Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part I.--His Boyhood
Chapter IX. A Discovery.
The friendship of Robert had gained Shargar the favourable notice of others of the school-public. These were chiefly of those who came from the country, ready to follow an example set them by a town boy. When his desertion was known, moved both by their compassion for him, and their respect for Robert, they began to give him some portion of the dinner they brought with them; and never in his life had Shargar fared so well as for the first week after he had been cast upon the world. But in proportion as their interest faded with the novelty, so their appetites reasserted former claims of use and wont, and Shargar began once more to feel the pangs of hunger. For all that Robert could manage to procure for him without attracting the attention he was so anxious to avoid, was little more than sufficient to keep his hunger alive, Shargar being gifted with a great appetite, and Robert having no allowance of pocket-money from his grandmother. The threepence he had been able to spend on him were what remained of sixpence Mr. Innes had given him for an exercise which he wrote in blank verse instead of in prose--an achievement of which the school-master was proud, both from his reverence for Milton, and from his inability to compose a metrical line himself. And how and when he should ever possess another penny was even unimaginable. Shargar's shilling was likewise spent. So Robert could but go on pocketing instead of eating all that he dared, watching anxiously for opportunity of evading the eyes of his grandmother. On her dimness of sight, however, he depended too confidently after all; for either she was not so blind as he thought she was, or she made up for the defect of her vision by the keenness of her observation. She saw enough to cause her considerable annoyance, though it suggested nothing inconsistent with rectitude on the part of the boy, further than that there was something underhand going on. One supposition after another arose in the old lady's brain, and one after another was dismissed as improbable. First, she tried to persuade herself that he wanted to take the provisions to school with him, and eat them there--a proceeding of which she certainly did not approve, but for the reproof of which she was unwilling to betray the loopholes of her eyes. Next she concluded, for half a day, that he must have a pair of rabbits hidden away in some nook or other--possibly in the little strip of garden belonging to the house. And so conjecture followed conjecture for a whole week, during which, strange to say, not even Betty knew that Shargar slept in the house. For so careful and watchful were the two boys, that although she could not help suspecting something from the expression and behaviour of Robert, what that something might be she could not imagine; nor had she and her mistress as yet exchanged confidences on the subject. Her observation coincided with that of her mistress as to the disappearance of odds and ends of eatables--potatoes, cold porridge, bits of oat-cake; and even, on one occasion, when Shargar happened to be especially ravenous, a yellow, or cured and half-dried, haddock, which the lad devoured raw, vanished from her domain. He went to school in the morning smelling so strong in consequence, that they told him he must have been passing the night in Scroggie's cart, and not on his horse's back this time.
The boys kept their secret well.
One evening, towards the end of the week, Robert, after seeing Shargar disposed of for the night, proceeded to carry out a project which had grown in his brain within the last two days in consequence of an occurrence with which his relation to Shargar had had something to do. It was this:
The housing of Shargar in the garret had led Robert to make a close acquaintance with the place. He was familiar with all the outs and ins of the little room which he considered his own, for that was a civilized, being a plastered, ceiled, and comparatively well-lighted little room, but not with the other, which was three times its size, very badly lighted, and showing the naked couples from roof-tree to floor. Besides, it contained no end of dark corners, with which his childish imagination had associated undefined horrors, assuming now one shape, now another. Also there were several closets in it, constructed in the angles of the place, and several chests--two of which he had ventured to peep into. But although he had found them filled, not with bones, as he had expected, but one with papers, and one with garments, he had yet dared to carry his researches no further. One evening, however, when Betty was out, and he had got hold of her candle, and gone up to keep Shargar company for a few minutes, a sudden impulse seized him to have a peep into all the closets. One of them he knew a little about, as containing, amongst other things, his father's coat with the gilt buttons, and his great-grandfather's kilt, as well as other garments useful to Shargar: now he would see what was in the rest. He did not find anything very interesting, however, till he arrived at the last. Out of it he drew a long queer-shaped box into the light of Betty's dip.
