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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER XXXI. BEWILDERMENT.

Donal Grant by George MacDonald

CHAPTER XXXI. BEWILDERMENT.

HIS first thought was of a long and delightful journey he had made on horseback with the earl -- through scenes of entrancing interest and variety, -- with the present result of a strange weariness, almost misery. What had befallen him? Was the thing a fact or a fancy? If a fancy, how was he so weary? If a fact, how could it have been? Had he in any way been the earl's companion through such a long night as it seemed? Could they have visited all the places whose remembrance lingered in his brain? He was so confused, so bewildered, so haunted with a shadowy uneasiness almost like remorse, that he even dreaded the discovery of the cause of it all. Might a man so lose hold of himself as to be no more certain he had ever possessed or could ever possess himself again?

He bethought himself at last that he might perhaps have taken more wine than his head could stand. Yet he remembered leaving his glass unemptied to follow the earl; and it was some time after that before the change came! Could it have been drunkenness? Had it been slowly coming without his knowing it? He could hardly believe it? But whatever it was, it had left him unhappy, almost ashamed. What would the earl think of him? He must have concluded him unfit any longer to keep charge of his son! For his own part he did not feel he was to blame, but rather that an accident had befallen him. Whence then this sense of something akin to shame? Why should he be ashamed of anything coming upon him from without? Of that shame he had to be ashamed, as of a lack of faith in God! Would God leave his creature who trusted in him at the mercy of a chance -- of a glass of wine taken in ignorance? There was a thing to be ashamed of, and with good cause!

He got up, found to his dismay that it was almost ten o'clock -- his hour for rising in winter being six -- dressed in haste, and went down, wondering that Davie had not come to see after him.

In the schoolroom he found him waiting for him. The boy sprang up, and darted to meet him.

|I hope you are better, Mr. Grant!| he said. |I am so glad you are able to be down!|

|I am quite well,| answered Donal. |I can't think what made me sleep so long? Why didn't you come and wake me, Davie, my boy?|

|Because Simmons told me you were ill, and I must not disturb you if you were ever so late in coming down.|

|I hardly deserve any breakfast!| said Donal, turning to the table; |but if you will stand by me, and read while I take my coffee, we shall save a little time so.|

|Yes, sir. -- But your coffee must be quite cold! I will ring.|

|No, no; I must not waste any more time. A man who cannot drink cold coffee ought to come down while it is hot.|

|Forgue won't drink cold coffee!| said Davie: |I don't see why you should!|

|Because I prefer to do with my coffee as I please; I will not have hot coffee for my master. I won't have it anything to me what humour the coffee may be in. I will be Donal Grant, whether the coffee be cold or hot. A bit of practical philosophy for you, Davie!|

|I think I understand you, sir: you would not have a man make a fuss about a trifle.|

|Not about a real trifle. The co-relative of a trifle, Davie, is a smile. But I would take heed whether the thing that is called a trifle be really a trifle. Besides, there may be a point in a trifle that is the egg of an ought. It is a trifle whether this or that is nice; it is a point that I should not care. With us highlanders it is a point of breeding not to mind what sort of dinner we have, but to eat as heartily of bread and cheese as of roast beef. At least so my father and mother used to teach me, though I fear that refinement of good manners is going out of fashion even with highlanders.|

|It is good manners!| rejoined Davie with decision, | -- and more than good manners! I should count it grand not to care what kind of dinner I had. But I am afraid it is more than I shall ever come to!|

|You will never come to it by trying because you think it grand. Only mind, I did not say we were not to enjoy our roast beef more than our bread and cheese; that would be not to discriminate, where there is a difference. If bread and cheese were just as good to us as roast beef, there would be no victory in our contentment.|

|I see!| said Davie. -- |Wouldn't it be well,| he asked, after a moment's pause, |to put one's self in training, Mr. Grant, to do without things -- or at least to be able to do without them?|

|It is much better to do the lessons set you by one who knows how to teach, than to pick lessons for yourself out of your books. Davie, I have not that confidence in myself to think I should be a good teacher of myself.|

|But you are a good teacher of me, sir!|

|I try -- but then I'm set to teach you, and I am not set to teach myself: I am only set to make myself do what I am taught. When you are my teacher, Davie, I try -- don't I -- to do everything you tell me?|

