Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter IX

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Chapter IX

The two children approached, and stood before the Doctor and his guest, the latter of whom had not hitherto taken particular notice of them. He now looked from one to the other, with the pleasant, genial expression of a person gifted with a natural liking for children, and the freemasonry requisite to bring him acquainted with them; and it lighted up his face with a pleasant surprise to see two such beautiful specimens of boyhood and girlhood in this dismal, spider-haunted house, and under the guardianship of such a savage lout as the grim Doctor. He seemed particularly struck by the intelligence and sensibility of Ned's face, and met his eyes with a glance that Ned long afterwards remembered; but yet he seemed quite as much interested by Elsie, and gazed at her face with a perplexed, inquiring glance.

"These are fine children," said he. "May I ask if they are your own?-- Pardon me if I ask amiss," added he, seeing a frown on the Doctor's brow.

"Ask nothing about the brats," replied he grimly. "Thank Heaven, they are not my children; so your question is answered."

"I again ask pardon," said Mr. Hammond. "I am fond of children; and the boy has a singularly fine countenance; not in the least English. The true American face, no doubt. As to this sweet little girl, she impresses me with a vague resemblance to some person I have seen. Hers I should deem an English face."

"These children are not our topic," said the grim Doctor, with gruff impatience. "If they are to be so, our conversation is ended. Ned, what do you know of this gravestone with the bloody foot on it?"

"It is not a bloody foot, Doctor Grim," said Ned, "and I am not sure that it is a foot at all; only Elsie and I chose to fancy so, because of a story that we used to play at. But we were children then. The gravestone lies on the ground, within a little bit of a walk of our door; but this snow has covered it all over; else we might go out and see it."

"We will go out at any rate," said the Doctor, "and if the Englishman chooses to come to America, he must take our snows as he finds them. Take your shovel, Ned, and if necessary we will uncover the gravestone."

They accordingly muffled themselves in their warmest, and plunged forth through a back door into Ned and Elsie's playground, as the grim Doctor was wont to call it. The snow, except in one spot close at hand, lay deep, like cold oblivion, over the surging graves, and piled itself in drifted heaps against every stone that raised itself above the level; it filled enviously the letters of the inscriptions, enveloping all the dead in one great winding-sheet, whiter and colder than those which they had individually worn. The dreary space was pathless; not a footstep had tracked through the heavy snow; for it must be warm affection indeed that could so melt this wintry impression as to penetrate through the snow and frozen earth, and establish any warm thrills with the dead beneath: daisies, grass, genial earth, these allow of the magnetism of such sentiments; but winter sends them shivering back to the baffled heart.

"Well, Ned," said the Doctor, impatiently.

Ned looked about him somewhat bewildered, and then pointed to a spot within not more than ten paces of the threshold which they had just crossed; and there appeared, not a gravestone, but a new grave (if any grave could be called new in that often-dug soil, made up of old mortality), an open hole, with the freshly-dug earth piled up beside it. A little snow (for there had been a gust or two since morning) appeared, as they peeped over the edge, to have fallen into it; but not enough to prevent a coffin from finding fit room and accommodation in it. But it was evident that the grave had been dug that very day.

"The headstone, with the foot on it, was just here," said Ned, in much perplexity, "and, as far as I can judge, the old sunken grave exactly marked out the space of this new one." [Endnote: 1.]

"It is a shame," said Elsie, much shocked at the indecorum, "that the new person should be thrust in here; for the old one was a friend of ours."

"But what has become of the headstone!" exclaimed the young English stranger.

During their perplexity, a person had approached the group, wading through the snow from the gateway giving entrance from the street; a gaunt figure, with stooping shoulders, over one of which was a spade and some other tool fit for delving in the earth; and in his face there was the sort of keen, humorous twinkle that grave-diggers somehow seem to get, as if the dolorous character of their business necessitated something unlike itself by an inevitable reaction.

"Well, Doctor," said he, with a shrewd wink in his face, "are you looking for one of your patients? The man who is to be put to bed here was never caught in your spider's web."

