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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER IV. THE CAVE IN THE STRAW.

David Elginbrod by George MacDonald

CHAPTER IV. THE CAVE IN THE STRAW.

All knowledge and wonder (which is the seed of knowledge) is an impression of pleasure in itself.

LORD BACON. -- Advancement of Learning.

THE following morning dawned in a cloud; which, swathed about the trees, wetted them down to the roots, without having time to become rain. They drank it in like sorrow, the only material out of which true joy can be fashioned. This cloud of mist would yet glimmer in a new heaven, namely, in the cloud of blooms which would clothe the limes and the chestnuts and the beeches along the ghost's walk. But there was gloomy weather within doors as well; for poor Harry was especially sensitive to variations of the barometer, without being in the least aware of the fact himself. Again Hugh found him in the library, seated in his usual corner, with Polexander on his knees. He half dropped the book when Hugh entered, and murmured with a sigh:

|It's no use; I can't read it.|

|What's the matter, Harry?| said his tutor.

|I should like to tell you, but you will laugh at me.|

|I shall never laugh at you, Harry.|

|Never?|

|No, never.|

|Then tell me how I can be sure that I have read this book.|

|I do not quite understand you.|

|All! I was sure nobody could be so stupid as I am. Do you know, Mr. Sutherland, I seem to have read a page from top to bottom sometimes, and when I come to the bottom I know nothing about it, and doubt whether I have read it at all; and then I stare at it all over again, till I grow so queer, and sometimes nearly scream. You see I must be able to say I have read the book.|

|Why? Nobody will ever ask you.|

|Perhaps not; but you know that is nothing. I want to know that I have read the book -- really and truly read it.|

Hugh thought for a moment, and seemed to see that the boy, not being strong enough to be a law to himself, just needed a benign law from without, to lift him from the chaos of feeble and conflicting notions and impulses within, which generated a false law of slavery. So he said:

|Harry, am I your big brother?|

|Yes, Mr. Sutherland.|

|Then, ought you to do what I wish, or what you wish yourself?|

|What you wish, sir.|

|Then I want you to put away that book for a month at least.|

|Oh, Mr. Sutherland! I promised.|

|To whom?|

|To myself.|

|But I am above you; and I want you to do as I tell you. Will you, Harry?|

|Yes.|

|Put away the book, then.|

Harry sprang to his feet, put the book on its shelf, and, going up to Hugh, said,

|You have done it, not me.|

|Certainly, Harry.|

The notions of a hypochondriacal child will hardly be interesting to the greater part of my readers; but Hugh learned from this a little lesson about divine law which he never forgot.

|Now, Harry,| added he, |you must not open a book till I allow you.|

|No poetry, either?| said poor Harry; and his face fell.

|I don't mind poetry so much; but of prose I will read as much to you as will be good for you. Come, let us have a bit of Gulliver again.|

|Oh, how delightful!| cried Harry. |I am so glad you made me put away that tiresome book. I wonder why it insisted so on being read.|

Hugh read for an hour, and then made Harry put on his cloak, notwithstanding the rain, which fell in a slow thoughtful spring shower. Taking the boy again on his back, he carried him into the woods. There he told him how the drops of wet sank into the ground, and then went running about through it in every direction, looking for seeds: which were all thirsty little things, that wanted to grow, and could not, till a drop came and gave them drink. And he told him how the rain-drops were made up in the skies, and then came down, like millions of angels, to do what they were told in the dark earth. The good drops went into all the cellars and dungeons of the earth, to let out the imprisoned flowers. And he told him how the seeds, when they had drunk the rain-drops, wanted another kind of drink next, which was much thinner and much stronger, but could not do them any good till they had drunk the rain first.

|What is that?| said Harry. |I feel as if you were reading out of the Bible, Mr. Sutherland.|

|It is the sunlight,| answered his tutor. |When a seed has drunk of the water, and is not thirsty any more, it wants to breathe next; and then the sun sends a long, small finger of fire down into the grave where the seed is lying; and it touches the seed, and something inside the seed begins to move instantly and to grow bigger and bigger, till it sends two green blades out of it into the earth, and through the earth into the air; and then it can breathe. And then it sends roots down into the earth; and the roots keep drinking water, and the leaves keep breathing the air, and the sun keeps them alive and busy; and so a great tree grows up, and God looks at it, and says it is good.|

|Then they really are living things?| said Harry.

|Certainly.|

|Thank you, Mr. Sutherland. I don't think I shall dislike rain so much any more.|

Hugh took him next into the barn, where they found a great heap of straw. Recalling his own boyish amusements, he made him put off his cloak, and help to make a tunnel into this heap. Harry was delighted -- the straw was so nice, and bright, and dry, and clean. They drew it out by handfuls, and thus excavated a round tunnel to the distance of six feet or so; when Hugh proceeded to more extended operations. Before it was time to go to lunch, they had cleared half of a hollow sphere, six feet in diameter, out of the heart of the heap.

