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
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.
'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
'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
'No. Give me what you are willing I should spend: I will go by
'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
'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
'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
'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
'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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
'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
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.