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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER V. THE STUDENTS.

David Elginbrod by George MacDonald

CHAPTER V. THE STUDENTS.

In wood and stone, not the softest, but hardest, be always aptest for portraiture, both fairest for pleasure, and most durable for profit. Hard wits be hard to receive, but sure to keep; painful without weariness, heedful without wavering, constant without new-fangleness; bearing heavy things, though not lightly, yet willingly; entering hard things, though not easily, yet deeply; and so come to that perfectness of learning in the end, that quick wits seem in hope but do not in deed, or else very seldom ever attain unto. -- ROGER ASCHAM. -- The Schoolmaster.

TWO or three very simple causes united to prevent Hugh from repeating his visit to David so soon as he would otherwise have done. One was, that, the fine weather continuing, he was seized with the desire of exploring the neighbourhood. The spring, which sets some wild animals to the construction of new dwellings, incites man to the enlarging of his, making, as it were, by discovery, that which lies around him his own. So he spent the greater parts of several evenings in wandering about the neighbourhood; till at length the moonlight failed him. Another cause was, that, in the act of searching for some books for his boys, in an old garret of the house, which was at once lumber room and library, he came upon some stray volumes of the Waverley novels, with which he was as yet only partially acquainted. These absorbed many of his spare hours. But one evening, while reading the Heart of Midlothian, the thought struck him -- what a character David would have been for Sir Walter. Whether he was right or not is a question; but the notion brought David so vividly before him, that it roused the desire to see him. He closed the book at once, and went to the cottage.

|We're no lik'ly to ca' ye onything but a stranger yet, Maister Sutherlan',| said David, as he entered.

|I've been busy since I saw you,| was all the excuse Hugh offered.

|Weel, ye'r welcome noo; and ye've jist come in time after a', for it's no that mony hours sin' I fand it oot awthegither to my ain settisfaction.|

|Found out what?| said Hugh; for he had forgotten all about the perplexity in which he had left David, and which had been occupying his thoughts ever since their last interview.

|Aboot the cross-bow an' the birdie, ye ken,| answered David, in a tone of surprise.

|Yes, to be sure. How stupid of me!| said Hugh.

|Weel, ye see, the meanin' o' the haill ballant is no that ill to win at, seein' the poet himsel' tells us that. It's jist no to be proud or ill-natured to oor neebours, the beasts and birds, for God made ane an' a' o's. But there's harder things in't nor that, and yon's the hardest. But ye see it was jist an unlucky thochtless deed o' the puir auld sailor's, an' I'm thinkin' he was sair reprocht in's hert the minit he did it. His mates was fell angry at him, no for killin' the puir innocent craytur, but for fear o' ill luck in consequence. Syne when nane followed, they turned richt roun', an' took awa' the character o' the puir beastie efter 'twas deid. They appruved o' the verra thing 'at he was nae doot sorry for. -- But onything to haud aff o' themsels! Nae suner cam the calm, than roun' they gaed again like the weathercock, an' naething wad content them bit hingin' the deid craytur about the auld man's craig, an' abusin' him forby. Sae ye see hoo they war a wheen selfish crayturs, an' a hantle waur nor the man 'at was led astray into an ill deed. But still he maun rue't. Sae Death got them, an' a kin' o' leevin' Death, a she Death as 'twar, an' in some respecks may be waur than the ither, got grips o' him, puir auld body! It's a' fair and richt to the backbane o' the ballant, Maister Sutherlan', an' that I'se uphaud.|

Hugh could not help feeling considerably astonished to hear this criticism from the lips of one whom he considered an uneducated man. For he did not know that there are many other educations besides a college one, some of them tending far more than that to develope the common-sense, or faculty of judging of things by their nature. Life intelligently met and honestly passed, is the best education of all; except that higher one to which it is intended to lead, and to which it had led David. Both these educations, however, were nearly unknown to the student of books. But he was still more astonished to hear from the lips of Margaret, who was sitting by:

|That's it, father; that's it! I was jist ettlin' efter that same thing mysel, or something like it, but ye put it in the richt words exackly.|

