George MacDonald.

Wilfrid Cumbermede (Volume 1) online

. (page 2 of 14)
Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldWilfrid Cumbermede (Volume 1) → online text (page 2 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


To my childish eyes there was something very
grand about my uncle. His face was large -
featured and handsome; he was tall, and stoop-
ed meditatively. I think my respect for him
was founded a good deal upon the reverential
way in which my aunt regarded him. And
there was great wisdom, I came to know, behind
that countenance, a golden speech behind that

My reader must not imagine that the prevail-
ing silence of the house oppressed me. I had
been brought up in it, and never felt it. My own
thoughts, if thoughts those conditions of mind
could be called, which were chiefly passive re-
sults of external influences — whatever they
were — thoughts or feelings, sensations, or dim,
slow movements of mind — they filled the great
pauses of speech ; and besides, I could read the
faces of both my uncle and aunt like the pages
of a well-known book. Every shade of alter-
ation in them I was familiar with, for their
changes were not many.


Although my uncle's habit was silence, how-
ever, he would now and then take a fit of talk-
ing to me. I remember many such talks ; the
better, perhaps, that they were divided by long
intervals. I had perfect confidence in his
wisdom, and submission to his will. I did not
much mind my aunt. Perhaps her deference to
my uncle made me feel as if she and I were
more on a level. She must have been really
kind, for she never resented any petulance or
carelessness. Possibly she sacrificed her own
feeling to the love my uncle bore me ; but I
think it was rather that, because he cared for
me, she cared for me too.

Twice during every meal she would rise
from the table with some dish in her hand, open
the door behind the chimney, and ascend the
winding stair.




T FEAR my reader may have thought me too
■*■ long occupied with the explanatory founda-
tions of my structure : I shall at once proceed
to raise its walls of narrative. Whatever further
explanations may be necessary, can be applied
as buttresses in lieu of a broader base.

One Sunday — it was his custom of a Sunday
— I fancy I was then somewhere about six
years of age — my uncle rose from the table
after our homely dinner, took me by the hand,
and led me to the dark door with the long
arrow-headed hinges, and up the winding stone
stair which I never ascended except with him
or my aunt. At the top was another rugged
door, and within that, one covered with green
baize. The last opened on what had always


seemed to me a very paradise of a room. It
was old fashioned enough ; but childhood is of
any and every age, and it was not old-fashioned
to me — only intensely cosy and comfortable.
The first thing my eyes generally rested upon
was an old bureau, with a book-case on the top
of it, the glass-doors of which were lined with
faded red silk. The next thing I would see
was a small tent-bed, with the whitest of
curtains, and enchanting fringes of white ball-
tassels. The bed was covered with an equally
charming counterpane of silk patchwork. The
next object was the genius of the place, in a
high, close, easy-chair, covered with some dark
stuff, against which her face, surrounded with
its widow's cap, of ancient form, but dazzling
whiteness, was strongly relieved. How shall I
describe the shrunken, yet delicate, the gracious,
if not graceful form, and the face from which
extreme old age had not wasted half the loveli-
ness ? Yet I always beheld it with an inde-
scribable sensation, one of whose elements I can
isolate and identify as a faint fear. Perhaps
this arose partly from the fact that, in going up
the stair, more than once my uncle had said to


me, "You must not mind what grannie says,
Willie, for old people will often speak strange
things that young people cannot understand.
But you must love grannie, for she is a very
good old lady."

" Well, grannie, how are you to-day V said
my uncle, as we entered, this particular

I may as well mention at once that my uncle
called her grannie in his own right and not in
mine, for she was in truth my great-grand-

" Pretty well, David, I thank you ; but much
too long out of my grave," answered grannie ;
in no sepulchral tones, however, for her voice,
although weak and uneven, had a sound in it
like that of one of the upper strings of a violin.
The plaintiveness of it touched me, and I crept
near her — nearer than, I believe, I had ever yet
gone of my own will — and laid my hand up-
on hers. I withdrew it instantly, for there
was something in the touch that made me — not
shudder, exactly — but creep. Her hand was
smooth and soft, and warm too, only somehow
the skin of it seemed dead. With a quicker


movement than belonged to her years, she
caught hold of mine, which she kept in one of
her hands, while she stroked it with the other.
My slight repugnance vanished for the time,
and I looked up in her face, grateful for a
tenderness which was altogether new to me.

