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Donal Grant by George MacDonald


THE winter came at last in good earnest -- first black frost, then white snow, then sleet and wind and rain; then snow again, which fell steady and calm, and lay thick. After that came hard frost, and brought plenty of skating, and to Davie the delight of teaching his master. Donal had many falls, but was soon, partly in virtue of those same falls, a very decent skater. Davie claimed all the merit of his successful training; and when his master did anything particularly well, would remark with pride, that he had taught him. But the good thing in it for Davie was, that he noted the immediate faith with which Donal did or tried to do what he told him: this reacted in opening his mind to the beauty and dignity of obedience, and went a long way towards revealing the low moral condition of the man who seeks freedom through refusal to act at the will of another. He who does so will come by degrees to have no will of his own, and act only from impulse -- which may be the will of a devil. So Donal and Davie grew together into one heart of friendship. Donal never longed for his hours with Davie to pass, and Davie was never so happy as when with Donal. The one was gently leading the other into the paths of liberty. Nothing but the teaching of him who made the human soul can make that soul free, but it is in great measure through those who have already learned that he teaches; and Davie was an apt pupil, promising to need less of the discipline of failure and pain that he was strong to believe, and ready to obey.

But Donal was not all the day with Davie, and latterly had begun to feel a little anxious about the time the boy spent away from him -- partly with his brother, partly with the people about the stable, and partly with his father, who evidently found the presence of his younger son less irksome to him than that of any other person, and saw more of him than of Forgue: the amount of loneliness the earl could endure was amazing. But after what he had seen and heard, Donal was most anxious concerning his time with his father, only he felt it a delicate thing to ask him about it. At length, however, Davie himself opened up the matter.

|Mr. Grant,| he said one day, |I wish you could hear the grand fairy-stories my papa tells!|

|I wish I might!| answered Donal.

|I will ask him to let you come and hear. I have told him you can make fairy-tales too; only he has quite another way of doing it; -- and I must confess,| added Davie a little pompously, |I do not follow him so easily as you. -- Besides,| he added, |I never can find anything in what you call the cupboard behind the curtain of the story. I wonder sometimes if his stories have any cupboard! -- I will ask him to-day to let you come.|

|I think that would hardly do,| said Donal. |Your father likes to tell his boy fairy-tales, but he might not care to tell them to a man. You must remember, too, that though I have been in the house what you think a long time, your father has seen very little of me, and might feel me in the way: invalids do not generally enjoy the company of strangers. You had better not ask him.|

|But I have often told him how good you are, Mr. Grant, and how you can't bear anything that is not right, and I am sure he must like you -- I don't mean so well as I do, because you haven't to teach him anything, and nobody can love anybody so well as the one he teaches to be good.|

|Still I think you had better leave it alone lest he should not like your asking him. I should be sorry to have you disappointed.|

|I do not mind that so much as I used. If you do not tell me I am not to do it, I think I will venture.|

Donal said no more. He did not feel at liberty, from his own feeling merely, to check the boy. The thing was not wrong, and something might be intended to come out of it! He shrank from the least ruling of events, believing man's only call to action is duty. So he left Davie to do as he pleased.

|Does your father often tell you a fairy-tale?| he asked.

|Not every day, sir.|

|What time does he tell them?|

|Generally when I go to him after tea.|

|Do you go any time you like?|

|Yes; but he does not always let me stay. Sometimes he talks about mamma, I think; but only coming into the fairy-tale. -- He has told me one in the middle of the day! I think he would if I woke him up in the night! But that would not do, for he has terrible headaches. Perhaps that is what sometimes makes his stories so terrible I have to beg him to stop!|

|And does he stop?|

|Well -- no -- I don't think he ever does. -- When a story is once begun, I suppose it ought to be finished!|

So the matter rested for the time. But about a week after, Donal received one morning through the butler an invitation to dine with the earl, and concluded it was due to Davie, whom he therefore expected to find with his father. He put on his best clothes, and followed Simmons up the grand staircase. The great rooms of the castle were on the first floor, but he passed the entrance to them, following his guide up and up to the second floor, where the earl had his own apartment. Here he was shown into a small room, richly furnished after a sombrely ornate fashion, the drapery and coverings much faded, worn even to shabbiness. It had been for a century or so the private sitting-room of the lady of the castle, but was now used by the earl, perhaps in memory of his wife. Here he received his sons, and now Donal, but never any whom business or politeness compelled him to see.

There was no one in the room when Donal entered, but after about ten minutes a door opened at the further end, and lord Morven appearing from his bedroom, shook hands with him with some faint show of kindness. Almost the same moment the butler entered from a third door, and said dinner waited. The earl walked on, and Donal followed. This room also was a small one. The meal was laid on a little round table. There were but two covers, and Simmons alone was in waiting.

