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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER X. ITALIAN.

David Elginbrod by George MacDonald

CHAPTER X. ITALIAN.

Per me si va nella città dolente.

DANTE

Through me thou goest into the city of grief.

OF necessity, with so many shafts opened into the mountain of knowledge, a far greater amount of time must be devoted by Harry and his tutor to the working of the mine, than they had given hitherto. This made a considerable alteration in the intercourse of the youth and the lady; for, although Euphra was often present during school-hours, it must be said for Hugh that, during those hours, he paid almost all his attention to Harry; so much of it, indeed, that perhaps there was not enough left to please the lady. But she did not say so. She sat beside them in silence, occupied with her work, and saving up her glances for use. Now and then she would read; taking an opportunity sometimes, but not often, when a fitting pause occurred, to ask him to explain some passage about which she was in doubt. It must be conceded that such passages were well chosen for the purpose; for she was too wise to do her own intellect discredit by feigning a difficulty where she saw none; intellect being the only gift in others for which she was conscious of any reverence.

By-and-by she began to discontinue these visits to the schoolroom. Perhaps she found them dull. Perhaps -- but we shall see.

One morning, in the course of their study -- Euphra not present -- Hugh had occasion to go from his own room, where, for the most part, they carried on the severer portion of their labours, down to the library for a book, to enlighten them upon some point on which they were in doubt. As he was passing an open door, Euphra's voice called him. He entered, and found himself in her private sitting-room. He had not known before where it was.

|I beg your pardon, Mr. Sutherland, for calling you, but I am at this moment in a difficulty. I cannot manage this line in the Inferno. Do help me.|

She moved the book towards him, as he now stood by her side, she remaining seated at her table. To his mortification, he was compelled to confess his utter ignorance of the language.

|Oh! I am disappointed,| said Euphra.

|Not so much as I am,| replied Hugh. |But could you spare me one or two of your Italian books?|

|With pleasure,| she answered, rising and going to her bookshelves.

|I want only a grammar, a dictionary, and a New Testament.|

|There they are,| she said, taking them down one after the other, and bringing them to him. |I daresay you will soon get up with poor stupid me.|

|I shall do my best to get within hearing of your voice, at least, in which Italian must be lovely.|

No reply, but a sudden droop of the head.

|But,| continued Hugh, |upon second thoughts, lest I should be compelled to remain dumb, or else annoy your delicate ear with discordant sounds, just give me one lesson in the pronunciation. Let me hear you read a little first.|

|With all my heart.|

Euphra began, and read delightfully; for she was an excellent Italian scholar. It was necessary that Hugh should look over the book. This was difficult while he remained standing, as she did not offer to lift it from the table. Gradually, therefore, and hardly knowing how, he settled into a chair by her side. Half-an-hour went by like a minute, as he listened to the silvery tones of her voice, breaking into a bell-like sound upon the double consonants of that sweet lady-tongue. Then it was his turn to read and be corrected, and read again and be again corrected. Another half-hour glided away, and yet another. But it must be confessed he made good use of the time -- if only it had been his own to use; for at the end of it he could pronounce Italian very tolerably -- well enough, at least, to keep him from fixing errors in his pronunciation, while studying the language alone. Suddenly he came to himself, and looked up as from a dream. Had she been bewitching him? He was in Euphra's room -- alone with her. And the door was shut -- how or when? And -- he looked at his watch -- poor little Harry had been waiting his return from the library, for the last hour and a half. He was conscience-stricken. He gathered up the books hastily, thanked Euphra in the same hurried manner, and left the room with considerable disquietude, closing the door very gently, almost guiltily, behind him.

I am afraid Euphra had been perfectly aware that he knew nothing about Italian. Did she see her own eyes shine in the mirror before her, as he closed the door? Was she in love with him, then?

When Hugh returned with the Italian books, instead of the encyclopædia he had gone to seek, he found Harry sitting where he had left him, with his arms and head on the table, fast asleep.

|Poor boy!| said Hugh to himself; but he could not help feeling glad he was asleep. He stole out of the room again, passed the fatal door with a longing pain, found the volume of his quest in the library, and, returning with it, sat down beside Harry. There he sat till he awoke.

When he did awake at last, it was almost time for luncheon. The shame-faced boy was exceedingly penitent for what was no fault, while Hugh could not relieve him by confessing his. He could only say:

|It was my fault, Harry dear. I stayed away too long. You were so nicely asleep, I would not wake you. You will not need a siesta, that is all.|

He was ashamed of himself, as he uttered the false words to the true-hearted child. But this, alas! was not the end of it all.

