Chapter XV. Donal Grant.




Hungering minds come of peasant people as often as of any, and have appeared in Scotland as often, I fancy, as in any nation; not every Scotsman, therefore, who may not himself have known one like Donal, will refuse to believe in such a herd-laddie. Besides, there are still those in Scotland, as well as in other nations, to whom the simple and noble, not the commonplace and selfish, is the true type of humanity. Of such as Donal, whether English or Scotch, is the class coming up to preserve the honour and truth of our Britain, to be the oil of the lamp of her life, when those who place her glory in knowledge, or in riches, shall have passed from her history as the smoke from her chimneys.

Cheap as education then was in Scotland, the parents of Donal Grant had never dreamed of sending a son to college. It was difficult for them to save even the few quarterly shillings that paid the fees of the parish schoolmaster: for Donal, indeed, they would have failed even in this, but for the help his brothers and sisters afforded. After he left school, however, and got a place as herd, he fared better than any of the rest, for at the Mains he found a friend and helper in Fergus Duff, his master's second son, who was then at home from college, which he had now attended two winters. Partly that he was delicate in health, partly that he was something of a fine gentleman, he took no share with his father and elder brother in the work of the farm, although he was at the Mains from the beginning of April to the end of October. He was a human kind of soul notwithstanding, and would have been much more of a man if he had thought less of being a gentleman. He had taken a liking to Donal, and having found in him a strong desire after every kind of knowledge of which he himself had any share, had sought to enliven the tedium of an existence rendered not a little flabby from want of sufficient work, by imparting to him of the treasures he had gathered. They were not great, and he could never have carried him far, for he was himself only a respectable student, not a little lacking in perseverance, and given to dreaming dreams of which he was himself the hero. Happily, however, Donal was of another sort, and from the first needed but to have the outermost shell of a thing broken for him, and that Fergus could do: by and by Donal would break a shell for himself.

But perhaps the best thing Fergus did for him was the lending him books. Donal had an altogether unappeasable hunger after every form of literature with which he had as yet made acquaintance, and this hunger Fergus fed with the books of the house, and many besides of such as he purchased or borrowed for his own reading--these last chiefly poetry. But Fergus Duff, while he revelled in the writings of certain of the poets of the age, was incapable of finding poetry for himself in the things around him: Donal Grant, on the other hand, while he seized on the poems Fergus lent him, with an avidity even greater than his, received from the nature around him influences similar to those which exhaled from the words of the poet. In some sense, then, Donal was original; that is, he received at first hand what Fergus required to have "put on" him, to quote Celia, in As you like it, "as pigeons feed their young." Therefore, fiercely as it would have harrowed the pride of Fergus to be informed of the fact, he was in the kingdom of art only as one who ate of what fell from the table, while his father's herd-boy was one of the family. This was as far from Donal's thought, however, as from that of Fergus; the condescension, therefore, of the latter did not impair the gratitude for which the former had such large reason; and Donal looked up to Fergus as to one of the lords of the world.

To find himself now in the reversed relation of superior and teacher to the little outcast, whose whole worldly having might be summed in the statement that he was not absolutely naked, woke in Donal an altogether new and strange feeling; yet gratitude to his master had but turned itself round, and become tenderness to his pupil.

After Donal left him in the field, and while he was ministering, first to his beasts and then to himself, Gibbie lay on the grass, as happy as child could well be. A loving hand laid on his feet or legs would have found them like ice; but where was the matter so long as he never thought of them? He could have supped a huge bicker of sowens, and eaten a dozen potatoes; but of what mighty consequence is hunger, so long as it neither absorbs the thought, nor causes faintness? The sun, however, was going down behind a great mountain, and its huge shadow, made of darkness, and haunted with cold, came sliding across the river, and over valley and field, nothing staying its silent wave, until it covered Gibbie with the blanket of the dark, under which he could not long forget that he was in a body to which cold is unfriendly. At the first breath of the night-wind that came after the shadow, he shivered, and starting to his feet, began to trot, increasing his speed until he was scudding up and down the field like a wild thing of the night, whose time was at hand, waiting until the world should lie open to him. Suddenly he perceived that the daisies, which all day long had been full-facing the sun, like true souls confessing to the father of them, had folded their petals together to points, and held them like spear-heads tipped with threatening crimson, against the onset of the night and her shadows, while within its white cone each folded in the golden heart of its life, until the great father should return, and, shaking the wicked out of the folds of the night, render the world once more safe with another glorious day. Gibbie gazed and wondered; and while he gazed--slowly, glidingly, back to his mind came the ghost-mother of the ballad, and in every daisy he saw her folding her neglected orphans to her bosom, while the darkness and the misery rolled by defeated. He wished he knew a ghost that would put her arms round him. He must have had a mother once, he supposed, but he could not remember her, and of course she must have forgotten him. He did not know that about him were folded the everlasting arms of the great, the one Ghost, which is the Death of death--the life and soul of all things and all thoughts. The Presence, indeed, was with him, and he felt it, but he knew it only as the wind and shadow, the sky and closed daisies: in all these things and the rest it took shape that it might come near him. Yea, the Presence was in his very soul, else he could never have rejoiced in friend, or desired ghost to mother him: still he knew not the Presence. But it was drawing nearer and nearer to his knowledge--even in sun and air and night and cloud, in beast and flower and herd-boy, until at last it would reveal itself to him, in him, as Life Himself. Then the man would know that in which the child had rejoiced. The stars came out, to Gibbie the heavenly herd, feeding at night, and gathering gold in the blue pastures. He saw them, looking up from the grass where he had thrown himself to gaze more closely at the daisies; and the sleep that pressed down his eyelids seemed to descend from the spaces between the stars. But it was too cold that night to sleep in the fields, when he knew where to find warmth. Like a fox into his hole, the child would creep into the corner where God had stored sleep for him: back he went to the barn, gently trotting, and wormed himself through the cat-hole.

The straw was gone! But he remembered the hay. And happily, for he was tired, there stood the ladder against the loft. Up he went, nor turned aside to the cheese; but sleep was common property still. He groped his way forward through the dark loft until he found the hay, when at once he burrowed into it like a sand-fish into the wet sand. All night the white horse, a glory vanished in the dark, would be close to him, behind the thin partition of boards. He could hear his very breath as he slept, and to the music of it, audible sign of companionship, he fell fast asleep, and slept until the waking horses woke him.



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