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It was a warm still night in July--moonless but not dark. There is no night there in the summer--only a long ethereal twilight. He walked through the sleeping town so full of memories, all quiet in his mind now--quiet as the air that ever broods over the house where a friend has dwelt. He left the town behind, and walked--through the odours of grass and of clover and of the yellow flowers on the old earthwalls that divided the fields--sweet scents to which the darkness is friendly, and which, mingling with the smell of the earth itself, reach the founts of memory sooner than even words or tones--down to the brink of the river that flowed scarcely murmuring through the night, itself dark and brown as the night from its far-off birthplace in the peaty hills. He crossed the footbridge and turned into the bleachfield. Its houses were desolate, for that trade too had died away. The machinery stood rotting and rusting. The wheel gave no answering motion to the flow of the water that glided away beneath it. The thundering beatles were still. The huge legs of the wauk-mill took no more seven-leagued strides nowhither. The rubbing-boards with their thickly-fluted surfaces no longer frothed the soap from every side, tormenting the web of linen into a brightness to gladden the heart of the housewife whose hands had spun the yarn. The terrible boiler that used to send up from its depths bubbling and boiling spouts and peaks and ridges, lay empty and cold. The little house behind, where its awful furnace used to glow, and which the pungent chlorine used to fill with its fumes, stood open to the wind and the rain: he could see the slow river through its unglazed window beyond. The water still went slipping and sliding through the deserted places, a power whose use had departed. The canal, the delight of his childhood, was nearly choked with weeds; it went flowing over long grasses that drooped into it from its edges, giving a faint gurgle once and again in its flow, as if it feared to speak in the presence of the stars, and escaped silently into the river far below. The grass was no longer mown like a lawn, but was long and deep and thick. He climbed to the place where he had once lain and listened to the sounds of the belt of fir-trees behind him, hearing the voice of Nature that whispered God in his ears, and there he threw himself down once more. All the old things, the old ways, the old glories of childhood--were they gone? No. Over them all, in them all, was God still. There is no past with him. An eternal present, He filled his soul and all that his soul had ever filled. His history was taken up into God: it had not vanished: his life was hid with Christ in God. To the God of the human heart nothing that has ever been a joy, a grief, a passing interest, can ever cease to be what it has been; there is no fading at the breath of time, no passing away of fashion, no dimming of old memories in the heart of him whose being creates time. Falconer's heart rose up to him as to his own deeper life, his indwelling deepest spirit--above and beyond him as the heavens are above and beyond the earth, and yet nearer and homelier than his own most familiar thought. 'As the light fills the earth,' thought he, 'so God fills what we call life. My sorrows, O God, my hopes, my joys, the upliftings of my life are with thee, my root, my life. Thy comfortings, my perfect God, are strength indeed!'
He rose and looked around him. While he lay, the waning, fading moon had risen, weak and bleared and dull. She brightened and brightened until at last she lighted up the night with a wan, forgetful gleam. 'So should I feel,' he thought, 'about the past on which I am now gazing, were it not that I believe in the God who forgets nothing. That which has been, is.' His eye fell on something bright in the field beyond. He would see what it was, and crossed the earthen dyke. It shone like a little moon in the grass. By humouring the reflection he reached it. It was only a cutting of white iron, left by some tinker. He walked on over the field, thinking of Shargar's mother. If he could but find her! He walked on and on. He had no inclination to go home. The solitariness of the night, the uncanniness of the moon, prevents most people from wandering far: Robert had learned long ago to love the night, and to feel at home with every aspect of God's world. How this peace contrasted with the nights in London streets! this grass with the dark flow of the Thames! these hills and those clouds half melted into moonlight with the lanes blazing with gas! He thought of the child who, taken from London for the first time, sent home the message: 'Tell mother that it's dark in the country at night.' Then his thoughts turned again to Shargar's mother! Was it not possible, being a wanderer far and wide, that she might be now in Rothieden? Such people have a love for their old haunts, stronger than that of orderly members of society for their old homes. He turned back, and did not know where he was. But the lines of the hill-tops directed him. He hastened to the town, and went straight through the sleeping streets to the back wynd where he had found Shargar sitting on the doorstep. Could he believe his eyes? A feeble light was burning in the shed. Some other poverty-stricken bird of the night, however, might be there, and not she who could perhaps guide him to the goal of his earthly life. He drew near, and peeped in at the broken window. A heap of something lay in a corner, watched only by a long-snuffed candle.
