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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER VIII. NEST-BUILDING.

David Elginbrod by George MacDonald

CHAPTER VIII. NEST-BUILDING.

If you will have a tree bear more fruit than it hath used to do, it is not anything you can do to the boughs, but it is the stirring of the earth, and putting new mould about the roots, that must work it.

LORD BACON'S Advancement of Learning, b. ii.

IN a short time Harry's health was so much improved, and consequently the strength and activity of his mind so much increased, that Hugh began to give him more exact mental operations to perform. But as if he had been a reader of Lord Bacon, which as yet he was not, and had learned from him that |wonder is the seed of knowledge,| he came, by a kind of sympathetic instinct, to the same conclusion practically, in the case of Harry. He tried to wake a question in him, by showing him something that would rouse his interest. The reply to this question might be the whole rudiments of a science.

Things themselves should lead to the science of them. If things are not interesting in themselves, how can any amount of knowledge about them be? To be sure, there is such a thing as a purely or abstractly intellectual interest -- the pleasure of the mere operation of the intellect upon the signs of things; but this must spring from a highly exercised intellectual condition, and is not to be expected before the pleasures of intellectual motion have been experienced through the employment of its means for other ends. Whether this is a higher condition or not, is open to much disquisition.

One day Hugh was purposely engaged in taking the altitude of the highest turret of the house, with an old quadrant he had found in the library, when Harry came up.

|What are you doing, big brother?| said he; for now that he was quite at home with Hugh, there was a wonderful mixture of familiarity and respect in him, that was quite bewitching.

|Finding out how high your house is, little brother,| answered Hugh.

|How can you do it with that thing? Will it measure the height of other things besides the house?|

|Yes, the height of a mountain, or anything you like.|

|Do show me how.|

Hugh showed him as much of it as he could.

|But I don't understand it.|

|Oh! that is quite another thing. To do that, you must learn a great many things -- Euclid to begin with.|

That very afternoon Harry began Euclid, and soon found quite enough of interest on the road to the quadrant, to prevent him from feeling any tediousness in its length.

Of an afternoon Hugh had taken to reading Shakspere to Harry. Euphra was always a listener. On one occasion Harry said:

|I am so sorry, Mr. Sutherland, but I don't understand the half of it. Sometimes when Euphra and you are laughing, -- and sometimes when Euphra is crying,| added he, looking at her slyly, |I can't understand what it is all about. Am I so very stupid, Mr. Sutherland?| And he almost cried himself.

|Not a bit of it, Harry, my boy; only you must learn a great many other things first.|

|How can I learn them? I am willing to learn anything. I don't find it tire me now as it used.|

|There are many things necessary to understand Shakspere that I cannot teach you, and that some people never learn. Most of them will come of themselves. But of one thing you may be sure, Harry, that if you learn anything, whatever it be, you are so far nearer to understanding Shakspere.|

The same afternoon, when Harry had waked from his siesta, upon which Hugh still insisted, they went out for a walk in the fields. The sun was half way down the sky, but very hot and sultry.

|I wish we had our cave of straw to creep into now,| said Harry. |I felt exactly like the little field-mouse you read to me about in Burns's poems, when we went in that morning, and found it all torn up, and half of it carried away. We have no place to go to now for a peculiar own place; and the consequence is, you have not told me any stories about the Romans for a whole week.|

|Well, Harry, is there any way of making another?|

|There's no more straw lying about that I know of,| answered Harry; |and it won't do to pull the inside out of a rick, I am afraid.|

|But don't you think it would be pleasant to have a change now; and as we have lived underground, or say in the snow like the North people, try living in the air, like some of the South people?|

|Delightful!| cried Harry. -- |A balloon?|

|No, not quite that. Don't you think a nest would do?|

|Up in a tree?|

|Yes.|

Harry darted off for a run, as the only means of expressing his delight. When he came back, he said:

|When shall we begin, Mr. Sutherland?|

|We will go and look for a place at once; but I am not quite sure when we shall begin yet. I shall find out to-night, though.|

They left the fields, and went into the woods in the neighbourhood of the house, at the back. Here the trees had grown to a great size, some of them being very old indeed. They soon fixed upon a grotesque old oak as a proper tree in which to build their nest; and Harry, who, as well as Hugh, had a good deal of constructiveness in his nature, was so delighted, that the heat seemed to have no more influence upon him; and Hugh, fearful of the reaction, was compelled to restrain his gambols.

