Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter VII

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A print of blood!" said the grim Doctor, breaking his pipe-stem by some sudden spasm in his gripe of it. "Pooh! the devil take the pipe! A very strange story that! Pray how was it?" [Endnote: 1.]

"Nay, it is but a very dim legend," answered the schoolmaster: "although there are old yellow papers and parchments, I remember, in my father's possession, that had some reference to this man, too, though there was nothing in them about the bloody footprints. But our family legend is, that this man was of a good race, in the time of Charles the First, originally Papists, but one of them--the second you, our legend says--was of a milder, sweeter cast than the rest, who were fierce and bloody men, of a hard, strong nature; but he partook most of his mother's character. This son had been one of the earliest Quakers, converted by George Fox; and moreover there had been love between him and a young lady of great beauty and an heiress, whom likewise the eldest son of the house had designed to make his wife. And these brothers, cruel men, caught their innocent brother and kept him in confinement long in his own native home--"

"How?" asked the Doctor. "Why did not he appeal to the laws?"

"Our legend says," replied the schoolmaster, "only that he was kept in a chamber that was forgotten." [Endnote: 2.]

"Very strange that!" quoth the Doctor. "He was sold by his brethren."

The schoolmaster went on to tell, with much shuddering, how a Jesuit priest had been mixed up with this wretched business, and there had been a scheme at once religious and political to wrest the estate and the lovely lady from the fortunate heir; and how this grim Italian priest had instigated them to use a certain kind of torture with the poor heir, and how he had suffered from this; but one night, when they left him senseless, he contrived to make his escape from that cruel home, bleeding as he went; and how, by some action of his imagination, --his sense of the cruelty and hideousness of such treatment at his brethren's hands, and in the holy name of his religion,--his foot, which had been crushed by their cruelty, bled as he went, and that blood had never been stanched. And thus he had come to America, and after many wanderings, and much track of blood along rough ways, to New England. [Endnote: 3.]

"And what became of his beloved?" asked the grim Doctor, who was puffing away at a fresh pipe with a very queer aspect.

"She died in England," replied the schoolmaster. "And before her death, by some means or other, they say that she found means to send him a child, the offspring of their marriage, and from that child our race descended. And they say, too, that she sent him a key to a coffin, in which was locked up a great treasure. But we have not the key. But he never went back to his own country; and being heart-broken, and sick and weary of the world and its pomps and vanities, he died here, after suffering much persecution likewise from the Puritans. For his peaceful religion was accepted nowhere."

"Of all legends,--all foolish legends," quoth the Doctor, wrathfully, with a face of a dark blood-red color, so much was his anger and contempt excited, "and of all absurd heroes of a legend, I never heard the like of this! Have you the key?"

"No; nor have I ever heard of it," answered the schoolmaster.

"But you have some papers?"

"They existed once: perhaps are still recoverable by search," said the schoolmaster. "My father knew of them."

"A foolish legend," reiterated the Doctor. "It is strange how human folly strings itself on to human folly, as a story originally false and foolish grows older"

He got up and walked about the room, with hasty and irregular strides and a prodigious swinging of his ragged dressing-gown, which swept away as many cobwebs as it would take a week to reproduce. After a few turns, as if to change the subject, the Doctor asked the schoolmaster if he had any taste for pictures, and drew his attention to the portrait which has been already mentioned,--the figure in antique sordid garb, with a halter round his neck, and the expression in his face which the Doctor and the two children had interpreted so differently. Colcord, who probably knew nothing about pictures, looked at it at first merely from the gentle and cool complaisance of his character; but becoming absorbed in the contemplation, stood long without speaking; until the Doctor, looking in his face, perceived his eyes were streaming with tears.

"What are you crying about?" said he, gruffly.

"I don't know," said the schoolmaster quietly. "But there is something in this picture that affects me inexpressibly; so that, not being a man passionate by nature, I have hardly ever been so moved as now!"

"Very foolish," muttered the Doctor, resuming his strides about the room. "I am ashamed of a grown man that can cry at a picture, and can't tell the reason why."

After a few more turns he resumed his easy-chair and his tumbler, and, looking upward, beckoned to his pet spider, which came dangling downward, great parti-colored monster that he was, and swung about his master's head in hideous conference as it seemed; a sight that so distressed the schoolmaster, or shocked his delicate taste, that he went out, and called the two children to take a walk with him, with the purpose of breathing air that was neither infected with spiders nor graves.

