Gateway to the Classics: At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald
At the Back of the North Wind by  George MacDonald

The Seaside

D IAMOND and his mother sat down upon the edge of the rough grass that bordered the sand. The sun was just far enough past its highest not to shine in their eyes when they looked eastward. A sweet little wind blew on their left side, and comforted the mother without letting her know what it was that comforted her. Away before them stretched the sparkling waters of the ocean, every wave of which flashed out its own delight back in the face of the great sun, which looked down from the stillness of its blue house with gloriously silent face upon its flashing children. On each hand the shore rounded outwards, forming a little bay. There were no white cliffs here, as further north and south, and the place was rather dreary, but the sky got at them so much the better. Not a house, not a creature was within sight. Dry sand was about their feet, and under them thin wiry grass, that just managed to grow out of the poverty-stricken shore.

"Oh dear!" said Diamond's mother, with a deep sigh, "it's a sad world!"

"Is it?" said Diamond. "I didn't know."

"How should you know, child? You've been too well taken care of, I trust."

"Oh yes, I have," returned Diamond. "I'm sorry! I thought you were taken care of too. I thought my father took care of you. I will ask him about it. I think he must have forgotten."

"Dear boy!" said his mother; "your father's the best man in the world."

"So I thought!" returned Diamond with triumph. "I was sure of it!—Well, doesn't he take very good care of you?"

"Yes, yes, he does," answered his mother, bursting into tears. "But who's to take care of him? And how is he to take care of us if he's got nothing to eat himself?"

"Oh dear!" said Diamond with a gasp; "hasn't he got anything to eat? Oh! I must go home to him."

"No, no, child. He's not come to that yet. But what's to become of us, I don't know."

"Are you very hungry, mother? There's the basket. I thought you put something to eat in it."

"O you darling stupid! I didn't say I was hungry," returned his mother, smiling through her tears.

"Then I don't understand you at all," said Diamond. "Do tell me what's the matter."

"There are  people in the world who have nothing to eat, Diamond."

"Then I suppose they don't stop in it any longer. They—they—what you call—die—don't they?"

"Yes, they do. How would you like that?"

"I don't know. I never tried. But I suppose they go where they get something to eat."

"Like enough they don't want it," said his mother, petulantly.

"That's all right then," said Diamond, thinking I daresay more than he chose to put in words.

"Is it though? Poor boy! how little you  know about things! Mr. Coleman's lost all his money, and your father has nothing to do, and we shall have nothing to eat by and by."

"Are you sure, mother?"

"Sure of what?"

"Sure that we shall have nothing to eat."

"No, thank Heaven! I'm not sure of it. I hope not."

"Then I can't  understand it, mother. There's a piece of gingerbread in the basket, I know."

"O you little bird! You have no more sense than a sparrow that picks what it wants, and never thinks of the winter and the frost and the snow."

"Ah—yes—I see. But the birds get through the winter, don't they?"

"Some of them fall dead on the ground."

"They must die some time. They wouldn't like to be birds always. Would you, mother?"

"What a child it is!" thought his mother, but she said nothing.

"Oh! now I remember," Diamond went on. "Father told me that day I went to Epping Forest with him, that the rose-bushes, and the may-bushes, and the holly-bushes were the bird's barns, for there were the hips, and the haws, and the holly-berries, all ready for the winter."

"Yes; that's all very true. So you see the birds are provided for. But there are no such barns for you and me, Diamond."

"Ain't there?"

"No. We've got to work for our bread."

"Then let's go and work," said Diamond, getting up.

"It's no use. We've not got anything to do."

"Then let's wait."

"Then we shall starve."

"No. There's the basket. Do you know, mother, I think I shall call that basket the barn."

"It's not a very big one. And when it's empty—where are we then?"

"At auntie's cupboard," returned Diamond promptly.

"But we can't eat auntie's things all up and leave her to starve."

