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IN THE DESERT.
A LIFE lay behind Robert Falconer, and a life lay before him. He stood on a shoal between.
The life behind him was in its grave. He had covered it over and turned away. But he knew it would rise at night.
The life before him was not yet born; and what should issue from that dull ghastly unrevealing fog on the horizon, he did not care. Thither the tide setting eastward would carry him, and his future must be born. All he cared about was to leave the empty garments of his dead behind him--the sky and the fields, the houses and the gardens which those dead had made alive with their presence. Travel, motion, ever on, ever away, was the sole impulse in his heart. Nor had the thought of finding his father any share in his restlessness.
He told his grandmother that he was going back to Aberdeen. She looked in his face with surprise, but seeing trouble there, asked no questions. As if walking in a dream, he found himself at Dr. Anderson's door.
'Why, Robert,' said the good man, 'what has brought you back? Ah! I see. Poor Ericson! I am very sorry, my boy. What can I do for you?'
'I can't go on with my studies now, sir,' answered Robert. 'I have taken a great longing for travel. Will you give me a little money and let me go?'
'To be sure I will. Where do you want to go?'
'I don't know. Perhaps as I go I shall find myself wanting to go somewhere. You're not afraid to trust me, are you, sir?'
'Not in the least, Robert. I trust you perfectly. You shall do just as you please.--Have you any idea, how much money you will want?'
'No. Give me what you are willing I should spend: I will go by that.'
'Come along to the bank then. I will give you enough to start with. Write at once when you want more. Don't be too saving. Enjoy yourself as well as you can. I shall not grudge it.'
Robert smiled a wan smile at the idea of enjoying himself. His friend saw it, but let it pass. There was no good in persuading a man whose grief was all he had left, that he must ere long part with that too. That would have been in lowest deeps of sorrow to open a yet lower deep of horror. But Robert would have refused, and would have been right in refusing to believe with regard to himself what might be true in regard to most men. He might rise above his grief; he might learn to contain his grief; but lose it, forget it?--never.
He went to bid Shargar farewell. As soon as he had a glimpse of what his friend meant, he burst out in an agony of supplication.
'Tak me wi' ye, Robert,' he cried. 'Ye're a gentleman noo. I'll be yer man. I'll put on a livery coat, an' gang wi' ye. I'll awa' to Dr. Anderson. He's sure to lat me gang.'
'No, Shargar,' said Robert, 'I can't have you with me. I've come into trouble, Shargar, and I must fight it out alone.'
'Ay, ay; I ken. Puir Mr. Ericson!'
'There's nothing the matter with Mr. Ericson. Don't ask me any questions. I've said more to you now than I've said to anybody besides.'
'That is guid o' you, Robert. But am I never to see ye again?'
'I don't know. Perhaps we may meet some day.'
'Perhaps is nae muckle to say, Robert,' protested Shargar.
'It's more than can be said about everything, Shargar,' returned Robert, sadly.
'Weel, I maun jist tak it as 't comes,' said Shargar, with a despairing philosophy derived from the days when his mother thrashed him. 'But, eh! Robert, gin it had only pleased the Almichty to sen' me into the warl' in a some respectable kin' o' a fashion!'
'Wi' a chance a' gaein' aboot the country like that curst villain yer brither, I suppose?' retorted Robert, rousing himself for a moment.
'Na, na,' responded Shargar. 'I'll stick to my ain mither. She never learned me sic tricks.'
'Do ye that. Ye canna compleen o' God. It's a' richt as far 's ye're concerned. Gin he dinna something o' ye yet, it'll be your wyte, no his, I'm thinkin'.'
They walked to Dr. Anderson's together, and spent the night there. In the morning Robert got on the coach for Edinburgh.