Desirous of learning the language, but far more desirous of commending himself to Euphra, Hugh began in downright earnest. That very evening, he felt that he had a little hold of the language. Harry was left to his own resources. Nor was there any harm in this in itself: Hugh had a right to part of every day for his own uses. But then, he had been with Harry almost every evening, or a great part of it, and the boy missed him much; for he was not yet self-dependent. He would have gone to Euphrasia, but somehow she happened to be engaged that evening. So he took refuge in the library, where, in the desolation of his spirit, Polexander began, almost immediately, to exercise its old dreary fascination upon him. Although he had not opened the book since Hugh had requested him to put it away, yet he had not given up the intention of finishing it some day; and now he took it down, and opened it listlessly, with the intention of doing something towards the gradual redeeming of the pledge he had given to himself. But he found it more irksome than ever. Still he read on; till at length he could discover no meaning at all in the sentences. Then he began to doubt whether he had read the words. He fixed his attention by main force on every individual word; but even then he began to doubt whether he could say he had read the words, for he might have missed seeing some of the letters composing each word. He grew so nervous and miserable over it, almost counting every letter, that at last he burst into tears, and threw the book down.

His intellect, which in itself was excellent, was quite of the parasitic order, requiring to wind itself about a stronger intellect, to keep itself in the region of fresh air and possible growth. Left to itself, its weak stem could not raise it above the ground: it would grow and mass upon the earth, till it decayed and corrupted, for lack of room, light, and air. But, of course, there was no danger in the meantime. This was but the passing sadness of an occasional loneliness.

He crept to Hugh's room, and received an invitation to enter, in answer to his gentle knock; but Hugh was so absorbed in his new study, that he hardly took any notice of him, and Harry found it almost as dreary here as in the study. He would have gone out, but a drizzling rain was falling; and he shrank into himself at the thought of the Ghost's Walk. The dinner-bell was a welcome summons.

Hugh, inspirited by the reaction from close attention, by the presence of Euphra, and by the desire to make himself generally agreeable, which sprung from the consciousness of having done wrong, talked almost brilliantly, delighting Euphra, overcoming Harry with reverent astonishment, and even interesting slow Mr. Arnold. With the latter Hugh had been gradually becoming a favourite; partly because he had discovered in him what he considered high-minded sentiments; for, however stupid and conventional Mr. Arnold might be, he had a foundation of sterling worthiness of character. Euphra, instead of showing any jealousy of this growing friendliness, favoured it in every way in her power, and now and then alluded to it in her conversations with Hugh, as affording her great satisfaction.

|I am so glad he likes you!| she would say.

|Why should she be glad?| thought Hugh.

This gentle claim of a kind of property in him, added considerably to the strength of the attraction that drew him towards her, as towards the centre of his spiritual gravitation; if indeed that could be called spiritual which had so little of the element of moral or spiritual admiration, or even approval, mingled with it. He never felt that Euphra was good. He only felt that she drew him with a vague force of feminine sovereignty -- a charm which he could no more resist or explain, than the iron could the attraction of the loadstone. Neither could he have said, had he really considered the matter, that she was beautiful -- only that she often, very often, looked beautiful. I suspect if she had been rather ugly, it would have been all the same for Hugh.

He pursued his Italian studies with a singleness of aim and effort that carried him on rapidly. He asked no assistance from Euphra, and said nothing to her about his progress. But he was so absorbed in it, that it drew him still further from his pupil. Of course he went out with him, walking or riding every day that the weather would permit; and he had regular school hours with him within doors. But during the latter, while Harry was doing something on his slate, or writing, or learning some lesson (which kind of work happened oftener now than he could have approved of), he would take up his Italian; and, notwithstanding Harry's quiet hints that he had finished what had been set him, remain buried in it for a long time. When he woke at last to the necessity of taking some notice of the boy, he would only appoint him something else to occupy him again, so as to leave himself free to follow his new bent. Now and then he would become aware of his blameable neglect, and make a feeble struggle to rectify what seemed to be growing into a habit -- and one of the worst for a tutor; but he gradually sank back into the mire, for mire it was, comforting himself with the resolution that as soon as he was able to read Italian without absolutely spelling his way, he would let Euphra see what progress he had made, and then return with renewed energy to Harry's education, keeping up his own new accomplishment by more moderate exercise therein. It must not be supposed, however, that a long course of time passed in this way. At the end of a fortnight, he thought he might venture to request Euphra to show him the passage which had perplexed her. This time he knew where she was -- in her own room; for his mind had begun to haunt her whereabouts. He knocked at her door, heard the silvery, thrilling, happy sound, |Come in;| and entered trembling.

|Would you show me the passage in Dante that perplexed you the other day?|

Euphra looked a little surprised; but got the book and pointed it out at once.

