At the Back of the North Wind, by George MacDonald

Chapter III

North Wind Sinks a Ship

It was some time before he saw North Wind again. He saw the little girl before that but it was only for a moment. It happened in this way. His father was taking the horse, Diamond, to have new shoes put on him, and knowing that little Diamond, like all small boys, liked a ride, he set him on the horse and taking the bridle led the two Diamonds away.

The blacksmith’s shop was some distance away, deeper in London. As they crossed the angle of a square, Diamond, who was looking about to see if any one noticed him riding upon the big horse like a man, saw a little girl sweeping a crossing before a lady and holding out her hand for a penny. The lady had no penny and the little girl was disappointed.

Diamond could not stand that. He knew the little girl and he knew that he had a penny in his pocket. He slid off the horse in a sort of tumble and ran to her, holding out the penny. She did not know him at first, but when he smiled at her, she did. He stuffed the penny into her hand and ran back, for he knew his father would not care to wait. After that, he did not see little Nanny for a long time.

He played often now on the lawn of the house next door — Mr. Coleman’s lawn — as the summer drew near, warm and splendid. One evening, he was sitting in a little summer-house at the foot of the lawn, before which was a bed of tulips. They were closed for the night but the wind was waving them slightly. All at once, out of one of them, there flew a big buzzing bumblebee.

“There! That’s something done!” said a voice — a gentle, merry, childish voice but so tiny! “I was afraid he would have to stay there all night.”

Diamond looked all about and then he saw the tiniest creature, sliding down the stem of the tulip.

“Are you the fairy that herds the bees?” he asked kneeling down beside the tulip bed.

“I am not a fairy,” answered the little creature. “You stupid Diamond, have you never seen me before?”

As she spoke, a moan of wind bent the tulips almost to the ground and then he recognized North Wind.

“But there!” added the little creature, “I must not stay to chatter. I have to go and sink a ship to-night.”

“Sink a ship!” cried Diamond. “And drown the men and women in it? How dreadful! Still I cannot believe you are cruel, North Wind!”

“No, I could not be cruel, and yet I must often do what looks cruel to those who do not know. But the people they say I drown, I only carry away to the back of the north wind — only I never saw the place.”

“But how can you carry them there if you never saw the place? And how is it that you never saw it?”

“Because it is behind me. You cannot see your own back, you know. But run along now if you want to go with me to-night. I cannot take you till you have been to bed and gone to sleep. I’ll look about and do something till you are ready. Do you see that man over there on the river in the boat who is just floating about? Now watch!”

She flashed like a dragon-fly across the water whose surface rippled and puckered as she passed. The next moment, the man in the boat glanced about him and bent to his oars. The boat flew over the rippling water. The same instant almost, North Wind perched again upon the river wall.

“How did you do that?” asked Diamond.

“I just blew in his face and blew the mist out of him.”

“But what for? I don’t understand!” said Diamond. Hearing no answer, he looked down at the wall. North Wind was gone. Away across the river went a long ripple — what sailors call a cat’s paw. The man in the boat at once put up his sail. The moon was coming to herself on the edge of a great cloud and the sail began to shine white. Diamond rubbed his eyes and wondered what it was all about. But he felt that he could not know more till he had gone to bed, so he turned away and started for home. He stopped to look out of a window before going to bed. Above the moon, the clouds were streaming different ways, and the wind was rising as he fell asleep.

He woke in the middle of the night and the darkness. A terrible noise was rumbling overhead like the rolling beat of great drums. For a while, he could not come quite awake. But a second peal of thunder broke over his head and a great blast of wind followed which tore some tiles off the roof and, through the hole this made, sent a spout of wind down into his face. At the same moment, he heard a mighty, yet musical voice say, “Come up, Diamond! It’s all ready. I am waiting for you.” Then a gigantic arm was reached down which drew him up and clasped him against North Wind’s breast.

“Oh, North Wind!” he murmured. But the words vanished from his lips as he had seen the soap bubbles, that burst too soon, vanish from the mouth of his pipe. The wind caught them and they were no-where.

At the same moment, a peal of thunder which shook Diamond’s heart against his side boomed out of the heavens; I cannot say, out of the sky, for there was no sky. Diamond had not seen the lightning for he had been busy trying to find the face of North Wind. Every moment, the folds of her garment would sweep across his eyes and blind him. But between them, he could just catch glimpses of the great glories of her eyes looking down at him through the rifts of the huge clouds over his head.

“Oh dear North Wind!” cried the boy. “Why do you do like this? Must you go and sink the ship? It is not like you! Here you are, taking care of a poor little boy like me, with one arm, and there you are, sinking the ship with the other! No, no! It can’t be like you!”

“Then you must believe that I am cruel,” answered the strong voice of North Wind, sounding about him out of the clouds.

“No, dear North Wind, I can’t believe that. I don’t believe it. I will not believe it. How could you know how to put on such a beautiful face if you did not love me and love all the rest too? No! You may sink as many ships as you like — though I shall not like to see it!”

