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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : CHAPTER XI. THE EARL.

Donal Grant by George MacDonald


HE met no one on his way from the gate up through the wood. He ascended the hill with its dark ascending firs, to its crown of silvery birches, above which, as often as the slowly circling road brought him to the other side, he saw rise like a helmet the gray mass of the fortress. Turret and tower, pinnacle and battlement, appeared and disappeared as he climbed. Not until at last he stood almost on the top, and from an open space beheld nearly the whole front, could he tell what it was like. It was a grand pile, but looked a gloomy one to live in.

He stood on a broad grassy platform, from which rose a gravelled terrace, and from the terrace the castle. He ran his eye along the front seeking a door but saw none. Ascending the terrace by a broad flight of steps, he approached a deep recess in the front, where two portions of the house of differing date nearly met. Inside this recess he found a rather small door, flush with the wall, thickly studded and plated with iron, surmounted by the Morven horses carved in gray stone, and surrounded with several mouldings. Looking for some means of announcing his presence, he saw a handle at the end of a rod of iron, and pulled, but heard nothing: the sound of the bell was smothered in a wilderness of stone walls. By and by, however, appeared an old servant, bowed and slow, with plentiful hair white as wool, and a mingled look of childishness and caution in his wrinkled countenance.

|The earl wants to see me,| said Donal.

|What name?| said the man.

|Donal Grant; but his lordship will be nothing the wiser, I suspect; I don't think he knows my name. Tell him -- the young man he sent for to Andrew Comin's.|

The man left him, and Donal began to look about him. The place where he stood was a mere entry, a cell in huge walls, with a second, a low, round-headed door, like the entrance to a prison, by which the butler had disappeared. There was nothing but bare stone around him, with again the Morven arms cut deep into it on one side. The ceiling was neither vaulted nor groined nor flat, but seemed determined by the accidental concurrence of ends of stone stairs and corners of floors on different levels. It was full ten minutes before the man returned and requested him to follow him.

Immediately Donal found himself in a larger and less irregular stone-case, adorned with heads and horns and skins of animals. Crossing this, the man opened a door covered with red cloth, which looked strange in the midst of the cold hard stone, and Donal entered an octagonal space, its doors of dark shining oak, with carved stone lintels and doorposts, and its walls adorned with arms and armour almost to the domed ceiling. Into it, as if it descended suddenly out of some far height, but dropping at last like a gently alighting bird, came the end of a turnpike-stair, of slow sweep and enormous diameter -- such a stair as in wildest gothic tale he had never imagined. Like the revolving centre of a huge shell, it went up out of sight, with plain promise of endless convolutions beyond. It was of ancient stone, but not worn as would have been a narrow stair. A great rope of silk, a modern addition, ran up along the wall for a hand-rail; and with slow-moving withered hand upon it, up the glorious ascent climbed the serving man, suggesting to Donal's eye the crawling of an insect, to his heart the redemption of the sons of God.

With the stair yet ascending above them as if it would never stop, the man paused upon a step no broader than the rest, and opening a door in the round of the well, said, |Mr. Grant, my lord,| and stood aside for Donal to enter.

He found himself in the presence of a tall, bowed man, with a large-featured white face, thin and worn, and a deep-sunken eye that gleamed with an unhealthy life. His hair was thin, but covered his head, and was only streaked with gray. His hands were long and thin and white; his feet in large shoes, looking the larger that they came out from narrow trousers, which were of shepherd-tartan. His coat was of light-blue, with a high collar of velvet, and much too wide for him. A black silk neckerchief tied carelessly about his throat, and a waistcoat of pineapple shawl-stuff, completed his dress. On one long little finger shone a stone which Donal took for an emerald. He motioned his visitor to a seat, and went on writing, with a rudeness more like that of a successful contractor than a nobleman. But it gave Donal the advantage of becoming a little accustomed to his surroundings. The room was not large, was wainscoted, and had a good many things on the walls: Donal noted two or three riding whips, a fishing rod, several pairs of spurs, a sword with golden hilt, a strange looking dagger like a flame of fire, one or two old engravings, and what seemed a plan of the estate. At the one window, small, with a stone mullion, the summer sun was streaming in. The earl sat in its flood, and in the heart of it seemed cold and bloodless. He looked about sixty years of age, and as if he rarely or never smiled. Donal tried to imagine what a smile would do for his face, but failed. He was not in the least awed by the presence of the great man. What is rank to the man who honours everything human, has no desire to look what he is not, has nothing to conceal and nothing to compass, is fearful of no to-morrow, and does not respect riches! Toward such ends of being the tide of Donal's life was at least setting. So he sat neither fidgeting nor staring, but quietly taking things in.

The earl raised himself, pushed his writing from him, turned towards him, and said with courtesy,

|Excuse me, Mr. Grant; I wished to talk to you with the ease of duty done.|

More polite his address could not have been, but there was a something between him and Donal that was not to be passed a -- nameless gulf of the negative.

|My time is at your lordship's service,| replied Donal, with the ease that comes of simplicity.

|You have probably guessed why I sent for you?|

|I have hoped, my lord.|

There was something of old-world breeding about the lad that commended him to the earl. Such breeding is not rare among Celt-born peasants.

|My sons told me that they had met a young man in the grounds -- |

|For which I beg your lordship's pardon,| said Donal. |I did not know the place was forbidden.|

|I hope you will soon be familiar with it. I am glad of your mistake. From what they said, I supposed you might be a student in want of a situation, and I had been looking out for a young man to take charge of the boy: it seemed possible you might serve my purpose. I do not question you can show yourself fit for such an office: I presume it would suit you. Do you believe yourself one to be so trusted?|

Donal had not a glimmer of false modesty; he answered immediately,

|I do, my lord.|

|Tell me something of your history: where were you born? what were your parents?|

Donal told him all he thought it of any consequence he should know.