'Luik here, Shargar!' he said under his breath, for they never dared to speak aloud in these precincts--'luik here! What can there be in this box? Is't a bairnie's coffin, duv ye think? Luik at it.'
In this case Shargar, having roamed the country a good deal more than Robert, and having been present at some merry-makings with his mother, of which there were comparatively few in that country-side, was better informed than his friend.
'Eh! Bob, duvna ye ken what that is? I thocht ye kent a' thing. That's a fiddle.'
'That's buff an' styte (stuff and nonsense), Shargar. Do ye think I dinna ken a fiddle whan I see ane, wi' its guts ootside o' 'ts wame, an' the thoomacks to screw them up wi' an' gar't skirl?'
'Buff an' styte yersel'!' cried Shargar, in indignation, from the bed. 'Gie's a haud o' 't.'
Robert handed him the case. Shargar undid the hooks in a moment, and revealed the creature lying in its shell like a boiled bivalve.
'I tellt ye sae!' he exclaimed triumphantly. 'Maybe ye'll lippen to me (trust me) neist time.'
'An' I tellt you,' retorted Robert, with an equivocation altogether unworthy of his growing honesty. 'I was cocksure that cudna be a fiddle. There's the fiddle i' the hert o' 't! Losh! I min' noo. It maun be my grandfather's fiddle 'at I hae heard tell o'.'
'No to ken a fiddle-case!' reflected Shargar, with as much of contempt as it was possible for him to show.
'I tell ye what, Shargar,' returned Robert, indignantly; 'ye may ken the box o' a fiddle better nor I do, but de'il hae me gin I dinna ken the fiddle itsel' raither better nor ye do in a fortnicht frae this time. I s' tak' it to Dooble Sanny; he can play the fiddle fine. An' I'll play 't too, or the de'il s' be in't.'
'Eh, man, that 'll be gran'!' cried Shargar, incapable of jealousy. 'We can gang to a' the markets thegither and gaither baubees (halfpence).'
To this anticipation Robert returned no reply, for, hearing Betty come in, he judged it time to restore the violin to its case, and Betty's candle to the kitchen, lest she should invade the upper regions in search of it. But that very night he managed to have an interview with Dooble Sanny, the shoemaker, and it was arranged between them that Robert should bring his violin on the evening at which my story has now arrived.
Whatever motive he had for seeking to commence the study of music, it holds even in more important matters that, if the thing pursued be good, there is a hope of the pursuit purifying the motive. And Robert no sooner heard the fiddle utter a few mournful sounds in the hands of the soutar, who was no contemptible performer, than he longed to establish such a relation between himself and the strange instrument, that, dumb and deaf as it had been to him hitherto, it would respond to his touch also, and tell him the secrets of its queerly-twisted skull, full of sweet sounds instead of brains. From that moment he would be a musician for music's own sake, and forgot utterly what had appeared to him, though I doubt if it was, the sole motive of his desire to learn--namely, the necessity of retaining his superiority over Shargar.
What added considerably to the excitement of his feelings on the occasion, was the expression of reverence, almost of awe, with which the shoemaker took the instrument from its case, and the tenderness with which he handled it. The fact was that he had not had a violin in his hands for nearly a year, having been compelled to pawn his own in order to alleviate the sickness brought on his wife by his own ill-treatment of her, once that he came home drunk from a wedding. It was strange to think that such dirty hands should be able to bring such sounds out of the instrument the moment he got it safely cuddled under his cheek. So dirty were they, that it was said Dooble Sanny never required to carry any rosin with him for fiddler's need, his own fingers having always enough upon them for one bow at least. Yet the points of those fingers never lost the delicacy of their touch. Some people thought this was in virtue of their being washed only once a week--a custom Alexander justified on the ground that, in a trade like his, it was of no use to wash oftener, for he would be just as dirty again before night.
