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One gusty evening--it was of the last day in March--Robert well remembered both the date and the day--a bleak wind was driving up the long street of the town, and Robert was standing looking out of one of the windows in the gable-room. The evening was closing into night. He hardly knew how he came to he there, but when he thought about it he found it was play-Wednesday, and that he had been all the half-holiday trying one thing after another to interest himself withhal, but in vain. He knew nothing about east winds; but not the less did this dreary wind of the dreary March world prove itself upon his soul. For such a wind has a shadow wind along with it, that blows in the minds of men. There was nothing genial, no growth in it. It killed, and killed most dogmatically. But it is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Even an east wind must bear some blessing on its ugly wings. And as Robert looked down from the gable, the wind was blowing up the street before it half-a-dozen footfaring students from Aberdeen, on their way home at the close of the session, probably to the farm-labours of the spring.
This was a glad sight, as that of the returning storks in Denmark. Robert knew where they would put up, sought his cap, and went out. His grandmother never objected to his going to see Miss Napier; it was in her house that the weary men would this night rest.
It was not without reason that Lord Rothie had teased his hostess about receiving foot-passengers, for to such it was her invariable custom to make some civil excuse, sending Meg or Peggy to show them over the way to the hostelry next in rank, a proceeding recognized by the inferior hostess as both just and friendly, for the good woman never thought of measuring The Star against The Boar's Head. More than one comical story had been the result of this law of The Boar's Head, unalterable almost as that of the Medes and Persians. I say almost, for to one class of the footfaring community the official ice about the hearts of the three women did thaw, yielding passage to a full river of hospitality and generosity; and that was the class to which these wayfarers belonged.
Well may Scotland rejoice in her universities, for whatever may be said against their system--I have no complaint to make--they are divine in their freedom: men who follow the plough in the spring and reap the harvest in the autumn, may, and often do, frequent their sacred precincts when the winter comes--so fierce, yet so welcome--so severe, yet so blessed--opening for them the doors to yet harder toil and yet poorer fare. I fear, however, that of such there will be fewer and fewer, seeing one class which supplied a portion of them has almost vanished from the country--that class which was its truest, simplest, and noblest strength--that class which at one time rendered it something far other than ridicule to say that Scotland was pre-eminently a God-fearing nation--I mean the class of cottars.
Of this class were some of the footfaring company. But there were others of more means than the men of this lowly origin, who either could not afford to travel by the expensive coaches, or could find none to accommodate them. Possibly some preferred to walk. However this may have been, the various groups which at the beginning and close of the session passed through Rothieden weary and footsore, were sure of a hearty welcome at The Boar's Head. And much the men needed it. Some of them would have walked between one and two hundred miles before completing their journey.
Robert made a circuit, and, fleet of foot, was in Miss Napier's parlour before the travellers made their appearance on the square. When they knocked at the door, Miss Letty herself went and opened it.
'Can ye tak 's in, mem?' was on the lips of their spokesman, but Miss Letty had the first word.
'Come in, come in, gentlemen. This is the first o' ye, and ye're the mair welcome. It's like seein' the first o' the swallows. An' sic a day as ye hae had for yer lang traivel!' she went on, leading the way to her sister's parlour, and followed by all the students, of whom the one that came hindmost was the most remarkable of the group--at the same time the most weary and downcast.
Miss Napier gave them a similar welcome, shaking hands with every one of them. She knew them all but the last. To him she involuntarily showed a more formal respect, partly from his appearance, and partly that she had never seen him before. The whisky-bottle was brought out, and all partook, save still the last. Miss Lizzie went to order their supper.
'Noo, gentlemen,' said Miss Letty, 'wad ony o' ye like to gang an' change yer hose, and pit on a pair o' slippers?'
Several declined, saying they would wait until they had had their supper; the roads had been quite dry, &c., &c. One said he would, and another said his feet were blistered.
'Hoot awa'!' exclaimed Miss Letty.--'Here, Peggy!' she cried, going to the door; 'tak a pail o' het watter up to the chackit room. Jist ye gang up, Mr. Cameron, and Peggy 'll see to yer feet.--Noo, sir, will ye gang to yer room an' mak yersel' comfortable?--jist as gin ye war at hame, for sae ye are.'
She addressed the stranger thus. He replied in a low indifferent tone,
'No, thank you; I must be off again directly.'