"No," said Doctor Grimshawe; "when my patients have done with me, I leave them to you and the old Nick, and never trouble myself about them more. What I want to know is, why you have taken upon you to steal a man's grave, after he has had immemorial possession of it. By what right have you dug up this bed, undoing the work of a predecessor of yours, who has long since slept in one of his own furrows?"

"Why, Doctor," said the grave-digger, looking quietly into the cavernous pit which he had hollowed, "it is against common sense that a dead man should think to keep a grave to himself longer than till you can take up his substance in a shovel. It would be a strange thing enough, if, when living families are turned out of their homes twice or thrice in a generation, (as they are likely to be in our new government,) a dead man should think he must sleep in one spot till the day of judgment. No; turn about, I say, to these old fellows. As long as they can decently be called dead men, I let them lie; when they are nothing but dust, I just take leave to stir them on occasion. This is the way we do things under the republic, whatever your customs be in the old country."

"Matters are very much the same in any old English churchyard," said the English stranger. "But, my good friend, I have come three thousand miles, partly to find this grave, and am a little disappointed to find my labor lost."

"Ah! and you are the man my father was looking for," said the grave- digger, nodding his head at Mr. Hammond. "My father, who was a grave- digger afore me, died four and thirty years ago, when we were under the King; and says he, 'Ebenezer, do not you turn up a sod in this spot, till you have turned up every other in the ground.' And I have always obeyed him."

"And what was the reason of such a singular prohibition?" asked Hammond.

"My father knew," said the grave-digger, "and he told me the reason too; but since we are under the republic, we have given up remembering those old-world legends, as we used to. The newspapers keep us from talking in the chimney-corner; and so things go out of our minds. An old man, with his stories of what he has seen, and what his great- grandfather saw before him, is of little account since newspapers came up. Stop--I remember--no, I forget,--it was something about the grave holding a witness, who had been sought before and might be again."

"And that is all you know about it?" said Hammond.

"All,--every mite," said the old grave-digger. "But my father knew, and would have been glad to tell you the whole story. There was a great deal of wisdom and knowledge, about graves especially, buried out yonder where my old father was put away, before the Stamp Act was thought of. But it is no great matter, I suppose. People don't care about old graves in these times. They just live, and put the dead out of sight and out of mind."

"Well; but what have you done with the headstone?" said the Doctor. "You can't have eaten it up."

"No, no, Doctor," said the grave-digger, laughing; "it would crack better teeth than mine, old and crumbly as it is. And yet I meant to do something with it that is akin to eating; for my oven needs a new floor, and I thought to take this stone, which would stand the fire well. But here," continued he, scraping away the snow with his shovel, a task in which little Ned gave his assistance,--"here is the headstone, just as I have always seen it, and as my father saw it before me."

The ancient memorial, being cleared of snow, proved to be a slab of freestone, with some rude traces of carving in bas-relief around the border, now much effaced, and an impression, which seemed to be as much like a human foot as anything else, sunk into the slab; but this device was wrought in a much more clumsy way than the ornamented border, and evidently by an unskilful hand. Beneath was an inscription, over which the hard, flat lichens had grown, and done their best to obliterate it, although the following words might be written [Endnote: 2] or guessed:--

"Here lyeth the mortal part of Thomas Colcord, an upright man, of tender and devout soul, who departed this troublous life September ye nineteenth, 1667, aged 57 years and nine months. Happier in his death than in his lifetime. Let his bones be."

The name, Colcord, was somewhat defaced; it was impossible, in the general disintegration of the stone, to tell whether wantonly, or with a purpose of altering and correcting some error in the spelling, or, as occurred to Hammond, to change the name entirely.

"This is very unsatisfactory," said Hammond, "but very curious, too. But this certainly is the impress of what was meant for a human foot, and coincides strangely with the legend of the Bloody Footstep,--the mark of the foot that trod in the blessed King Charles's blood."

"For that matter," said the grave-digger, "it comes into my mind that my father used to call it the stamp of Satan's foot, because he claimed the dead man for his own. It is plain to see that there was a deep deft between two of the toes."

"There are two ways of telling that legend," remarked the Doctor. "But did you find nothing in the grave, Hewen?"