After lunch, for which Harry had been very unwilling to relinquish the straw hut, Hugh sent him to lie down for a while; when he fell fast asleep as before. After he had left the room, Euphra said:

|How do you get on with Harry, Mr. Sutherland?|

|Perfectly to my satisfaction,| answered Hugh.

|Do you not find him very slow?|

|Quite the contrary.|

|You surprise me. But you have not given him any lessons yet.|

|I have given him a great many, and he is learning them very fast.|

|I fear he will have forgotten all my poor labours before you take up the work where we left it. When will you give him any book-lessons?|

|Not for a while yet.|

Euphra did not reply. Her silence seemed intended to express dissatisfaction; at least so Hugh interpreted it.

|I hope you do not think it is to indulge myself that I manage Master Harry in this peculiar fashion,| he said. |The fact is, he is a very peculiar child, and may turn out a genius or a weakling, just as he is managed. At least so it appears to me at present. May I ask where you left the work you were doing with him?|

|He was going through the Eton grammar for the third time,| answered Euphra, with a defiant glance, almost of dislike, at Hugh. |But I need not enumerate his studies, for I daresay you will not take them up at all after my fashion. I only assure you I have been a very exact disciplinarian. What he knows, I think you will find he knows thoroughly.|

So saying, Euphra rose, and with a flush on her cheek, walked out of the room in a more stately manner than usual.

Hugh felt that he had, somehow or other, offended her. But, to tell the truth, he did not much care, for her manner had rather irritated him. He retired to his own room, wrote to his mother, and, when Harry awoke, carried him again to the barn for an hour's work in the straw. Before it grew dusk, they had finished a little, silent, dark chamber, as round as they could make it, in the heart of the straw. All the excavated material they had thrown on the top, reserving only a little to close up the entrance when they pleased.

The next morning was still rainy; and when Hugh found Harry in the library as usual, he saw that the clouds had again gathered over the boy's spirit. He was pacing about the room in a very odd manner. The carpet was divided diamond-wise in a regular pattern. Harry's steps were, for the most part, planted upon every third diamond, as he slowly crossed the floor in a variety of directions; for, as on previous occasions, he had not perceived the entrance of his tutor. But, every now and then, the boy would make the most sudden and irregular change in his mode of progression, setting his foot on the most unexpected diamond, at one time the nearest to him, at another the farthest within his reach. When he looked up, and saw his tutor watching him, he neither started nor blushed: but, still retaining on his countenance the perplexed, anxious expression which Hugh had remarked, said to him:

|How can God know on which of those diamonds I am going to set my foot next?|

|If you could understand how God knows, Harry, then you would know yourself; but before you have made up your mind, you don't know which you will choose; and even then you only know on which you intend to set your foot; for you have often changed your mind after making it up.|

Harry looked as puzzled as before.

|Why, Harry, to understand how God understands, you would need to be as wise as he is; so it is no use trying. You see you can't quite understand me, though I have a real meaning in what I say.|

|Ah! I see it is no use; but I can't bear to be puzzled.|

|But you need not be puzzled; you have no business to be puzzled. You are trying to get into your little brain what is far too grand and beautiful to get into it. Would you not think it very stupid to puzzle yourself how to put a hundred horses into a stable with twelve stalls?|

Harry laughed, and looked relieved.

|It is more unreasonable a thousand times to try to understand such things. For my part, it would make me miserable to think that there was nothing but what I could understand. I should feel as if I had no room anywhere. Shall we go to our cave again?|

|Oh! yes, please,| cried Harry; and in a moment he was on Hugh's back once more, cantering joyously to the barn.

After various improvements, including some enlargement of the interior, Hugh and Harry sat down together in the low yellow twilight of their cave, to enjoy the result of their labours. They could just see, by the light from the tunnel, the glimmer of the golden hollow all about them. The rain was falling heavily out-of-doors; and they could hear the sound of the multitudinous drops of the broken cataract of the heavens like the murmur of the insects in a summer wood. They knew that everything outside was rained upon, and was again raining on everything beneath it, while they were dry and warm.

|This is nice!| exclaimed Harry, after a few moments of silent enjoyment.

|This is your first lesson in architecture,| said Hugh.

|Am I to learn architecture?| asked Harry, in a rueful tone.

|It is well to know how things came to be done, if you should know nothing more about them, Harry. Men lived in the cellars first of all, and next on the ground floor; but they could get no further till they joined the two, and then they could build higher.|

|I don't quite understand you, sir.|

|I did not mean you should, Harry.|

|Then I don't mind, sir. But I thought architecture was building.|

|So it is; and this is one way of building. It is only making an outside by pulling out an inside, instead of making an inside by setting up an outside.|

