Gutta Percha Willie, the Working Genius

Home - George MacDonald - Gutta Percha Willie, the Working Genius

Prev | Next | Contents


As soon as Willie began a new study, he began trying to get at the sense of it. This caused his progress to be slow at first, and him to appear dull amongst those who merely learned by rote; but as he got a hold of the meaning of it all, his progress grew faster and faster, until at length in most studies he outstripped all the rest.

I need hardly repeat that the constant exercise of his mind through his fingers, in giving a second existence outside of him to what had its first existence inside him--that is, in his mind, made it far easier for him to understand the relations of things that go to make up a science. A boy who could put a box together must find Euclid easier--the Second Book particularly--than one who had no idea of the practical relations of the boundaries of spaces; one who could contrive a machine like his water-wheel, must be able to understand the interdependence of the parts of a sentence better than one equally gifted otherwise, but who did not know how one wheel could move another. Everything he did would help his arithmetic, and geography, and history; and these and those and all things besides, would help him to understand poetry.

In his Latin sentences he found the parts fit into each other like dove-tailing; finding the terms of equations, he said, was like inventing machines, and he soon grew clever at solving them. It was not from his manual abilities alone that his father had given him the name of Gutta-Percha Willie, but from the fact that his mind, once warmed to interest, could accommodate itself to the peculiarities of any science, just as the gutta-percha which is used for taking a mould fits itself to the outs and ins of any figure.

He still employed his water-wheel to pull him out of bed in the middle of the night. He had, of course, to make considerable alterations in, or rather additions to, its machinery, after changing his bed-room, for it had then to work in a direction at right angles to the former; but this he managed perfectly.

It is well for Willie's reputation with a certain, and that not a small class of readers, that there was something even they would call useful in several of his inventions and many of his efforts; in his hydraulics, for instance, by means of which he saved old Tibby's limbs; in his house-building, too, by means of which they were able to take in grannie; and, for a long time now, he had been doing every little repair wanted in the house. If a lock went wrong, he would have it off at once and taken to pieces. If less would not do, he carried it to the smithy, but very seldom troubled Mr Willett about it, for he had learned to do small jobs, and to heat and work and temper a piece of iron within his strength as well as any man. His mother did not much like this part of his general apprenticeship, for he would get his hands so black sometimes on a Saturday afternoon that he could not get them clean enough for church the next day; and sometimes he would come home with little holes burnt here and there in his clothes by the sparks from the red-hot iron when beaten on the anvil. Concerning this last evil, she spoke at length to Hector, who made him a leather apron, like Mr Willett's, which thereafter he always wore when he had a job to do in the smithy.

It is well, I say, that the utility of such of his doings as these will be admitted by all; for some other objects upon which he spent much labour would, by most people, be regarded as utterly useless. Few, for instance, would allow there was any value in a water-wheel which could grind no corn, and was of service only to wake him in the middle of the night--not for work, not for the learning of a single lesson, but only that he might stare out of the window for a while, and then get into bed again. For my part, nevertheless, I think it a most useful contrivance. For all lovely sights tend to keep the soul pure, to lift the heart up to God, and above, not merely what people call low cares, but what people would call reasonable cares, although our great Teacher teaches us that such cares are unjust towards our Father in Heaven. More than that, by helping to keep the mind calm and pure, they help to keep the imagination, which is the source of all invention, active, and the judgment, which weighs all its suggestions, just. Whatever is beautiful is of God, and it is only ignorance or a low condition of heart and soul that does not prize what is beautiful. If I had a choice between two mills, one that would set fine dinners on my table, and one that would show me lovely sights in earth and sky and sea, I know which I should count the more useful.

Perhaps there is not so much to be said for the next whim of Willie's; but a part at least of what I have just written will apply to it also.

What put it in his head I am not sure, but I think it was two things together--seeing a soaring lark radiant with the light of the unrisen sun, and finding in a corner of Spelman's shop a large gilt ball which had belonged to an old eight-day clock he had bought. The passage in which he set it up was so low that he had to remove the ornaments from the top of it, but this one was humbled that it might be exalted.

The very sight of it set Willie thinking what he could do with it; for he not only meditated how to do a thing, but sometimes what to make a thing do. Nor was it long ere he made up his mind, and set about a huge kite, more than six feet high--a great strong monster, with a tail of portentous length--to the top of the arch of which he attached the golden ball. Then he bought a quantity of string, and set his wheel to call him up an hour before sunrise.

One morning was too still, another too cloudy, and a third wet; but at last came one clear and cool, with a steady breeze which sent the leaves of the black poplars all one way. He dressed with speed, and, taking his kite and string, set out for a grass field belonging to Farmer Thomson, where he found most of the daisies still buttoned up in sleep, their red tips all together, as tight and close as the lips of a baby that won't take what is offered it--as if they never meant to have anything more to do with the sun, and would never again show him the little golden sun they had themselves inside of them. In a few minutes the kite had begun to soar, slowly and steadily, then faster and faster, until at length it was towering aloft, tugging and pulling at the string, which he could not let out fast enough. He kept looking up after it intently as it rose, when suddenly a new morning star burst out in golden glitter. It was the gilt ball; it saw the sun. The glory which, striking on the heart of the lark, was there transmuted into song, came back from the ball, after its kind, in glow and gleam. He danced with delight, and shouted and sang his welcome to the resurrection of the sun, as he watched his golden ball alone in the depth of the air.