The sound of her voice drew Hugh's eyes upon her: he was astonished at the alteration in her countenance. While she spoke it was absolutely beautiful. As soon as she ceased speaking, it settled back into its former shadowless calm. Her father gave her one approving glance and nod, expressive of no surprise at her having approached the same discovery as himself, but testifying pleasure at the coincidence of their opinions. Nothing was left for Hugh but to express his satisfaction with the interpretation of the difficulty, and to add, that the poem would henceforth possess fresh interest for him.

After this, his visits became more frequent; and at length David made a request which led to their greater frequency still. It was to this effect:

|Do ye think, Mr. Sutherlan', I could do onything at my age at the mathematics? I unnerstan' weel eneuch hoo to measur' lan', an' that kin' o' thing. I jist follow the rule. But the rule itsel's a puzzler to me. I dinna understan' it by half. Noo it seems to me that the best o' a rule is, no to mak ye able to do a thing, but to lead ye to what maks the rule richt -- to the prenciple o' the thing. It's no 'at I'm misbelievin' the rule, but I want to see the richts o't.|

|I've no doubt you could learn fast enough,| replied Hugh. |I shall be very happy to help you with it.|

|Na, na; I'm no gaein to trouble you. Ye hae eneuch to do in that way. But if ye could jist spare me ane or twa o' yer beuks whiles -- ony o' them 'at ye think proper, I sud be muckle obleeged te ye.|

Hugh promised and fulfilled; but the result was, that, before long, both the father and the daughter were seated at the kitchen-table, every evening, busy with Euclid and Algebra; and that, on most evenings, Hugh was present as their instructor. It was quite a new pleasure to him. Few delights surpass those of imparting knowledge to the eager recipient. What made Hugh's tutor-life irksome, was partly the excess of his desire to communicate, over the desire of his pupils to partake. But here there was no labour. All the questions were asked by the scholars. A single lesson had not passed, however, before David put questions which Hugh was unable to answer, and concerning which he was obliged to confess his ignorance. Instead of being discouraged, as eager questioners are very ready to be when they receive no answer, David merely said, |Weel, weel, we maun bide a wee,| and went on with what he was able to master. Meantime Margaret, though forced to lag a good way behind her father, and to apply much more frequently to their tutor for help, yet secured all she got; and that is great praise for any student. She was not by any means remarkably quick, but she knew when she did not understand; and that is a sure and indispensable step towards understanding. It is indeed a rarer gift than the power of understanding itself.

The gratitude of David was too deep to be expressed in any formal thanks. It broke out at times in two or three simple words when the conversation presented an opportunity, or in the midst of their work, as by its own self-birth, ungenerated by association.

During the lesson, which often lasted more than two hours, Janet would be busy about the room, and in and out of it, with a manifest care to suppress all unnecessary bustle. As soon as Hugh made his appearance, she would put off the stout shoes -- man's shoes, as we should consider them -- which she always wore at other times, and put on a pair of bauchles; that is, an old pair of her Sunday shoes, put down at heel, and so converted into slippers, with which she could move about less noisily. At times her remarks would seem to imply that she considered it rather absurd in her husband to trouble himself with book-learning; but evidently on the ground that he knew everything already that was worthy of the honour of his acquaintance; whereas, with regard to Margaret, her heart was as evidently full of pride at the idea of the education her daughter was getting from the laird's own tutor.

Now and then she would stand still for a moment, and gaze at them, with her bright black eyes, from under the white frills of her mutch, her bare brown arms akimbo, and a look of pride upon her equally brown honest face.