After his departure, Doctor Grimshawe seemed even more disturbed than during his presence: again he strode about the study; then sat down with his hands on his knees, looking straight into the fire, as if it imaged the seething element of his inner man, where burned hot projects, smoke, heat, blackness, ashes, a smouldering of old thoughts, a blazing up of new; casting in the gold of his mind, as Aaron did that of the Israelites, and waiting to see what sort of a thing would come out of the furnace. The children coming in from their play, he spoke harshly to them, and eyed little Ned with a sort of savageness, as if he meant to eat him up, or do some other dreadful deed: and when little Elsie came with her usual frankness to his knee, he repelled her in such a way that she shook her little hand at him, saying, "Naughty Doctor Grim, what has come to you?"

Through all that day, by some subtle means or other, the whole household knew that something was amiss; and nobody in it was comfortable. It was like a spell of weather; like the east wind; like an epidemic in the air, that would not let anything be comfortable or contented,--this pervading temper of the Doctor. Crusty Hannah knew it in the kitchen: even those who passed the house must have known it somehow or other, and have felt a chill, an irritation, an influence on the nerves, as they passed. The spiders knew it, and acted as they were wont to do in stormy weather. The schoolmaster, when he returned from his walk, seemed likewise to know it, and made himself secure and secret, keeping in his own room, except at dinner, when he ate his rice in silence, without looking towards the Doctor, and appeared before him no more till evening, when the grim Doctor summoned him into the study, after sending the two children to bed.

"Sir," began the Doctor, "you have spoken of some old documents in your possession relating to the English descent of your ancestors. I have a curiosity to see these documents. Where are they?" [Endnote: 4.]

"I have them about my person," said the schoolmaster; and he produced from his pocket a bundle of old yellow papers done up in a parchment cover, tied with a piece of white cord, and presented them to Doctor Grimshawe, who looked over them with interest. They seemed to consist of letters, genealogical lists, certified copies of entries in registers, things which must have been made out by somebody who knew more of business than this ethereal person in whose possession they now were. The Doctor looked at them with considerable attention, and at last did them hastily up in the bundle again, and returned them to the owner.

"Have you any idea what is now the condition of the family to whom these papers refer?" asked he.

"None whatever,--none for almost a hundred years," said the schoolmaster. "About that time ago, I have heard a vague story that one of my ancestors went to the old country and saw the place. But, you see, the change of name has effectually covered us from view; and I feel that our true name is that which my ancestor assumed when he was driven forth from the home of his fathers, and that I have nothing to do with any other. I have no views on the estate,--none whatever. I am not so foolish and dreamy."

"Very right," said the Doctor. "Nothing is more foolish than to follow up such a pursuit as this, against all the vested interests of two hundred years, which of themselves have built up an impenetrably strong allegation against you. They harden into stone, in England, these years, and become indestructible, instead of melting away as they do in this happy country."

"It is not a matter of interest with me," replied the schoolmaster.

"Very right,--very right!" repeated the grim Doctor.

But something was evidently amiss with him this evening. It was impossible to feel easy and comfortable in contact with him: if you looked in his face, there was the red, lurid glare of his eyes; meeting you fiercely and craftily as ever: sometimes he bit his lip and frowned in an awful manner. Once, he burst out into an awful fit of swearing, for no good reason, or any reason whatever that he explained, or that anybody could tell. Again, for no more suitable reason, he uplifted his stalwart arm, and smote a heavy blow with his fist upon the oak table, making the tumbler and black bottle leap up, and damaging, one would think, his own knuckles. Then he rose up, and resumed his strides about the room. He paused before the portrait before mentioned; then resumed his heavy, quick, irregular tread, swearing under his breath; and you would imagine, from what you heard, that all his thoughts and the movement of his mind were a blasphemy. Then again--but this was only once--he heaved a deep, ponderous sigh, that seemed to come up in spite of him, out of his depths, an exhalation of deep suffering, as if some convulsion had given it a passage to upper air, instead of its being hidden, as it generally was, by accumulated rubbish of later time heaped above it.

This latter sound appealed to something within the simple schoolmaster, who had been witnessing the demeanor of the Doctor, like a being looking from another sphere into the trouble of the mortal one; a being incapable of passion, observing the mute, hard struggle of one in its grasp.

"Friend," said he at length, "thou hast something on thy mind."

"Aye," said the grim Doctor, coming to a stand before his chair. "You see that? Can you see as well what it is?"

"Some stir and writhe of something in the past that troubles you, as if you had kept a snake for many years in your bosom, and stupefied it with brandy, and now it awakes again, and troubles you with bites and stings."

