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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER XXIII. A TRADITION OF THE CASTLE.

Donal Grant by George MacDonald

CHAPTER XXIII. A TRADITION OF THE CASTLE.

|WELL,| he said as he drew near, |I am glad to see you two getting on so well!|

|How do you know we are?| asked his sister, with something of the antagonistic tone which both in jest and earnest is too common between near relations.

|Because you have been talking incessantly ever since you met.|

|We have been only contradicting each other.|

|I could tell that too by the sound of your voices; but I took it for a good sign.|

|I fear you heard mine almost only!| said Donal. |I talk too much, and I fear I have gathered the fault in a way that makes it difficult to cure.|

|How was it?| asked Mr. Graeme.

|By having nobody to talk to. I learned it on the hill-side with the sheep, and in the meadows with the cattle. At college I thought I was nearly cured of it; but now, in my comparative solitude at the castle, it seems to have returned.|

|Come here,| said Mr. Graeme, |when you find it getting too much for you: my sister is quite equal to the task of re-curing you.|

|She has not begun to use her power yet!| remarked Donal, as Miss Graeme, in hoydenish yet not ungraceful fashion, made an attempt to box the ear of her slanderous brother -- a proceeding he had anticipated, and so was able to frustrate.

|When she knows you better,| he said, |you will find my sister Kate more than your match.|

|If I were a talker,| she answered, |Mr. Grant would be too much for me: he quite bewilders me! What do you think! he has been actually trying to persuade me -- |

|I beg your pardon, Miss Graeme; I have been trying to persuade you of nothing.|

|What! not to believe in ghosts and necromancy and witchcraft and the evil eye and ghouls and vampyres, and I don't know what all out of nursery stories and old annuals?|

|I give you my word, Mr. Graeme,| returned Donal, laughing, |I have not been persuading your sister of any of these things! I am certain she could be persuaded of nothing of which she did not first see the common sense. What I did dwell upon, without a doubt she would accept it, was the evident fact that writing and printing have done more to bring us into personal relations with the great dead, than necromancy, granting the magician the power he claimed, could ever do. For do we not come into contact with the being of a man when we hear him pour forth his thoughts of the things he likes best to think about, into the ear of the universe? In such a position does the book of a great man place us! -- That was what I meant to convey to your sister.|

|And,| said Mr. Graeme, |she was not such a goose as to fail of understanding you, however she may have chosen to put on the garb of stupidity.|

|I am sure,| persisted Kate, |Mr. Grant talked so as to make me think he believed in necromancy and all that sort of thing!|

|That may be,| said Donal; |but I did not try to persuade you to believe.|

|Oh, if you hold me to the letter!| cried Miss Graeme, colouring a little. -- |It would be impossible to get on with such a man,| she thought, |for he not only preached when you had no pulpit to protect you from him, but stuck so to his text that there was no amusement to be got out of the business!|

She did not know that if she could have met him, breaking the ocean-tide of his thoughts with fitting opposition, his answers would have come short and sharp as the flashes of waves on rocks.

|If Mr. Grant believes in such things,| said Mr. Graeme, |he must find himself at home in the castle, every room of which way well be the haunt of some weary ghost!|

|I do not believe,| said Donal, |that any work of man's hands, however awful with crime done in it, can have nearly such an influence for belief in the marvellous, as the still presence of live Nature. I never saw an old castle before -- at least not to make any close acquaintance with it, but there is not an aspect of the grim old survival up there, interesting as every corner of it is, that moves me like the mere thought of a hill-side with the veil of the twilight coming down over it, making of it the last step of a stair for the descending foot of the Lord.|

|Surely, Mr. Grant, you do not expect such a personal advent!| said Miss Graeme.

|I should not like to say what I do or don't expect,| answered Donal -- and held his peace, for he saw he was but casting stumbling-blocks.