" What makes you so long out of your grave,
grannie 1" I asked.

" They won't let me into it, my dear."

" Who won't let you, grannie ?"

" My own grandson there, and the woman
down the stair."

" But you don't really want to go — do you,
grannie V 9

" I do want to go, Willie. I ought to have
been there long ago. I am very old ; so old
that I've forgotten how old I am. How old am
I?" she asked, looking up at my uncle.

"Nearly ninety-five, grannie; and the older
you get before you go, the better we shall be
pleased, as you know very well."

" There ! I told you," she said with a smile,
not all of pleasure, as she turned her head to-
wards me. " They won't let me go. I want
to go to my grave, and they won't let me ! Is


that an age at which to keep a poor woman
from her grave I "

" But it's not a nice place, is it, grannie ?" I
asked, with the vaguest ideas of what the grave
meant. " I think somebody told me it was in
the churchyard."

But neither did I know with any clearness
what the church itself meant, for we were a long
way from church, and I had never been there

" Yes, it is in the churchyard, my dear."

" Is it a house 1" I asked.

" Yes, a little house ; just big enough for

" I shouldn't like that."

" Oh yes, you would."

" Is it a nice place, then ?"

" Yes, the nicest place in the world, when you
get to be so old as I am. If they would only
let me die !"

" Die, grannie !" I exclaimed. My notions of
death as yet were derived only from the fowls
brought from the farm, with their necks hang-
ing down long and limp, and their heads wag-
ging hither and thither.


" Come, grannie, you mustn't frighten our
little man," interposed my uncle, looking kindly
at us both.

" David !" said grannie, with a reproachful
dignity, "you know what I mean well enough.
You know that until I have done what I have
to do, the grave that is waiting for me will not
open its mouth to receive me. If you will only
allow me to do what I have to do, I shall not
trouble you long. Oh dear ! oh dear !" she
broke out, moaning and rocking herself to and
fro, " I am too old to weep, and they will not
let me to my bed. I want to go to bed. I want
to go to sleep."

She moaned and complained like a child.
My uncle went near and took her hand.

" Come, come, dear grannie !" he said, " you
must not behave like this. You know all things
are for the best."

" To keep a corpse out of its grave !" retorted
the old lady, almost fiercely, only she was too
old and weak to be fierce. " Why should you
keep a soul that's longing to depart and go to its
own people, lingering on in the coffin ? What
better than a coffin is this withered body ? The


child is old enough to understand me. Leave
him with me for half an hour, and I shall
trouble you no longer. I shall at least wait
my end in peace. But 1 think I should die
before the morning."

Ere grannie had finished this sentence, I had
shrunk from her again and retreated behind my

" There!" she went on, "you make my own
child fear me. Don't be frightened, Willie
dear ; your old mother is not a wild beast ; she
loves you dearly. Only my grand-children
are so un dutiful ! They will not let my own
son come near me."

How I recall this I do not know, for I could
not have understood it at the time. The fact
is that during the last few years I have found
pictures of the past returning upon me in the
most vivid and unaccountable manner, so much
so as almost to alarm me. Things I had utterly
forgotten — or so far at least that when they
return they must appear only as vivid imagina-
tions, were it not for a certain conviction of
fact which accompanies them — are constantly
dawning out of the past. Can it be that the


decay of the observant faculties allows the
memory to revive and gather force? But I
must refrain, for my business is to narrate, not
to speculate.

My uncle took me by the hand, and turned
to leave the room. I cast one look at grannie
as he led me away. She had thrown her head
back on her chair, and her eyes were closed ;
but her face looked offended, almost angry.
She looked to my fancy as if she were trying
but unable to lie down. My uncle closed the
doors very gently. In the middle of the stair
he stopped, and said in a low voice,

" Willie, do you know that when people grow
very old they are not quite like other people ?"

"Yes. They want to go to the churchyard,"
1 answered.

"They fancy things," said my uncle.
" Grannie thinks you are her own son."

