poor people he had known. I could see that his object was often to get some truth into his father's mind without exposing it to rejection by addressing it directly to himself; and few subjects could be more fitted for affording such opportunity than his experiences among the poor.
The afternoon was still rainy and misty. In the evening I sought to lead the conversation towards the gospel-story; and then Falconer talked as I never heard him talk before. No little circumstance in the narratives appeared to have escaped him. He had thought about everything, as it seemed to me. He had looked under the surface everywhere, and found truth--mines of it--under all the upper soil of the story. The deeper he dug the richer seemed the ore. This was combined with the most pictorial apprehension of every outward event, which he treated as if it had been described to him by the lips of an eye-witness. The whole thing lived in his words and thoughts.
'When anything looks strange, you must look the deeper,' he would say.
At the close of one of our fits of talk, he rose and went to the window.
'Come here,' he said, after looking for a moment.
All day a dropping cloud had filled the space below, so that the hills on the opposite side of the valley were hidden, and the whole of the sea, near as it was. But when we went to the window we found that a great change had silently taken place. The mist continued to veil the sky, and it clung to the tops of the hills; but, like the rising curtain of a stage, it had rolled half-way up from their bases, revealing a great part of the sea and shore, and half of a cliff on the opposite side of the valley: this, in itself of a deep red, was now smitten by the rays of the setting sun, and glowed over the waters a splendour of carmine. As we gazed, the vaporous curtain sank upon the shore, and the sun sank under the waves, and the sad gray evening closed in the weeping night, and clouds and darkness swathed the weary earth. For doubtless the earth needs its night as well as the creatures that live thereon.
In the morning the rain had ceased, but the clouds remained. But they were high in the heavens now, and, like a departing sorrow, revealed the outline and form which had appeared before as an enveloping vapour of universal and shapeless evil. The mist was now far enough off to be seen and thought about. It was clouds now--no longer mist and rain. And I thought how at length the evils of the world would float away, and we should see what it was that made it so hard for us to believe and be at peace.
In the afternoon the sky had partially cleared, but clouds hid the sun as he sank towards the west. We walked out. A cold autumnal wind blew, not only from the twilight of the dying day, but from the twilight of the dying season. A sorrowful hopeless wind it seemed, full of the odours of dead leaves--those memories of green woods, and of damp earth--the bare graves of the flowers. Would the summer ever come again?
We were pacing in silence along a terraced walk which overhung the shore far below. More here than from the hilltop we seemed to look immediately into space, not even a parapet intervening betwixt us and the ocean. The sound of a mournful lyric, never yet sung, was in my brain; it drew nearer to my mental grasp; but ere it alighted, its wings were gone, and it fell dead on my consciousness. Its meaning was this: 'Welcome, Requiem of Nature. Let me share in thy Requiescat. Blow, wind of mournful memories. Let us moan together. No one taketh from us the joy of our sorrow. We may mourn as we will.'
But while I brooded thus, behold a wonder! The mass about the sinking sun broke up, and drifted away in cloudy bergs, as if scattered on the diverging currents of solar radiance that burst from the gates of the west, and streamed east and north and south over the heavens and over the sea. To the north, these masses built a cloudy bridge across the sky from horizon to horizon, and beneath it shone the rosy-sailed ships floating stately through their triumphal arch up the channel to their home. Other clouds floated stately too in the upper sea over our heads, with dense forms, thinning into vaporous edges. Some were of a dull angry red; some of as exquisite a primrose hue as ever the flower itself bore on its bosom; and betwixt their edges beamed out the sweetest, purest, most melting, most transparent blue, the heavenly blue which is the symbol of the spirit as red is of the heart. I think I never saw a blue to satisfy me before. Some of these clouds threw shadows of many-shaded purple upon the green sea; and from one of the shadows, so dark and so far out upon the glooming horizon that it looked like an island, arose as from a pier, a wondrous structure of dim, fairy colours, a multitude of rainbow-ends, side by side, that would have spanned the heavens with a gorgeous arch, but failed from the very grandeur of the idea, and grew up only a few degrees against the clouded west. I stood rapt. The two Falconers were at some distance before me, walking arm in arm. They stood and gazed likewise. It was as if God had said to the heavens and the earth and the chord of the seven colours, 'Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.' And I said to my soul, 'Let the tempest rave in the world; let sorrow wail like a sea-bird in the midst thereof; and let thy heart respond to her shivering cry; but the vault of heaven encloses the tempest and the shrieking bird and the echoing heart; and the sun of God's countenance can with one glance from above change the wildest winter day into a summer evening compact of poets' dreams.'
My companions were walking up over the hill. I could see that Falconer was earnestly speaking in his father's ear. The old man's head was bent towards the earth. I kept away. They made a turn from home. I still followed at a distance. The evening began to grow dark. The autumn wind met us again, colder, stronger, yet more laden with the odours of death and the frosts of the coming winter. But it no longer blew as from the charnel-house of the past; it blew from the stars through the chinks of the unopened door on the other side of the sepulchre. It was a wind of the worlds, not a wind of the leaves. It told of the march of the spheres, and the rest of the throne of God. We were going on into the universe--home to the house of our Father. Mighty adventure! Sacred repose! And as I followed the pair, one great star throbbed and radiated over my head.