Hugh glanced at it. His superior acquaintance with the general forms of language enabled him, after finding two words in Euphra's larger dictionary, to explain it, to her immediate satisfaction.

|You astonish me,| said Euphra.

|Latin gives me an advantage, you see,| said Hugh modestly.

|It seems to be very wonderful, nevertheless.|

These were sweet sounds to Hugh's ear. He had gained his end. And she hers.

|Well,| she said, |I have just come upon another passage that perplexes me not a little. Will you try your powers upon that for me?|

So saying, she proceeded to find it.

|It is school-time,| said Hugh |I fear I must not wait now.|

|Pooh! pooh! Don't make a pedagogue of yourself. You know you are here more as a guardian -- big brother, you know -- to the dear child. By the way, I am rather afraid you are working him a little more than his constitution will stand.|

|Do you think so?| returned Hugh quite willing to be convinced. |I should be very sorry.|

|This is the passage,| said Euphra.

Hugh sat down once more at the table beside her. He found this morsel considerably tougher than the last. But at length he succeeded in pulling it to pieces and reconstructing it in a simpler form for the lady. She was full of thanks and admiration. Naturally enough, they went on to the next line, and the next stanza, and the next and the next; till -- shall I be believed? -- they had read a whole canto of the poem. Euphra knew more words by a great many than Hugh; so that, what with her knowledge of the words, and his insight into the construction, they made rare progress.

|What a beautiful passage it is!| said Euphra.

|It is indeed,| responded Hugh; |I never read anything more beautiful.|

|I wonder if it would be possible to turn that into English. I should like to try.|

|You mean verse, of course?|

|To be sure.|

|Let us try, then. I will bring you mine when I have finished it. I fear it will take some time, though, to do it well. Shall it be in blank verse, or what?|

|Oh! don't you think we had better keep the Terza Rima of the original?|

|As you please. It will add much to the difficulty.|

|Recreant knight! will you shrink from following where your lady leads?|

|Never! so help me, my good pen!| answered Hugh, and took his departure, with burning cheeks and a trembling at the heart. Alas! the morning was gone. Harry was not in his study: he sought and found him in the library, apparently buried in Polexander.

|I am so glad you are come,| said Harry; |I am so tired.|

|Why do you read that stupid book, then?|

|Oh! you know, I told you.|

|Tut! tut! nonsense! Put it away,| said Hugh, his dissatisfaction with himself making him cross with Harry, who felt, in consequence, ten times more desolate than before. He could not understand the change.

If it went ill before with the hours devoted to common labour, it went worse now. Hugh seized every gap of time, and widened its margins shamefully, in order to work at his translation. He found it very difficult to render the Italian in classical and poetic English. The three rhyming words, and the mode in which the stanzas are looped together, added greatly to the difficulty. Blank verse he would have found quite easy compared to this. But he would not blench. The thought of her praise, and of the yet better favour he might gain, spurred him on; and Harry was the sacrifice. But he would make it all up to him, when this was once over. Indeed, he would.

Thus he baked cakes of clay to choke the barking of Cerberian conscience. But it would growl notwithstanding.

The boy's spirit was sinking; but Hugh did not or would not see it. His step grew less elastic. He became more listless, more like his former self -- sauntering about with his hands in his pockets. And Hugh, of course, found himself caring less about him; for the thought of him, rousing as it did the sense of his own neglect, had become troublesome. Sometimes he even passed poor Harry without speaking to him.

Gradually, however, he grew still further into the favour of Mr. Arnold, until he seemed to have even acquired some influence with him. Mr. Arnold would go out riding with them himself sometimes, and express great satisfaction, not only with the way Harry sat his pony, for which he accorded Hugh the credit due to him, but with the way in which Hugh managed his own horse as well. Mr. Arnold was a good horseman, and his praise was especially grateful to Hugh, because Euphra was always near, and always heard it. I fear, however, that his progress in the good graces of Mr. Arnold, was, in a considerable degree, the result of the greater anxiety to please, which sprung from the consciousness of not deserving approbation. Pleasing was an easy substitute for well-doing. Not acceptable to himself, he had the greater desire to be acceptable to others; and so reflect the side-beams of a false approbation on himself -- who needed true light and would be ill-provided for with any substitute. For a man who is received as a millionaire can hardly help feeling like one at times, even if he knows he has overdrawn his banker's account. The necessity to Hugh's nature of feeling right, drove him to this false mode of producing the false impression. If one only wants to feel virtuous, there are several royal roads to that end. But, fortunately, the end itself would be unsatisfactory if gained; while not one of these roads does more than pretend to lead even to that land of delusion.

The reaction in Hugh's mind was sometimes torturing enough. But he had not strength to resist Euphra, and so reform.

Well or ill done, at length his translation was finished. So was Euphra's. They exchanged papers for a private reading first; and arranged to meet afterwards, in order to compare criticisms.

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