"What sort of a man do you think me?" asked the Doctor.

"I cannot tell," said the schoolmaster. "The sympathies of my nature are not those that should give me knowledge of such men."

"Am I, think you," continued the grim Doctor, "a man capable of great crime?"

"A great one, if any," said Colcord; "a great good, likewise, it might be."

"What would I be likely to do," asked Doctor Grim, "supposing I had a darling purpose, to the accomplishment of which I had given my soul,-- yes, my soul,--my success in life, my days and nights of thought, my years of time, dwelling upon it, pledging myself to it, until at last I had grown to love the burden of it, and not to regret my own degradation? I, a man of strongest will. What would I do, if this were to be resisted?"

"I do not conceive of the force of will shaping out my ways," said the schoolmaster. "I walk gently along and take the path that opens before me."

"Ha! ha! ha!" shouted the grim Doctor, with one of his portentous laughs. "So do we all, in spite of ourselves; and sometimes the path comes to a sudden ending!" And he resumed his drinking.

The schoolmaster looked at him with wonder, and a kind of shuddering, at something so unlike himself; but probably he very imperfectly estimated the forces that were at work within this strange being, and how dangerous they made him. He imputed it, a great deal, to the brandy, which he had kept drinking in such inordinate quantities; whereas it is probable that this had a soothing, emollient effect, as far as it went, on the Doctor's emotions; a sort of like to like, that he instinctively felt to be a remedy, But in truth it was difficult to see these two human creatures together, without feeling their incompatibility; without having a sense that one must be hostile to the other. The schoolmaster, through his fine instincts, doubtless had a sense of this, and sat gazing at the lurid, wrathful figure of the Doctor, in a sort of trance and fascination: not able to stir; bewildered by the sight of the great spider and other surroundings; and this strange, uncouth fiend, who had always been abhorrent to him,--he had a kind of curiosity in it, waited to see what would come of it, but felt it to be an unnatural state to him. And again the grim Doctor came and stood before him, prepared to make another of those strange utterances with which he had already so perplexed him.

That night--that midnight--it was rumored through the town that one of the inhabitants, going home late along the street that led by the graveyard, saw the grim Doctor standing by the open window of the study behind the elm tree, in his old dressing-gown, chill as was the night, and flinging his arms abroad wildly into the darkness, and muttering like the growling of a tempest, with occasional vociferations that grew even shrill with passion. The listener, though affrighted, could not resist an impulse to pause, and attempt overhearing something that might let him into the secret counsels of this strange wild man, whom the town held in such awe and antipathy; to learn, perhaps, what was the great spider, and whether he were summoning the dead out of their graves. However, he could make nothing out of what he overheard, except it were fragmentary curses, of a dreadful character, which the Doctor brought up with might and main out of the depths of his soul, and flung them forth, burning hot, aimed at what, and why, and to what practical end, it was impossible to say; but as necessarily as a volcano, in a state of eruption, sends forth boiling lava, sparkling and scintillating stones, and a sulphurous atmosphere, indicative of its inward state. [Endnote: 5.]

Dreading lest some one of these ponderous anathemas should alight, reason or none, on his own head, the man crept away, and whispered the thing to his cronies, from whom it was communicated to the townspeople at large, and so became one of many stories circulating with reference to our grim hero, which, if not true to the fact, had undoubtedly a degree of appositeness to his character, of which they were the legitimate flowers and symbols. If the anathemas took no other effect, they seemed to have produced a very remarkable one on the unfortunate elm tree, through the naked branches of which the Doctor discharged this fiendish shot. For, the next spring, when April came, no tender leaves budded forth, no life awakened there; and never again, on that old elm, widely as its roots were imbedded among the dead of many years, was there rustling bough in the summer time, or the elm's early golden boughs in September; and after waiting till another spring to give it a fair chance of reviving, it was cut down and made into coffins, and burnt on the sexton's hearth. The general opinion was that the grim Doctor's awful profanity had blasted that tree, fostered, as it had been, on grave-mould of Puritans. In Lancashire they tell of a similar anathema. It had a very frightful effect, it must be owned, this idea of a man cherishing emotions in his breast of so horrible a nature that he could neither tell them to any human being, nor keep them in their plenitude and intensity within the breast where they had their germ, and so was forced to fling them forth upon the night, to pollute and put fear into the atmosphere, and that people should breathe-in somewhat of horror from an unknown source, and be affected with nightmare, and dreams in which they were startled at their own wickedness.