“That is quite another thing!” said North Wind.

As she spoke, she gave one spring from the roof and rushed up into the clouds. As if the clouds knew she had come, they burst into fresh thunderous light. Diamond seemed to be borne through an ocean of dazzling flame. The winds were writhing around him like a storm of serpents. For they were in the midst of the clouds and mists which of course took the shapes of the wind, eddying, and wreathing, and whirling, and shooting, and dashing about like gray and black water.

Now it blinded him by smiting him upon the eyes. Now it deafened him by bellowing in his ears. But he did not mind it. He only gasped at first, and then laughed, for the arm of North Wind was about him and he felt quite safe, though he knew that they were sweeping with the speed of the wind itself toward the sea! But before they reached it, Diamond felt North Wind’s hair beginning to fall down about him.

“Is the storm over, North Wind?” he called out.

“No, Diamond. I am only waiting for a moment to set you down. You will not like to see the ship sunk and I am going to give you a place to stop in till I come back. Look!”

With one sweep of her great white arm, she flung yards deep of darkness, like a great curtain, from before the face of the boy. And lo! it was a blue night lit up with stars. Where it did not shine with stars, it shimmered with a milky whiteness of stars except where, just before them, the gray towers of a cathedral blotted out the sky.

“A good place for you to wait in,” said North Wind and swept down upon the cathedral roof. They went in through an open door in one of the towers. Diamond found himself at the top of a stone stair which went twisting away down into the darkness. North Wind held his hand, and after a little, led him out upon a narrow gallery which ran all around the central part of the church. Below him, lay the inside of the church like a great silent gulf hollowed in stone. On and on, they walked along this narrow gallery till at last they reached a much broader stairway leading on down and down until at length, it led them down into the church itself.

There he felt himself clasped in the arms of North Wind who held him close and kissed him on the forehead. The next moment, she was gone, and Diamond heard a moaning about the church which grew and grew to a roaring. The storm was up again and he knew that North Wind’s hair was flying.

The church was dark. Only a little light came through the windows which were almost all of that precious old stained glass so much lovelier than the new. There was not enough light in the stars to show the colors in them. Diamond began to feel his way about the place, and for a little while went wandering up and down. His pattering foot-steps waked soft answering echoes in the stone house. It was as if the great cathedral somehow knew that his little self was there and went on giving back an answer to every step he took.

At last, he gave a great sigh and said, “I am so tired!” He did not hear the gentle echo which answered from far away over his head. For at that moment, he came against the lowest of a few steps that stretched across the church, and fell down and hurt his arm. He cried a little at first, and then crawled up the steps on his hands and knees. At the top, he came to a little bit of carpet on which he lay down. And there he lay staring at the dull windows that rose nearly a hundred feet above his head.

The moon was at that moment just on the edge of the horizon. And lo! with the moon, lovely figures began to dawn in the windows. He lay and looked at them backward over his head, wondering if they would come down. He heard a low, soft murmuring as if they were talking to themselves about him. But his eyes grew tired, and more and more tired. His eyelids grew so heavy that they would keep tumbling down over his eyes. He kept lifting them and lifting them. But every time, they were heavier than the last. It was no use! They were too much for him. Sometimes before he got them half way up, down they went again. At length, he gave it up quite, and the moment he gave it up, he was fast asleep!

When his eyes came wide open again, there were no lovely figures — or even windows — but a dark heap of hay all about him. The small panes in the roof of his loft were glimmering blue in the light of the morning. Old Diamond was coming awake down below in the stable. In a moment more he was on his feet and shaking himself so that young Diamond’s bed trembled under him.

“He is grand at shaking himself!” said Diamond. “I wish I could shake myself like that. But then I can wash myself and he can’t. What fun it would be to see old Diamond washing his face with his hoofs and iron shoes! Wouldn’t it be a picture!”

He dressed himself quickly and ran out. Down the stairs he went and through the little door out upon the lawn of Mr. Coleman’s house next door. He wanted to see how things looked since last night. There was the little summer-house with the tulip bed before it where he had been sitting the evening before, crushed to the ground! Over it lay the great elm tree which the wind had broken across! As he stood looking at it, a gentleman who was staying at the Coleman house came out upon the lawn.

“Dear me!” said the gentleman. “There has been terrible work here! This is the North Wind’s doing! What a pity! I wish we lived at the back of it, I am sure!”

“Where is that, sir?” asked Diamond.

“Away in the Hyperborean regions,” answered the gentleman. He smiled for he knew well enough that Diamond would not understand that big word which means the country away in the far, far north.

“I never heard of that place,” returned Diamond.

“No,” said the gentleman. “I suppose not. But if this tree had been there, it would not have been blown down. There is no wind in that country.”

“That must be the place,” said Diamond to himself, “where North Wind said she would take the people whom she sunk with the ship. Next time I see her, I am going to ask her to take me to see that land, too.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09