Pursuing their way through the dark warp of the wood, with its golden weft of crossing sunbeams, Hugh began to tell Harry the story of the killing of Cæsar by Brutus and the rest, filling up the account with portions from Shakspere. Fortunately, he was able to give the orations of Brutus and Antony in full. Harry was in ecstasy over the eloquence of the two men.

|Well, what language do you think they spoke, Harry?| said Hugh.

|Why,| said Harry, hesitating, |I suppose -- | then, as if a sudden light broke upon him -- |Latin of course. How strange!|

|Why strange?|

|That such men should talk such a dry, unpleasant language.|

|I allow it is a difficult language, Harry; and very ponderous and mechanical; but not necessarily dry or unpleasant. The Romans, you know, were particularly fond of law in everything; and so they made a great many laws for their language; or rather, it grew so, because they were of that sort. It was like their swords and armour generally, not very graceful, but very strong; -- like their architecture too, Harry. Nobody can ever understand what a people is, without knowing its language. It is not only that we find all these stories about them in their language, but the language itself is more like them than anything else can be. Besides, Harry, I don't believe you know anything about Latin yet.|

|I know all the declensions and conjugations.|

|But don't you think it must have been a very different thing to hear it spoken?|

|Yes, to be sure -- and by such men. But how ever could they speak it?|

|They spoke it just as you do English. It was as natural to them. But you cannot say you know anything about it, till you read what they wrote in it; till your ears delight in the sound of their poetry; -- |

|Poetry?|

|Yes; and beautiful letters; and wise lessons; and histories and plays.|

|Oh! I should like you to teach me. Will it be as hard to learn always as it is now?|

|Certainly not. I am sure you will like it.|

|When will you begin me?|

|To-morrow. And if you get on pretty well, we will begin our nest, too, in the afternoon.|

|Oh, how kind you are! I will try very hard.|

|I am sure you will, Harry.|

Next morning, accordingly, Hugh did begin him, after a fashion of his own; namely, by giving him a short simple story to read, finding out all the words with him in the dictionary, and telling him what the terminations of the words signified; for he found that he had already forgotten a very great deal of what, according to Euphra, he had been thoroughly taught. No one can remember what is entirely uninteresting to him.

Hugh was as precise about the grammar of a language as any Scotch Professor of Humanity, old Prosody not excepted; but he thought it time enough to begin to that, when some interest in the words themselves should have been awakened in the mind of his pupil. He hated slovenliness as much as any one; but the question was, how best to arrive at thoroughness in the end, without losing the higher objects of study; and not how, at all risks, to commence teaching the lesson of thoroughness at once, and so waste on the shape of a pin-head the intellect which, properly directed, might arrive at the far more minute accuracies of a steam-engine. The fault of Euphra in teaching Harry, had been that, with a certain kind of tyrannical accuracy, she had determined to have the thing done -- not merely decently and in order, but prudishly and pedantically; so that she deprived progress of the pleasure which ought naturally to attend it. She spoiled the walk to the distant outlook, by stopping at every step, not merely to pick flowers, but to botanise on the weeds, and to calculate the distance advanced. It is quite true that we ought to learn to do things irrespective of the reward; but plenty of opportunities will be given in the progress of life, and in much higher kinds of action, to exercise our sense of duty in severe loneliness. We have no right to turn intellectual exercises into pure operations of conscience: these ought to involve essential duty; although no doubt there is plenty of room for mingling duty with those; while, on the other hand, the highest act of suffering self-denial is not without its accompanying reward. Neither is there any exercise of the higher intellectual powers in learning the mere grammar of a language, necessary as it is for a means. And language having been made before grammar, a language must be in some measure understood, before its grammar can become intelligible.

Harry's weak (though true and keen) life could not force its way into any channel. His was a nature essentially dependent on sympathy. It could flow into truth through another loving mind: left to itself, it could not find the way, and sank in the dry sand of ennui and self-imposed obligations. Euphra was utterly incapable of understanding him; and the boy had been dying for lack of sympathy, though neither he nor any one about him had suspected the fact.