The heap moved, and a voice called out querulously,
'Is that you, Shargar, ye shochlin deevil?'
Falconer's heart leaped. He hesitated no longer, but lifted the latch and entered. He took up the candle, snuffed it as he best could, and approached the woman. When the light fell on her face she sat up, staring wildly with eyes that shunned and sought it.
'Wha are ye that winna lat me dee in peace and quaietness?'
'I'm Robert Falconer.'
'Come to speir efter yer ne'er-do-weel o' a father, I reckon,' she said.
'Yes,' he answered.
'Wha's that ahin' ye?'
'Naebody's ahin' me,' answered Robert.
'Dinna lee. Wha's that ahin' the door?'
'Naebody. I never tell lees.'
'Whaur's Shargar? What for doesna he come till 's mither?'
'He's hynd awa' ower the seas--a captain o' sodgers.'
'It's a lee. He's an ill-faured scoonrel no to come till 's mither an' bid her gude-bye, an' her gaein' to hell.'
'Gin ye speir at Christ, he'll tak ye oot o' the verra mou' o' hell, wuman.'
'Christ! wha's that? Ow, ay! It's him 'at they preach aboot i' the kirks. Na, na. There's nae gude o' that. There's nae time to repent noo. I doobt sic repentance as mine wadna gang for muckle wi' the likes o' him.'
'The likes o' him 's no to be gotten. He cam to save the likes o' you an' me.'
'The likes o' you an' me! said ye, laddie? There's no like atween you and me. He'll hae naething to say to me, but gang to hell wi' ye for a bitch.'
'He never said sic a word in 's life. He wad say, "Poor thing! she was ill-used. Ye maunna sin ony mair. Come, and I'll help ye." He wad say something like that. He'll save a body whan she wadna think it.'
'An' I hae gien my bonnie bairn to the deevil wi' my ain han's! She'll come to hell efter me to girn at me, an' set them on me wi' their reid het taings, and curse me. Och hone! och hone!'
'Hearken to me,' said Falconer, with as much authority as he could assume. But she rolled herself over again in the corner, and lay groaning.
'Tell me whaur she is,' said Falconer, 'and I'll tak her oot o' their grup, whaever they be.'
She sat up again, and stared at him for a few moments without speaking.
'I left her wi' a wuman waur nor mysel',' she said at length. 'God forgie me.'
'He will forgie ye, gin ye tell me whaur she is.'
'Do ye think he will? Eh, Maister Faukner! The wuman bides in a coort off o' Clare Market. I dinna min' upo' the name o' 't, though I cud gang till 't wi' my een steekit. Her name's Widow Walker--an auld rowdie--damn her sowl!'
'Na, na, ye maunna say that gin ye want to be forgien yersel'. I'll fin' her oot. An' I'm thinkin' it winna be lang or I hae a grup o' her. I'm gaein' back to Lonnon in twa days or three.'
'Dinna gang till I'm deid. Bide an' haud the deevil aff o' me. He has a grup o' my hert noo, rivin' at it wi' his lang nails--as lang 's birds' nebs.'
'I'll bide wi' ye till we see what can be dune for ye. What's the maitter wi' ye? I'm a doctor noo.'
There was not a chair or box or stool on which to sit down. He therefore kneeled beside her. He felt her pulse, questioned her, and learned that she had long been suffering from an internal complaint, which had within the last week grown rapidly worse. He saw that there was no hope of her recovery, but while she lived he gave himself to her service as to that of a living soul capable of justice and love. The night was more than warm, but she had fits of shivering. He wrapped his coat round her, and wiped from the poor degraded face the damps of suffering. The woman-heart was alive still, for she took the hand that ministered to her and kissed it with a moan. When the morning came she fell asleep. He crept out and went to his grandmother's, where he roused Betty, and asked her to get him some peat and coals. Finding his grandmother awake, he told her all, and taking the coals and the peat, carried them to the hut, where he managed, with some difficulty, to light a fire on the hearth; after which he sat on the doorstep till Betty appeared with two men carrying a mattress and some bedding. The noise they made awoke her.