Her dress consisted of a wrapper, or short loose jacket, of printed calico, and a blue winsey petticoat, which she had a habit of tucking between her knees, to keep it out of harm's way, as often as she stooped to any wet work, or, more especially, when doing anything by the fire. Margaret's dress was, in ordinary, like her mother's, with the exception of the cap; but, every evening, when their master was expected, she put off her wrapper, and substituted a gown of the same material, a cotton print; and so, with her plentiful dark hair gathered neatly under a net of brown silk, the usual head-dress of girls in her position, both in and out of doors, sat down dressed for the sacrament of wisdom. David made no other preparation than the usual evening washing of his large well-wrought hands, and bathing of his head, covered with thick dark hair, plentifully lined with grey, in a tub of cold water; from which his face, which was |cremsin dyed ingrayne| by the weather, emerged glowing. He sat down at the table in his usual rough blue coat and plain brass buttons; with his breeches of broad-striped corduroy, his blue-ribbed stockings, and leather gaiters, or cuiticans, disposed under the table, and his shoes, with five rows of broad-headed nails in the soles, projecting from beneath it on the other side; for he was a tall man -- six feet still, although five-and-fifty, and considerably bent in the shoulders with hard work. Sutherland's style was that of a gentleman who must wear out his dress-coat.

Such was the group which, three or four evenings in the week, might be seen in David Elginbrod's cottage, seated around the white deal table, with their books and slates upon it, and searching, by the light of a tallow candle, substituted as more convenient, for the ordinary lamp, after the mysteries of the universe.

The influences of reviving nature and of genial companionship operated very favourably upon Hugh's spirits, and consequently upon his whole powers. For some time he had, as I have already hinted, succeeded in interesting his boy-pupils in their studies; and now the progress they made began to be appreciable to themselves as well as to their tutor. This of course made them more happy and more diligent. There were no attempts now to work upon their parents for a holiday; no real or pretended head or tooth-aches, whose disability was urged against the greater torture of ill-conceded mental labour. They began in fact to understand; and, in proportion to the beauty and value of the thing understood, to understand is to enjoy. Therefore the laird and his lady could not help seeing that the boys were doing well, far better in fact than they had ever done before; and consequently began not only to prize Hugh's services, but to think more highly of his office than had been their wont. The laird would now and then invite him to join him in a tumbler of toddy after dinner, or in a ride round the farm after school hours. But it must be confessed that these approaches to friendliness were rather irksome to Hugh; for whatever the laird might have been as a collegian, he was certainly now nothing more than a farmer. Where David Elginbrod would have described many a |bonny sicht,| the laird only saw the probable results of harvest, in the shape of figures in his banking book. On one occasion, Hugh roused his indignation by venturing to express his admiration of the delightful mingling of colours in a field where a good many scarlet poppies grew among the green blades of the corn, indicating, to the agricultural eye, the poverty of the soil where they were found. This fault in the soil, the laird, like a child, resented upon the poppies themselves.

|Nasty, ugly weyds! We'll hae ye admirin' the smut neist,| said he, contemptuously; |'cause the bairns can bleck ane anither's faces wi't.|

|But surely,| said Hugh, |putting other considerations aside, you must allow that the colour, especially when mingled with that of the corn, is beautiful.|

|Deil hae't! It's jist there 'at I canna bide the sicht o't. Beauty ye may ca' 't! I see nane o't. I'd as sune hae a reid-heedit bairn, as see thae reid-coatit rascals i' my corn. I houp ye're no gaen to cram stuff like that into the heeds o' the twa laddies. Faith! we'll hae them sawin' thae ill-faured weyds amang the wheyt neist. Poapies ca' ye them? Weel I wat they're the Popp's ain bairns, an' the scarlet wumman to the mither o' them. Ha! ha! ha!|

Having manifested both wit and Protestantism in the closing sentence of his objurgation, the laird relapsed into good humour and stupidity. Hugh would gladly have spent such hours in David's cottage instead; but he was hardly prepared to refuse his company to Mr. Glasford.

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