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Image Map : Christian Books : CHAPTER XVII. LADY ARCTURA.

Donal Grant by George MacDonald


IT was now almost three weeks since Donal had become an inmate of the castle, and he had scarcely set his eyes on the lady of the house. Once he had seen her back, and more than once had caught a glimpse of her profile, but he had never really seen her face, and they had never spoken to each other.

One afternoon he was sauntering along under the overhanging boughs of an avenue of beeches, formerly the approach to a house in which the family had once lived, but which had now another entrance. He had in his hand a copy of the Apocrypha, which he had never seen till he found this in the library. In his usual fashion he had begun to read it through, and was now in the book called the Wisdom of Solomon, at the 17th chapter, narrating the discomfiture of certain magicians. Taken with the beauty of the passage, he sat down on an old stone-roller, and read aloud. Parts of the passage were these -- they will enrich my page: --

|For they, that promised to drive away terrors and troubles from a sick soul, were sick themselves of fear, worthy to be laughed at.

|...For wickedness, condemned by her own witness, is very timorous, and being pressed with conscience, always forecasteth grievous things.

|...But they sleeping the same sleep that night, which was indeed intolerable, and which came upon them out of the bottoms of inevitable hell,

|Were partly vexed with monstrous apparitions, and partly fainted, their heart failing them: for a sudden fear, and not looked for, came upon them.

|So then whosoever there fell down was straitly kept, shut up in a prison without iron bars.

|For whether he were husbandman, or shepherd, or a labourer in the field, he was overtaken, and endured that necessity, which could not be avoided: for they were all bound with one chain of darkness.

|Whether it were a whistling wind, or a melodious noise of birds among the spreading branches, or a pleasing fall of water running violently,

|Or a terrible sound of stones cast down, or a running that could not be seen of skipping beasts, or a roaring voice of most savage wild beasts, or a rebounding echo from the hollow mountains; these things made them to swoon for fear.

|For the whole world shined with clear light, and none were hindered in their labour:

|Over them only was spread an heavy night, an image of that darkness which should afterward receive them: but yet were they unto themselves more grievous than the darkness.|

He had read so much, and stopped to think a little; for through the incongruity of it, which he did not doubt arose from poverty of imagination in the translator, rendering him unable to see what the poet meant, ran yet an indubitable vein of awful truth, whether fully intended by the writer or not mattered little to such a reader as Donal -- when, lifting his eyes, he saw lady Arctura standing before him with a strange listening look. A spell seemed upon her; her face was white, her lips white and a little parted.

Attracted, as she was about to pass him, by the sound of what was none the less like the Bible from the solemn crooning way in which Donal read it to the congregation of his listening thoughts, yet was certainly not the Bible, she was presently fascinated by the vague terror of what she heard, and stood absorbed: without much originative power, she had an imagination prompt and delicate and strong in response.

Donal had but a glance of her; his eyes returned again at once to his book, and he sat silent and motionless, though not seeing a word. For one instant she stood still; then he heard the soft sound of her dress as, with noiseless foot, she stole back, and took another way.

I must give my reader a shadow of her. She was rather tall, slender, and fair. But her hair was dark, and so crinkly that, when merely parted, it did all the rest itself. Her forehead was rather low. Her eyes were softly dark, and her features very regular -- her nose perhaps hardly large enough, or her chin. Her mouth was rather thin-lipped, but would have been sweet except for a seemingly habitual expression of pain. A pair of dark brows overhung her sweet eyes, and gave a look of doubtful temper, yet restored something of the strength lacking a little in nose and chin. It was an interesting -- not a quite harmonious face, and in happiness might, Donal thought, be beautiful even. Her figure was eminently graceful -- as Donal saw when he raised his eyes at the sound of her retreat. He thought she needed not have run away as from something dangerous: why did she not pass him like any other servant of the house? But what seemed to him like contempt did not hurt him. He was too full of realities to be much affected by opinion however shown. Besides, he had had his sorrow and had learned his lesson. He was a poet -- but one of the few without any weak longing after listening ears. The poet whose poetry needs an audience, can be but little of a poet; neither can the poetry that is of no good to the man himself, be of much good to anybody else. There are the song-poets and the life-poets, or rather the God-poems. Sympathy is lovely and dear -- chiefly when it comes unsought; but the fame after which so many would-be, yea, so many real poets sigh, is poorest froth. Donal could sing his songs like the birds, content with the blue heaven or the sheep for an audience -- or any passing angel that cared to listen. On the hill-sides he would sing them aloud, but it was of the merest natural necessity. A look of estrangement on the face of a friend, a look of suffering on that of any animal, would at once and sorely affect him, but not a disparaging expression on the face of a comparative stranger, were she the loveliest woman he had ever seen. He was little troubled about the world, because little troubled about himself.

