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One thing that troubled Robert on this his return home, was the discovery that the surroundings of his childhood had deserted him. There they were, as of yore, but they seemed to have nothing to say to him--no remembrance of him. It was not that everything looked small and narrow; it was not that the streets he saw from his new quarters, the gable-room, were awfully still after the roar of Aberdeen, and a passing cart seemed to shudder at the loneliness of the noise itself made; it was that everything seemed to be conscious only of the past and care nothing for him now. The very chairs with their inlaid backs had an embalmed look, and stood as in a dream. He could pass even the walled-up door without emotion, for all the feeling that had been gathered about the knob that admitted him to Mary St. John, had transferred itself to the brass bell-pull at her street-door.
But one day, after standing for a while at the window, looking down on the street where he had first seen the beloved form of Ericson, a certain old mood began to revive in him. He had been working at quadratic equations all the morning; he had been foiled in the attempt to find the true algebraic statement of a very tough question involving various ratios; and, vexed with himself, he had risen to look out, as the only available zeitvertreib. It was one of those rainy days of spring which it needs a hopeful mood to distinguish from autumnal ones--dull, depressing, persistent: there might be sunshine in Mercury or Venus--but on the earth could be none, from his right hand round by India and America to his left; and certainly there was none between--a mood to which all sensitive people are liable who have not yet learned by faith in the everlasting to rule their own spirits. Naturally enough his thoughts turned to the place where he had suffered most--his old room in the garret. Hitherto he had shrunk from visiting it; but now he turned away from the window, went up the steep stairs, with their one sharp corkscrew curve, pushed the door, which clung unwillingly to the floor, and entered. It was a nothing of a place--with a window that looked only to heaven. There was the empty bedstead against the wall, where he had so often kneeled, sending forth vain prayers to a deaf heaven! Had they indeed been vain prayers, and to a deaf heaven? or had they been prayers which a hearing God must answer not according to the haste of the praying child, but according to the calm course of his own infinite law of love?
Here, somehow or other, the things about him did not seem so much absorbed in the past, notwithstanding those untroubled rows of papers bundled in red tape. True, they looked almost awful in their lack of interest and their non-humanity, for there is scarcely anything that absolutely loses interest save the records of money; but his mother's workbox lay behind them. And, strange to say, the side of that bed drew him to kneel down: he did not yet believe that prayer was in vain. If God had not answered him before, that gave no certainty that he would not answer him now. It was, he found, still as rational as it had ever been to hope that God would answer the man that cried to him. This came, I think, from the fact that God had been answering him all the time, although he had not recognized his gifts as answers. Had he not given him Ericson, his intercourse with whom and his familiarity with whose doubts had done anything but quench his thirst after the higher life? For Ericson's, like his own, were true and good and reverent doubts, not merely consistent with but in a great measure springing from devoutness and aspiration. Surely such doubts are far more precious in the sight of God than many beliefs?
He kneeled and sent forth one cry after the Father, arose, and turned towards the shelves, removed some of the bundles of letters, and drew out his mother's little box.
There lay the miniature, still and open-eyed as he had left it. There too lay the bit of paper, brown and dry, with the hymn and the few words of sorrow written thereon. He looked at the portrait, but did not open the folded paper. Then first he thought whether there might not be something more in the box: what he had taken for the bottom seemed to be a tray. He lifted it by two little ears of ribbon, and there, underneath, lay a letter addressed to his father, in the same old-fashioned handwriting as the hymn. It was sealed with brown wax, full of spangles, impressed with a bush of something--he could not tell whether rushes or reeds or flags. Of course he dared not open it. His holy mother's words to his erring father must be sacred even from the eyes of their son. But what other or fitter messenger than himself could bear it to its destination? It was for this that he had been guided to it.
For years he had regarded the finding of his father as the first duty of his manhood: it was as if his mother had now given her sanction to the quest, with this letter to carry to the husband who, however he might have erred, was yet dear to her. He replaced it in the box, but the box no more on the forsaken shelf with its dreary barricade of soulless records. He carried it with him, and laid it in the bottom of his box, which henceforth he kept carefully locked: there lay as it were the pledge of his father's salvation, and his mother's redemption from an eternal grief.
He turned to his equation: it had cleared itself up; he worked it out in five minutes. Betty came to tell him that the dinner was ready, and he went down, peaceful and hopeful, to his grandmother.
While at home he never worked in the evenings: it was bad enough to have to do so at college. Hence nature had a chance with him again. Blessings on the wintry blasts that broke into the first youth of Summer! They made him feel what summer was! Blessings on the cheerless days of rain, and even of sleet and hail, that would shove the reluctant year back into January. The fair face of Spring, with her tears dropping upon her quenchless smiles, peeped in suppressed triumph from behind the growing corn and the budding sallows on the river-bank. Nay, even when the snow came once more in defiance of calendars, it was but a background from which the near genesis should 'stick fiery off.'
In general he had a lonely walk after his lesson with Miss St. John was over: there was no one at Rothieden to whom his heart and intellect both were sufficiently drawn to make a close friendship possible. He had companions, however: Ericson had left his papers with him. The influence of these led him into yet closer sympathy with Nature and all her moods; a sympathy which, even in the stony heart of London, he not only did not lose but never ceased to feel. Even there a breath of wind would not only breathe upon him, it would breathe into him; and a sunset seen from the Strand was lovely as if it had hung over rainbow seas. On his way home he would often go into one of the shops where the neighbours congregated in the evenings, and hold a little talk; and although, with Miss St. John filling his heart, his friend's poems his imagination, and geometry and algebra his intellect, great was the contrast between his own inner mood and the words by which he kept up human relations with his townsfolk, yet in after years he counted it one of the greatest blessings of a lowly birth and education that he knew hearts and feelings which to understand one must have been young amongst them. He would not have had a chance of knowing such as these if he had been the son of Dr. Anderson and born in Aberdeen.
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