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His sole relaxation almost lay in the visit he paid every evening to the soutar and his wife. Their home was a wretched place; but notwithstanding the poverty in which they were now sunk, Robert soon began to see a change, like the dawning of light, an alba, as the Italians call the dawn, in the appearance of something white here and there about the room. Robert's visits had set the poor woman trying to make the place look decent. It soon became at least clean, and there is a very real sense in which cleanliness is next to godliness. If the people who want to do good among the poor would give up patronizing them, would cease from trying to convert them before they have gained the smallest personal influence with them, would visit them as those who have just as good a right to be here as they have, it would be all the better for both, perhaps chiefly for themselves.
For the first week or so, Alexander, unable either to work or play, and deprived of his usual consolation of drink, was very testy and unmanageable. If Robert, who strove to do his best, in the hope of alleviating the poor fellow's sufferings--chiefly those of the mind--happened to mistake the time or to draw a false note from the violin, Sandy would swear as if he had been the Grand Turk and Robert one of his slaves. But Robert was too vexed with himself, when he gave occasion to such an outburst, to mind the outburst itself. And invariably when such had taken place, the shoemaker would ask forgiveness before he went. Holding out his left hand, from which nothing could efface the stains of rosin and lamp-black and heel-ball, save the sweet cleansing of mother-earth, he would say,
'Robert, ye'll jist pit the sweirin' doon wi' the lave (rest), an' score 't oot a'thegither. I'm an ill-tongued vratch, an' I'm beginnin' to see 't. But, man, ye're jist behavin' to me like God himsel', an' gin it warna for you, I wad jist lie here roarin' an' greitin' an' damnin' frae mornin' to nicht.--Ye will be in the morn's night--willna ye?' he would always end by asking with some anxiety.
'Of coorse I will,' Robert would answer.
'Gude nicht, than, gude nicht.--I'll try and get a sicht o' my sins ance mair,' he added, one evening. 'Gin I could only be a wee bit sorry for them, I reckon he wad forgie me. Dinna ye think he wad, Robert?'
'Nae doobt, nae doobt,' answered Robert hurriedly. 'They a' say 'at gin a man repents the richt gait, he'll forgie him.'
He could not say more than 'They say,' for his own horizon was all dark, and even in saying this much he felt like a hypocrite. A terrible waste, heaped thick with the potsherds of hope, lay outside that door of prayer which he had, as he thought, nailed up for ever.
'An' what is the richt gait?' asked the soutar.
''Deed, that's mair nor I ken, Sandy,' answered Robert mournfully.
'Weel, gin ye dinna ken, what's to come o' me?' said Alexander anxiously.
'Ye maun speir at himsel',' returned Robert, 'an' jist tell him 'at ye dinna ken, but ye'll do onything 'at he likes.'
With these words he took his leave hurriedly, somewhat amazed to find that he had given the soutar the strange advice to try just what he had tried so unavailingly himself. And stranger still, he found himself, before he reached home, praying once more in his heart--both for Dooble Sanny and for himself. From that hour a faint hope was within him that some day he might try again, though he dared not yet encounter such effort and agony.
All this time he had never doubted that there was God; nor had he ventured to say within himself that perhaps God was not good; he had simply come to the conclusion that for him there was no approach to the fountain of his being.
In the course of a fortnight or so, when his system had covered over its craving after whisky, the irritability of the shoemaker almost vanished. It might have been feared that his conscience would then likewise relax its activity; but it was not so: it grew yet more tender. He now began to give Robert some praise, and make allowances for his faults, and Robert dared more in consequence, and played with more spirit. I do not say that his style could have grown fine under such a master, but at least he learned the difference between slovenliness and accuracy, and between accuracy and expression, which last is all of original that the best mere performer can claim.
One evening he was scraping away at Tullochgorum when Mr. Maccleary walked in. Robert ceased. The minister gave him one searching glance, and sat down by the bedside. Robert would have left the room.
'Dinna gang, Robert,' said Sandy, and Robert remained.