"O, yes,--a bone or two,--as much as could be expected after above a hundred years," said the grave-digger. "I tossed them aside; and if you are curious about them, you will find them when the snow melts. That was all; and it would have been unreasonable in old Colcord--especially in these republican times--to have wanted to keep his grave any longer, when there was so little of him left."

"I must drop the matter here, then," said Hammond, with a sigh. "Here, my friend, is a trifle for your trouble."

"No trouble," said the grave-digger, "and in these republican times we can't take anything for nothing, because it won't do for a poor man to take off his hat and say thank you."

Nevertheless, he did take the silver, and winked a sort of acknowledgment.

The Doctor, with unwonted hospitality, invited the English stranger to dine in his house; and though there was no pretence of cordiality in the invitation, Mr. Hammond accepted it, being probably influenced by curiosity to make out some definite idea of the strange household in which he found himself. Doctor Grimshawe having taken it upon him to be host,--for, up to this time, the stranger stood upon his own responsibility, and, having voluntarily presented himself to the Doctor, had only himself to thank for any scant courtesy he might meet,--but now the grim Doctor became genial after his own fashion. At dinner he produced a bottle of port, which made the young Englishman almost fancy himself on the other side of the water; and he entered into a conversation, which I fancy was the chief object which the grim Doctor had in view in showing himself in so amiable a light, [Endnote: 3] for in the course of it the stranger was insensibly led to disclose many things, as it were of his own accord, relating to the part of England whence he came, and especially to the estate and family which have been before mentioned,--the present state of that family, together with other things that he seemed to himself to pour out naturally,-- for, at last, he drew himself up, and attempted an excuse.

"Your good wine," said he, "or the unexpected accident of meeting a countryman, has made me unusually talkative, and on subjects, I fear, which have not a particular interest for you."

"I have not quite succeeded in shaking off my country, as you see," said Doctor Grimshawe, "though I neither expect nor wish ever to see it again."

There was something rather ungracious in the grim Doctor's response, and as they now adjourned to his study, and the Doctor betook himself to his pipe and tumbler, the young Englishman sought to increase his acquaintance with the two children, both of whom showed themselves graciously inclined towards him; more warmly so than they had been to the schoolmaster, as he was the only other guest whom they had ever met.

"Would you like to see England, my little fellow?" he inquired of Ned.

"Oh, very much! more than anything else in the world," replied the boy, his eyes gleaming and his cheeks flushing with the earnestness of his response; for, indeed, the question stirred up all the dreams and reveries which the child had cherished, far back into the dim regions of his memory. After what the Doctor had told him of his origin, he had never felt any home feeling here; it seemed to him that he was wandering Ned, whom the wind had blown from afar. Somehow or other, from many circumstances which he put together and seethed in his own childish imagination, it seemed to him that he was to go back to that far old country, and there wander among the green, ivy-grown, venerable scenes; the older he grew, the more his mind took depth, the stronger was this fancy in him; though even to Elsie he had scarcely breathed it.

"So strong a desire," said the stranger, smiling at his earnestness, "will be sure to work out its own accomplishment. I shall meet you in England, my young friend, one day or another. And you, my little girl, are you as anxious to see England as your brother?"

"Ned is not my brother," said little Elsie.

The Doctor here interposed some remark on a different subject; for it was observable that he never liked to have the conversation turn on these children, their parentage, or relations to each other or himself.

The children were sent to bed; and the young Englishman, finding the conversation lag, and his host becoming gruffer and less communicative than he thought quite courteous, retired. But before he went, however, he could not refrain from making a remark on the gigantic spider, which was swinging like a pendulum above the Doctor's head.

"What a singular pet!" said he; for the nervous part of him had latterly been getting uppermost, so that it disturbed him; in fact, the spider above and the grim man below equally disturbed him. "Are you a naturalist? Have you noted his habits?"

"Yes," said the Doctor, "I have learned from his web how to weave a plot, and how to catch my victim and devour him!"

"Thank God," said the Englishman, as he issued forth into the cold gray night, "I have escaped the grim fellow's web, at all events. How strange a group,--those two sweet children, that grim old man!"

