Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter II

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Considering that Doctor Grimshawe, when we first look upon him, had dwelt only a few years in the house by the graveyard, it is wonderful what an appearance he, and his furniture, and his cobwebs, and their unweariable spinners, and crusty old Hannah, all had of having permanently attached themselves to the locality. For a century, at least, it might be fancied that the study in particular had existed just as it was now; with those dusky festoons of spider-silk hanging along the walls, those book-cases with volumes turning their parchment or black-leather backs upon you, those machines and engines, that table, and at it the Doctor, in a very faded and shabby dressing-gown, smoking a long clay pipe, the powerful fumes of which dwelt continually in his reddish and grisly beard, and made him fragrant wherever he went. This sense of fixedness--stony intractability--seems to belong to people who, instead of hope, which exalts everything into an airy, gaseous exhilaration, have a fixed and dogged purpose, around which everything congeals and crystallizes. [Endnote: 1] Even the sunshine, dim through the dustiness of the two casements that looked upon the graveyard, and the smoke, as it came warm out of Doctor Grimshawe's mouth, seemed already stale. But if the two children, or either of them, happened to be in the study,--if they ran to open the door at the knock, if they came scampering and peeped down over the banisters,--the sordid and rusty gloom was apt to vanish quite away. The sunbeam itself looked like a golden rule, that had been flung down long ago, and had lain there till it was dusty and tarnished. They were cheery little imps, who sucked up fragrance and pleasantness out of their surroundings, dreary as these looked; even as a flower can find its proper perfume in any soil where its seed happens to fall. The great spider, hanging by his cordage over the Doctor's head, and waving slowly, like a pendulum, in a blast from the crack of the door, must have made millions and millions of precisely such vibrations as these; but the children were new, and made over every day, with yesterday's weariness left out.

The little girl, however, was the merrier of the two. It was quite unintelligible, in view of the little care that crusty Hannah took of her, and, moreover, since she was none of your prim, fastidious children, how daintily she kept herself amid all this dust; how the spider's webs never clung to her, and how, when--without being solicited--she clambered into the Doctor's arms and kissed him, she bore away no smoky reminiscences of the pipe that he kissed continually. She had a free, mellow, natural laughter, that seemed the ripened fruit of the smile that was generally on her little face, to be shaken off and scattered abroad by any breeze that came along. Little Elsie made playthings of everything, even of the grim Doctor, though against his will, and though, moreover, there were tokens now and then that the sight of this bright little creature was not a pleasure to him, but, on the contrary, a positive pain; a pain, nevertheless, indicating a profound interest, hardly less deep than though Elsie had been his daughter.

Elsie did not play with the great spider, but she moved among the whole brood of spiders as if she saw them not, and, being endowed with other senses than those allied to these things, might coexist with them and not be sensible of their presence. Yet the child, I suppose, had her crying fits, and her pouting fits, and naughtiness enough to entitle her to live on earth; at least crusty Hannah often said so, and often made grievous complaint of disobedience, mischief, or breakage, attributable to little Elsie; to which the grim Doctor seldom responded by anything more intelligible than a puff of tobacco-smoke, and, sometimes, an imprecation; which, however, hit crusty Hannah instead of the child. Where the child got the tenderness that a child needs to live upon, is a mystery to me; perhaps from some aged or dead mother, or in her dreams; perhaps from some small modicum of it, such as boys have, from the little boy; or perhaps it was from a Persian kitten, which had grown to be a cat in her arms, and slept in her little bed, and now assumed grave and protective airs towards her former playmate. [Endnote: 2.]

The boy, [Endnote: 3] as we have said, was two or three years Elsie's elder, and might now be about six years old. He was a healthy and cheerful child, yet of a graver mood than the little girl, appearing to lay a more forcible grasp on the circumstances about him, and to tread with a heavier footstep on the solid earth; yet perhaps not more so than was the necessary difference between a man-blossom, dimly conscious of coming things, and a mere baby, with whom there was neither past nor future. Ned, as he was named, was subject very early to fits of musing, the subject of which--if they had any definite subject, or were more than vague reveries--it was impossible to guess. They were of those states of mind, probably, which are beyond the sphere of human language, and would necessarily lose their essence in the attempt to communicate or record them. The little girl, perhaps, had some mode of sympathy with these unuttered thoughts or reveries, which grown people had ceased to have; at all events, she early learned to respect them, and, at other times as free and playful as her Persian kitten, she never in such circumstances ventured on any greater freedom than to sit down quietly beside him, and endeavor to look as thoughtful as the boy himself.