Lady Arctura and lord Forgue lived together like brother and sister, apparently without much in common, and still less of misunderstanding. There would have been more chance of their taking a fancy to each other if they had not been brought up together; they were now little together, and never alone together.

Very few visitors came to the castle, and then only to call. Lord Morven seldom saw any one, his excuse being his health.

But lady Arctura was on terms of intimacy with Sophia Carmichael, the minister's daughter -- to whom her father had communicated his dissatisfaction with the character of Donal, and poured out his indignation at his conduct. He ought to have left the parish at once! whereas he had instead secured for himself the best, the only situation in it, without giving him a chance of warning his lordship! The more injustice her father spoke against him, the more Miss Carmichael condemned him; for she was a good daughter, and looked up to her father as the wisest and best man in the parish. Very naturally therefore she repeated his words to lady Arctura. She in her turn conveyed them to her uncle. He would not, however, pay much attention to them. The thing was done, he said. He had himself seen and talked with Donal, and liked him! The young man had himself told him of the clergyman's disapprobation! He would request him to avoid all reference to religious subjects! Therewith he dismissed the matter, and forgot all about it. Anything requiring an effort of the will, an arrangement of ideas, or thought as to mode, his lordship would not encounter. Nor was anything to him of such moment that he must do it at once. Lady Arctura did not again refer to the matter: her uncle was not one to take liberties with -- least of all to press to action. But she continued painfully doubtful whether she was not neglecting her duty, trying to persuade herself that she was waiting only till she should have something definite to say of her own knowledge against him.

And now what was she to conclude from his reading the Apocrypha? The fact was not to be interpreted to his advantage: was he not reading what was not the Bible as if it were the Bible, and when he might have been reading the Bible itself? Besides, the Apocrypha came so near the Bible when it was not the Bible! it must be at least rather wicked! At the same time she could not drive from her mind the impressiveness both of the matter she had heard, and his manner of reading it: the strong sound of judgment and condemnation in it came home to her -- she could not have told how or why, except generally because of her sins. She was one of those -- not very few I think -- who from conjunction of a lovely conscience with an ill-instructed mind, are doomed for a season to much suffering. She was largely different from her friend: the religious opinions of the latter -- they were in reality rather metaphysical than religious, and bad either way -- though she clung to them with all the tenacity of a creature with claws, occasioned her not an atom of mental discomposure: perhaps that was in part why she clung to them! they were as she would have them! She did not trouble herself about what God required of her, beyond holding the doctrine the holding of which guaranteed, as she thought, her future welfare. Conscience toward God had very little to do with her opinions, and her heart still less. Her head on the contrary, perhaps rather her memory, was considerably occupied with the matter; nothing she held had ever been by her regarded on its own merits -- that is, on its individual claim to truth; if it had been handed down by her church, that was enough; to support it she would search out text after text, and press it into the service. Any meaning but that which the church of her fathers gave to a passage must be of the devil, and every man opposed to the truth who saw in that meaning anything but truth! It was indeed impossible Miss Carmichael should see any meaning but that, even if she had looked for it; she was nowise qualified for discovering truth, not being herself true. What she saw and loved in the doctrines of her church was not the truth, but the assertion; and whoever questioned, not to say the doctrine, but even the proving of it by any particular passage, was a dangerous person, and unsound. All the time her acceptance and defence of any doctrine made not the slightest difference to her life -- as indeed how should it?