The clergyman talked very faithfully as far as the shoemaker was concerned; though whether he was equally faithful towards God might be questioned. He was one of those prudent men, who are afraid of dealing out the truth freely lest it should fall on thorns or stony places. Hence of course the good ground came in for a scanty share too. Believing that a certain precise condition of mind was necessary for its proper reception, he would endeavour to bring about that condition first. He did not know that the truth makes its own nest in the ready heart, and that the heart may be ready for it before the priest can perceive the fact, seeing that the imposition of hands confers, now-a-days at least, neither love nor common-sense. He therefore dwelt upon the sins of the soutar, magnifying them and making them hideous, in the idea that thus he magnified the law, and made it honourable, while of the special tenderness of God to the sinner he said not a word. Robert was offended, he scarcely knew why, with the minister's mode of treating his friend; and after Mr. Maccleary had taken a far kinder leave of them than God could approve, if he resembled his representation, Robert sat still, oppressed with darkness.
'It's a' true,' said the soutar; 'but, man Robert, dinna ye think the minister was some sair upo' me?'
'I duv think it,' answered Robert.
'Something beirs 't in upo' me 'at he wadna be sae sair upo' me himsel'. There's something i' the New Testament, some gait, 'at's pitten 't into my heid; though, faith, I dinna ken whaur to luik for 't. Canna ye help me oot wi' 't, man?'
Robert could think of nothing but the parable of the prodigal son. Mrs. Alexander got him the New Testament, and he read it. She sat at the foot of the bed listening.
'There!' cried the soutar, triumphantly, 'I telled ye sae! Not ae word aboot the puir lad's sins! It was a' a hurry an' a scurry to get the new shune upo' 'im, an' win at the calfie an' the fiddlin' an' the dancin'.--O Lord,' he broke out, 'I'm comin' hame as fest 's I can; but my sins are jist like muckle bauchles (shoes down at heel) upo' my feet and winna lat me. I expec' nae ring and nae robe, but I wad fain hae a fiddle i' my grup when the neist prodigal comes hame; an' gin I dinna fiddle weel, it s' no be my wyte.--Eh, man! but that is what I ca' gude, an' a' the minister said--honest man--'s jist blether till 't.--O Lord, I sweir gin ever I win up again, I'll put in ilka steek (stitch) as gin the shune war for the feet o' the prodigal himsel'. It sall be gude wark, O Lord. An' I'll never lat taste o' whusky intil my mou'--nor smell o' whusky intil my nose, gin sae be 'at I can help it--I sweir 't, O Lord. An' gin I binna raised up again--'
Here his voice trembled and ceased, and silence endured for a short minute. Then he called his wife.
'Come here, Bell. Gie me a kiss, my bonny lass. I hae been an ill man to you.'
'Na, na, Sandy. Ye hae aye been gude to me--better nor I deserved. Ye hae been naebody's enemy but yer ain.'
'Haud yer tongue. Ye're speykin' waur blethers nor the minister, honest man! I tell ye I hae been a damned scoon'rel to ye. I haena even hauden my han's aff o' ye. And eh! ye war a bonny lass whan I merried ye. I hae blaudit (spoiled) ye a'thegither. But gin I war up, see gin I wadna gie ye a new goon, an' that wad be something to make ye like yersel' again. I'm affrontet wi' mysel' 'at I had been sic a brute o' a man to ye. But ye maun forgie me noo, for I do believe i' my hert 'at the Lord's forgien me. Gie me anither kiss, lass. God be praised, and mony thanks to you! Ye micht hae run awa' frae me lang or noo, an' a'body wad hae said ye did richt.--Robert, play a spring.'
Absorbed in his own thoughts, Robert began to play The Ewie wi' the Crookit Horn.
'Hoots! hoots!' cried Sandy angrily. 'What are ye aboot? Nae mair o' that. I hae dune wi' that. What's i' the heid o' ye, man?'
'What'll I play than, Sandy?' asked Robert meekly.