"And ain't I ?" I asked innocently.

" Not exactly," he answered. " Your father
was her son's son. She forgets that, and wants
to talk to you as if you were your grandfather.
Poor old grannie ! I don't wish you to go and
see her without your aunt or me : mind that."


Whether I made any promise I do not re-
member ; but I know that a new something was
mingled with my life from that moment. An
air as it were of the tomb mingled henceforth
with the homely delights of my life. Grannie
wanted to die, and uncle would not let her.
She longed for her grave, and they would keep
her above ground. And from the feeling that
grannie ought to be buried, grew an awful
sense that she was not alive — not alive, that is,
as other people are alive, and a gulf was fixed
between her and me which for a long time I
never attempted to pass, avoiding as much as
I could all communication with her, even when
my uncle or aunt wished to take me to her
room. They did not seem displeased, however,
when I objected, and not always insisted on
obedience. Thus affairs went on in our quiet
household for what seemed to me a very long





TT may have been a year after this, it may
-*- have been two, I cannot tell, when the
next great event in my life occurred. I think it
was towards the close of an Autumn, but there
was not so much about our house as elsewhere
to mark the changes of the seasons, for the grass
was always green. 1 remember it was a sultry
afternoon. I had been out almost the whole
day, wandering hither and thither over the
grass, and I felt hot and oppressed. Not an
air was stirring. I longed for a breath of wind,
for I was not afraid of the wind itself, only of
the trees that made it. Indeed, I delighted
in the wind, and would run against it with exu-
berant pleasure, even rejoicing in the fancy that
I, as well as the trees, could make the wind by


shaking my hair about as I ran. I must run,
however ; whereas the trees, whose prime busi-
ness it was, could do it without stirring from
the spot. But this was much too hot an after-
noon for me, whose mood was always more
inclined to the passive than the active, to run
about and toss my hair, even for the sake of the
breeze that would result therefrom. I be-
thought myself. I was nearly a man now ; I
would be afraid of things no more ; I would get
out my pendulum, and see whether that would
not help me. Not this time would I flinch from
what consequences might follow. Let them be
what they might, the pendulum should wag,
and have a fair chance of doing its best.

I went up to my room, a sense of high em-
prise filling my little heart. Composedly, yea
solemnly, I set to work, even as some enchanter
of old might have drawn his circle, and chosen
his spell out of his iron-clasped volume. I
strode to the closet in which the awful instru-
ment dwelt. It stood in the furthest corner.
As I lifted it, something like a groan invaded
my ear. My notions of locality were not then
sufficiently developed to let me know that

D 2


grannie's room was on the other side of that
closet. I almost let the creature, for as such I
regarded it, drop. I was not to be deterred,
however. I bore it carefully to the light, and
set it gently on the window sill, full in view of
the distant trees towards the west. I left it
then for a moment, as if that it might gather its
strength for its unwonted labours, while I closed
the door, and, with what fancy I can scarcely
imagine now, the curtains of my bed as well.
Possibly it was with some notion of having one
place to which, if the worst came to the worst,
I might retreat for safety. Again I approached
the window, and after standing for some time
in contemplation of the pendulum, I set it in
motion, and stood watching it.

It swung slower and slower. It wanted to
stop. It should not stop. I gave it another
swing. On it went, at first somewhat distract-
edly, next more regularly, then with slowly re-
tarding movement. But it should not stop.

I turned in haste and got from the side of
my bed the only chair in the room, placed it in
the window, sat down before the reluctant in-
strument, and gave it a third swing. Then,


my elbows on the sill, I sat and watched it with
growing awe, but growing determination as
well. Once more it showed signs of refusal ;
once more the forefinger of my right hand ad-
ministered impulse.

Something gave a crack inside the creature :
away went the pendulum, swinging with a
will. I sat and gazed, almost horror-stricken.
Ere many moments had passed, the feeling of
terror had risen to such a height that, but for
the very terror, I would have seized the pen-
dulum in a frantic grasp. I did not. On it
went, and I sat looking. My dismay was gra-
dually subsiding.

