Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter VIII. The Angel Unawares.
Although Betty seemed to hold little communication with the outer world, she yet contrived somehow or other to bring home what gossip was going to the ears of her mistress, who had very few visitors; for, while her neighbours held Mrs. Falconer in great and evident respect, she was not the sort of person to sit down and have a news with. There was a certain sedate self-contained dignity about her which the common mind felt to be chilling and repellant; and from any gossip of a personal nature--what Betty brought her always excepted--she would turn away, generally with the words, 'Hoots! I canna bide clashes.'
On the evening following that of Shargar's introduction to Mrs. Falconer's house, Betty came home from the butcher's--for it was Saturday night, and she had gone to fetch the beef for their Sunday's broth--with the news that the people next door, that is, round the corner in the next street, had a visitor.
The house in question had been built by Robert's father, and was, compared with Mrs. Falconer's one-storey house, large and handsome. Robert had been born, and had spent a few years of his life in it, but could recall nothing of the facts of those early days. Some time before the period at which my history commences it had passed into other hands, and it was now quite strange to him. It had been bought by a retired naval officer, who lived in it with his wife--the only Englishwoman in the place, until the arrival, at The Boar's Head, of the lady so much admired by Dooble Sanny.
Robert was up-stairs when Betty emptied her news-bag, and so heard nothing of this bit of gossip. He had just assured Shargar that as soon as his grandmother was asleep he would look about for what he could find, and carry it up to him in the garret. As yet he had confined the expenditure out of Shargar's shilling to twopence.
The household always retired early--earlier on Saturday night in preparation for the Sabbath--and by ten o'clock grannie and Betty were in bed. Robert, indeed, was in bed too; but he had lain down in his clothes, waiting for such time as might afford reasonable hope of his grandmother being asleep, when he might both ease Shargar's hunger and get to sleep himself. Several times he got up, resolved to make his attempt; but as often his courage failed and he lay down again, sure that grannie could not be asleep yet. When the clock beside him struck eleven, he could bear it no longer, and finally rose to do his endeavour.
Opening the door of the closet slowly and softly, he crept upon his hands and knees into the middle of the parlour, feeling very much like a thief, as, indeed, in a measure he was, though from a blameless motive. But just as he had accomplished half the distance to the door, he was arrested and fixed with terror; for a deep sigh came from grannie's bed, followed by the voice of words. He thought at first that she had heard him, but he soon found that he was mistaken. Still, the fear of discovery held him there on all fours, like a chained animal. A dull red gleam, faint and dull, from the embers of the fire, was the sole light in the room. Everything so common to his eyes in the daylight seemed now strange and eerie in the dying coals, and at what was to the boy the unearthly hour of the night.
He felt that he ought not to listen to grannie, but terror made him unable to move.
'Och hone! och hone!' said grannie from the bed. 'I've a sair, sair hert. I've a sair hert i' my breist, O Lord! thoo knowest. My ain Anerew! To think o' my bairnie that I cairriet i' my ain body, that sookit my breists, and leuch i' my face--to think o' 'im bein' a reprobate! O Lord! cudna he be eleckit yet? Is there nae turnin' o' thy decrees? Na, na; that wadna do at a'. But while there's life there's houp. But wha kens whether he be alive or no? Naebody can tell. Glaidly wad I luik upon 's deid face gin I cud believe that his sowl wasna amang the lost. But eh! the torments o' that place! and the reik that gangs up for ever an' ever, smorin' (smothering) the stars! And my Anerew doon i' the hert o' 't cryin'! And me no able to win till him! O Lord! I canna say thy will be done. But dinna lay 't to my chairge; for gin ye was a mither yersel' ye wadna pit him there. O Lord! I'm verra ill-fashioned. I beg yer pardon. I'm near oot o' my min'. Forgie me, O Lord! for I hardly ken what I'm sayin'. He was my ain babe, my ain Anerew, and ye gae him to me yersel'. And noo he's for the finger o' scorn to pint at; an ootcast an' a wan'erer frae his ain country, an' daurna come within sicht o' 't for them 'at wad tak' the law o' 'm. An' it's a' drink--drink an' ill company! He wad hae dune weel eneuch gin they wad only hae latten him be. What for maun men be aye drink-drinkin' at something or ither? I never want it. Eh! gin I war as young as whan he was born, I wad be up an' awa' this verra nicht to luik for him. But it's no use me tryin' 't. O God! ance mair I pray thee to turn him frae the error o' 's ways afore he goes hence an' isna more. And O dinna lat Robert gang efter him, as he's like eneuch to do. Gie me grace to haud him ticht, that he may be to the praise o' thy glory for ever an' ever. Amen.'