There was a strange disproportion between his knowledge and his capacity. He was able, when his attention was directed, his gaze fixed, and his whole nature supported by Hugh, to see deep into many things, and his remarks were often strikingly original; but he was one of the most ignorant boys, for his years, that Hugh had ever come across. A long and severe illness, when he was just passing into boyhood, had thrown him back far into his childhood; and he was only now beginning to show that he had anything of the boy-life in him. Hence arose that unequal development which has been sufficiently evident in the story.

In the afternoon, they went to the wood, and found the tree they had chosen for their nest. To Harry's intense admiration, Hugh, as he said, went up the tree like a squirrel, only he was too big for a bear even. Just one layer of foliage above the lowest branches, he came to a place where he thought there was a suitable foundation for the nest. From the ground Harry could scarcely see him, as, with an axe which he had borrowed for the purpose (for there was a carpenter's work-shop on the premises), he cut away several small branches from three of the principal ones; and so had these three as rafters, ready dressed and placed, for the foundation of the nest. Having made some measurements, he descended; and repairing with Harry to the work-shop, procured some boarding and some tools, which Harry assisted in carrying to the tree. Ascending again, and drawing up his materials, by the help of Harry, with a piece of string, Hugh in a very little while had a level floor, four feet square, in the heart of the oak tree, quite invisible from below -- buried in a cloud of green leaves. For greater safety, he fastened ropes as handrails all around it from one branch to another. And now nothing remained but to construct a bench to sit on, and such a stair as Harry could easily climb. The boy was quite restless with anxiety to get up and see the nest; and kept calling out constantly to know if he might not come up yet. At length Hugh allowed him to try; but the poor boy was not half strong enough to climb the tree without help. So Hugh descended, and with his aid Harry was soon standing on the new-built platform.

|I feel just like an eagle,| he cried; but here his voice faltered, and he was silent.

|What is the matter, Harry?| said his tutor.

|Oh, nothing,| replied he; |only I didn't exactly know whereabouts we were till I got up here.|

|Whereabouts are we, then?|

|Close to the end of the Ghost's Walk.|

|But you don't mind that now, surely, Harry?|

|No, sir; that is, not so much as I used.|

|Shall I take all this down again, and build our nest somewhere else?|

|Oh, no, if you don't think it matters. It would be a great pity, after you have taken so much trouble with it. Besides, I shall never be here without you; and I do not think I should be afraid of the ghost herself, if you were with me.|

Yet Harry shuddered involuntarily at the thought of his own daring speech.

|Very well, Harry, my boy; we will finish it here. Now, if you stand there, I will fasten a plank across here between these two stumps -- no, that won't do exactly. I must put a piece on to this one, to raise it to a level with the other -- then we shall have a seat in a few minutes.|

Hammer and nails were busy again; and in a few minutes they sat down to enjoy the |soft pipling cold| which swung all the leaves about like little trap-doors that opened into the Infinite. Harry was highly contented. He drew a deep breath of satisfaction as, looking above and beneath and all about him, he saw that they were folded in an almost impenetrable net of foliage, through which nothing could steal into their sanctuary, save |the chartered libertine, the air,| and a few stray beams of the setting sun, filtering through the multitudinous leaves, from which they caught a green tint as they passed.

|Fancy yourself a fish,| said Hugh, |in the depth of a cavern of sea weed, which floats about in the slow swinging motion of the heavy waters.|

|What a funny notion!|

|Not so absurd as you may think, Harry; for just as some fishes crawl about on the bottom of the sea, so do we men at the bottom of an ocean of air; which, if it be a thinner one, is certainly a deeper one.|

|Then the birds are the swimming fishes, are they not?|

|Yes, to be sure.|

|And you and I are two mermen -- doing what? Waiting for mother mermaid to give us our dinner. I am getting hungry. But it will be a long time before a mermaid gets up here, I am afraid.|

|That reminds me,| said Hugh, |that I must build a stair for you, Master Harry; for you are not merman enough to get up with a stroke of your scaly tail. So here goes. You can sit there till I fetch you.|

Nailing a little rude bracket here and there on the stem of the tree, just where Harry could avail himself of hand-hold as well, Hugh had soon finished a strangely irregular staircase, which it took Harry two or three times trying, to learn quite off.

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