I have learned since that a certain ancestor
— or was he only a great-uncle? — 1 forget — had
a taste for mechanics, even to the craze of the
perpetual motion, and could work well in brass
and iron. The creature was probably some in-
vention of his. It was a real marvel how, after
so many years of idleness, it could now go as it
did. I confess, as I contemplate the thing, I
am in a puzzle, and almost fancy the whole a
dream. But let it pass, At worst, something
of which this is the sole representative residuum,


wrought an effect on me which embodies its
cause thus, as I search for it in the past. And
why should not the individual life have its misty
legends as well as that of nations? From
them, as from the golden and rosy clouds of
morning, dawns at last the true sun of its un-
questionable history. Every boy has his own
fables, just as the Romes and the Englands of
the world have their Romuli and their Arthurs,
their suckling wolves and their granite-sheathed
swords. Do they not reflect each other? I
tell the tale as 'tis left in me.

How long I sat thus gazing at the now self-
impelled instrument, I cannot say. The next
point in the progress of the legend, is a gust of
wind rattling the window in whose recess I was
seated. 1 jumped from my chair in terror.
While I had been absorbed in the pendulum,
the evening had closed in ; clouds had gathered
over the sky, and all was gloomy about the
house. It was much too dark to see the distant
trees, but there could be no doubt they were at
work. The pendulum had roused them.
Another, a third, and a fourth gust rattled and
shook the rickety frame. I had done it at last !


The trees were busy away there in the dark-
ness. I and my pendulum could make the

The gusts came faster and faster, and grew
into blasts which settled into a steady gale.
The pendulum went on swinging to and fro,
and the gale went on increasing in violence. I
sat half in terror, half in delight at the awful
success of my experiment. I would have open-
ed the window to let in the coveted air, but
that was beyond my knowledge and strength.
I could make the wind blow, but, like other
magicians, I could not share in its benefits. I
would go out and meet it on the open plain. I
crept down the stair like a thief — not that I
feared detention, but that I felt such a sense of
the important, even the dread, about myself
and my instrument, that I was not in harmony
with souls reflecting only the common affairs of
life. In a moment I was in the middle of a
storm — for storm it very nearly was and soon
became. I rushed to and fro in the midst of it,
lay down and rolled in it, and laughed and
shouted as I looked up to the window where
the pendulum was swinging, and thought of


the trees at work away in the dark. The wind
grew stronger and stronger. What if the
pendulum should not stop at all, and the wind
went on and on, growing louder and fiercer, till
it grew mad and blew away the house ? Ah,
then, poor grannie would have a chance of
being buried at last ! Seriously, the affair might
grow serious.

Such thoughts were passing in my mind, when
all at once the wind gave a roar which made
me spring to my feet and rush for the house. I
must stop the pendulum. There was a strange
sound in that blast. The trees themselves had
had enough of it, and were protesting against
the creature's tyranny. Their master was
working them too hard. I ran up the stair on all
fours: it was my way when I was in a hurry.
Swinging went the pendulum in the window,
and the wind roared in the chimney. I seized
hold of the oscillating thing, and stopped it ; but
to my amaze and consternation, the moment I
released it, on it went again. I must sit and
hold it. But the voice of my aunt called me
from below, and as I dared not explain why I
would rather not appear, I was forced to obey.


I lingered on the stair, half minded to re-

" What a rough night it is !" I heard my aunt
say, with rare remark.

"It gets worse and worse," responded my
uncle. " I hope it won't disturb grannie ;
but the wind must roar fearfully in her chim-

I stood like a culprit. What if they should
find out that I was at the root of the mischief,
at the heart of the storm !

" If I could believe all that I have been reading
to-night about the Prince of the Power of the Air,
I should not like this storm at all," continued my
uncle, with a smile. " But books are not al-
ways to be trusted because they are old," he
added with another smile. " From the glass, I
expected rain and not wind."

" Whatever wind there is, we get it all," said
my aunt. " I wonder what Willie is about.
I thought I heard him coming down. Isn't it
time, David, we did something about his school-
ing ? It won't do to have him idling about this
way all day long."