While they ate and drank, which his lordship did sparingly, not a word was spoken. Donal would have found it embarrassing had he not been prepared for the peculiar. His lordship took no notice of his guest, leaving him to the care of the butler. He looked very white and worn -- Donal thought a good deal worse than when he saw him first. His cheeks were more sunken, his hair more gray, and his eyes more weary -- with a consuming fire in them that had no longer much fuel and was burning remnants. He stooped over his plate as if to hide the operation of eating, and drank his wine with a trembling hand. Every movement indicated indifference to both his food and his drink.

At length the more solid part of the meal was removed, and they were left alone, fruit upon the table, and two wine-decanters. From one of them the earl helped himself, then passed it to Donal, saying,

|You are very good to my little Davie, Mr. Grant! He is full of your kindness to him. There is nobody like you!|

|A little goes a long way with Davie, my lord,| answered Donal.

|Then much must go a longer way!| said the earl.

There was nothing remarkable in the words, yet he spoke them with the difficulty a man accustomed to speak, and to weigh his words, might find in clothing a new thought to his satisfaction. The effort seemed to have tried him, and he took a sip of wine. This, however, he did after every briefest sentence he uttered: a sip only he took, nothing like a mouthful.

Donal told him that Davie, of all the boys he had known, was far the quickest, and that just because he was morally the most teachable.

|You greatly gratify me, Mr. Grant,| said the earl. |I have long wished such a man as you for Davie. If only I had known you when Forgue was preparing for college!|

|I must have been at that time only at college myself, my lord!|

|True! true!|

|But for Davie, it is a privilege to teach him!|

|If only it might last a while!| returned the earl. |But of course you have the church in your eye!|

|My lord, I have not.|

|What!| cried his lordship almost eagerly; |you intend giving your life to teaching?|

|My lord,| returned Donal, |I never trouble myself about my life. Why should we burden the mule of the present with the camel-load of the future. I take what comes -- what is sent me, that is.|

|You are right, Mr. Grant! If I were in your position, I should think just as you do. But, alas, I have never had any choice!|

|Perhaps your lordship has not chosen to choose!| Donal was on the point of saying, but bethought himself in time not to hazard the remark.

|If I were a rich man, Mr. Grant,| the earl continued, |I would secure your services for a time indefinite; but, as every one knows, not an acre of the property belongs to me, or goes with the title. Davie, dear boy, will have nothing but a thousand or two. The marriage I have in view for lord Forgue will arrange a future for him.|

|I hope there will be some love in the marriage!| said Donal uneasily, with a vague thought of Eppy.

|I had no intention,| returned his lordship with cold politeness, |of troubling you concerning lord Forgue!|

|I beg your pardon, my lord,| said Donal.

| -- Davie, poor boy -- he is my anxiety!| resumed the earl, in his former condescendingly friendly, half sleepy tone. |What to do with him, I have not yet succeeded in determining. If the church of Scotland were episcopal now, we might put him into that: he would be an honour to it! But as it has no dignities to confer, it is not the place for one of his birth and social position. A few shabby hundreds a year, and the associations he would necessarily be thrown into! -- However honourable the profession in itself!| he added, with a bow to Donal, apparently unable to get it out of his head that he had an embryo-clergyman before him.

|Davie is not quite a man yet,| said Donal; |and by the time he begins to think of a profession, he will, I trust, be fit to make a choice: the boy has a great deal of common sense. If your lordship will pardon me, I cannot help thinking there is no need to trouble about him.|

|It is very well for one in your position to think in that way, Mr. Grant! Men like you are free to choose; you may make your bread as you please. But men in our position are greatly limited in their choice; the paths open to them are few. Tradition oppresses us. We are slaves to the dead and buried. I could well wish I had been born in your humbler but in truth less contracted sphere. Certain rôles are not open to you, to be sure; but your life in the open air, following your sheep, and dreaming all things beautiful and grand in the world beyond you, is entrancing. It is the life to make a poet!|

|Or a king!| thought Donal. |But the earl would have made a discontented shepherd!|

The man who is not content where he is, would never have been content somewhere else, though he might have complained less.

|Take another glass of wine, Mr. Grant,| said his lordship, filling his own from the other decanter. |Try this; I believe you will like it better.|

|In truth, my lord,| answered Donal, |I have drunk so little wine that I do not know one sort from another.|

|You know whisky better, I daresay! Would you like some now? Touch the bell behind you.|

|No, thank you, my lord; I know as little about whisky: my mother would never let us even taste it, and I have never tasted it.|

|A new taste is a gain to the being.|

|I suspect, however, a new appetite can only be a loss.|

As he said this, Donal, half mechanically, filled a glass from the decanter his host had pushed towards him.

|I should like you, though,| resumed his lordship, after a short pause, |to keep your eyes open to the fact that Davie must do something for himself. You would then be able to let me know by and by what you think him fit for!|

|I will with pleasure, my lord. Tastes may not be infallible guides to what is fit for us, but they may lead us to the knowledge of what we are fit for.|

|Extremely well said!| returned the earl.