As regards this matter of the ancient grave, it remains to be recorded, that, when the snow melted, little Ned and Elsie went to look at the spot, where, by this time, there was a little hillock with the brown sods laid duly upon it, which the coming spring would make green. By the side of it they saw, with more curiosity than repugnance, a few fragments of crumbly bones, which they plausibly conjectured to have appertained to some part of the framework of the ancient Colcord, wherewith he had walked through the troublous life of which his gravestone spoke. And little Elsie, whose eyes were very sharp, and her observant qualities of the quickest, found something which Ned at first pronounced to be only a bit of old iron, incrusted with earth; but Elsie persisted to knock off some of the earth that seemed to have incrusted it, and discovered a key. The children ran with their prize to the grim Doctor, who took it between his thumb and finger, turned it over and over, and then proceeded to rub it with a chemical substance which soon made it bright. It proved to be a silver key, of antique and curious workmanship.

"Perhaps this is what Mr. Hammond was in search of," said Ned. "What a pity he is gone! Perhaps we can send it after him."

"Nonsense," said the gruff Doctor.

And attaching the key to a chain, which he took from a drawer, and which seemed to be gold, he hung it round Ned's neck.

"When you find a lock for this key," said he, "open it, and consider yourself heir of whatever treasure is revealed there!"

Ned continued that sad, fatal habit of growing out of childhood, as boys will, until he was now about ten years old, and little Elsie as much as six or seven. He looked healthy, but pale; something there was in the character and influences of his life that made him look as if he were growing up in a shadow, with less sunshine than he needed for a robust and exuberant development, though enough to make his intellectual growth tend towards a little luxuriance, in some directions. He was likely to turn out a fanciful, perhaps a poetic youth; young as he was, there had been already discoveries, on the grim Doctor's part, of certain blotted and clumsily scrawled scraps of paper, the chirography on which was arrayed in marshalled lines of unequal length, and each commanded by a capital letter and marching on from six to ten lame feet. Doctor Grim inspected these things curiously, and to say the truth most scornfully, before he took them to light his pipe withal; but they told him little as regarded this boy's internal state, being mere echoes, and very lugubrious ones, of poetic strains that were floating about in the atmosphere of that day, long before any now remembered bard had begun to sing. But there were the rudiments of a poetic and imaginative mind within the boy, if its subsequent culture should be such as the growth of that delicate flower requires; a brooding habit taking outward things into itself and imbuing them with its own essence until, after they had lain there awhile, they assumed a relation both to truth and to himself, and became mediums to affect other minds with the magnetism of his own. He lived far too much an inward life for healthfulness, at his age; the peculiarity of his situation, a child of mystery, with certain reaches and vistas that seemed to promise a bright solution of his mystery, keeping his imagination always awake and strong. That castle in the air,--so much more vivid than other castles, because it had perhaps a real substance of ancient, ivy-grown, hewn stone somewhere,--that visionary hall in England, with its surrounding woods and fine lawns, and the beckoning shadows at the ancient windows, and that fearful threshold, with the blood still glistening on it,--he dwelt and wandered so much there, that he had no real life in the sombre house on the corner of the graveyard; except that the loneliness of the latter, and the grim Doctor with his grotesque surroundings, and then the great ugly spider, and that odd, inhuman mixture of crusty Hannah, all served to remove him out of the influences of common life. Little Elsie was all that he had to keep life real, and substantial; and she, a child so much younger than he, was influenced by the same circumstances, and still more by himself, so that, as far as he could impart himself to her, he led her hand in hand through the same dream-scenery amid which he strayed himself. They knew not another child in town; the grim Doctor was their only friend. As for Ned, this seclusion had its customary and normal effect upon him; it had made him think ridiculously high of his own gifts, powers, attainments, and at the same time doubt whether they would pass with those of others; it made him despise all flesh, as if he were of a superior race, and yet have an idle and weak fear of coming in contact with them, from a dread of his incompetency to cope with them; so he at once depreciated and exalted, to an absurd degree, both himself and others.