" He's a mere child," returned my uncle. " I'm


not forgetting him. But I can't send him away


" You know best," returned my aunt.
Send me away ! What could it mean ? Why
should I — where should I go? Was not the
old place a part of me, j ust like my own clothes
on my own body ? This was the kind of feel-
ing that woke in me at the words. But hearing
my aunt push back her chair, evidently with
the purpose of finding me, I descended into the

" Come along, Willie," said my uncle. " Hear
the wind how it roars I"

u Yes, uncle ; it does roar," I said, feeling a
hypocrite for the first time in my life. Knowing
far more about the roaring than he did, I yet
spoke like an innocent !

"Do you know who makes the wind,
Willie ?"

" Yes. The trees," I answered.
My uncle opened his blue eyes very wide, and
looked at my aunt. He had had no idea what
a little heathen I was. The more a man has
wrought out his own mental condition, the
readier he is to suppose that children must be


able to work out theirs, and to forget that he
did not work out his information, but only his
conclusions. My uncle began to think it was
time to take me in hand.

"No, Willie," he said. "I must teach you
better than that."

I expected him to begin by telling me that
God made the wind ; but, whether it was that
what the old book said about the Prince of the
Power of the Air returned upon him, or that he
thought it an unfitting occasion for such a lesson
when the wind was roaring so as might render
its divine origin questionable, he said no more.
Bewildered, I fancy, with my ignorance, he
turned, after a pause, to my aunt.

" Don't you think it's time for him to go to
bed, Jane?" he suggested.

My aunt replied by getting from the cupboard
my usual supper — a basin of milk and a slice of
bread ; which I ate with less circumspection
than usual, for I was eager to return to my
room. As soon as I had finished, Nannie was
called, and I bade them good night.

" Make haste, Nannie," I said. " Don't you
hear how the wind is roaring ?"


It was roaring louder than ever, and there
was the pendulum swinging away in the
window. Nannie took no notice of it, and, I
presume, only thought I wanted to get my
head under the bed-clothes, and so escape the
sound of it. Anyhow, she did make haste, and in
a very few minutes I was, as she supposed, snugly
settled for the night. But the moment she shut
the door, I was out of bed, and at the window.
The instant I reached it, a great dash of rain
swept against the panes, and the wind bowled
more fiercely than ever. Believing I had the
key of the position, inasmuch as, if I pleased, I
could take the pendulum to bed with me, and
stifle its motions with the bed-clothes — for this
happy idea had dawned upon me while Nannie
was undressing me — I was composed enough
now to press my face to a pane, and look out.
There was a small space amidst the storm dimly
illuminated from the windows below, and the
moment I looked — out of the darkness into this
dim space, as if blown thither by the wind,
rushed a figure on horseback, his large cloak
flying out before him, and the mane of the
animal he rode streaming out over his ears


in the fierceness of the blast. He pulled
up right under my window, and I thought he
looked up, and made threatening gestures at
me ; but I believe now that horse and man
pulled up in sudden danger of dashing against
the wall af the house. I shrank back, and when
I peeped out again he was gone. The same
moment the pendulum gave a click and stop-
ped ; one more rattle of rain against the win-
dows, and then the wind stopped also. I crept
back to my bed in a new terror, for might not
this be the Prince of the Power of the Air, come
to see who was meddling with his affairs ? Had
he not come right out of the storm, and straight
from the trees ? He must have something to
do with it all ! Before I had settled the pro-
babilities of the question, however, I was fast

I awoke — how long after, I cannot tell — with
the sound of voices in my ears. It was still
dark. The voices came from below. I had been
dreaming of the strange horseman, who had
turned out to be the awful being concerning
whom Nannie had enlightened me as going
about at night to buy little children from their


nurses, and make bagpipes of their skins.
Awaked from such a dream, it was impossible
to lie still without knowing what those voices
down below were talking about. The strange
one must belong to the being, whatever he was,
whom I had seen come out of the storm ; and of
whom could they be talking but me ? I was right
in both conclusions.

With a fearful resolution I slipped out of bed,
opened the door as noiselessly as I might, and
crept on my bare, silent feet down the creaking
stair, which led, with open balustrade, right in-
to the kitchen, at the end furthest from the

2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldWilfrid Cumbermede (Volume 1) → online text (page 2 of 14)