'Play The Lan' o' the Leal, or My Nannie's awa,', or something o' that kin'. I'll be leal to ye noo, Bell. An' we winna pree o' the whusky nae mair, lass.'
'I canna bide the smell o' 't,' cried Bell, sobbing.
Robert struck in with The Lan' o' the Leal. When he had played it over two or three times, he laid the fiddle in its place, and departed--able just to see, by the light of the neglected candle, that Bell sat on the bedside stroking the rosiny hand of her husband, the rhinoceros-hide of which was yet delicate enough to let the love through to his heart.
After this the soutar never called his fiddle his auld wife.
Robert walked home with his head sunk on his breast. Dooble Sanny, the drinking, ranting, swearing soutar, was inside the wicket-gate; and he was left outside for all his prayers, with the arrows from the castle of Beelzebub sticking in his back. He would have another try some day--but not yet--he dared not yet.
Henceforth Robert had more to do in reading the New Testament than in the fiddle to the soutar, though they never parted without an air or two. Sandy continued hopeful and generally cheerful, with alternations which the reading generally fixed on the right side for the night. Robert never attempted any comments, but left him to take from the word what nourishment he could. There was no return of strength to the helpless arm, and his constitution was gradually yielding.
The rumour got abroad that he was a 'changed character,'--how is not far to seek, for Mr. Maccleary fancied himself the honoured instrument of his conversion, whereas paralysis and the New Testament were the chief agents, and even the violin had more share in it than the minister. For the spirit of God lies all about the spirit of man like a mighty sea, ready to rush in at the smallest chink in the walls that shut him out from his own--walls which even the tone of a violin afloat on the wind of that spirit is sometimes enough to rend from battlement to base, as the blast of the rams' horns rent the walls of Jericho. And now to the day of his death, the shoemaker had need of nothing. Food, wine, and delicacies were sent him by many who, while they considered him outside of the kingdom, would have troubled themselves in no way about him. What with visits of condolence and flattery, inquiries into his experience, and long prayers by his bedside, they now did their best to send him back among the swine. The soutar's humour, however, aided by his violin, was a strong antidote against these evil influences.
'I doobt I'm gaein' to dee, Robert,' he said at length one evening as the lad sat by his bedside.
'Weel, that winna do ye nae ill,' answered Robert, adding with just a touch of bitterness--'ye needna care aboot that.'
'I do not care aboot the deein' o' 't. But I jist want to live lang eneuch to lat the Lord ken 'at I'm in doonricht earnest aboot it. I hae nae chance o' drinkin' as lang's I'm lyin' here.'
'Never ye fash yer heid aboot that. Ye can lippen (trust) that to him, for it's his ain business. He'll see 'at ye're a' richt. Dinna ye think 'at he'll lat ye aff.'
'The Lord forbid,' responded the soutar earnestly. 'It maun be a' pitten richt. It wad be dreidfu' to be latten aff. I wadna hae him content wi' cobbler's wark.--I hae 't,' he resumed, after a few minutes' pause; 'the Lord's easy pleased, but ill to saitisfee. I'm sair pleased wi' your playin', Robert, but it's naething like the richt thing yet. It does me gude to hear ye, though, for a' that.'
The very next night he found him evidently sinking fast. Robert took the violin, and was about to play, but the soutar stretched out his one left hand, and took it from him, laid it across his chest and his arm over it, for a few moments, as if he were bidding it farewell, then held it out to Robert, saying,
'Hae, Robert. She's yours.--Death's a sair divorce.--Maybe they 'll hae an orra  fiddle whaur I'm gaein', though. Think o' a Rothieden soutar playin' afore his grace!'
Robert saw that his mind was wandering, and mingled the paltry honours of earth with the grand simplicities of heaven. He began to play The Land o' the Leal. For a little while Sandy seemed to follow and comprehend the tones, but by slow degrees the light departed from his face. At length his jaw fell, and with a sigh, the body parted from Dooble Sanny, and he went to God.