He was from Caithness, and talked no Scotch.
''Deed, sir, ye'll do naething o' the kin'. Here ye s' bide, tho' I suld lock the door.'
'Come, come, Ericson, none o' your nonsense!' said one of his fellows. 'Ye ken yer feet are sae blistered ye can hardly put ane by the ither.--It was a' we cud du, mem, to get him alang the last mile.'
'That s' be my business, than,' concluded Miss Letty.
She left the room, and returning in a few minutes, said, as a matter of course, but with authority,
'Mr. Ericson, ye maun come wi' me.'
Then she hesitated a little. Was it maidenliness in the waning woman of five-and-forty? It was, I believe; for how can a woman always remember how old she is? If ever there was a young soul in God's world, it was Letty Napier. And the young man was tall and stately as a Scandinavian chief, with a look of command, tempered with patient endurance, in his eagle face, for he was more like an eagle than any other creature, and in his countenance signs of suffering. Miss Letty seeing this, was moved, and her heart swelled, and she grew conscious and shy, and turning to Robert, said,
'Come up the stair wi' 's, Robert; I may want ye.'
Robert jumped to his feet. His heart too had been yearning towards the stranger.
As if yielding to the inevitable, Ericson rose and followed Miss Letty. But when they had reached the room, and the door was shut behind them, and Miss Letty pointed to a chair beside which stood a little wooden tub full of hot water, saying, 'Sit ye doon there, Mr. Ericson,' he drew himself up, all but his graciously-bowed head, and said,
'Ma'am, I must tell you that I followed the rest in here from the very stupidity of weariness. I have not a shilling in my pocket.'
'God bless me!' said Miss Letty--and God did bless her, I am sure--'we maun see to the feet first. What wad ye du wi' a shillin' gin ye had it? Wad ye clap ane upo' ilka blister?'
Ericson burst out laughing, and sat down. But still he hesitated.
'Aff wi' yer shune, sir. Duv ye think I can wash yer feet throu ben' leather?' said Miss Letty, not disdaining to advance her fingers to a shoe-tie.
'But I'm ashamed. My stockings are all in holes.'
'Weel, ye s' get a clean pair to put on the morn, an' I'll darn them 'at ye hae on, gin they be worth darnin', afore ye gang--an' what are ye sae camstairie (unmanageable) for? A body wad think ye had a clo'en fit in ilk ane o' thae bits o' shune o' yours. I winna promise to please yer mither wi' my darnin' though.'
'I have no mother to find fault with it,' said Ericson.
'Weel, a sister's waur.'
'I have no sister, either.'
This was too much for Miss Letty. She could keep up the bravado of humour no longer. She fairly burst out crying. In a moment more the shoes and stockings were off, and the blisters in the hot water. Miss Letty's tears dropped into the tub, and the salt in them did not hurt the feet with which she busied herself, more than was necessary, to hide them.
But no sooner had she recovered herself than she resumed her former tone.
'A shillin'! said ye? An' a' thae greedy gleds (kites) o' professors to pay, that live upo' the verra blude and banes o' sair-vroucht students! Hoo cud ye hae a shillin' ower? Troth, it's nae wonner ye haena ane left. An' a' the merchan's there jist leevin' upo' ye! Lord hae a care o' 's! sic bonnie feet!--Wi' blisters I mean. I never saw sic a sicht o' raw puddin's in my life. Ye're no fit to come doon the stair again.'
All the time she was tenderly washing and bathing the weary feet. When she had dressed them and tied them up, she took the tub of water and carried it away, but turned at the door.
'Ye'll jist mak up yer min' to bide a twa three days,' she said; 'for thae feet cudna bide to be carried, no to say to carry a weicht like you. There's naebody to luik for ye, ye ken. An' ye're no to come doon the nicht. I'll sen' up yer supper. And Robert there 'll bide and keep ye company.'
She vanished; and a moment after, Peggy appeared with a salamander--that is a huge poker, ending not in a point, but a red-hot ace of spades--which she thrust between the bars of the grate, into the heart of a nest of brushwood. Presently a cheerful fire illuminated the room.
Ericson was seated on one chair, with his feet on another, his head sunk on his bosom, and his eyes thinking. There was something about him almost as powerfully attractive to Robert as it had been to Miss Letty. So he sat gazing at him, and longing for a chance of doing something for him. He had reverence already, and some love, but he had never felt at all as he felt towards this man. Nor was it as the Chinese puzzlers called Scotch metaphysicians, might have represented it--a combination of love and reverence. It was the recognition of the eternal brotherhood between him and one nobler than himself--hence a lovely eager worship.