I do not think he understood in the least what Donal meant.

|Shall I try how he takes to trigonometry? He might care to learn land-surveying! Gentlemen now, not unfrequently, take charge of the properties of their more favoured relatives. There is Mr. Graeme, your own factor, my lord -- a relative, I understand!|

|A distant one,| answered his lordship with marked coldness, | -- the degree of relationship hardly to be counted.|

|In the lowlands, my lord, you do not care to count kin as we do in the highlands! My heart warms to the word kinsman.|

|You have not found kinship so awkward as I, possibly!| said his lordship, with a watery smile. |The man in humble position may allow the claim of kin to any extent: he has nothing, therefore nothing can be taken from him! But the man who has would be the poorest of the clan if he gave to every needy relation.|

|I never knew the man so poor,| answered Donal, |that he had nothing to give. But the things of the poor are hardly to the purpose of the predatory relative.|

|'Predatory relative!' -- a good phrase!| said his lordship, with a sleepy laugh, though his eyes were wide open. His lips did not seem to care to move, yet he looked pleased. |To tell you the truth,| he began again, |at one period of my history I gave and gave till I was tired of giving! Ingratitude was the sole return. At one period I had large possessions -- larger than I like to think of now: if I had the tenth part of what I have given away, I should not be uneasy concerning Davie.|

|There is no fear of Davie, my lord, so long as he is brought up with the idea that he must work for his bread.|

His lordship made no answer, and his look reminded Donal of that he wore when he came to his chamber. A moment, and he rose and began to pace the room. An indescribable suggestion of an invisible yet luminous cloud hovered about his forehead and eyes -- which latter, if not fixed on very vacancy, seemed to have got somewhere near it. At the fourth or fifth turn he opened the door by which he had entered, continuing a remark he had begun to Donal -- of which, although he heard every word and seemed on the point of understanding something, he had not caught the sense when his lordship disappeared, still talking. Donal thought it therefore his part to follow him, and found himself in his lordship's bedroom. But out of this his lordship had already gone, through an opposite door, and Donal still following entered an old picture-gallery, of which he had heard Davie speak, but which the earl kept private for his exercise indoors. It was a long, narrow place, hardly more than a wide corridor, and appeared nowhere to afford distance enough for seeing a picture. But Donal could ill judge, for the sole light in the place came from the fires and candles in the rooms whose doors they had left open behind them, with just a faint glimmer from the vapour-buried moon, sufficing to show the outline of window after window, and revealing something of the great length of the gallery.

By the time Donal overtook the earl, he was some distance down, holding straight on into the long dusk, and still talking.

|This is my favourite promenade,| he said, as if brought to himself by the sound of Donal's overtaking steps. |After dinner always, Mr. Grant, wet weather or dry, still or stormy, I walk here. What do I care for the weather! It will be time when I am old to consult the barometer!|

Donal wondered a little: there seemed no great hardihood in the worst of weather to go pacing a picture-gallery, where the fiercest storm that ever blew could send in only little threads of air through the chinks of windows and doors!

|Yes,| his lordship went on, |I taught myself hardship in my boyhood, and I reap the fruits of it in my prime! -- Come up here: I will show you a prospect unequalled.|

He stopped in front of a large picture, and began to talk as if expatiating on the points of a landscape outspread before him. His remarks belonged to something magnificent; but whether they were applicable to the picture Donal could not tell; there was light enough only to give a faint gleam to its gilded frame.

|Reach beyond reach!| said his lordship; |endless! infinite! How would not poor Maldon, with his ever fresh ambition after the unattainable, have gloated on such a scene! In Nature alone you front success! She does what she means! She alone does what she means!|

|If,| said Donal, more for the sake of confirming the earl's impression that he had a listener, than from any idea that he would listen -- |if you mean the object of Nature is to present us with perfection, I cannot allow she does what she intends: you rarely see her produce anything she would herself call perfect. But if her object be to make us behold perfection with the inner eye, this object she certainly does gain, and that just by stopping short of -- |

He did not finish the sentence. A sudden change was upon him, absorbing him so that he did not even try to account for it: something seemed to give way in his head -- as if a bubble burst in his brain; and from that moment whatever the earl said, and whatever arose in his own mind, seemed to have outward existence as well. He heard and knew the voice of his host, but seemed also in some inexplicable way, which at the time occasioned him no surprise, to see the things which had their origin in the brain of the earl. Whether he went in very deed out with him into the night, he did not know -- he felt as if he had gone, and thought he had not -- but when he woke the next morning in his bed at the top of the tower, which he had no recollection of climbing, he was as weary as if he had been walking the night through.

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