"No, no. We'll go back to father before that. He'll have found a cupboard somewhere by that time."

"How do you know that?"

"I don't know it. But I  haven't got even a cupboard, and I've always had plenty to eat. I've heard you say I had too much, sometimes."

"But I tell you that's because I've had a cupboard for you, child."

"And when yours was empty, auntie opened hers."

"But that can't go on."

"How do you know? I think there must be a big cupboard somewhere, out of which the little cupboards are filled, you know, mother."

"Well, I wish I could find the door of that cupboard," said his mother. But the same moment she stopped, and was silent for a good while. I cannot tell whether Diamond knew what she was thinking, but I think I know. She had heard something at church the day before, which came back upon her—something like this, that she hadn't to eat for tomorrow as well as for to-day; and that what was not wanted couldn't be missed. So, instead of saying anything more, she stretched out her hand for the basket, and she and Diamond had their dinner.

And Diamond did enjoy it. For the drive and the fresh air had made him quite hungry; and he did not, like his mother, trouble himself about what they should dine off that day week. The fact was he had lived so long without any food at all at the back of the north wind, that he knew quite well that food was not essential to existence; that in fact, under certain circumstances, people could live without it well enough.

His mother did not speak much during their dinner. After it was over she helped him to walk about a little, but he was not able for much and soon got tired. He did not get fretful, though. He was too glad of having the sun and the wind again, to fret because he could not run about. He lay down on the dry sand, and his mother covered him with a shawl. She then sat by his side, and took a bit of work from her pocket. But Diamond felt rather sleepy, and turned on his side and gazed sleepily over the sand. A few yards off he saw something fluttering.

"What is that, mother?" he said.

"Only a bit of paper," she answered.

"It flutters more than a bit of paper would, I think," said Diamond.

"I'll go and see if you like," said his mother. "My eyes are none of the best."

So she rose and went and found that they were both right, for it was a little book, partly buried in the sand. But several of its leaves were clear of the sand, and these the wind kept blowing about in a very flutterful manner. She took it up and brought it to Diamond.

"What is it, mother?" he asked.

"Some nursery rhymes, I think," she answered.

"I'm too sleepy," said Diamond. "Do read some of them to me."

"Yes, I will," she said, and began one.—"But this is such nonsense!" she said again. "I will try to find a better one."

She turned the leaves searching, but three times, with sudden puffs, the wind blew the leaves rustling back to the same verses.

"Do read that one," said Diamond, who seemed to be of the same mind as the wind. "It sounded very nice. I am sure it is a good one."

So his mother thought it might amuse him, though she couldn't find any sense in it. She never thought he might understand it, although she could not.

Now I do not exactly know what the mother read, but this is what Diamond heard, or thought afterwards that he had heard. He was, however, as I have said, very sleepy, and when he thought he understood the verses he may have been only dreaming better ones. This is how they went—

