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ROBERT TO THE RESCUE!
THAT Shargar was a parish scholar--which means that the parish paid his fees, although, indeed, they were hardly worth paying--made very little difference to his position amongst his school-fellows. Nor did the fact of his being ragged and dirty affect his social reception to his discomfort. But the accumulated facts of the oddity of his personal appearance, his supposed imbecility, and the bad character borne by his mother, placed him in a very unenviable relation to the tyrannical and vulgar-minded amongst them. Concerning his person, he was long, and, as his name implied, lean, with pale-red hair, reddish eyes, no visible eyebrows or eyelashes, and very pale face--in fact, he was half-way to an Albino. His arms and legs seemed of equal length, both exceedingly long. The handsomeness of his mother appeared only in his nose and mouth, which were regular and good, though expressionless; and the birth of his father only in his small delicate hands and feet, of which any girl who cared only for smallness, and heeded neither character nor strength, might have been proud. His feet, however, were supposed to be enormous, from the difficulty with which he dragged after him the huge shoes in which in winter they were generally encased.
The imbecility, like the large feet, was only imputed. He certainly was not brilliant, but neither did he make a fool of himself in any of the few branches of learning of which the parish-scholar came in for a share. That which gained him the imputation was the fact that his nature was without a particle of the aggressive, and all its defensive of as purely negative a character as was possible. Had he been a dog, he would never have thought of doing anything for his own protection beyond turning up his four legs in silent appeal to the mercy of the heavens. He was an absolute sepulchre in the swallowing of oppression and ill-usage. It vanished in him. There was no echo of complaint, no murmur of resentment from the hollows of that soul. The blows that fell upon him resounded not, and no one but God remembered them.
His mother made her living as she herself best knew, with occasional well-begrudged assistance from the parish. Her chief resource was no doubt begging from house to house for the handful of oatmeal which was the recognized, and, in the court of custom-taught conscience, the legalized dole upon which every beggar had a claim; and if she picked up at the same time a chicken, or a boy's rabbit, or any other stray luxury, she was only following the general rule of society, that your first duty is to take care of yourself. She was generally regarded as a gipsy, but I doubt if she had any gipsy blood in her veins. She was simply a tramper, with occasional fits of localization. Her worst fault was the way she treated her son, whom she starved apparently that she might continue able to beat him.
The particular occasion which led to the recognition of the growing relation between Robert and Shargar was the following. Upon a certain Saturday--some sidereal power inimical to boys must have been in the ascendant--a Saturday of brilliant but intermittent sunshine, the white clouds seen from the school windows indicating by their rapid transit across those fields of vision that fresh breezes friendly to kites, or draigons, as they were called at Rothieden, were frolicking in the upper regions--nearly a dozen boys were kept in for not being able to pay down from memory the usual instalment of Shorter Catechism always due at the close of the week. Amongst these boys were Robert and Shargar. Sky-revealing windows and locked door were too painful; and in proportion as the feeling of having nothing to do increased, the more uneasy did the active element in the boys become, and the more ready to break out into some abnormal manifestation. Everything--sun, wind, clouds--was busy out of doors, and calling to them to come and join the fun; and activity at the same moment excited and restrained naturally turns to mischief. Most of them had already learned the obnoxious task--one quarter of an hour was enough for that--and now what should they do next? The eyes of three or four of the eldest of them fell simultaneously upon Shargar.
Robert was sitting plunged in one of his day-dreams, for he, too, had learned his catechism, when he was roused from his reverie by a question from a pale-faced little boy, who looked up to him as a great authority.
'What for 's 't ca'd the Shorter Carritchis, Bob?'
''Cause it's no fully sae lang's the Bible,' answered Robert, without giving the question the consideration due to it, and was proceeding to turn the matter over in his mind, when the mental process was arrested by a shout of laughter. The other boys had tied Shargar's feet to the desk at which he sat--likewise his hands, at full stretch; then, having attached about a dozen strings to as many elf-locks of his pale-red hair, which was never cut or trimmed, had tied them to various pegs in the wall behind him, so that the poor fellow could not stir. They were now crushing up pieces of waste-paper, not a few leaves of stray school-books being regarded in that light, into bullets, dipping them in ink and aiming then at Shargar's face.