I cannot, if I would, follow him on his travels. Only at times, when the conversation rose in the dead of night, by some Jacob's ladder of blessed ascent, into regions where the heart of such a man could open as in its own natural clime, would a few words cause the clouds that enveloped this period of his history to dispart, and grant me a peep into the phantasm of his past. I suspect, however, that much of it left upon his mind no recallable impressions. I suspect that much of it looked to himself in the retrospect like a painful dream, with only certain objects and occurrences standing prominent enough to clear the moonlight mist enwrapping the rest.
What the precise nature of his misery was I shall not even attempt to conjecture. That would be to intrude within the holy place of a human heart. One thing alone I will venture to affirm--that bitterness against either of his friends, whose spirits rushed together and left his outside, had no place in that noble nature. His fate lay behind him, like the birth of Shargar, like the death of Ericson, a decree.
I do not even know in what direction he first went. That he had seen many cities and many countries was apparent from glimpses of ancient streets, of mountain-marvels, of strange constellations, of things in heaven and earth which no one could have seen but himself, called up by the magic of his words. A silent man in company, he talked much when his hour of speech arrived. Seldom, however, did he narrate any incident save in connection with some truth of human nature, or fact of the universe.
I do know that the first thing he always did on reaching any new place was to visit the church with the loftiest spire; but he never looked into the church itself until he had left the earth behind him as far as that church would afford him the possibility of ascent. Breathing the air of its highest region, he found himself vaguely strengthened, yes comforted. One peculiar feeling he had, into which I could enter only upon happy occasion, of the presence of God in the wind. He said the wind up there on the heights of human aspiration always made him long and pray. Asking him one day something about his going to church so seldom, he answered thus:
'My dear boy, it does me ten times more good to get outside the spire than to go inside the church. The spire is the most essential, and consequently the most neglected part of the building. It symbolizes the aspiration without which no man's faith can hold its own. But the effort of too many of her priests goes to conceal from the worshippers the fact that there is such a stair, with a door to it out of the church. It looks as if they feared their people would desert them for heaven. But I presume it arises generally from the fact that they know of such an ascent themselves, only by hearsay. The knowledge of God is good, but the church is better!'
'Could it be,' I ventured to suggest, 'that, in order to ascend, they must put off the priests' garments?'
'Good, my boy!' he answered. 'All are priests up there, and must be clothed in fine linen, clean and white--the righteousness of saints--not the imputed righteousness of another,--that is a lying doctrine--but their own righteousness which God has wrought in them by Christ.' I never knew a man in whom the inward was so constantly clothed upon by the outward, whose ordinary habits were so symbolic of his spiritual tastes, or whose enjoyment of the sight of his eyes and the hearing of his ears was so much informed by his highest feelings. He regarded all human affairs from the heights of religion, as from their church-spires he looked down on the red roofs of Antwerp, on the black roofs of Cologne, on the gray roofs of Strasburg, or on the brown roofs of Basel--uplifted for the time above them, not in dissociation from them.
On the base of the missing twin-spire at Strasburg, high over the roof of the church, stands a little cottage--how strange its white muslin window-curtains look up there! To the day of his death he cherished the fancy of writing a book in that cottage, with the grand city to which London looks a modern mushroom, its thousand roofs with row upon row of windows in them--often five garret stories, one above the other, and its thickets of multiform chimneys, the thrones and procreant cradles of the storks, marvellous in history, habit, and dignity--all below him.
He was taken ill at Valence and lay there for a fortnight, oppressed with some kind of low fever. One night he awoke from a refreshing sleep, but could not sleep again. It seemed to him afterwards as if he had lain waiting for something. Anyhow something came. As it were a faint musical rain had invaded his hearing; but the night was clear, for the moon was shining on his window-blind. The sound came nearer, and revealed itself a delicate tinkling of bells. It drew nearer still and nearer, growing in sweet fulness as it came, till at length a slow torrent of tinklings went past his window in the street below. It was the flow of a thousand little currents of sound, a gliding of silvery threads, like the talking of water-ripples against the side of a barge in a slow canal--all as soft as the moonlight, as exquisite as an odour, each sound tenderly truncated and dull. A great multitude of sheep was shifting its quarters in the night, whence and whither and why he never knew. To his heart they were the messengers of the Most High. For into that heart, soothed and attuned by their thin harmony, not on the wind that floated without breaking their lovely message, but on the ripples of the wind that bloweth where it listeth, came the words, unlooked for, their coming unheralded by any mental premonition, 'My peace I give unto you.' The sounds died slowly away in the distance, fainting out of the air, even as they had grown upon it, but the words remained.