Once, slowly emerging from one of these waking reveries, little Ned gazed about him, and saw Elsie sitting with this pretty pretence of thoughtfulness and dreaminess in her little chair, close beside him; now and then peeping under her eyelashes to note what changes might come over his face. After looking at her a moment or two, he quietly took her willing and warm little hand in his own, and led her up to the Doctor.

The group, methinks, must have been a picturesque one, made up as it was of several apparently discordant elements, each of which happened to be so combined as to make a more effective whole. The beautiful grave boy, with a little sword by his side and a feather in his hat, of a brown complexion, slender, with his white brow and dark, thoughtful eyes, so earnest upon some mysterious theme; the prettier little girl, a blonde, round, rosy, so truly sympathetic with her companion's mood, yet unconsciously turning all to sport by her attempt to assume one similar;--these two standing at the grim Doctor's footstool; he meanwhile, black, wild-bearded, heavy-browed, red-eyed, wrapped in his faded dressing-gown, puffing out volumes of vapor from his long pipe, and making, just at that instant, application to a tumbler, which, we regret to say, was generally at his elbow, with some dark-colored potation in it that required to be frequently replenished from a neighboring black bottle. Half, at least, of the fluids in the grim Doctor's system must have been derived from that same black bottle, so constant was his familiarity with its contents; and yet his eyes were never redder at one time than another, nor his utterance thicker, nor his mood perceptibly the brighter or the duller for all his conviviality. It is true, when, once, the bottle happened to be empty for a whole day together, Doctor Grimshawe was observed by crusty Hannah and by the children to be considerably fiercer than usual: so that probably, by some maladjustment of consequences, his intemperance was only to be found in refraining from brandy.

Nor must we forget--in attempting to conceive the effect of these two beautiful children in such a sombre room, looking on the graveyard, and contrasted with the grim Doctor's aspect of heavy and smouldering fierceness--that over his head, at this very moment, dangled the portentous spider, who seemed to have come down from his web aloft for the purpose of hearing what the two young people could have to say to his patron, and what reference it might have to certain mysterious documents which the Doctor kept locked up in a secret cupboard behind the door.

"Grim Doctor," said Ned, after looking up into the Doctor's face, as a sensitive child inevitably does, to see whether the occasion was favorable, yet determined to proceed with his purpose whether so or not,--"Grim Doctor, I want you to answer me a question."

"Here's to your good health, Ned!" quoth the Doctor, eying the pair intently, as he often did, when they were unconscious. "So you want to ask me a question? As many as you please, my fine fellow; and I shall answer as many, and as much, and as truly, as may please myself!"

"Ah, grim Doctor!" said the little girl, now letting go of Ned's hand, and climbing upon the Doctor's knee, "'ou shall answer as many as Ned please to ask, because to please him and me!"

"Well, child," said Doctor Grimshawe, "little Ned will have his rights at least, at my hands, if not other people's rights likewise; and, if it be right, I shall answer his question. Only, let him ask it at once; for I want to be busy thinking about something else."

"Then, Doctor Grim," said little Ned, "tell me, in the first place, where I came from, and how you came to have me?"

The Doctor looked at the little man, so seriously and earnestly putting this demand, with a perplexed, and at first it might almost seem a startled aspect.

"That is a question, indeed, my friend Ned!" ejaculated he, putting forth a whiff of smoke and imbibing a nip from his tumbler before he spoke; and perhaps framing his answer, as many thoughtful and secret people do, in such a way as to let out his secret mood to the child, because knowing he could not understand it: "Whence did you come? Whence did any of us come? Out of the darkness and mystery; out of nothingness; out of a kingdom of shadows; out of dust, clay, mud, I think, and to return to it again. Out of a former state of being, whence we have brought a good many shadowy revelations, purporting that it was no very pleasant one. Out of a former life, of which the present one is the hell!--And why are you come? Faith, Ned, he must be a wiser man than Doctor Grim who can tell why you or any other mortal came hither; only one thing I am well aware of,--it was not to be happy. To toil and moil and hope and fear; and to love in a shadowy, doubtful sort of way, and to hate in bitter earnest,--that is what you came for!"

"Ah, Doctor Grim! this is very naughty," said little Elsie. "You are making fun of little Ned, when he is in earnest."