For some time Shargar did not utter a word; and Robert, although somewhat indignant at the treatment he was receiving, felt as yet no impulse to interfere, for success was doubtful. But, indeed, he was not very easily roused to action of any kind; for he was as yet mostly in the larva-condition of character, when everything is transacted inside. But the fun grew more furious, and spot after spot of ink gloomed upon Shargar's white face. Still Robert took no notice, for they did not seem to be hurting him much. But when he saw the tears stealing down his patient cheeks, making channels through the ink which now nearly covered them, he could bear it no longer. He took out his knife, and under pretence of joining in the sport, drew near to Shargar, and with rapid hand cut the cords--all but those that bound his feet, which were less easy to reach without exposing himself defenceless.
The boys of course turned upon Robert. But ere they came to more than abusive words a diversion took place.
Mrs. Innes, the school-master's wife--a stout, kind-hearted woman, the fine condition of whose temperament was clearly the result of her physical prosperity--appeared at the door which led to the dwelling-house above, bearing in her hands a huge tureen of potato-soup, for her motherly heart could not longer endure the thought of dinnerless boys. Her husband being engaged at a parish meeting, she had a chance of interfering with success.
But ere Nancy, the servant, could follow with the spoons and plates, Wattie Morrison had taken the tureen, and out of spite at Robert, had emptied its contents on the head of Shargar, who was still tied by the feet, with the words: 'Shargar, I anoint thee king over us, and here is thy crown,' giving the tureen, as he said so, a push on to his head, where it remained.
Shargar did not move, and for one moment could not speak, but the next he gave a shriek that made Robert think he was far worse scalded than turned out to be the case. He darted to him in rage, took the tureen from his head, and, his blood being fairly up now, flung it with all his force at Morrison, and felled him to the earth. At the same moment the master entered by the street door and his wife by the house door, which was directly opposite. In the middle of the room the prisoners surrounded the fallen tyrant--Robert, with the red face of wrath, and Shargar, with a complexion the mingled result of tears, ink, and soup, which latter clothed him from head to foot besides, standing on the outskirts of the group. I need not follow the story farther. Both Robert and Morrison got a lickin'; and if Mr. Innes had been like some school-masters of those times, Shargar would not have escaped his share of the evil things going.
From that day Robert assumed the acknowledged position of Shargar's defender. And if there was pride and a sense of propriety mingled with his advocacy of Shargar's rights, nay, even if the relation was not altogether free from some amount of show-off on Robert's part, I cannot yet help thinking that it had its share in that development of the character of Falconer which has chiefly attracted me to the office of his biographer. There may have been in it the exercise of some patronage; probably it was not pure from the pride of beneficence; but at least it was a loving patronage and a vigorous beneficence; and, under the reaction of these, the good which in Robert's nature was as yet only in a state of solution, began to crystallize into character.
But the effect of the new relation was far more remarkable on Shargar. As incapable of self-defence as ever, he was yet in a moment roused to fury by any attack upon the person or the dignity of Robert: so that, indeed, it became a new and favourite mode of teasing Shargar to heap abuse, real or pretended, upon his friend. From the day when Robert thus espoused his part, Shargar was Robert's dog. That very evening, when she went to take a parting peep at the external before locking the door for the night, Betty found him sitting upon the door-step, only, however, to send him off, as she described it, 'wi' a flech1 in 's lug (a flea in his ear).' For the character of the mother was always associated with the boy, and avenged upon him. I must, however, allow that those delicate, dirty fingers of his could not with safety be warranted from occasional picking and stealing.
At this period of my story, Robert himself was rather a grotesque-looking animal, very tall and lanky, with especially long arms, which excess of length they retained after he was full-grown. In this respect Shargar and he were alike; but the long legs of Shargar were unmatched in Robert, for at this time his body was peculiarly long. He had large black eyes, deep sunk even then, and a Roman nose, the size of which in a boy of his years looked portentous. For the rest, he was dark-complexioned, with dark hair, destined to grow darker still, with hands and feet well modelled, but which would have made four feet and four hands such as Shargar's.
When his mind was not oppressed with the consideration of any important metaphysical question, he learned his lessons well; when such was present, the Latin grammar, with all its attendant servilities, was driven from the presence of the lordly need. That once satisfied in spite of pandies and imprisonments, he returned with fresh zest, and, indeed, with some ephemeral ardour, to the rules of syntax or prosody, though the latter, in the mode in which it was then and there taught, was almost as useless as the task set himself by a worthy lay-preacher in the neighbourhood--of learning the first nine chapters of the first Book of the Chronicles, in atonement for having, in an evil hour of freedom of spirit, ventured to suggest that such lists of names, even although forming a portion of Holy Writ, could scarcely be reckoned of equally divine authority with St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans.
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