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Donal Grant by George MacDonald


HE went as before, conducted by the butler, and formally announced. To his surprise, with the earl was lady Arctura. His lordship made him give her his arm, and followed.

This was to Donal a very different dinner from that of the evening before. Whether the presence of his niece made the earl rouse himself to be agreeable, or he had grown better since the morning and his spirits had risen, certainly he was not like the same man. He talked in a rather forced-playful way, but told two or three good stories; described with vivacity some of the adventures of his youth; spoke of several great men he had met; and in short was all that could be desired in a host. Donal took no wine during dinner, the earl as before took very little, and lady Arctura none. She listened respectfully to her uncle's talk, and was attentive when Donal spoke; he thought she looked even sympathetic two or three times; and once he caught the expression as of anxiety he had seen on her face that same day twice before. It was strange, too, he thought, that, not seeing her sometimes for a week together, he should thus meet her three times in one day. When the last of the dinner was removed and the wine placed on the table, Donal thought his lordship looked as if he expected his niece to go; but she kept her place. He asked her which wine she would have, but she declined any. He filled his glass, and pushed the decanter to Donal. He too filled his glass, and drank slowly.

The talk revived. But Donal could not help fancying that the eyes of the lady now and then sought his with a sort of question in them -- almost as if she feared something was going to happen to him. He attributed this to her having heard that he took too much wine the night before. The situation was unpleasant. He must, however, brave it out! When he refused a second glass, which the earl by no means pressed, he thought he saw her look relieved; but more than once thereafter he saw, or fancied he saw her glance at him with that expression of slight anxiety.

In its course the talk fell upon sheep, and Donal was relating some of his experiences with them and their dogs, greatly interested in the subject; when all at once, just as before, something seemed to burst in his head, and immediately, although he knew he was sitting at table with the earl and lady Arctura, he was uncertain whether he was not at the same time upon the side of a lonely hill, closed in a magic night of high summer, his woolly and hairy friends lying all about him, and a light glimmering faintly on the heather a little way off, which he knew for the flame that marks for a moment the footstep of an angel, when he touches ever so lightly the solid earth. He seemed to be reading the thoughts of his sheep around him, yet all the time went on talking, and knew he was talking, with the earl and the lady.

After a while, everything was changed. He was no longer either with his sheep or his company. He was alone, and walking swiftly through and beyond the park, in a fierce wind from the north-east, battling with it, and ruling it like a fiery horse. By and by came a hoarse, terrible music, which he knew for the thunderous beat of the waves on the low shore, yet imagined issuing from an indescribable instrument, gigantic and grotesque. He felt it first -- through his feet, as one feels without hearing the tones of an organ for which the building is too small to allow scope to their vibration: the waves made the ground beat against the soles of his feet as he walked; but soon he heard it like the infinitely prolonged roaring of a sky-built organ. It was drawing him to the sea, whether in the body or out of the body he knew not: he was but conscious of forms of existence: whether those forms had relation to things outside him, or whether they belonged only to the world within him, he was unaware. The roaring of the great water-organ grew louder and louder. He knew every step of the way to the shore -- across the fields and over fences and stiles. He turned this way and that, to avoid here a ditch, there a deep sandy patch. And still the music grew louder and louder -- and at length came in his face the driving spray: it was the flying touch of the wings on which the tones went hurrying past into the depths of awful distance! His feet were now wading through the bent-tufted sand, with the hard, bare, wave-beaten sand in front of him. Through the dark he could see the white fierceness of the hurrying waves as they rushed to the shore, then leaning, toppling, curling, self-undermined, hurled forth at once all the sound that was in them in a falling roar of defeat. Every wave was a complex chord, with winnowed tones feathering it round. He paced up and down the sand -- it seemed for ages. Why he paced there he did not know -- why always he turned and went back instead of going on.

Suddenly he thought he saw something dark in the hollow of a wave that swept to its fall. The moon came out as it broke, and the something was rolled in the surf up the shore. Donal stood watching it. Why should he move? What was it to him? The next wave would reclaim it for the ocean! It looked like the body of a man, but what did it matter! Many such were tossed in the hollows of that music!

But something came back to him out of the ancient years: in the ages gone by men did what they could! There was a word they used then: they said men ought to do this or that! This body might not be dead -- or dead, some one might like to have it! He rushed into the water, and caught it -- ere the next wave broke, though hours of cogitation, ratiocination, recollection, seemed to have intervened. The breaking wave drenched him from head to foot: he clung to his prize and dragged it out. A moment's bewilderment, and he came to himself lying on the sand, his arms round a great lump of net, lost from some fishing boat.

His illusions were gone. He was sitting in a cold wind, wet to the skin, on the border of a wild sea. A poor, shivering, altogether ordinary and uncomfortable mortal, he sat on the shore of the German Ocean, from which he had rescued a tangled mass of net and seaweed! He dragged it beyond the reach of the waves, and set out for home.

By the time he reached the castle he was quite warm. His door at the foot of the tower was open, he crept up, and was soon fast asleep.

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