The moment he began to play, the face of the soutar grew ecstatic. He stopped at the very first note, notwithstanding, let fall his arms, the one with the bow, the other with the violin, at his sides, and said, with a deep-drawn respiration and lengthened utterance:
Then after a pause, during which he stood motionless:
'The crater maun be a Cry Moany! Hear till her!' he added, drawing another long note.
Then, after another pause:
'She's a Straddle Vawrious at least! Hear till her. I never had sic a combination o' timmer and catgut atween my cleuks (claws) afore.'
As to its being a Stradivarius, or even a Cremona at all, the testimony of Dooble Sanny was not worth much on the point. But the shoemaker's admiration roused in the boy's mind a reverence for the individual instrument which he never lost.
From that day the two were friends.
Suddenly the soutar started off at full speed in a strathspey, which was soon lost in the wail of a Highland psalm-tune, giving place in its turn to 'Sic a wife as Willie had!' And on he went without pause, till Robert dared not stop any longer. The fiddle had bewitched the fiddler.
'Come as aften 's ye like, Robert, gin ye fess this leddy wi' ye,' said the soutar.
And he stroked the back of the violin tenderly with his open palm.
'But wad ye hae ony objection to lat it lie aside ye, and lat me come whan I can?'
'Objection, laddie? I wad as sune objeck to lattin' my ain wife lie aside me.'
'Ay,' said Robert, seized with some anxiety about the violin as he remembered the fate of the wife, 'but ye ken Elspet comes aff a' the waur sometimes.'
Softened by the proximity of the wonderful violin, and stung afresh by the boy's words as his conscience had often stung him before, for he loved his wife dearly save when the demon of drink possessed him, the tears rose in Elshender's eyes. He held out the violin to Robert, saying, with unsteady voice:
'Hae, tak her awa'. I dinna deserve to hae sic a thing i' my hoose. But hear me, Robert, and lat hearin' be believin'. I never was sae drunk but I cud tune my fiddle. Mair by token, ance they fand me lyin' o' my back i' the Corrie, an' the watter, they say, was ower a' but the mou' o' me; but I was haudin' my fiddle up abune my heid, and de'il a spark o' watter was upo' her.'
'It's a pity yer wife wasna yer fiddle, than, Sanny,' said Robert, with more presumption than wit.
''Deed ye're i' the richt, there, Robert. Hae, tak' yer fiddle.'
''Deed no,' returned Robert. 'I maun jist lippen (trust) to ye, Sanders. I canna bide langer the nicht; but maybe ye'll tell me hoo to haud her the neist time 'at I come--will ye?'
'That I wull, Robert, come whan ye like. An' gin ye come o' ane 'at cud play this fiddle as this fiddle deserves to be playt, ye'll do me credit.'
'Ye min' what that sumph Lumley said to me the ither nicht, Sanders, aboot my grandfather?'
'Ay, weel eneuch. A dish o' drucken havers!'
'It was true eneuch aboot my great-grandfather, though.'
'No! Was't railly?'
'Ay. He was the best piper in 's regiment at Culloden. Gin they had a' fouchten as he pipit, there wad hae been anither tale to tell. And he was toon-piper forby, jist like you, Sanders, efter they took frae him a' 'at he had.'
'Na! heard ye ever the like o' that! Weel, wha wad hae thocht it? Faith! we maun hae you fiddle as weel as yer lucky-daiddy pipit.--But here's the King o' Bashan comin' efter his butes, an' them no half dune yet!' exclaimed Dooble Sanny, settling in haste to his awl and his lingel (Fr. ligneul). 'He'll be roarin' mair like a bull o' the country than the king o' 't.'
As Robert departed, Peter Ogg came in, and as he passed the window, he heard the shoemaker averring:
'I haena risen frae my stule sin' ane o'clock; but there's a sicht to be dune to them, Mr. Ogg.'
Indeed, Alexander ab Alexandro, as Mr. Innes facetiously styled him, was in more ways than one worthy of the name of Dooble. There seemed to be two natures in the man, which all his music had not yet been able to blend.