Seeing Ericson look about him as if he wanted something, Robert started to his feet.
'Is there onything ye want, Mr. Ericson?' he said, with service standing in his eyes.
'A small bundle I think I brought up with me,' replied the youth.
It was not there. Robert rushed down-stairs, and returned with it--a nightshirt and a hairbrush or so, tied up in a blue cotton handkerchief. This was all that Robert was able to do for Ericson that evening.
He went home and dreamed about him. He called at The Boar's Head the next morning before going to school, but Ericson was not yet up. When he called again as soon as morning school was over, he found that they had persuaded him to keep his bed, but Miss Letty took him up to his room. He looked better, was pleased to see Robert, and spoke to him kindly. Twice yet Robert called to inquire after him that day, and once more he saw him, for he took his tea up to him.
The next day Ericson was much better, received Robert with a smile, and went out with him for a stroll, for all his companions were gone, and of some students who had arrived since he did not know any. Robert took him to his grandmother, who received him with stately kindness. Then they went out again, and passed the windows of Captain Forsyth's house. Mary St. John was playing. They stood for a moment, almost involuntarily, to listen. She ceased.
'That's the music of the spheres,' said Ericson, in a low voice, as they moved on.
'Will you tell me what that means?' asked Robert. 'I've come upon 't ower an' ower in Milton.'
Thereupon Ericson explained to him what Pythagoras had taught about the stars moving in their great orbits with sounds of awful harmony, too grandly loud for the human organ to vibrate in response to their music--hence unheard of men. And Ericson spoke as if he believed it. But after he had spoken, his face grew sadder than ever; and, as if to change the subject, he said, abruptly,
'What a fine old lady your grandmother is, Robert!'
'Is she?' returned Robert.
'I don't mean to say she's like Miss Letty,' said Ericson. 'She's an angel!'
A long pause followed. Robert's thoughts went roaming in their usual haunts.
'Do you think, Mr. Ericson,' he said, at length, taking up the old question still floating unanswered in his mind, 'do you think if a devil was to repent God would forgive him?'
Ericson turned and looked at him. Their eyes met. The youth wondered at the boy. He had recognized in him a younger brother, one who had begun to ask questions, calling them out into the deaf and dumb abyss of the universe.
'If God was as good as I would like him to be, the devils themselves would repent,' he said, turning away.
Then he turned again, and looking down upon Robert like a sorrowful eagle from a crag over its harried nest, said,
'If I only knew that God was as good as--that woman, I should die content.'
Robert heard words of blasphemy from the mouth of an angel, but his respect for Ericson compelled a reply.
'What woman, Mr. Ericson?' he asked.
'I mean Miss Letty, of course.'
'But surely ye dinna think God's nae as guid as she is? Surely he's as good as he can be. He is good, ye ken.'
'Oh, yes. They say so. And then they tell you something about him that isn't good, and go on calling him good all the same. But calling anybody good doesn't make him good, you know.'
'Then ye dinna believe 'at God is good, Mr. Ericson?' said Robert, choking with a strange mingling of horror and hope.
'I didn't say that, my boy. But to know that God was good, and fair, and kind--heartily, I mean, not half-ways, and with ifs and buts--my boy, there would be nothing left to be miserable about.'
In a momentary flash of thought, Robert wondered whether this might not be his old friend, the repentant angel, sent to earth as a man, that he might have a share in the redemption, and work out his own salvation. And from this very moment the thoughts about God that had hitherto been moving in formless solution in his mind began slowly to crystallize.
The next day, Eric Ericson, not without a piece in ae pouch and money in another, took his way home, if home it could be called where neither father, mother, brother, nor sister awaited his return. For a season Robert saw him no more.
As often as his name was mentioned, Miss Letty's eyes would grow hazy, and as often she would make some comical remark.
'Puir fallow!' she would say, 'he was ower lang-leggit for this warld.'
'Ay, he was a braw chield. But he canna live. His feet's ower sma'.'
Or yet again:
'Saw ye ever sic a gowk, to mak sic a wark aboot sittin' doon an' haein' his feet washed, as gin that cost a body onything!'
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