Harry thought for a while, and then said joyfully:

|I see it, sir! I see it. The inside is the chief thing -- not the outside.|

|Yes, Harry; and not in architecture only. Never forget that.|

They lay for some time in silence, listening to the rain. At length Harry spoke:

|I have been thinking of what you told me yesterday, Mr. Sutherland, about the rain going to look for the seeds that were thirsty for it. And now I feel just as if I were a seed, lying in its little hole in the earth, and hearing the rain-drops pattering down all about it, waiting -- oh, so thirsty! -- for some kind drop to find me out, and give me itself to drink. I wonder what kind of flower I should grow up,| added he, laughing.

|There is more truth than you think, in your pretty fancy, Harry,| rejoined Hugh, and was silent -- self-rebuked; for the memory of David came back upon him, recalled by the words of the boy; of David, whom he loved and honoured with the best powers of his nature, and whom yet he had neglected and seemed to forget; nay, whom he had partially forgotten -- he could not deny. The old man, whose thoughts were just those of a wise child, had said to him once:

|We ken no more, Maister Sutherlan', what we're growin' till, than that neep-seed there kens what a neep is, though a neep it will be. The only odds is, that we ken that we dinna ken, and the neep-seed kens nothing at all aboot it. But ae thing, Maister Sutherlan', we may be sure o': that, whatever it be, it will be worth God's makin' an' our growin'.|

A solemn stillness fell upon Hugh's spirit, as he recalled these words; out of which stillness, I presume, grew the little parable which follows; though Hugh, after he had learned far more about the things therein hinted at, could never understand how it was, that he could have put so much more into it, than he seemed to have understood at that period of his history.

For Harry said:

|Wouldn't this be a nice place for a story, Mr. Sutherland? Do you ever tell stories, sir?|

|I was just thinking of one, Harry; but it is as much yours as mine, for you sowed the seed of the story in my mind.|

|Do you mean a story that never was in a book -- a story out of your own head? Oh! that will be grand!|

|Wait till we see what it will be, Harry; for I can't tell you how it will turn out.|

After a little further pause, Hugh began:

|Long, long ago, two seeds lay beside each other in the earth, waiting. It was cold, and rather wearisome; and, to beguile the time, the one found means to speak to the other.

|'What are you going to be?' said the one.

|'I don't know,' answered the other.

|'For me,' rejoined the first, 'I mean to be a rose. There is nothing like a splendid rose. Everybody will love me then!'

|'It's all right,' whispered the second; and that was all he could say; for somehow when he had said that, he felt as if all the words in the world were used up. So they were silent again for a day or two.

|'Oh, dear!' cried the first, 'I have had some water. I never knew till it was inside me. I'm growing! I'm growing! Good-bye!'

|'Good-bye!' repeated the other, and lay still; and waited more than ever.

|The first grew and grew, pushing itself straight up, till at last it felt that it was in the open air, for it could breathe. And what a delicious breath that was! It was rather cold, but so refreshing. The flower could see nothing, for it was not quite a flower yet, only a plant; and they never see till their eyes come, that is, till they open their blossoms -- then they are flowers quite. So it grew and grew, and kept its head up very steadily, meaning to see the sky the first thing, and leave the earth quite behind as well as beneath it. But somehow or other, though why it could not tell, it felt very much inclined to cry. At length it opened its eye. It was morning, and the sky was over its head; but, alas! itself was no rose -- only a tiny white flower. It felt yet more inclined to hang down its head and to cry; but it still resisted, and tried hard to open its eye wide, and to hold its head upright, and to look full at the sky.

|'I will be a star of Bethlehem at least!' said the flower to itself.

|But its head felt very heavy; and a cold wind rushed over it, and bowed it down towards the earth. And the flower saw that the time of the singing of birds was not come, that the snow covered the whole land, and that there was not a single flower in sight but itself. And it half-closed its leaves in terror and the dismay of loneliness. But that instant it remembered what the other flower used to say; and it said to itself: 'It's all right; I will be what I can.' And thereon it yielded to the wind, drooped its head to the earth, and looked no more on the sky, but on the snow. And straightway the wind stopped, and the cold died away, and the snow sparkled like pearls and diamonds; and the flower knew that it was the holding of its head up that had hurt it so; for that its body came of the snow, and that its name was Snow-drop. And so it said once more, 'It's all right!' and waited in perfect peace. All the rest it needed was to hang its head after its nature.|

|And what became of the other?| asked Harry.