|Yes, indeed, sir!|

|But I am not set to obey myself!|

|No, nor anyone else, sir! You do not need to obey anyone, or have anyone teach you, sir!|

|Oh, don't I, Davie! On the contrary, I could not get on for one solitary moment without somebody to teach me. Look you here, Davie: I have so many lessons given me, that I have no time or need to add to them any of my own. If you were to ask the cook to let you have a cold dinner, you would perhaps eat it with pride, and take credit for what your hunger yet made quite agreeable to you. But the boy who does not grumble when he is told not to go out because it is raining and he has a cold, will not perhaps grumble either should he happen to find his dinner not at all nice.|

Davie hung his head. It had been a very small grumble, but there are no sins for which there is less reason or less excuse than small ones: in no sense are they worth committing. And we grown people commit many more such than little children, and have our reward in childishness instead of childlikeness.

|It is so easy,| continued Donal, |to do the thing we ordain ourselves, for in holding to it we make ourselves out fine fellows! -- and that is such a mean kind of thing! Then when another who has the right, lays a thing upon us, we grumble -- though it be the truest and kindest thing, and the most reasonable and needful for us -- even for our dignity -- for our being worth anything! Depend upon it, Davie, to do what we are told is a far grander thing than to lay the severest rules upon ourselves -- ay, and to stick to them, too!|

|But might there not be something good for us to do that we were not told of?|

|Whoever does the thing he is told to do -- the thing, that is, that has a plain ought in it, will become satisfied that there is one who will not forget to tell him what must be done as soon as he is fit to do it.|

The conversation lasted only while Donal ate his breakfast, with the little fellow standing beside him; it was soon over, but not soon to be forgotten. For the readiness of the boy to do what his master told him, was beautiful -- and a great help and comfort, sometimes a rousing rebuke to his master, whose thoughts would yet occasionally tumble into one of the pitfalls of sorrow.

|What!| he would say to himself, |am I so believed in by this child, that he goes at once to do my words, and shall I for a moment doubt the heart of the Father, or his power or will to set right whatever may have seemed to go wrong with his child! -- Go on, Davie! You are a good boy; I will be a better man!|

But naturally, as soon as lessons were over, he fell again to thinking what could have befallen him the night before. At what point did the aberration begin? The earl must have taken notice of it, for surely Simmons had not given Davie those injunctions of himself -- except indeed he had exposed his condition even to him! If the earl had spoken to Simmons, kindness seemed intended him; but it might have been merely care over the boy! Anyhow, what was to be done?

He did not ponder the matter long. With that directness which was one of the most marked features of his nature, he resolved at once to request an interview with the earl, and make his apologies. He sought Simmons, therefore, and found him in the pantry rubbing up the forks and spoons.

|Ah, Mr. Grant,| he said, before Donal could speak, |I was just coming to you with a message from his lordship! He wants to see you.|

|And I came to you,| replied Donal, |to say I wanted to see his lordship!|

|That's well fitted, then, sir!| returned Simmons. |I will go and see when. His lordship is not up, nor likely to be for some hours yet; he is in one of his low fits this morning. He told me you were not quite yourself last night.|

As he spoke his red nose seemed to examine Donal's face with a kindly, but not altogether sympathetic scrutiny.

|The fact is, Simmons,| answered Donal, |not being used to wine, I fear I drank more of his lordship's than was good for me.|

|His lordship's wine,| murmured Simmons, and there checked himself. | -- How much did you drink, sir -- if I may make so bold?|

|I had one glass during dinner, and more than one, but not nearly two, after.|

|Pooh! pooh, sir! That could never hurt a strong man like you! You ought to know better than that! Look at me!|

But he did not go on with his illustration.

|Tut!| he resumed, |that make you sleep till ten o'clock! -- If you will kindly wait in the hall, or in the schoolroom, I will bring you his lordship's orders.|

So saying while he washed his hands and took off his white apron, Simmons departed on his errand to his master. Donal went to the foot of the grand staircase, and there waited.