In a few moments he was fast asleep, comforted by pleasure into repose; his dreams were of gentle self-consoling griefs; and when he awoke in the morning--'My peace I give unto you,' was the first thought of which he was conscious. It may be that the sound of the sheep-bells made him think of the shepherds that watched their flocks by night, and they of the multitude of the heavenly host, and they of the song--'On earth peace': I do not know. The important point is not how the words came, but that the words remained--remained until he understood them, and they became to him spirit and life.
He soon recovered strength sufficiently to set out again upon his travels, great part of which he performed on foot. In this way he reached Avignon. Passing from one of its narrow streets into an open place in the midst, all at once he beheld, towering above him, on a height that overlooked the whole city and surrounding country, a great crucifix. The form of the Lord of Life still hung in the face of heaven and earth. He bowed his head involuntarily. No matter that when he drew nearer the power of it vanished. The memory of it remained with its first impression, and it had a share in what followed.
He made his way eastward towards the Alps. As he walked one day about noon over a desolate heath-covered height, reminding him not a little of the country of his childhood, the silence seized upon him. In the midst of the silence arose the crucifix, and once more the words which had often returned upon him sounded in the ears of the inner hearing, 'My peace I give unto you.' They were words he had known from the earliest memorial time. He had heard them in infancy, in childhood, in boyhood, in youth: now first in manhood it flashed upon him that the Lord did really mean that the peace of his soul should be the peace of their souls; that the peace wherewith his own soul was quiet, the peace at the very heart of the universe, was henceforth theirs--open to them, to all the world, to enter and be still. He fell upon his knees, bowed down in the birth of a great hope, held up his hands towards heaven, and cried, 'Lord Christ, give me thy peace.'
He said no more, but rose, caught up his stick, and strode forward, thinking.
He had learned what the sentence meant; what that was of which it spoke he had not yet learned. The peace he had once sought, the peace that lay in the smiles and tenderness of a woman, had 'overcome him like a summer cloud,' and had passed away. There was surely a deeper, a wider, a grander peace for him than that, if indeed it was the same peace wherewith the king of men regarded his approaching end, that he had left as a heritage to his brothers. Suddenly he was aware that the earth had begun to live again. The hum of insects arose from the heath around him; the odour of its flowers entered his dulled sense; the wind kissed him on the forehead; the sky domed up over his head; and the clouds veiled the distant mountain tops like the smoke of incense ascending from the altars of the worshipping earth. All Nature began to minister to one who had begun to lift his head from the baptism of fire. He had thought that Nature could never more be anything to him; and she was waiting on him like a mother. The next moment he was offended with himself for receiving ministrations the reaction of whose loveliness might no longer gather around the form of Mary St. John. Every wavelet of scent, every toss of a flower's head in the breeze, came with a sting in its pleasure--for there was no woman to whom they belonged. Yet he could not shut them out, for God and not woman is the heart of the universe. Would the day ever come when the loveliness of Mary St. John, felt and acknowledged as never before, would be even to him a joy and a thanksgiving? If ever, then because God is the heart of all.
I do not think this mood, wherein all forms of beauty sped to his soul as to their own needful centre, could have lasted over many miles of his journey. But such delicate inward revelations are none the less precious that they are evanescent. Many feelings are simply too good to last--using the phrase not in the unbelieving sense in which it is generally used, expressing the conviction that God is a hard father, fond of disappointing his children, but to express the fact that intensity and endurance cannot yet coexist in the human economy. But the virtue of a mood depends by no means on its immediate presence. Like any other experience, it may be believed in, and, in the absence which leaves the mind free to contemplate it, work even more good than in its presence.