Whether it was that the weary woman here fell asleep, or that she was too exhausted for further speech, Robert heard no more, though he remained there frozen with horror for some minutes after his grandmother had ceased. This, then, was the reason why she would never speak about his father! She kept all her thoughts about him for the silence of the night, and loneliness with the God who never sleeps, but watches the wicked all through the dark. And his father was one of the wicked! And God was against him! And when he died he would go to hell! But he was not dead yet: Robert was sure of that. And when he grew a man, he would go and seek him, and beg him on his knees to repent and come back to God, who would forgive him then, and take him to heaven when he died. And there he would be good, and good people would love him.
Something like this passed through the boy's mind ere he moved to creep from the room, for his was one of those natures which are active in the generation of hope. He had almost forgotten what he came there for; and had it not been that he had promised Shargar, he would have crept back to his bed and left him to bear his hunger as best he could. But now, first his right hand, then his left knee, like any other quadruped, he crawled to the door, rose only to his knees to open it, took almost a minute to the operation, then dropped and crawled again, till he had passed out, turned, and drawn the door to, leaving it slightly ajar. Then it struck him awfully that the same terrible passage must be gone through again. But he rose to his feet, for he had no shoes on, and there was little danger of making any noise, although it was pitch dark--he knew the house so well. With gathering courage, he felt his way to the kitchen, and there groped about; but he could find nothing beyond a few quarters of oat-cake, which, with a mug of water, he proceeded to carry up to Shargar in the garret.
When he reached the kitchen door, he was struck with amazement and for a moment with fresh fear. A light was shining into the transe from the stair which went up at right angles from the end of it. He knew it could not be grannie, and he heard Betty snoring in her own den, which opened from the kitchen. He thought it must be Shargar who had grown impatient; but how he had got hold of a light he could not think. As soon as he turned the corner, however, the doubt was changed into mystery. At the top of the broad low stair stood a woman-form with a candle in her hand, gazing about her as if wondering which way to go. The light fell full upon her face, the beauty of which was such that, with her dress, which was white--being, in fact, a nightgown--and her hair, which was hanging loose about her shoulders and down to her waist, it led Robert at once to the conclusion (his reasoning faculties already shaken by the events of the night) that she was an angel come down to comfort his grannie; and he kneeled involuntarily at the foot of the stair, and gazed up at her, with the cakes in one hand, and the mug of water in the other, like a meat-and-drink offering. Whether he had closed his eyes or bowed his head, he could not say; but he became suddenly aware that the angel had vanished--he knew not when, how, or whither. This for a time confirmed his assurance that it was an angel. And although he was undeceived before long, the impression made upon him that night was never effaced. But, indeed, whatever Falconer heard or saw was something more to him than it would have been to anybody else.
Elated, though awed, by the vision, he felt his way up the stair in the new darkness, as if walking in a holy dream, trod as if upon sacred ground as he crossed the landing where the angel had stood--went up and up, and found Shargar wide awake with expectant hunger. He, too, had caught a glimmer of the light. But Robert did not tell him what he had seen. That was too sacred a subject to enter upon with Shargar, and he was intent enough upon his supper not to be inquisitive.
Robert left him to finish it at his leisure, and returned to cross his grandmother's room once more, half expecting to find the angel standing by her bedside. But all was dark and still. Creeping back as he had come, he heard her quiet, though deep, breathing, and his mind was at ease about her for the night. What if the angel he had surprised had only come to appear to grannie in her sleep? Why not? There were such stories in the Bible, and grannie was certainly as good as some of the people in the Bible that saw angels--Sarah, for instance. And if the angels came to see grannie, why should they not have some care over his father as well? It might be--who could tell?
It is perhaps necessary to explain Robert's vision. The angel was the owner of the boxes he had seen at The Bear's Head. Looking around her room before going to bed, she had seen a trap in the floor near the wall, and raising it, had discovered a few steps of a stair leading down to a door. Curiosity naturally led her to examine it. The key was in the lock. It opened outwards, and there she found herself, to her surprise, in the heart of another dwelling, of lowlier aspect. She never saw Robert; for while he approached with shoeless feet, she had been glancing through the open door of the gable-room, and when he knelt, the light which she held in her hand had, I presume, hidden him from her. He, on his part, had not observed that the moveless door stood open at last.
I have already said that the house adjoining had been built by Robert's father. The lady's room was that which he had occupied with his wife, and in it Robert had been born. The door, with its trap-stair, was a natural invention for uniting the levels of the two houses, and a desirable one in not a few of the forms which the weather assumed in that region. When the larger house passed into other hands, it had never entered the minds of the simple people who occupied the contiguous dwellings, to build up the doorway between.