Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter XI

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Chapter XI

There is--or there was, now many years ago, and a few years also it was still extant--a chamber, which when I think of, it seems to me like entering a deep recess of my own consciousness, a deep cave of my nature; so much have I thought of it and its inmate, through a considerable period of my life. After I had seen it long in fancy, then I saw it in reality, with my waking eyes; and questioned with myself whether I was really awake.

Not that it was a picturesque or stately chamber; not in the least. It was dim, dim as a melancholy mood; so dim, to come to particulars, that, till you were accustomed to that twilight medium, the print of a book looked all blurred; a pin was an indistinguishable object; the face of your familiar friend, or your dearest beloved one, would be unrecognizable across it, and the figures, so warm and radiant with life and heart, would seem like the faint gray shadows of our thoughts, brooding in age over youthful images of joy and love. Nevertheless, the chamber, though so difficult to see across, was small. You detected that it was within very narrow boundaries, though you could not precisely see them; only you felt yourself shut in, compressed, impeded, in the deep centre of something; and you longed for a breath of fresh air. Some articles of furniture there seemed to be; but in this dim medium, to which we are unaccustomed, it is not well to try to make out what they were, or anything else--now at least--about the chamber. Only one thing; small as the light was, it was rather wonderful how there came to be any; for no windows were apparent; no communication with the outward day. [Endnote: 1.]

Looking into this chamber, in fancy it is some time before we who come out of the broad sunny daylight of the world discover that it has an inmate. Yes, there is some one within, but where? We know it; but do not precisely see him, only a presence is impressed upon us. It is in that corner; no, not there; only a heap of darkness and an old antique coffer, that, as we look closely at it, seems to be made of carved wood. Ah! he is in that other dim corner; and now that we steal close to him, we see him; a young man, pale, flung upon a sort of mattress- couch. He seems in alarm at something or other. He trembles, he listens, as if for voices. It must be a great peril, indeed, that can haunt him thus and make him feel afraid in such a seclusion as you feel this to be; but there he is, tremulous, and so pale that really his face is almost visible in the gloomy twilight. How came he here? Who is he? What does he tremble at? In this duskiness we cannot tell. Only that he is a young man, in a state of nervous excitement and alarm, looking about him, starting to his feet, sometimes standing and staring about him.

Has he been living here? Apparently not; for see, he has a pair of long riding-boots on, coming up to the knees; they are splashed with mud, as if he had ridden hastily through foul ways; the spurs are on the heel. A riding-dress upon him. Ha! is that blood upon the hand which he clasps to his forehead.

What more do you perceive? Nothing, the light is so dim; but only we wonder where is the door, and whence the light comes. There is a strange abundance of spiders, too, we perceive; spinning their webs here, as if they would entrammel something in them. A mouse has run across the floor, apparently, but it is too dim to detect him, or to detect anything beyond the limits of a very doubtful vagueness. We do not even know whether what we seem to have seen is really so; whether the man is young, or old, or what his surroundings are; and there is something so disagreeable in this seclusion, this stifled atmosphere, that we should be loath to remain here long enough to make ourselves certain of what was a mystery. Let us forth into the broad, genial daylight, for there is magic, there is a devilish, subtile influence, in this chamber; which, I have reason to believe, makes it dangerous to remain here. There is a spell on the threshold. Heaven keep us safe from it!

Hark! has a door unclosed? Is there another human being in the room? We have now become so accustomed to the dim medium that we distinguish a man of mean exterior, with a look of habitual subservience that seems like that of an English serving-man, or a person in some menial situation; decent, quiet, neat, softly-behaved, but yet with a certain hard and questionable presence, which we would not well like to have near us in the room.

"Am I safe?" asks the inmate of the prison-chamber.

"Sir, there has been a search."

"Leave the pistols," said the voice.

Again, [Endnote: 2] after this time, a long time extending to years, let us look back into that dim chamber, wherever in the world it was, into which we had a glimpse, and where we saw apparently a fugitive. How looks it now? Still dim,--perhaps as dim as ever,--but our eyes, or our imagination, have gained an acquaintance, a customariness, with the medium; so that we can discern things now a little more distinctly than of old. Possibly, there may have been something cleared away that obstructed the light; at any rate, we see now the whereabouts--better than we did. It is an oblong room, lofty but narrow, and some ten paces in length; its floor is heavily carpeted, so that the tread makes no sound; it is hung with old tapestry, or carpet, wrought with the hand long ago, and still retaining much of the ancient colors, where there was no sunshine to fade them; worked on them is some tapestried story, done by Catholic hands, of saints or devils, looking each equally grave and solemnly. The light, whence comes it? There is no window; but it seems to come through a stone, or something like it,--a dull gray medium, that makes noonday look like evening twilight. Though sometimes there is an effect as if something were striving to melt itself through this dull medium, and--never making a shadow--yet to produce the effect of a cloud gathering thickly over the sun. There is a chimney; yes, a little grate in which burns a coal fire, a dim smouldering fire, it might be an illumination, if that were desirable.