At length he came in sight of the Alpine regions. Far off, the heads of the great mountains rose into the upper countries of cloud, where the snows settled on their stony heads, and the torrents ran out from beneath the frozen mass to gladden the earth below with the faith of the lonely hills. The mighty creatures lay like grotesque animals of a far-off titanic time, whose dead bodies had been first withered into stone, then worn away by the storms, and covered with shrouds and palls of snow, till the outlines of their forms were gone, and only rough shapes remained like those just blocked out in the sculptor's marble, vaguely suggesting what the creatures had been, as the corpse under the sheet of death is like a man. He came amongst the valleys at their feet, with their blue-green waters hurrying seawards--from stony heights of air into the mass of 'the restless wavy plain'; with their sides of rock rising in gigantic terrace after terrace up to the heavens; with their scaling pines, erect and slight, cone-head aspiring above cone-head, ambitious to clothe the bare mass with green, till failing at length in their upward efforts, the savage rock shot away and beyond and above them, the white and blue glaciers clinging cold and cruel to their ragged sides, and the dead blank of whiteness covering their final despair. He drew near to the lower glaciers, to find their awful abysses tremulous with liquid blue, a blue tender and profound as if fed from the reservoir of some hidden sky intenser than ours; he rejoiced over the velvety fields dotted with the toy-like houses of the mountaineers; he sat for hours listening by the side of their streams; he grew weary, felt oppressed, longed for a wider outlook, and began to climb towards a mountain village of which he had heard from a traveller, to find solitude and freedom in an air as lofty as if he climbed twelve of his beloved cathedral spires piled up in continuous ascent.
After ascending for hours in zigzags through pine woods, where the only sound was of the little streams trotting down to the valley below, or the distant hush of some thin waterfall, he reached a level, and came out of the woods. The path now led along the edge of a precipice descending sheer to the uppermost terrace of the valley he had left. The valley was but a cleft in the mass of the mountain: a little way over sank its other wall, steep as a plumb-line could have made it, of solid rock. On his right lay green fields of clover and strange grasses. Ever and anon from the cleft steamed up great blinding clouds of mist, which now wandered about over the nations of rocks on the mountain side beyond the gulf, now wrapt himself in their bewildering folds. In one moment the whole creation had vanished, and there seemed scarce existence enough left for more than the following footstep; the next, a mighty mountain stood in front, crowned with blinding snow, an awful fact; the lovely heavens were over his head, and the green sod under his feet; the grasshoppers chirped about him, and the gorgeous butterflies flew. From regions far beyond came the bells of the kine and the goats. He reached a little inn, and there took up his quarters.
I am able to be a little minute in my description, because I have since visited the place myself. Great heights rise around it on all sides. It stands as between heaven and hell, suspended between peaks and gulfs. The wind must roar awfully there in the winter; but the mountains stand away with their avalanches, and all the summer long keep the cold off the grassy fields.
The same evening, he was already weary. The next morning it rained. It rained fiercely all day. He would leave the place on the morrow. In the evening it began to clear up. He walked out. The sun was setting. The snow-peaks were faintly tinged with rose, and the ragged masses of vapour that hung lazy and leaden-coloured about the sides of the abyss, were partially dyed a sulky orange red. Then all faded into gray. But as the sunlight vanished, a veil sank from the face of the moon, already half-way to the zenith, and she gathered courage and shone, till the mountain looked lovely as a ghost in the gleam of its snow and the glimmer of its glaciers. 'Ah!' thought Falconer, 'such a peace at last is all a man can look for--the repose of a spectral Elysium, a world where passion has died away, and only the dim ghost of its memory to disturb with a shadowy sorrow the helpless content of its undreaming years. The religion that can do but this much is not a very great or very divine thing. The human heart cannot invent a better it may be, but it can imagine grander results.