'Dinna tak me,' she cried. 'I winna do 't again, an' I'm deein', I tell ye I'm deein', and that'll clear a' scores--o' this side ony gait,' she added.
They lifted her upon the mattress, and made her more comfortable than perhaps she had ever been in her life. But it was only her illness that made her capable of prizing such comfort. In health, the heather on a hill-side was far more to her taste than bed and blankets. She had a wild, roving, savage nature, and the wind was dearer to her than house-walls. She had come of ancestors--and it was a poor little atom of truth that a soul bred like this woman could have been born capable of entertaining. But she too was eternal--and surely not to be fixed for ever in a bewilderment of sin and ignorance--a wild-eyed soul staring about in hell-fire for want of something it could not understand and had never beheld--by the changeless mandate of the God of love! She was in less pain than during the night, and lay quietly gazing at the fire. Things awful to another would no doubt cross her memory without any accompanying sense of dismay; tender things would return without moving her heart; but Falconer had a hold of her now. Nothing could be done for her body except to render its death as easy as might be; but something might be done for herself. He made no attempt to produce this or that condition of mind in the poor creature. He never made such attempts. 'How can I tell the next lesson a soul is capable of learning?' he would say. 'The Spirit of God is the teacher. My part is to tell the good news. Let that work as it ought, as it can, as it will.' He knew that pain is with some the only harbinger that can prepare the way for the entrance of kindness: it is not understood till then. In the lulls of her pain he told her about the man Christ Jesus--what he did for the poor creatures who came to him--how kindly he spoke to them--how he cured them. He told her how gentle he was with the sinning women, how he forgave them and told them to do so no more. He left the story without comment to work that faith which alone can redeem from selfishness and bring into contact with all that is living and productive of life, for to believe in him is to lay hold of eternal life: he is the Life--therefore the life of men. She gave him but little encouragement: he did not need it, for he believed in the Life. But her outcries were no longer accompanied with that fierce and dreadful language in which she sought relief at first. He said to himself, 'What matter if I see no sign? I am doing my part. Who can tell, when the soul is free from the distress of the body, when sights and sounds have vanished from her, and she is silent in the eternal, with the terrible past behind her, and clear to her consciousness, how the words I have spoken to her may yet live and grow in her; how the kindness God has given me to show her may help her to believe in the root of all kindness, in the everlasting love of her Father in heaven? That she can feel at all is as sure a sign of life as the adoration of an ecstatic saint.'
He had no difficulty now in getting from her what information she could give him about his father. It seemed to him of the greatest import, though it amounted only to this, that when he was in London, he used to lodge at the house of an old Scotchwoman of the name of Macallister, who lived in Paradise Gardens, somewhere between Bethnal Green and Spitalfields. Whether he had been in London lately, she did not know; but if anybody could tell him where he was, it would be Mrs. Macallister.
His heart filled with gratitude and hope and the surging desire for the renewal of his London labours. But he could not leave the dying woman till she was beyond the reach of his comfort: he was her keeper now. And 'he that believeth shall not make haste.' Labour without perturbation, readiness without hurry, no haste, and no hesitation, was the divine law of his activity.
Shargar's mother breathed her last holding his hand. They were alone. He kneeled by the bed, and prayed to God, saying,
'Father, this woman is in thy hands. Take thou care of her, as thou hast taken care of her hitherto. Let the light go up in her soul, that she may love and trust thee, O light, O gladness. I thank thee that thou hast blessed me with this ministration. Now lead me to my father. Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.'
He rose and went to his grandmother and told her all. She put her arms round his neck, and kissed him, and said,
'God bless ye, my bonny lad. And he will bless ye. He will; he will. Noo gang yer wa's, and do the wark he gies ye to do. Only min', it's no you; it's him.'
The next morning, the sweet winds of his childhood wooing him to remain yet a day among their fields, he sat on the top of the Aberdeen coach, on his way back to the horrors of court and alley in the terrible London.
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