Such was the only friend lady Arctura had. But the conscience and heart of the younger woman were alive to a degree that boded ill either for the doctrine that stinted their growth, or the nature unable to cast it off. Miss Carmichael was a woman about six-and-twenty -- and had been a woman, like too many Scotch girls, long before she was out of her teens -- a human flower cut and dried -- an unpleasant specimen, and by no means valuable from its scarcity. Self-sufficient, assured, with scarce shyness enough for modesty, handsome and hard, she was essentially a self-glorious Philistine; nor would she be anything better till something was sent to humble her, though what spiritual engine might be equal to the task was not for man to imagine. She was clever, but her cleverness made nobody happier; she had great confidence, but her confidence gave courage to no one, and took it from many; she had little fancy, and less imagination than any other I ever knew. The divine wonder was, that she had not yet driven the delicate, truth-loving Arctura mad. From her childhood she had had the ordering of all her opinions: whatever Sophy Carmichael said, lady Arctura never thought of questioning. A lie is indeed a thing in its nature unbelievable, but there is a false belief always ready to receive the false truth, and there is no end to the mischief the two can work. The awful punishment of untruth in the inward parts is that the man is given over to believe a lie.

Lady Arctura was in herself a gentle creature who shrank from either giving or receiving a rough touch; but she had an inherited pride, by herself unrecognized as such, which made her capable of hurting as well as being hurt. Next to the doctrines of the Scottish church, she respected her own family: it had in truth no other claim to respect than that its little good and much evil had been done before the eyes of a large part of many generations -- whence she was born to think herself distinguished, and to imagine a claim for the acknowledgment of distinction upon all except those of greatly higher rank than her own. This inborn arrogance was in some degree modified by respect for the writers of certain books -- not one of whom was of any regard in the eyes of the thinkers of the age. Of any writers of power, beyond those of the Bible, either in this country or another, she knew nothing. Yet she had a real instinct for what was good in literature; and of the writers to whom I have referred she not only liked the worthiest best, but liked best their best things. I need hardly say they were all religious writers; for the keen conscience and obedient heart of the girl had made her very early turn herself towards the quarter where the sun ought to rise, the quarter where all night long gleams the auroral hope; but unhappily she had not gone direct to the heavenly well in earthly ground -- the words of the Master himself. How could she? From very childhood her mind had been filled with traditionary utterances concerning the divine character and the divine plans -- the merest inventions of men far more desirous of understanding what they were not required to understand, than of doing what they were required to do -- whence their crude and false utterances concerning a God of their own fancy -- in whom it was a good man's duty, in the name of any possible God, to disbelieve; and just because she was true, authority had immense power over her. The very sweetness of their nature forbids such to doubt the fitness of others.

She had besides had a governess of the orthodox type, a large proportion of whose teaching was of the worst heresy, for it was lies against him who is light, and in whom is no darkness at all; her doctrines were so many smoked glasses held up between the mind of her pupil and the glory of the living God; nor had she once directed her gaze to the very likeness of God, the face of Jesus Christ. Had Arctura set herself to understand him the knowledge of whom is eternal life, she would have believed none of these false reports of him, but she had not yet met with any one to help her to cast aside the doctrines of men, and go face to face with the Son of Man, the visible God. First lie of all, she had been taught that she must believe so and so before God would let her come near him or listen to her. The old cobbler could have taught her differently; but she would have thought it improper to hold conversation with such a man, even if she had known him for the best man in Auchars. She was in sore and sad earnest to believe as she was told she must believe; therefore instead of beginning to do what Jesus Christ said, she tried hard to imagine herself one of the chosen, tried hard to believe herself the chief of sinners. There was no one to tell her that it is only the man who sees something of the glory of God, the height and depth and breadth and length of his love and unselfishness, not a child dabbling in stupid doctrines, that can feel like St. Paul. She tried to feel that she deserved to be burned in hell for ever and ever, and that it was boundlessly good of God -- who made her so that she could not help being a sinner -- to give her the least chance of escaping it. She tried to feel that, though she could not be saved without something which the God of perfect love could give her if he pleased, but might not please to give her, yet if she was not saved it would be all her own fault: and so ever the round of a great miserable treadmill of contradictions! For a moment she would be able to say this or that she thought she ought to say; the next the feeling would be gone, and she as miserable as before. Her friend made no attempt to imbue her with her own calm indifference, nor could she have succeeded had she attempted it. But though she had never been troubled herself, and that because she had never been in earnest, she did not find it the less easy to take upon her the rôle of a spiritual adviser, and gave no end of counsel for the attainment of assurance. She told her truly enough that all her trouble came of want of faith; but she showed her no one fit to believe in.

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