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Image Map : Christian Books : CHAPTER XXXIX. THE CASTLE-ROOF.

Donal Grant by George MacDonald


ONE stormy Friday night in the month of March, when a bitter east wind was blowing, Donal, seated at the plain deal-table he had got Mrs. Brookes to find him that he might use it regardless of ink, was drawing upon it a diagram, in quest of a simplification for Davie, when a sudden sense of cold made him cast a glance at his fire. He had been aware that it was sinking, but, as there was no fuel in the room, had forgotten it again: it was very low, and he must at once fetch both wood and coal! In certain directions and degrees of wind this was rather a ticklish task; but he had taken the precaution of putting up here and there a bit of rope. Closing the door behind him to keep in what warmth he might, and ascending the stairs a few feet higher, he stepped out on the bartizan, and so round the tower to the roof. There he stood for a moment to look about him.

It was a moonlit night, so far as the clouds, blown in huge and almost continuous masses over the heavens, would permit the light of the moon to emerge. The roaring of the sea came like a low rolling mist across the flats. The air gloomed and darkened and lightened again around him, as the folds of the cloud-blanket overhead were torn, or dropped trailing, or gathered again in the arms of the hurrying wind. As he stood, it seemed suddenly to change, and take a touch of south in its blowing. The same instant came to his ear a loud wail: it was the ghost-music! There was in it the cry of a discord, mingling with a wild rolling change of harmonies. He stood |like one forbid,| and listened with all his power. It came again, and again, and was more continuous than he had ever heard it before. Here was now a chance indeed of tracing it home! As a gaze-hound with his eyes, as a sleuth-hound with his nose, he stood ready to start hunting with his listing listening ear. The seeming approach and recession of the sounds might be occasioned by changes in their strength, not by any change of position!

|It must come from somewhere on the roof!| he said, and setting down the pail he had brought, he got on his hands and knees, first to escape the wind in his ears, and next to diminish its hold on his person. Over roof after roof he crept like a cat, stopping to listen every time a new gush of the sound came, then starting afresh in the search for its source. Upon a great gathering of roofs like these, erected at various times on various levels, and with all kinds of architectural accommodations of one part to another, sound would be variously deflected, and as difficult to trace as inside the house! Careless of cold or danger, he persisted, creeping up, creeping down, over flat leads, over sloping slates, over great roofing stones, along low parapets, and round ticklish corners -- following the sound ever, as a cat a flitting unconscious bird: when it ceased, he would keep slowly on in the direction last chosen. Sometimes, when the moon was more profoundly obscured, he would have to stop altogether, unable to get a peep of his way.

On one such occasion, when it was nearly pitch-dark, and the sound had for some time ceased, he was crouching upon a high-pitched roof of great slabs, his fingers clutched around the edges of one of them, and his mountaineering habits standing him in good stead, protected a little from the force of the blast by a huge stack of chimneys that rose to windward: while he clung thus waiting -- louder than he had yet heard it, almost in his very ear, arose the musical ghost-cry -- this time like that of a soul in torture. The moon came out, as at the cry, to see, but Donal could spy nothing to suggest its origin. As if disappointed, the moon instantly withdrew, the darkness again fell, and the wind rushed upon him full of keen slanting rain, as if with fierce intent of protecting the secret: there was little chance of success that night! he must break off the hunt till daylight! If there was any material factor in the sound, he would be better able to discover it then! By the great chimney-stack he could identify the spot where he had been nearest to it! There remained for the present but the task of finding his way back to his tower.

A difficult task it was -- more difficult than he anticipated. He had not an idea in what direction his tower lay -- had not an idea of the track, if track it could be called, by which he had come. One thing only was clear -- it was somewhere else than where he was. He set out therefore, like any honest pilgrim who knows only he must go somewhere else, and began his wanderings. He found himself far more obstructed than in coming. Again and again he could go no farther in the direction he was trying, again and again had to turn and try another. It was half-an-hour at least before he came to a spot he knew, and by that time, with the rain the wind had fallen a little. Against a break in the clouds he saw the outline of one of his store-sheds, and his way was thenceforward plain. He caught up his pail, filled it with coal and wood, and hastened to his nest as quickly as cramped joints would carry him, hopeless almost of finding his fire still alive.

But when he reached the stair, and had gone down a few steps, he saw a strange sight: below him, at his door, with a small wax-taper in her hand, stood the form of a woman, in the posture of one who had just knocked, and was hearkening for an answer. So intent was she, and so loud was the wind among the roofs, that she had not heard his step, and he stood a moment afraid to speak lest he should startle her. Presently she knocked again. He made an attempt at ventriloquy, saying in a voice to sound farther off than it was, |Come in.| A hand rose to the latch, and opened the door. By the hand he knew it was lady Arctura.

|Welcome to the stormy sky, my lady!| he said, as he entered the room after her -- a pleasant object after his crawling excursion!

She started a little at his voice behind her, and turning was more startled still.