His wife closed mouth and eyes without a word, laid the two arms, equally powerless now, straight by his sides, then seating herself on the edge of the bed, said,
'Dinna bide, Robert. It's a' ower noo. He's gang hame. Gin I war only wi' 'im wharever he is!'
She burst into tears, but dried her eyes a moment after, and seeing that Robert still lingered, said,
'Gang, Robert, an' sen' Mistress Downie to me. Dinna greit--there's a gude lad; but tak yer fiddle an' gang. Ye can be no more use.'
Robert obeyed. With his violin in his hand, he went home; and, with his violin still in his hand, walked into his grandmother's parlour.
'Hoo daur ye bring sic a thing into my hoose?' she said, roused by the apparent defiance of her grandson. 'Hoo daur ye, efter what's come an' gane?'
''Cause Dooble Sanny's come and gane, grannie, and left naething but this ahint him. And this ane's mine, whase ever the ither micht be. His wife's left wi'oot a plack, an' I s' warran' the gude fowk o' Rothieden winna mak sae muckle o' her noo 'at her man's awa'; for she never was sic a randy as he was, an' the triumph o' grace in her 's but sma', therefore. Sae I maun mak the best 'at I can o' the fiddle for her. An' ye maunna touch this ane, grannie; for though ye way think it richt to burn fiddles, ither fowk disna; and this has to do wi' ither fowk, grannie; it's no atween you an' me, ye ken,' Robert went on, fearful lest she might consider herself divinely commissioned to extirpate the whole race of stringed instruments,--'for I maun sell 't for her.'
'Tak it oot o' my sicht,' said Mrs. Falconer, and said no more.
He carried the instrument up to his room, laid it on his bed, locked his door, put the key in his pocket, and descended to the parlour.
'He's deid, is he?' said his grandmother, as he re-entered.
'Ay is he, grannie,' answered Robert. 'He deid a repentant man.'
'An' a believin'?' asked Mrs. Falconer.
'Weel, grannie, I canna say 'at he believed a' thing 'at ever was, for a body michtna ken a' thing.'
'Toots, laddie! Was 't savin' faith?'
'I dinna richtly ken what ye mean by that; but I'm thinkin' it was muckle the same kin' o' faith 'at the prodigal had; for they baith rase an' gaed hame.'
''Deed, maybe ye're richt, laddie,' returned Mrs. Falconer, after a moment's thought. 'We'll houp the best.'
All the remainder of the evening she sat motionless, with her eyes fixed on the rug before her, thinking, no doubt, of the repentance and salvation of the fiddler, and what hope there might yet be for her own lost son.
The next day being Saturday, Robert set out for Bodyfauld, taking the violin with him. He went alone, for he was in no mood for Shargar's company. It was a fine spring day, the woods were budding, and the fragrance of the larches floated across his way. There was a lovely sadness in the sky, and in the motions of the air, and in the scent of the earth--as if they all knew that fine things were at hand which never could be so beautiful as those that had gone away. And Robert wondered how it was that everything should look so different. Even Bodyfauld seemed to have lost its enchantment, though his friends were as kind as ever. Mr. Lammie went into a rage at the story of the lost violin, and Miss Lammie cried from sympathy with Robert's distress at the fate of his bonny leddy. Then he came to the occasion of his visit, which was to beg Mr. Lammie, when next he went to Aberdeen, to take the soutar's fiddle, and get what he could for it, to help his widow.
'Poor Sanny!' said Robert, 'it never cam' intil 's heid to sell her, nae mair nor gin she had been the auld wife 'at he ca'd her.'
Mr. Lammie undertook the commission; and the next time he saw Robert, handed him ten pounds as the result of the negotiation. It was all Robert could do, however, to get the poor woman to take the money. She looked at it with repugnance, almost as if it had been the price of blood. But Robert having succeeded in overcoming her scruples, she did take it, and therewith provide a store of sweeties, and reels of cotton, and tobacco, for sale in Sanny's workshop. She certainly did not make money by her merchandise, for her anxiety to be honest rose to the absurd; but she contrived to live without being reduced to prey upon her own gingerbread and rock.
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