The silence grew awkward; and Mr. Graeme's good breeding called on him to say something; he supposed Donal felt himself snubbed by his sister.

|If you are fond of the marvellous, though, Mr. Grant,| he said, |there are some old stories about the castle would interest you. One of them was brought to my mind the other day in the town. It is strange how superstition seems to have its ebbs and flows! A story or legend will go to sleep, and after a time revive with fresh interest, no one knows why.|

|Probably,| said Donal, |it is when the tale comes to ears fitted for its reception. They are now in many counties trying to get together and store the remnants of such tales: possibly the wind of some such inquiry may have set old people recollecting, and young people inventing. That would account for a good deal -- would it not?|

|Yes, but not for all, I think. There has been no such inquiry made anywhere near us, so far as I am aware. I went to the Morven Arms last night to meet a tenant, and found the tradesmen were talking, over their toddy, of various events at the castle, and especially of one, the most frightful of all. It should have been forgotten by this time, for the ratio of forgetting, increases.|

|I should like much to hear it!| said Donal.

|Do tell him, Hector,| said Miss Graeme, |and I will watch his hair.|

|It is the hair of those who mock at such things you should watch,| returned Donal. |Their imagination is so rarely excited that, when it is, it affects their nerves more than the belief of others affects theirs.|

|Now I have you!| cried Miss Graeme. |There you confess yourself a believer!|

|I fear you have come to too general a conclusion. Because I believe the Bible, do I believe everything that comes from the pulpit? Some tales I should reject with a contempt that would satisfy even Miss Graeme; of others I should say -- 'These seem as if they might be true;' and of still others, 'These ought to be true, I think.' -- But do tell me the story.|

|It is not,| replied Mr. Graeme, |a very peculiar one -- certainly not peculiar to our castle, though unique in some of its details; a similar legend belongs to several houses in Scotland, and is to be found, I fancy, in other countries as well. There is one not far from here, around whose dark basements -- or hoary battlements -- who shall say which? -- floats a similar tale. It is of a hidden room, whose position or entrance nobody knows. Whether it belongs to our castle by right I cannot tell.|

|A species of report,| said Donal, |very likely to arise by a kind of cryptogamic generation! The common people, accustomed to the narrowest dwellings, gazing on the huge proportions of the place, and upon occasion admitted, and walking through a succession of rooms and passages, to them as intricate and confused as a rabbit-warren, must be very ready, I should think, to imagine the existence within such a pile, of places unknown even to the inhabitants of it themselves! -- But I beg your pardon: do tell us the story.|

|Mr. Grant,| said Kate, |you perplex me! I begin to doubt if you have any principles. One moment you take one side and the next the other!|

|No, no; I but love my own side too well to let any traitors into its ranks: I would have nothing to do with lies.|

|They are all lies together!|

|Then I want to hear this one,| said Donal.

|I daresay you have heard it before!| remarked Mr. Graeme, and began.

|It was in the earldom of a certain recklessly wicked wretch, who not only robbed his poor neighbours, and even killed them when they opposed him, but went so far as to behave as wickedly on the Sabbath as on any other day of the week. Late one Saturday night, a company were seated in the castle, playing cards, and drinking; and all the time Sunday was drawing nearer and nearer, and nobody heeding. At length one of them, seeing the hands of the clock at a quarter to twelve, made the remark that it was time to stop. He did not mention the sacred day, but all knew what he meant. The earl laughed, and said, if he was afraid of the kirk-session, he might go, and another would take his hand. But the man sat still, and said no more till the clock gave the warning. Then he spoke again, and said the day was almost out, and they ought not to go on playing into the Sabbath. And as he uttered the word, his mouth was pulled all on one side. But the earl struck his fist on the table, and swore a great oath that if any man rose he would run him through. 'What care I for the Sabbath!' he said. 'I gave you your chance to go,' he added, turning to the man who had spoken, who was dressed in black like a minister, 'and you would not take it: now you shall sit where you are.' He glared fiercely at him, and the man returned him an equally fiery stare. And now first they began to discover what, through the fumes of the whisky and the smoke of the pine-torches, they had not observed, namely, that none of them knew the man, or had ever seen him before. They looked at him, and could not turn their eyes from him, and a cold terror began to creep through their vitals. He kept his fierce scornful look fixed on the earl for a moment, and then spoke. 'And I gave you your chance,' he said, 'and you would not take it: now you shall sit still where you are, and no Sabbath shall you ever see.' The clock began to strike, and the man's mouth came straight again. But when the hammer had struck eleven times, it struck no more, and the clock stopped. 'This day twelvemonth,' said the man, 'you shall see me again; and so every year till your time is up. I hope you will enjoy your game!' The earl would have sprung to his feet, but could not stir, and the man was nowhere to be seen. He was gone, taking with him both door and windows of the room -- not as Samson carried off the gates of Gaza, however, for he left not the least sign of where they had been. From that day to this no one has been able to find the room. There the wicked earl and his companions still sit, playing with the same pack of cards, and waiting their doom. It has been said that, on that same day of the year -- only, unfortunately, testimony differs as to the day -- shouts of drunken laughter may be heard issuing from somewhere in the castle; but as to the direction whence they come, none can ever agree. That is the story.|

|A very good one!| said Donal. |I wonder what the ground of it is! It must have had its beginning!|

|Then you don't believe it?| said Miss Graeme.