As he stood he heard a light step above him, and involuntarily glancing up, saw the light shape of lady Arctura come round the curve of the spiral stair, descending rather slowly and very softly, as if her feet were thinking. She checked herself for an infinitesimal moment, then moved on again. Donal stood with bended head as she passed. If she acknowledged his obeisance it was with the slightest return, but she lifted her eyes to his face with a look that seemed to have in it a strange wistful trouble -- not very marked, yet notable. She passed on and vanished, leaving that look a lingering presence in Donal's thought. What was it? Was it anything? What could it mean? Had he really seen it? Was it there, or had he only imagined it?

Simmons kept him waiting a good while. He had found his lordship getting up, and had had to stay to help him dress. At length he came, excusing himself that his lordship's temper at such times -- that was, in his dumpy fits -- was not of the evenest, and required a gentle hand. But his lordship would see him -- and could Mr. Grant find the way himself, for his old bones ached with running up and down those endless stone steps? Donal answered he knew the way, and sprang up the stair.

But his mind was more occupied with the coming interview than with the way to it, which caused him to take a wrong turn after leaving the stair: he had a good gift in space-relations, but instinct was here not so keen as on a hill-side. The consequence was that he found himself in the picture-gallery.

A strange feeling of pain, as at the presence of a condition he did not wish to encourage, awoke in him at the discovery. He walked along, however, thus taking, he thought, the readiest way to his lordship's apartment: either he would find him in his bedroom, or could go through that to his sitting-room! He glanced at the pictures he passed, and seemed, strange to say, though, so far as he knew, he had never been in the place except in the dark, to recognize some of them as belonging to the stuff of the dream in which he had been wandering through the night -- only that was a glowing and gorgeous dream, whereas the pictures were even commonplace! Here was something to be meditated upon -- but for the present postponed! His lordship was expecting him!

Arrived, as he thought, at the door of the earl's bedroom, he knocked, and receiving no answer, opened it, and found himself in a narrow passage. Nearly opposite was another door, partly open, and hearing a movement within, he ventured to knock there. A voice he knew at once to be lady Arctura's, invited him to enter. It was an old, lovely, gloomy little room, in which sat the lady writing. It had but one low lattice-window, to the west, but a fire blazed cheerfully in the old-fashioned grate. She looked up, nor showed more surprise than if he had been a servant she had rung for.

|I beg your pardon, my lady,| he said: |my lord wished to see me, but I have lost my way.|

|I will show it you,| she answered, and rising came to him.

She led him along the winding narrow passage, pointed out to him the door of his lordship's sitting-room, and turned away -- again, Donal could not help thinking, with a look as of some anxiety about him.

He knocked, and the voice of the earl bade him enter.

His lordship was in his dressing-gown, on a couch of faded satin of a gold colour, against which his pale yellow face looked cadaverous.

|Good morning, Mr. Grant,| he said. |I am glad to see you better!|

|I thank you, my lord,| returned Donal. |I have to make an apology. I cannot understand how it was, except, perhaps, that, being so little accustomed to strong drink, -- |

|There is not the smallest occasion to say a word,| interrupted his lordship. |You did not once forget yourself, or cease to behave like a gentleman!|

|Your lordship is very kind. Still I cannot help being sorry. I shall take good care in the future.|

|It might be as well,| conceded the earl, |to set yourself a limit -- necessarily in your case a narrow one. -- Some constitutions are so immediately responsive!| he added in a murmur. |The least exhibition of -- ! -- But a man like you, Mr. Grant,| he went on aloud, |will always know to take care of himself!|

|Sometimes, apparently, when it is too late!| rejoined Donal. |But I must not annoy your lordship with any further expression of my regret!|

|Will you dine with me to-night?| said the earl. |I am lonely now. Sometimes, for months together, I feel no need of a companion: my books and pictures content me. All at once a longing for society will seize me, and that longing my health will not permit me to indulge. I am not by nature unsociable -- much the contrary. You may wonder I do not admit my own family more freely; but my wretched health makes me shrink from loud voices and abrupt motions.|

|But lady Arctura!| thought Donal. |Your lordship will find me a poor substitute, I fear,| he said, |for the society you would like. But I am at your lordship's service.|

He could not help turning with a moment's longing and regret to his tower-nest and the company of his books and thoughts; but he did not feel that he had a choice.

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