He did not yet know what the religion was of which he spoke. As well might a man born stone-deaf estimate the power of sweet sounds, or he who knows not a square from a circle pronounce upon the study of mathematics.
The next morning rose brilliant--an ideal summer day. He would not go yet; he would spend one day more in the place. He opened his valise to get some lighter garments. His eye fell on a New Testament. Dr. Anderson had put it there. He had never opened it yet, and now he let it lie. Its time had not yet come. He went out.
Walking up the edge of the valley, he came upon a little stream whose talk he had heard for some hundred yards. It flowed through a grassy hollow, with steeply sloping sides. Water is the same all the world over; but there was more than water here to bring his childhood back to Falconer. For at the spot where the path led him down to the burn, a little crag stood out from the bank,--a gray stone like many he knew on the stream that watered the valley of Rothieden: on the top of the stone grew a little heather; and beside it, bending towards the water, was a silver birch. He sat down on the foot of the rock, shut in by the high grassy banks from the gaze of the awful mountains. The sole unrest was the run of the water beside him, and it sounded so homely, that he began to jabber Scotch to it. He forgot that this stream was born in the clouds, far up where that peak rose into the air behind him; he did not know that a couple of hundred yards from where he sat, it tumbled headlong into the valley below: with his country's birch-tree beside him, and the rock crowned with its tuft of heather over his head, the quiet as of a Sabbath afternoon fell upon him--that quiet which is the one altogether lovely thing in the Scotch Sabbath--and once more the words arose in his mind, 'My peace I give unto you.'
Now he fell a-thinking what this peace could be. And it came into his mind as he thought, that Jesus had spoken in another place about giving rest to those that came to him, while here he spoke about 'my peace.' Could this my mean a certain kind of peace that the Lord himself possessed? Perhaps it was in virtue of that peace, whatever it was, that he was the Prince of Peace. Whatever peace he had must be the highest and best peace--therefore the one peace for a man to seek, if indeed, as the words of the Lord seemed to imply, a man was capable of possessing it. He remembered the New Testament in his box, and, resolving to try whether he could not make something more out of it, went back to the inn quieter in heart than since he left his home. In the evening he returned to the brook, and fell to searching the story, seeking after the peace of Jesus.
He found that the whole passage stood thus:--
'Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.'
He did not leave the place for six weeks. Every day he went to the burn, as he called it, with his New Testament; every day tried yet again to make out something more of what the Saviour meant. By the end of the month it had dawned upon him, he hardly knew how, that the peace of Jesus (although, of course, he could not know what it was like till he had it) must have been a peace that came from the doing of the will of his Father. From the account he gave of the discoveries he then made, I venture to represent them in the driest and most exact form that I can find they will admit of. When I use the word discoveries, I need hardly say that I use it with reference to Falconer and his previous knowledge. They were these:--that Jesus taught--
First,--That a man's business is to do the will of God:
Second,--That God takes upon himself the care of the man:
Third,--Therefore, that a man must never be afraid of anything;
Fourth,--be left free to love God with all his heart, and his neighbour as himself.
But one day, his thoughts having cleared themselves a little upon these points, a new set of questions arose with sudden inundation--comprised in these two:--
'How can I tell for certain that there ever was such a man? How am I to be sure that such as he says is the mind of the maker of these glaciers and butterflies?'
All this time he was in the wilderness as much as Moses at the back of Horeb, or St. Paul when he vanishes in Arabia: and he did nothing but read the four gospels and ponder over them. Therefore it is not surprising that he should have already become so familiar with the gospel story, that the moment these questions appeared, the following words should dart to the forefront of his consciousness to meet them:--
'If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.'
Here was a word of Jesus himself, announcing the one means of arriving at a conviction of the truth or falsehood of all that he said, namely, the doing of the will of God by the man who would arrive at such conviction.