"Fun!" quoth Doctor Grim, bursting into a laugh peculiar to him, very loud and obstreperous. "I am glad you find it so, my little woman. Well, and so you bid me tell absolutely where he came from?"

Elsie nodded her bright little head.

"And you, friend Ned, insist upon knowing?"

"That I do, Doctor Grim!" answered Ned. His white, childish brow had gathered into a frown, such was the earnestness of his determination; and he stamped his foot on the floor, as if ready to follow up his demand by an appeal to the little tin sword which hung by his side. The Doctor looked at him with a kind of smile,--not a very pleasant one; for it was an unamiable characteristic of his temper that a display of spirit, even in a child, was apt to arouse his immense combativeness, and make him aim a blow without much consideration how heavily it might fall, or on how unequal an antagonist.

"If you insist upon an answer, Master Ned, you shall have it," replied he. "You were taken by me, boy, a foundling from an almshouse; and if ever hereafter you desire to know your kindred, you must take your chance of the first man you meet. He is as likely to be your father as another!"

The child's eyes flashed, and his brow grew as red as fire. It was but a momentary fierceness; the next instant he clasped his hands over his face, and wept in a violent convulsion of grief and shame. Little Elsie clasped her arms about him, kissing his brow and chin, which were all that her lips could touch, under his clasped hands; but Ned turned away uncomforted, and was blindly making his way towards the door.

"Ned, my little fellow, come back!" said Doctor Grim, who had very attentively watched the cruel effect of his communication.

As the boy did not reply, and was still tending towards the door, the grim Doctor vouchsafed to lay aside his pipe, get up from his arm-chair (a thing he seldom did between supper and bedtime), and shuffle after the two children in his slippers. He caught them on the threshold, brought little Ned back by main force,--for he was a rough man even in his tenderness,--and, sitting down again and taking him on his knee, pulled away his hands from before his face. Never was a more pitiful sight than that pale countenance, so infantile still, yet looking old and experienced already, with a sense of disgrace, with a feeling of loneliness; so beautiful, nevertheless, that it seemed to possess all the characteristics which fine hereditary traits and culture, or many forefathers, could do in refining a human stock. And this was a nameless weed, sprouting from some chance seed by the dusty wayside!

"Ned, my dear old boy," said Doctor Grim,--and he kissed that pale, tearful face,--the first and last time, to the best of my belief, that he was ever betrayed into that tenderness; "forget what I have said! Yes, remember, if you like, that you came from an almshouse; but remember, too,--what your friend Doctor Grim is ready to affirm and make oath of,--that he can trace your kindred and race through that sordid experience, and back, back, for a hundred and fifty years, into an old English line. Come, little Ned, and look at this picture."

He led the boy by the hand to a corner of the room, where hung upon the wall a portrait which Ned had often looked at. It seemed an old picture; but the Doctor had had it cleaned and varnished, so that it looked dim and dark, and yet it seemed to be the representation of a man of no mark; not at least of such mark as would naturally leave his features to be transmitted for the interest of another generation. For he was clad in a mean dress of old fashion,--a leather jerkin it appeared to be,--and round his neck, moreover, was a noose of rope, as if he might have been on the point of being hanged. But the face of the portrait, nevertheless, was beautiful, noble, though sad; with a great development of sensibility, a look of suffering and endurance amounting to triumph,--a peace through all.

"Look at this," continued the Doctor, "if you must go on dreaming about your race. Dream that you are of the blood of this being; for, mean as his station looks, he comes of an ancient and noble race, and was the noblest of them all! Let me alone, Ned, and I shall spin out the web that shall link you to that man. The grim Doctor can do it!"

The grim Doctor's face looked fierce with the earnestness with which he said these words. You would have said that he was taking an oath to overthrow and annihilate a race, rather than to build one up by bringing forward the infant heir out of obscurity, and making plain the links--the filaments--which cemented this feeble childish life, in a far country, with the great tide of a noble life, which had come down like a chain from antiquity, in old England.

Having said the words, however, the grim Doctor appeared ashamed both of the heat and of the tenderness into which he had been betrayed; for rude and rough as his nature was, there was a kind of decorum in it, too, that kept him within limits of his own. So he went back to his chair, his pipe, and his tumbler, and was gruffer and more taciturn than ever for the rest of the evening. And after the children went to bed, he leaned back in his chair and looked up at the vast tropic spider, who was particularly busy in adding to the intricacies of his web; until he fell asleep with his eyes fixed in that direction, and the extinguished pipe in one hand and the empty tumbler in the other.