|I haven't done with this one yet,| answered Hugh. |I only told you it was waiting. One day a pale, sad-looking girl, with thin face, large eyes, and long white hands, came, hanging her head like the snowdrop, along the snow where the flower grew. She spied it, smiled joyously, and saying, 'Ah! my little sister, are you come?' stooped and plucked the snowdrop. It trembled and died in her hand; which was a heavenly death for a snowdrop; for had it not cast a gleam of summer, pale as it had been itself, upon the heart of a sick girl?|

|And the other?| repeated Harry.

|The other had a long time to wait; but it did grow one of the loveliest roses ever seen. And at last it had the highest honour ever granted to a flower: two lovers smelled it together, and were content with it.|

Harry was silent, and so was Hugh; for he could not understand himself quite. He felt, all the time he was speaking, is if he were listening to David, instead of talking himself. The fact was, he was only expanding, in an imaginative soil, the living seed which David had cast into it. There seemed to himself to be more in his parable than he had any right to invent. But is it not so with all stories that are rightly rooted in the human?

|What a delightful story, Mr. Sutherland!| said Harry, at last. |Euphra tells me stories sometimes; but I don't think I ever heard one I liked so much. I wish we were meant to grow into something, like the flower-seeds.|

|So we are, Harry.|

|Are we indeed? How delightful it would be to think that I am only a seed, Mr. Sutherland! Do you think I might think so?|

|Yes, I do.|

|Then, please, let me begin to learn something directly. I haven't had anything disagreeable to do since you came; and I don't feel as if that was right.|

Poor Harry, like so many thousands of good people, had not yet learned that God is not a hard task-master.

|I don't intend that you should have anything disagreeable to do, if I can help it. We must do such things when they come to us; but we must not make them for ourselves, or for each other.|

|Then I'm not to learn any more Latin, am I?| said Harry, in a doubtful kind of tone, as if there were after all a little pleasure in doing what he did not like.

|Is Latin so disagreeable, Harry?|

|Yes; it is rule after rule, that has nothing in it I care for. How can anybody care for Latin? But I am quite ready to begin, if I am only a seed -- really, you know.|

|Not yet, Harry. Indeed, we shall not begin again -- I won't let you -- till you ask me with your whole heart, to let you learn Latin.|

|I am afraid that will be a long time, and Euphra will not like it.|

|I will talk to her about it. But perhaps it will not be so long as you think. Now, don't mention Latin to me again, till you are ready to ask me, heartily, to teach you. And don't give yourself any trouble about it either. You never can make yourself like anything.|

Harry was silent. They returned to the house, through the pouring rain; Harry, as usual, mounted on his big brother.

As they crossed the hall, Mr. Arnold came in. He looked surprised and annoyed. Hugh set Harry down, who ran upstairs to get dressed for dinner; while he himself half-stopped, and turned towards Mr. Arnold. But Mr. Arnold did not speak, and so Hugh followed Harry.

Hugh spent all that evening, after Harry had gone to bed, in correcting his impressions of some of the chief stories of early Roman history; of which stories he intended commencing a little course to Harry the next day.

Meantime there was very little intercourse between Hugh and Euphra, whose surname, somehow or other, Hugh had never inquired after. He disliked asking questions about people to an uncommon degree, and so preferred waiting for a natural revelation. Her later behaviour had repelled him, impressing him with the notion that she was proud, and that she had made up her mind, notwithstanding her apparent frankness at first, to keep him at a distance. That she was fitful, too, and incapable of showing much tenderness even to poor Harry, he had already concluded in his private judgment-hall. Nor could he doubt that, whether from wrong theories, incapacity, or culpable indifference, she must have taken very bad measures indeed with her young pupil.

The next day resembled the two former; with this difference, that the rain fell in torrents. Seated in their strawy bower, they cared for no rain. They were safe from the whole world, and all the tempers of nature.

Then Hugh told Harry about the slow beginnings and the mighty birth of the great Roman people. He told him tales of their battles and conquests; their strifes at home, and their wars abroad. He told him stories of their grand men, great with the individuality of their nation and their own. He told him their characters, their peculiar opinions and grounds of action, and the results of their various schemes for their various ends. He told him about their love to their country, about their poetry and their religion; their courage, and their hardihood; their architecture, their clothes, and their armour; their customs and their laws; but all in such language, or mostly in such language, as one boy might use in telling another of the same age; for Hugh possessed the gift of a general simplicity of thought, one of the most valuable a man can have. It cost him a good deal of labour (well-repaid in itself, not to speak of the evident delight of Harry), to make himself perfectly competent for this; but he had a good foundation of knowledge to work upon.

This went on for a long time after the period to which I am now more immediately confined. Every time they stopped to rest from their rambles or games -- as often, in fact, as they sat down alone, Harry's constant request was:

|Now, Mr. Sutherland, mightn't we have something more about the Romans?|

And Mr. Sutherland gave him something more. But all this time he never uttered the word -- Latin.

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