Donal was more like a chimney-sweep than a tutor in a lord's castle. He was begrimed and blackened from head to foot, and carried a pailful of coals and wood. Reading readily her look, he made haste to explain.

|I have been on the roof for the last hour,| he said.

|What were you doing there,| she asked, with a strange mingling of expressions, |in such a night?|

|I heard the music, my lady -- the ghost-music, you know, that haunts the castle, and -- |

|I heard it too,| she murmured, with a look almost of terror. |I have often heard it before, but never so loud as to-night. Have you any notion about it, Mr. Grant?|

|None whatever -- except that I am nearly sure it comes from somewhere about the roof.|

|If you could clear up the mystery!|

|I have some hope of it. -- You are not frightened, my lady?|

She had caught hold of the back of a chair.

|Do sit down. I will get you some water.|

|No, no; I shall be right in a moment!| she answered. |Your stair has taken my breath away. But my uncle is in such a strange condition that I could not help coming to you.|

|I have seen him myself, more than once, very strange.|

|Will you come with me?|


|Come then.|

She left the room, and led the way, by the light of her dim taper, down the stair. About the middle of it, she stopped at a door, and turning said, with a smile like that of a child, and the first untroubled look Donal had yet seen upon her face --

|How delightful it is to be taken out of fear! I am not the least afraid now!|

|I am very glad,| said Donal. |I should like to kill fear; it is the shadow that follows at the heels of wrong. -- Do you think the music has anything to do with your uncle's condition?|

|I do not know.|

She turned again hastily, and passing through the door, entered a part of the house with which Donal had no acquaintance. With many bewildering turns, she led him to the great staircase, down which she continued her course. The house was very still: it must surely be later than he had thought -- only there were so few servants in it for its extent! His guide went very fast, with a step light as a bird's: at one moment he had all but lost sight of her in the great curve. At the room in which Donal first saw the earl, she stopped.

The door was open, but there was no light within. She led him across to the door of the little chamber behind. A murmur, but no light, came from it. In a moment it was gone, and the deepest silence filled the world. Arctura entered. One step within the door she stood still, and held high her taper. Donal looked in sideways.

A small box was on the floor against the foot of the farthest wall, and on the box, in a long dressing gown of rich faded stuff, the silk and gold in which shone feebly in the dim light, stood the tall meagre form of the earl, with his back to the door, his face to the wall, close to it, and his arms and hands stretched out against it, like one upon a cross. He stood without moving a muscle or uttering a sound. What could it mean? Donal gazed in a blank dismay.

Not a minute had passed, though it was to him a long and painful time, when the murmuring came again. He listened as to a voice from another world -- a thing terrible to those whose fear dwells in another world. But to Donal it was terrible as a voice from no other world could have been; it came from an unseen world of sin and suffering -- a world almost a negation of the eternal, a world of darkness and the shadow of death. But surely there was hope for that world yet! -- for whose were the words in which its indwelling despair grew audible?

|And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done nothing amiss!|

Again the silence fell, but the form did not move, and still they stood regarding him.

From far away came the sound of the ghost-music. The head against the wall began to move as if waking from sleep. The hands sank along the wall and fell by the sides. The earl gave a deep sigh, but still stood leaning his forehead against the wall.

Arctura turned, and they left the room.

She went down the stair, and on to the library. Its dark oak cases and old bindings reflected hardly a ray of the poor taper she carried; but the fire was not yet quite out. She set down the light, and looked at Donal in silence.

|What does it all mean?| he asked in a hoarse whisper.

|God knows!| she returned solemnly.

|Are we safe?| he asked. |May he not come here?|

|I do not think he will. I have seen him in many parts of the house, but never here.|

Even as she spoke the door swung noiselessly open, and the earl entered. His face was ghastly pale; his eyes were wide open; he came straight towards them. But he did not see them; or if he did, he saw them but as phantoms of the dream in which he was walking -- phantoms which had not yet become active in the dream. He drew a chair to the embers, in his fancy doubtless a great fire, sat for a moment or two gazing into them, rose, went the whole length of the room, took down a book, returned with it to the fire, drew towards him Arctura's tiny taper, opened the book, and began to read in an audible murmur. Donal, trying afterwards to recall and set down what he had heard, wrote nothing better than this: --

In the heart of the earth-cave

Lay the king.

Through chancel and choir and nave

The bells ring.

Said the worm at his side,

Sweet fool,

Turn to thy bride;

Is the night so cool?

Wouldst thou lie like a stone till the aching morn

Out of the dark be born?

Heavily pressed the night enorm,

But he heard the voice of the worm,

Like the sound of a muttered thunder low,

In the realms where no feet go.

And he said, I will rise,

I will will myself glad;

I will open my eyes,

And no more sleep sad.

For who is a god

But the man who can spring

Up from the sod,

And be his own king?

I will model my gladness,

Dig my despair --

And let goodness or badness

Be folly's own care!

I will he content,

And the world shall spin round

Till its force be outspent.

It shall drop

Like a top

Spun by a boy,

While I sit in my tent,

In a featureless joy --

Sit without sound,

And toss up my world,

Till it burst and be drowned

In the blackness upcurled

From the deep hell-ground.

The dreams of a god

Are the worlds of his slaves:

I will be my own god,

And rule my own knaves!

He went on in this way for some minutes; then the rimes grew less perfect, and the utterance sank into measured prose. The tone of the speaker showed that he took the stuff for glowing verse, and regarded it as embodying his own present consciousness. One might have thought the worm would have a word to say in rejoinder; but no; the worm had vanished, and the buried dreamer had made himself a god -- his own god! Donal stole up softly behind him, and peeped at the open book: it was the Novum Organum!

They glided out of the room, and left the dreamer to his dreams.

|Do you think,| said Donal, |I ought to tell Simmons?|

|It would be better. Do you know where to find him?|

|I do not.|

|I will show you a bell that rings in his room. He will think his lordship has rung it.|

They went and rang the bell. In a minute or two they heard the steps of the faithful servant seeking his master, and bade each other good-night.

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