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Donal Grant by George MacDonald


THE twilight had fallen while he wrote, and the wind had risen. It was now blowing a gale. When he could no longer see, he rose to light his lamp, and looked out of the window. All was dusk around him. Above and below was nothing to be distinguished from the mass; nothing and something seemed in it to share an equal uncertainty. He heard the wind, but could not see the clouds that swept before it, for all was cloud overhead, and no change of light or feature showed the shifting of the measureless bulk. Gray stormy space was the whole idea of the creation. He was gazing into a void -- was it not rather a condition of things inappreciable by his senses? A strange feeling came over him as of looking from a window in the wall of the visible into the region unknown, to man shapeless quite, therefore terrible, wherein wander the things all that have not yet found or form or sensible embodiment, so as to manifest themselves to eyes or ears or hands of mortals. As he gazed, the huge shapeless hulks of the ships of chaos, dimly awful suggestions of animals uncreate, yet vaguer motions of what was not, came heaving up, to vanish, even from the fancy, as they approached his window. Earth lay far below, invisible; only through the night came the moaning of the sea, as the wind drove it, in still enlarging waves, upon the flat shore, a level of doubtful grass and sand, three miles away. It seemed to his heart as if the moaning were the voice of the darkness, lamenting, like a repentant Satan or Judas, that it was not the light, could not hold the light, might not become as the light, but must that moment cease when the light began to enter it. Darkness and moaning was all that the earth contained! Would the souls of the mariners shipwrecked this night go forth into the ceaseless turmoil? or would they, leaving behind them the sense for storms, as for all things soft and sweet as well, enter only a vast silence, where was nothing to be aware of but each solitary self? Thoughts and theories many passed through Donal's mind as he sought to land the conceivable from the wandering bosom of the limitless; and he was just arriving at the conclusion, that, as all things seen must be after the fashion of the unseen whence they come, as the very genius of embodiment is likeness, therefore the soul of man must of course have natural relations with matter; but, on the other hand, as the spirit must be the home and origin of all this moulding, assimilating, modelling energy, and the spirit only that is in harmonious oneness with its origin can fully exercise the deputed creative power, it can be only in proportion to the eternal life in them, that spirits are able to draw to themselves matter and clothe themselves in it, so entering into full relation with the world of storms and sunsets; -- he was, I say, just arriving at this hazarded conclusion, when he started out of his reverie, and was suddenly all ear to listen. -- Again! -- Yes! it was the same sound that had sent him that first night wandering through the house in fruitless quest! It came in two or three fitful chords that melted into each other like the colours in the lining of a shell, then ceased. He went to the door, opened it, and listened. A cold wind came rushing up the stair. He heard nothing. He stepped out on the stair, shut his door, and listened. It came again -- a strange unearthly musical cry! If ever disembodied sound went wandering in the wind, just such a sound must it be! Knowing little of music save in the forms of tone and vowel-change and rhythm and rime, he felt as if he could have listened for ever to the wild wandering sweetness of its lamentation. Almost immediately it ceased -- then once more came again, apparently from far off, dying away on the distant tops of the billowy air, out of whose wandering bosom it had first issued. It was as the wailing of a summer-wind caught and swept along in a tempest from the frozen north.

The moment he ceased to expect it any more, he began to think whether it must not have come from the house. He stole down the stair -- to do what, he did not know. He could not go following an airy nothing all over the castle: of a great part of it he as yet knew nothing! His constructive mind had yearned after a complete idea of the building, for it was almost a passion with him to fit the outsides and insides of things together; but there were suites of rooms into which, except the earl and lady Arctura were to leave home, he could not hope to enter. It was little more than mechanically therefore that he went vaguely after the sound; and ere he was half-way down the stair, he recognized the hopelessness of the pursuit. He went on, however, to the schoolroom, where tea was waiting him.

He had returned to his room, and was sitting again at work, now reading and meditating, when, in one of the lulls of the storm, he became aware of another sound -- one most unusual to his ears, for he never required any attendance in his room -- that of steps coming up the stair -- heavy steps, not as of one on some ordinary errand. He waited listening. The steps came nearer and nearer, and stopped at his door. A hand fumbled about upon it, found the latch, lifted it, and entered. To Donal's wonder -- and dismay as well, it was the earl. His dismay arose from his appearance: he was deadly pale, and his eyes more like those of a corpse than a man among his living fellows. Donal started to his feet.

The apparition turned its head towards him; but in its look was no atom of recognition, no acknowledgment or even perception of his presence; the sound of his rising had had merely a half-mechanical influence upon its brain. It turned away immediately, and went on to the window. There it stood, much as Donal had stood a little while before -- looking out, but with the attitude of one listening rather than one trying to see. There was indeed nothing but the blackness to be seen -- and nothing to be heard but the roaring of the wind, with the roaring of the great billows rolled along in it. As it stood, the time to Donal seemed long: it was but about five minutes. Was the man out of his mind, or only a sleep-walker? How could he be asleep so early in the night?

As Donal stood doubting and wondering, once more came the musical cry out of the darkness -- and immediately from the earl a response -- a soft, low murmur, by degrees becoming audible, in the tone of one meditating aloud, but in a restrained ecstacy. From his words he seemed still to be hearkening the sounds aerial, though to Donal at least they came no more.

|Yet once again,| he murmured, |once again ere I forsake the flesh, are my ears blest with that voice! It is the song of the eternal woman! For me she sings! -- Sing on, siren; my soul is a listening universe, and therein nought but thy voice!|

He paused, and began afresh: --

|It is the wind in the tree of life! Its leaves rustle in words of love. Under its shadow I shall lie, with her I loved -- and killed! Ere that day come, she will have forgiven and forgotten, and all will be well!

|Hark the notes! Clear as a flute! Full and stringent as a violin! They are colours! They are flowers! They are alive! I can see them as they grow, as they blow! Those are primroses! Those are pimpernels! Those high, intense, burning tones -- so soft, yet so certain -- what are they? Jasmine? -- No, that flower is not a note! It is a chord! -- and what a chord! I mean, what a flower! I never saw that flower before -- never on this earth! It must be a flower of the paradise whence comes the music! It is! It is! Do I not remember the night when I sailed in the great ship over the ocean of the stars, and scented the airs of heaven, and saw the pearly gates gleaming across myriads of wavering miles! -- saw, plain as I see them now, the flowers on the fields within! Ah, me! the dragon that guards the golden apples! See his crest -- his crest and his emerald eyes! He comes floating up through the murky lake! It is Geryon! -- come to bear me to the gyre below!|

He turned, and with a somewhat quickened step left the room, hastily shutting the door behind him, as if to keep back the creature of his vision.

Strong-hearted and strong-brained, Donal had yet stood absorbed as if he too were out of the body, and knew nothing more of this earth. There is something more terrible in a presence that is not a presence than in a vision of the bodiless; that is, a present ghost is not so terrible as an absent one, a present but deserted body. He stood a moment helpless, then pulled himself together and tried to think. What should he do? What could he do? What was required of him? Was anything required of him? Had he any right to do anything? Could anything be done that would not both be and cause a wrong? His first impulse was to follow: a man in such a condition was surely not to be left to go whither he would among the heights and depths of the castle, where he might break his neck any moment! Interference no doubt was dangerous, but he would follow him at least a little way! He heard the steps going down the stair, and made haste after them. But ere they could have reached the bottom, the sound of them ceased; and Donal knew the earl must have left the stair at a point from which he could not follow him.

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