The next question naturally was: What is this will of God of which Jesus speaks? Here he found himself in difficulty. The theology of his grandmother rushed in upon him, threatening to overwhelm him with demands as to feeling and inward action from which his soul turned with sickness and fainting. That they were repulsive to him, that they appeared unreal, and contradictory to the nature around him, was no proof that they were not of God. But on the other hand, that they demanded what seemed to him unjust,--that these demands were founded on what seemed to him untruth attributed to God, on ways of thinking and feeling which are certainly degrading in a man,--these were reasons of the very highest nature for refusing to act upon them so long as, from whatever defects it might be in himself, they bore to him this aspect. He saw that while they appeared to be such, even though it might turn out that he mistook them, to acknowledge them would be to wrong God. But this conclusion left him in no better position for practice than before.
When at length he did see what the will of God was, he wondered, so simple did it appear, that he had failed to discover it at once. Yet not less than a fortnight had he been brooding and pondering over the question, as he wandered up and down that burnside, or sat at the foot of the heather-crowned stone and the silver-barked birch, when the light began to dawn upon him. It was thus.
In trying to understand the words of Jesus by searching back, as it were, for such thoughts and feelings in him as would account for the words he spoke, the perception awoke that at least he could not have meant by the will of God any such theological utterances as those which troubled him. Next it grew plain that what he came to do, was just to lead his life. That he should do the work, such as recorded, and much besides, that the Father gave him to do--this was the will of God concerning him. With this perception arose the conviction that unto every man whom God had sent into the world, he had given a work to do in that world. He had to lead the life God meant him to lead. The will of God was to be found and done in the world. In seeking a true relation to the world, would he find his relation to God?
The time for action was come.
He rose up from the stone of his meditation, took his staff in his hand, and went down the mountain, not knowing whither he went. And these were some of his thoughts as he went:
'If it was the will of God who made me and her, my will shall not be set against his. I cannot be happy, but I will bow my head and let his waves and his billows go over me. If there is such a God, he knows what a pain I bear. His will be done. Jesus thought it well that his will should be done to the death. Even if there be no God, it will be grand to be a disciple of such a man, to do as he says, think as he thought--perhaps come to feel as he felt.'
My reader may wonder that one so young should have been able to think so practically--to the one point of action. But he was in earnest, and what lay at the root of his character, at the root of all that he did, felt, and became, was childlike simplicity and purity of nature. If the sins of his father were mercifully visited upon him, so likewise were the grace and loveliness of his mother. And between the two, Falconer had fared well.
As he descended the mountain, the one question was--his calling. With the faintest track to follow, with the clue of a spider's thread to guide him, he would have known that his business was to set out at once to find, and save his father. But never since the day when the hand of that father smote him, and Mary St. John found him bleeding on the floor, had he heard word or conjecture concerning him. If he were to set out to find him now, it would be to search the earth for one who might have vanished from it years ago. He might as well search the streets of a great city for a lost jewel. When the time came for him to find his father, if such an hour was written in the decrees of--I dare not say Fate, for Falconer hated the word--if such was the will of God, some sign would be given him--that is, some hint which he could follow with action. As he thought and thought it became gradually plainer that he must begin his obedience by getting ready for anything that God might require of him. Therefore he must go on learning till the call came.
But he shivered at the thought of returning to Aberdeen. Might he not continue his studies in Germany? Would that not be as good--possibly, from the variety of the experience, better? But how was it to be decided? By submitting the matter to the friend who made either possible. Dr. Anderson had been to him as a father: he would be guided by his pleasure.
He wrote, therefore, to Dr. Anderson, saying that he would return at once if he wished it, but that he would greatly prefer going to a German university for two years. The doctor replied that of course he would rather have him at home, but that he was confident Robert knew best what was best for himself; therefore he had only to settle where he thought proper, and the next summer he would come and see him, for he was not tied to Aberdeen any more than Robert.
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