|Not quite,| he replied. |But I have myself had a strange experience up there.|

|What! you have seen something?| cried Miss Graeme, her eyes growing bigger.

|No; I have seen nothing,| answered Donal, | -- only heard something. -- One night, the first I was there indeed, I heard the sound of a far-off musical instrument, faint and sweet.|

The brother and sister exchanged looks. Donal went on.

|I got up and felt my way down the winding stair -- I sleep at the top of Baliol's tower -- but at the bottom lost myself, and had to sit down and wait for the light. Then I heard it again, but seemed no nearer to it than before. I have never heard it since, and have never mentioned the thing. I presume, however, that speaking of it to you can do no harm. You at least will not raise any fresh rumours to injure the respectability of the castle! Do you think there is any instrument in it from which such a sound might have proceeded? Lady Arctura is a musician, I am told, but surely was not likely to be at her piano 'in the dead waste and middle of the night'!|

|It is impossible to say how far a sound may travel in the stillness of the night, when there are no other sound-waves to cross and break it.|

|That is all very well, Hector,| said his sister; |but you know Mr. Grant is neither the first nor the second that has heard that sound!|

|One thing is pretty clear,| said her brother, |it can have nothing to do with the revellers at their cards! The sound reported is very different from any attributed to them!|

|Are you sure,| suggested Donal, |that there was not a violin shut up with them? Even if none of them could play, there has been time enough to learn. The sound I heard might have been that of a ghostly violin. Though like that of a stringed instrument, it was different from anything I had ever heard before -- except perhaps certain equally inexplicable sounds occasionally heard among the hills.|

They went on talking about the thing for a while, pacing up and down the garden, the sun hot above their heads, the grass cool under their feet.

|It is enough,| said Miss Graeme, with a rather forced laugh, |to make one glad the castle does not go with the title.|

|Why so?| asked Donal.

|Because,| she answered, |were anything to happen to the boys up there, Hector would come in for the title.|

|I'm not of my sister's mind!| said Mr. Graeme, laughing more genuinely. |A title with nothing to keep it up is a simple misfortune. I certainly should not take out the patent. No wise man would lay claim to a title without the means to make it respected.|

|Have we come to that!| exclaimed Donal. |Must even the old titles of the country be buttressed into respectability with money? Away in quiet places, reading old history books, we peasants are accustomed to think differently. If some millionaire money-lender were to buy the old keep of Arundel castle, you would respect him just as much as the present earl!|

|I would not,| said Mr. Graeme. |I confess you have the better of me. -- But is there not a fallacy in your argument?| he added, thinkingly.

|I believe not. If the title is worth nothing without the money, the money must be more than the title! -- If I were Lazarus,| Donal went on, |and the inheritor of a title, I would use it, if only for a lesson to Dives up stairs. I scorn to think that honour should wait on the heels of wealth. You may think it is because I am and always shall be a poor man; but if I know myself it is not therefore. At the same time a title is but a trifle; and if you had given any other reason for not using it than homage to Mammon, I should have said nothing.|

|For my part,| said Miss Graeme, |I have no quarrel with riches except that they do not come my way. I should know how to use and not abuse them!|

Donal made no other reply than to turn a look of divinely stupid surprise and pity upon the young woman. It was of no use to say anything! Were argument absolutely triumphant, Mammon would sit just where he was before! He had marked the great indifference of the Lord to the convincing of the understanding: when men knew the thing itself, then and not before would they understand its relations and reasons!

If truth belongs to the human soul, then the soul is able to see it and know it: if it do the truth, it takes therein the first possible, and almost the last necessary step towards understanding it.

Miss Graeme caught his look, and must have perceived its expression, for her face flushed a more than rosy red, and the conversation grew crumbly.

It was a half-holiday, and he stayed to tea, and after it went over the arm-buildings with Mr. Graeme, revealing such a practical knowledge of all that was going on, that his entertainer soon saw his opinion must be worth something whether his fancies were or not.

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