I know a river

whose waters run asleep

run run ever

singing in the shallows

dumb in the hollows

sleeping so deep

and all the swallows

that dip their feathers

in the hollows

or in the shallows

are the merriest swallows of all

for the nests they bake

with the clay they cake

with the water they shake

from their wings that rake

the water out of the shallows

or the hollows

will hold together

in any weather

and so the swallows

are the merriest fellows

and have the merriest children

and are built so narrow

like the head of an arrow

to cut the air

and go just where

the nicest water is flowing

and the nicest dust is blowing

for each so narrow

like head of an arrow

is only a barrow

to carry the mud he makes

from the nicest water flowing

and the nicest dust that is blowing

to build his nest

for her he loves best

with the nicest cakes

which the sunshine bakes

all for their merry children

all so callow

with beaks that follow

gaping and hollow

wider and wider

after their father

or after their mother

the food-provider

who brings them a spider

or a worm the poor hider

down in the earth

so there's no dearth

for their beaks as yellow

as the buttercups growing

beside the flowing

of the singing river

always and ever

growing and blowing

for fast as the sheep

awake or asleep

crop them and crop them

they cannot stop them

but up they creep

and on they go blowing

and so with the daisies

the little white praises

they grow and they blow

and they spread out their crown

and they praise the sun

and when he goes down

their praising is done

and they fold up their crown

and they sleep every one

till over the plain

he's shining amain

and they're at it again

praising and praising

such low songs raising

that no one hears them

but the sun who rears them

and the sheep that bite them

are the quietest sheep

awake or asleep

with the merriest bleat

and the little lambs

are the merriest lambs

they forget to eat

for the frolic in their feet

and the lambs and their dams

are the whitest sheep

with the woolliest wool

and the longest wool

and the trailingest tails

and they shine like snow

in the grasses that grow

by the singing river

that sings for ever

and the sheep and the lambs

are merry for ever

because the river

sings and they drink it

and the lambs and their dams

are quiet

and white

because of their diet

for what they bite

is buttercups yellow

and daisies white

and grass as green

as the river can make it

with wind as mellow

to kiss it and shake it

as never was seen

but here in the hollows

beside the river

where all the swallows

are merriest of fellows

for the nests they make

with the clay they cake

in the sunshine bake

till they are like bone

as dry in the wind

as a marble stone

so firm they bind

the grass in the clay

that dries in the wind

the sweetest wind

that blows by the river

flowing for ever

but never you find

whence comes the wind

that blows on the hollows

and over the shallows

where dip the swallows

alive it blows

the life as it goes

awake or asleep

into the river

that sings as it flows

and the life it blows

into the sheep

awake or asleep

with the woolliest wool

and the trailingest tails

and it never fails

gentle and cool

to wave the wool

and to toss the grass

as the lambs and the sheep

over it pass

and tug and bite

with their teeth so white

and then with the sweep

of their trailing tails

smooth it again

and it grows amain

and amain it grows

and the wind as it blows

tosses the swallows

over the hollows

and down on the shallows

till every feather

doth shake and quiver

and all their feathers

go all together

blowing the life

and the joy so rife

into the swallows

that skim the shallows

and have the yellowest children

for the wind that blows

is the life of the river

flowing for ever

that washes the grasses

still as it passes

and feeds the daisies

the little white praises

and buttercups bonny

so golden and sunny

with butter and honey

that whiten the sheep

awake or asleep

that nibble and bite

and grow whiter than white

and merry and quiet

on the sweet diet

fed by the river

and tossed for ever

by the wind that tosses

the swallow that crosses

over the shallows

dipping his wings

to gather the water

and bake the cake

that the wind shall make

as hard as a bone

as dry as a stone

it's all in the wind

that blows from behind

and all in the river

that flows for ever

and all in the grasses

and the white daisies

and the merry sheep

awake or asleep

and the happy swallows

skimming the shallows

and it's all in the wind

that blows from behind

Here Diamond became aware that his mother had stopped reading.

"Why don't you go on, mother dear?" he asked.

"It's such nonsense!" said his mother. "I believe it would go on for ever."

"That's just what it did," said Diamond.

"What did?" she asked.

"Why, the river. That's almost the very tune it used to sing."

His mother was frightened, for she thought the fever was coming on again. So she did not contradict him.

"Who made that poem?" asked Diamond.

"I don't know," she answered. "Some silly woman for her children, I suppose—and then thought it good enough to print."

"She must have been at the back of the north wind some time or other, anyhow," said Diamond. "She couldn't have got a hold of it anywhere else. That's just how it went." And he began to chant bits of it here and there; but his mother said nothing for fear of making him worse; and she was very glad indeed when she saw her brother-in-law jogging along in his little cart. They lifted Diamond in, and got up themselves, and away they went, "home again, home again, home again," as Diamond sang. But he soon grew quiet, and before they reached Sandwich he was fast asleep and dreaming of the country at the back of the north wind.

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