His lordship did not once interrupt him with question or remark. When he had ended --

|Well,| he said, |I like all you tell me. You have testimonials?|

|I have from the professors, my lord, and one from the minister of the parish, who knew me before I went to college. I could get one from Mr. Sclater too, whose church I attended while there.|

|Show me what you have,| said his lordship.

Donal took the papers from the pocket-book his mother had made him, and handed them to him. The earl read them with some attention, returning each to him without remark as he finished it, only saying with the last,

|Quite satisfactory.|

|But,| said Donal, |there is one thing I should be more at ease if I told your lordship: Mr. Carmichael, the minister of this parish, would tell you I was an atheist, or something very like it -- therefore an altogether unsafe person. But he knows nothing of me.|

|On what grounds then would he say so?| asked the earl -- showing not the least discomposure. |I thought you were a stranger to this place!|

Donal told him how they had met, what had passed between them, and how the minister had behaved in consequence. His lordship heard him gravely, was silent for a moment, and then said,

|Should Mr. Carmichael address me on the subject, which I do not think likely, he will find me already too much prejudiced in your favour. But I can imagine his mistaking your freedom of speech: you are scarcely prudent enough. Why say all you think?|

|I fear nothing, my lord.|

The earl was silent; his gray face seemed to grow grayer, but it might be that just then the sun went under a cloud, and he was suddenly folded in shadow. After a moment he spoke again.

|I am quite satisfied with you so far, Mr. Grant; and as I should not like to employ you in direct opposition to Mr. Carmichel -- not that I belong to his church -- we will arrange matters before he can hear of the affair. What salary do you want?|

Donal replied he would prefer leaving the salary to his lordship's judgment upon trial.

|I am not a wealthy man,| returned his lordship, |and would prefer an understanding.|

|Try me then for three months, my lord; give me my board and lodging, the use of your library, and at the end of the quarter a ten-pound-note: by that time you will be able to tell whether I suit you.|

The earl nodded agreement, and Donal rose at once. With a heart full of thankfulness and hope he walked back to his friends. He had before him pleasant work; plenty of time and book-help; an abode full of interest; and something for his labour!

|'Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee!'| said the cobbler, rejoicing against the minister; |'the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain.'|

In the afternoon Donal went into the town to get some trifles he wanted before going to the castle. As he turned to the door of a draper's shop, he saw at the counter the minister talking to him. He would rather have gone elsewhere but for unwillingness to turn his back on anything: he went in. Beside the minister stood a young lady, who, having completed her purchases, was listening to their conversation. The draper looked up as he entered. A glance passed between him and the minister. He came to Donal, and having heard what he wanted, left him, went back to the minister, and took no more notice of him. Donal found it awkward, and left the shop.

|High an' michty!| said the draper, annoyed at losing the customer to whose dispraise he had been listening.

|Far beyond dissent, John!| said the minister, pursuing a remark.

|Doobtless, sir, it is that!| answered the draper. |I'm thankfu' to say I never harboured a doobt mysel', but aye took what I was tauld, ohn argle-barglet. What hae we sic as yersel' set ower's for, gien it binna to haud's i' the straicht path o' what we're to believe an' no to believe? It's a fine thing no to be accoontable!|

The minister was an honest man so far as he knew himself and honesty, and did not relish this form of submission. But he did not ask himself where was the difference between accepting the word of man and accepting man's explanation of the word of God! He took a huge pinch from his black snuffbox and held his peace.

In the evening Donal would settle his account with mistress Comin: he found her demand so much less than he had expected, that he expostulated. She was firm, however, and assured him she had gained, not lost. As he was putting up his things,

|Lea' a buik or twa, sir,| she said, |'at whan ye luik in, the place may luik hame-like. We s' ca' the room yours. Come as aften as ye can. It does my Anerew's hert guid to hae a crack wi' ane 'at kens something o' what the Maister wad be at. Mony ane 'll ca' him Lord, but feow 'ill tak the trible to ken what he wad hae o' them. But there's my Anerew -- he'll sit yon'er at his wark, thinkin' by the hoor thegither ower something the Maister said 'at he canna win at the richts o'. 'Depen' upo' 't,' he says whiles, 'depen' upo' 't, lass, whaur onything he says disna luik richt to hiz, it maun be 'at we haena won at it!'|

As she ended, her husband came in, and took up what he fancied the thread of the dialogue.

|An' what are we to think o' the man,| he said, |at's content no to un'erstan' what he was at the trible to say? Wad he say things 'at he didna mean fowk to un'erstan' whan he said them?| |Weel, Anerew,| said his wife, |there's mony a thing he said 'at I can not un'erstan'; naither am I muckle the better for your explainin' o' the same; I maun jist lat it sit.|

Andrew laughed his quiet pleased laugh.

|Weel, lass,| he said, |the duin' o' ae thing 's better nor the un'erstan'in' o' twenty. Nor wull ye be lang ohn un'erstan't muckle 'at's dark to ye noo; for the maister likes nane but the duer o' the word, an' her he likes weel. Be blythe, lass; ye s' hae yer fill o' un'erstan'in' yet!|

|I'm fain to believe ye speyk the trowth, Anerew!|

|It 's great trowth,| said Donal.

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