What is the furniture? An antique chair,--one chair, no more. A table, many-footed, of dark wood; it holds writing-materials, a book, too, on its face, with the dust gathered on its back. There is, moreover, a sort of antique box, or coffer, of some dark wood, that seems to have been wrought or carved with skill, wondrous skill, of some period when the art of carving wainscot with arms and devices was much practised; so that on this coffer--some six feet long it is, and two or three broad--most richly wrought, you see faces in relief of knight and dame, lords, heraldic animals; some story, very likely, told, almost revelling in Gothic sculpture of wood, like what we have seen on the marble sarcophagus of the old Greeks. It has, too, a lock, elaborately ornamented and inlaid with silver.

What else; only the spider's webs spinning strangely over everything; over that light which comes into the room through the stone; over everything. And now we see, in a corner, a strange great spider curiously variegated. The ugly, terrible, seemingly poisonous thing makes us shudder. [Endnote: 3.]

What, else? There are pistols; they lie on the coffer! There is a curiously shaped Italian dagger, of the kind which in a groove has poison that makes its wound mortal. On the old mantel-piece, over the fireplace, there is a vial in which are kept certain poisons. It would seem as if some one had meditated suicide; or else that the foul fiend had put all sorts of implements of self-destruction in his way; so that, in some frenzied moment, he might kill himself.

But the inmate! There he is; but the frenzied alarm in which we last saw him seems to have changed its character. No throb, now; no passion; no frenzy of fear or despair. He sits dull and motionless. See; his cheek is very pale; his hair long and dishevelled. His beard has grown, and curls round his face. He has on a sleeping-gown, a long robe as of one who abides within doors, and has nothing to do with outward elements; a pair of slippers. A dull, dreamy reverie seems to have possessed him. Hark! there is again a stealthy step on the floor, and the serving-man is here again. There is a peering, anxious curiosity in his face, as he struts towards him, a sort of enjoyment, one would say, in the way in which he looks at the strange case.

"I am here, you know," he says, at length, after feasting his eyes for some time on the spectacle.

"I hear you!" says the young man, in a dull, indifferent tone.

"Will not your honor walk out to-day?" says the man. "It is long now since your honor has taken the air."

"Very long," says the master, "but I will not go out to-day. What weather is it?"

"Sunny, bright, a summer day," says the man. "But you would never know it in these damp walls. The last winter's chill is here yet. Had not your honor better go forth?"

It might seem that there was a sort of sneer, deeply hidden under respect and obeisance, in the man's words and craftily respectful tone; deeply hidden, but conveying a more subtile power on that account. At all events, the master seemed aroused from his state of dull indifference, and writhed as with poignant anguish--an infused poison in his veins--as the man spoke.

"Have you procured me that new drug I spoke of?" asked the master.

"Here it is," said the man, putting a small package on the table.

"Is it effectual?"

"So said the apothecary," answered the man; "and I tried it on a dog. He sat quietly a quarter of an hour; then had a spasm or two, and was dead. But, your honor, the dead carcass swelled horribly."

"Hush, villain! Have there--have there been inquiries for me,--mention of me?"

"O, none, sir,--none, sir. Affairs go on bravely,--the new live. The world fills up. The gap is not vacant. There is no mention of you. Marry, at the alehouse I heard some idle topers talking of a murder that took place some few years since, and saying that Heaven's vengeance would come for it yet."

"Silence, villain, there is no such thing," said the young man; and, with a laugh that seemed like scorn, he relapsed into his state of sullen indifference; during which the servant stole away, after looking at him some time, as if to take all possible note of his aspect. The man did not seem so much to enjoy it himself, as he did to do these things in a kind of formal and matter-of-course way, as if he were performing a set duty; as if he were a subordinate fiend, and were doing the duty of a superior one, without any individual malice of his own, though a general satisfaction in doing what would accrue to the agglomeration of deadly mischief. He stole away, and the master was left to himself.

By and by, by what impulse or cause it is impossible to say, he started upon his feet in a sudden frenzy of rage and despair. It seemed as if a consciousness of some strange, wild miserable fate that had befallen him had come upon him all at once; how that he was a prisoner to a devilish influence, to some wizard might, that bound him hand and foot with spider's web. So he stamped; so he half shrieked, yet stopped himself in the midst, so that his cry was stifled and smothered. Then he snatched up the poisoned dagger and looked at it; the noose, and put it about his neck,--evil instrument of death,--but laid it down again. And then was a voice at the door: "Quietly, quietly you know, or they will hear you." And at that voice he sank into sullen indifference again.