He never thought of any one hearing him, nor was it likely that any one in the village would be up yet. He was therefore a good deal surprised when he heard the sweet voice of Mona Shepherd behind him; and turning, saw her running to him bare-headed, with her hair flying in the wind.

"Willie! Willie!" she was crying, half-breathless with haste and the buffeting of the breeze.

"Well, Mona, who would have thought of seeing you out so early?"

"Mayn't a girl get up early, as well as a boy? It's not like climbing walls and trees, you know, though I can't see the harm of that either."

"No more can I," said Willie, "if they're not too difficult, you know. But what brought you out now? Do you want me?"

"Mayn't I stop with you? I saw you looking up, and I looked up too, and then I saw something flash; and I dressed as hard as I could, and ran out. Are you catching the lightning?"

"No," said Willie; "something better than the lightning--the sunlight."

"Is that all?" said Mona, disappointed.

"Why, Mona, isn't the sunlight a better thing than the lightning?" said philosophical Willie.

"Yes, I dare say; but you can have it any time."

"That only makes it the more valuable. But it's not quite true when you think of it. You can't have it now, except from my ball."

"Oh, yes, I can," cried Mona; "for there he comes himself."

And there, to be sure, was the first blinding arc of the sun rising over the eastern hill. Both of them forgot the kite, and turned to watch the great marvel of the heavens, throbbing and pulsing like a sea of flame. When they turned again to the kite they could see the golden ball no longer. Its work was over; it had told them the sun was coming, and now, when the sun was come, it was not wanted any more. Willie began to draw in his string and roll it up on its stick, slowly pulling down to the earth the soaring sun-scout he had sent aloft for the news. He had never flown anything like such a large kite before, and he found it difficult to reclaim.

"Will you take me out with you next time, Willie?" asked Mona, pleadingly. "I do so like to be out in the morning, when the wind is blowing, and the clouds are flying about. I wonder why everybody doesn't get up to see the sun rise. Don't you think it is well worth seeing?"

"That I do."

"Then you will let me come with you? I like it so much better when you are with me. Janet spoils it all."

Janet was her old nurse, who seemed to think the main part of her duty was to check Mona's enthusiasm.

"I will," said Willie, "if your papa has no objection."

Mona did not even remember her mamma. She had died when she was such a little thing.

"Come and ask him, then," said Mona.

So soon as he had secured Sun-scout, as he called his kite with the golden head, she took his hand to lead him to her father.

"He won't be up yet," said Willie.

"Oh, yes, long ago," cried Mona. "He's always up first in the house, and as soon as he's dressed he calls me. He'll be at breakfast by this time, and wondering what can have become of me."

So Willie went with her, and there was Mr Shepherd, as she had said, already seated at breakfast.

"What have you been about, Mona, my child?" he asked, as soon as he had shaken hands with Willie.

"We've been helping the sun to rise," said Mona, merrily.

"No, no," said Willie; "we've only been having a peep at him in bed, before he got up."

"Oh, yes," chimed in Mona. "And he was so fast asleep!--and snoring," she added, with a comical expression and tone, as if it were a thing not to be mentioned save as a secret.

But Willie did not like the word, and her father was of the same mind.

"No, no," said Mr Shepherd; "that's not respectful, Mona. I don't like you to talk that way, even in fun, of the great light of the earth. There are more good reasons for objecting to it than you would quite understand yet. Willie would not talk like that, I am sure. Tell me what you have been about, my boy."

Willie explained the whole matter, and asked if he might call Mona the next time he went out with his kite in the morning.

Mr Shepherd consented at once; and Mona said he had only to call from his window into their garden, and she would be sure to hear him even if she was asleep.

The next thing Willie did was to construct a small windlass in the garden, with which to wind up or let out the string of the kite; and when the next fit morning arrived, Mona and he went out together. The wind blowing right through the garden, they did not go to the open field, but sent up the kite from the windlass, and Mona was able by means of the winch to let out the string, while Willie kept watching for the moment when the golden ball should catch the light. They did the same for several mornings after, and Willie managed, with the master's help, to calculate exactly the height to which the ball had flown when first it gained a peep of the sun in bed.

One windy evening they sent the kite up in the hope that it would fly till the morning; but the wind fell in the night, and when the sun came near there was no golden ball in the air to greet him. So, instead of rejoicing in its glitter far aloft, they had to set out, guided by the string, to find the fallen Lucifer. The kite was of small consequence, but the golden ball Willie could not replace. Alas! that very evening he had added a great length of string--so much, that when the wind ceased the kite could just reach the river, into which it fell; and when the searchers at length drew Sun-scout from the water they found his glory had departed; the golden ball had been beaten and ground upon the stones of the stream, and never more did they send him climbing up the heavens to welcome the lord of day.

Indeed, it was many years before Willie flew a kite again, for, after a certain conversation with his grandmother, he began to give a good deal more time to his lessons than hitherto; and while his recreations continued to be all of a practical sort, his reading was mostly such as prepared him for college.

Prev | Next | Contents