"Ned," said the Doctor to him one day, in his gruffest tone, "you are not turning out to be the boy I looked for and meant to make. I have given you sturdy English instruction, and solidly grounded you in matters that the poor superficial people and time merely skim over; I looked to see the rudiments of a man in you, by this time; and you begin to mope and pule as if your babyhood were coming back on you. You seem to think more than a boy of your years should; and yet it is not manly thought, nor ever will be so. What do you mean, boy, by making all my care of you come to nothing, in this way?"

"I do my best, Doctor Grim," said Ned, with sullen dignity. "What you teach me, I learn. What more can I do?"

"I'll tell you what, my fine fellow," quoth Doctor Grim, getting rude, as was his habit. "You disappoint me, and I'll not bear it. I want you to be a man; and I'll have you a man or nothing. If I had foreboded such a fellow as you turn out to be, I never would have taken you from the place where, as I once told you, I found you,--the almshouse!"

"O, Doctor Grim, Doctor Grim!" cried little Elsie, in a tone of grief and bitter reproach.

Ned had risen slowly, as the Doctor uttered those last words, turning as white as a sheet, and stood gazing at him, with large eyes, in which there was a calm upbraiding; a strange dignity was in his childish aspect, which was no longer childish, but seemed to have grown older all in a moment.

"Sir," added the Doctor, incensed at the boy's aspect, "there is nonsense that ought to be whipt out of you."

"You have said enough, sir," said the boy. "Would to God you had left me where you found me![Endnote: 4] It was not my fault that you took me from the alms-house. But it will be my fault if I ever eat another bit of your bread, or stay under your roof an hour longer."

He was moving towards the door, but little Elsie sprung upon him and caught him round the neck, although he repelled her with severe dignity; and Doctor Grimshawe, after a look at the group in which a bitter sort of mirth and mischief struggled with a better and kindlier sentiment, at last flung his pipe into the chimney, hastily quaffed the remnant of a tumbler, and shuffled after Ned, kicking off his old slippers in his hurry. He caught the boy just by the door.

"Ned, Ned, my boy, I'm sorry for what I said," cried he. "I am a guzzling old blockhead, and don't know how to treat a gentleman when he honors me with his company. It is not in my blood nor breeding to have such knowledge. Ned, you will make a man, and I lied if I said otherwise. Come, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

The boy was easily touched, at these years, as a boy ought to be; and though he had not yet forgiven the grim Doctor, the tears, to his especial shame, gushed out of his eyes in a torrent, and his whole frame shook with sobs. The Doctor caught him in his arms, and hugged him to his old tobacco-fragrant dressing-gown, hugged him like a bear, as he was; so that poor Ned hardly knew whether he was embracing him with his love, or squeezing him to death in his wrath.

"Ned," said he, "I'm not going to live a great while longer; I seem an eternal nuisance to you, I know; but it's not so, I'm mortal and I feel myself breaking up. Let us be friends while I live; for believe me, Ned, I've done as well by you as I knew, and care for nothing, love nothing, so much as you. Little Elsie here, yes. I love her too. But that's different. You are a boy, and will be a man; and a man whom I destine to do for me what it has been the object of my life to achieve. Let us be friends. We will--we must be friends; and when old Doctor Grim, worthless wretch that he is, sleeps in his grave, you shall not have the pang of having parted from him in unkindness. Forgive me, Ned; and not only that, but love me better than ever; for though I am a hasty old wretch, I am not altogether evil as regards you."

I know not whether the Doctor would have said all this, if the day had not been pretty well advanced, and if his potations had not been many; but, at any rate, he spoke no more than he felt, and his emotions thrilled through the sensitive system of the boy, and quite melted him down. He forgave Doctor Grim, and, as he asked, loved him better than ever; and so did Elsie. Then it was so sweet, so good, to have had this one outgush of affection,--he, poor child, who had no memory of mother's kisses, or of being cared for out of tenderness, and whose heart had been hungry, all his life, for some such thing; and probably Doctor Grim, in his way, had the same kind of enjoyment of this passionate crisis; so that though, the next day, they all three looked at one another a little ashamed, yet it had some remote analogy to that delicious embarrassment of two lovers, at their first meeting after they know all.