Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter XIII

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Chapter XIII

The patient [Endnote: 1] had a favorable night, and awoke with a much clearer head, though still considerably feverish and in a state of great exhaustion from loss of blood, which kept down the fever. The events of the preceding day shimmered as it were and shifted illusively in his recollection; nor could he yet account for the situation in which he found himself, the antique chamber, the old man of mediæval garb, nor even for the wound which seemed to have been the occasion of bringing him thither. One moment, so far as he remembered, he had been straying along a solitary footpath, through rich shrubbery, with the antlered deer peeping at him, listening to the lark and the cuckoo; the next, he lay helpless in this oak-panelled chamber, surrounded with objects that appealed to some fantastic shadow of recollection, which could have had no reality. [Endnote: 2.]

To say the truth, the traveller perhaps wilfully kept hold of this strange illusiveness, and kept his thoughts from too harshly analyzing his situation, and solving the riddle in which he found himself involved. In his present weakness, his mind sympathizing with the sinking down of his physical powers, it was delightful to let all go; to relinquish all control, and let himself drift vaguely into whatever region of improbabilities there exists apart from the dull, common plane of life. Weak, stricken down, given over to influences which had taken possession of him during an interval of insensibility, he was no longer responsible; let these delusions, if they were such, linger as long as they would, and depart of their own accord at last. He, meanwhile, would willingly accept the idea that some spell had transported him out of an epoch in which he had led a brief, troubled existence of battle, mental strife, success, failure, all equally feverish and unsatisfactory, into some past century, where the business was to rest,--to drag on dreamy days, looking at things through half- shut eyes; into a limbo where things were put away, shows of what had once been, now somehow fainted, and still maintaining a sort of half- existence, a serious mockery; a state likely enough to exist just a little apart from the actual world, if we only know how to find our way into it. Scenes and events that had once stained themselves, in deep colors, on the curtain that Time hangs around us, to shut us in from eternity, cannot be quite effaced by the succeeding phantasmagoria, and sometimes, by a palimpsest, show more strongly than they. [Endnote: 3.]

In the course of the morning, however, he was a little too feelingly made sensible of realities by the visit of a surgeon, who proceeded to examine the wound in his shoulder, removing the bandages which he himself seemed to have put upon this mysterious hurt. The traveller closed his eyes, and submitted to the manipulations of the professional person, painful as they were, assisted by the gentle touch of the old palmer; and there was something in the way in which he resigned himself that met the approbation of the surgeon, in spite of a little fever, and slight delirium too, to judge by his eye.

"A very quiet and well-behaved patient," said he to the palmer. "Unless I greatly mistake, he has been under the surgeon's hand for a similar hurt ere now. He has learned under good discipline how to take such a thing easily. Yes, yes; just here is a mark where a bullet went in some time ago,--three or four years since, when he could have been little more than a boy. A wild fellow this, I doubt."

"It was an Indian bullet," said the patient, still fancying himself gone astray into the past, "shot at me in battle; 'twas three hundred years hereafter."

"Ah! he has served in the East Indies," said the surgeon. "I thought this sun-burned cheek had taken its hue elsewhere than in England."

The patient did not care to take the trouble which would have been involved in correcting the surgeon's surmise; so he let it pass, and patiently awaited the end of the examination, with only a moan or two, which seemed rather pleasing and desirable than otherwise to the surgeon's ear.

"He has vitality enough for his needs," said he, nodding to the palmer. "These groans betoken a good degree of pain; though the young fellow is evidently a self-contained sort of nature, and does not let us know all he feels. It promises well, however; keep him in bed and quiet, and within a day or two we shall see."

He wrote a recipe, or two or three, perhaps, (for in those days the medical fraternity had faith in their own art,) and took his leave.

The white-bearded palmer withdrew into the half concealment of the oratory which we have already mentioned, and then, putting on a pair of spectacles, betook himself to the perusal of an old folio volume, the leaves of which he turned over so gently that not the slightest sound could possibly disturb the patient. All his manifestations were gentle and soft, but of a simplicity most unlike the feline softness which we are apt to associate with a noiseless tread and movement in the male sex. The sunshine came through the ivy and glimmered upon his great book, however, with an effect which a little disturbed the patient's nerves; besides, he desired to have a fuller view of his benign guardian.

"Will you sit nearer the bedside?" said he. "I wish to look at you."

Weakness, the relaxation of nerves, and the state of dependence on another's care--very long unfelt--had made him betray what we must call childishness; and it was perceptible in the low half-complaining tone in which he spoke, indicating a consciousness of kindness in the other, a little plaintiveness in himself; of which, the next instant, weak and wandering as he was, he was ashamed, and essayed to express it. [Endnote: 4.]

"You must deem me very poor-spirited," said he, "not to bear this trifling hurt with a firmer mind. But perhaps it is not entirely that I am so weak, but I feel you to be so benign."

"Be weak, and be the stronger for it," said the old man, with a grave smile. "It is not in the pride of our strength that we are best or wisest. To be made anew, we even must be again a little child, and consent to be enwrapt quietly in the arms of Providence, as a child in its mother's arms."

"I never knew a mother's care," replied the traveller, in a low, regretful tone, being weak to the incoming of all soft feelings, in his present state. "Since my boyhood, I have lived among men,--a life of struggle and hard rivalry. It is good to find myself here in the long past, and in a sheltered harbor."

And here he smiled, by way of showing to this old palmer that he saw through the slight infirmity of mind that impelled him to say such things as the above; that he was not its dupe, though he had not strength, just now, to resist its impulse. After this he dozed off softly, and felt through all his sleep some twinges of his wound, bringing him back, as it were, to the conscious surface of the great deep of slumber, into which he might otherwise have sunk. At all such brief intervals, half unclosing his eyes, (like a child, when the mother sits by its bed and he fears that she will steal away if he falls quite asleep, and leave him in the dark solitude,) he still beheld the white-bearded, kindly old man, of saintly aspect, sitting near him, and turning over the pages of his folio volume so softly that not the faintest rustle did it make; the picture at length got so fully into his idea, that he seemed to see it even through his closed eyelids. After a while, however, the slumberous tendency left him more entirely, and, without having been consciously awake, he found himself contemplating the old man, with wide-open eyes. The venerable personage seemed soon to feel his gaze, and, ceasing to look at the folio, he turned his eyes with quiet inquiry to meet those of the stranger. [Endnote: 5.]

"What great volume is that?" asked the latter. [Endnote: 6.]

"It is a book of English chronicles," said the old man, "mostly relating to the part of the island where you now are, and to times previous to the Stuarts."

"Ah! it is to you, a contemporary, what reading the newspaper is to other men," said the stranger; then, with a smile of self-reproach, "I shall conquer this idle mood. I'm not so imbecile as you must think me. But there is something that strangely haunts me,--where, in what state of being, can I have seen your face before. There is nothing in it I distinctly remember; but some impression, some characteristic, some look, with which I have been long ago familiar haunts me and brings back all old scenes. Do you know me?"

The old man smiled. "I knew, long ago, a bright and impressible boy," said he.

"And his name?" said the stranger.

"It was Edward Redclyffe," said the old man.

"Ah, I see who you are," said the traveller, not too earnestly, but with a soft, gratified feeling, as the riddle thus far solved itself. "You are my old kindly instructor. You are Colcord! That is it. I remember you disappeared. You shall tell me, when I am quite myself, what was that mystery,--and whether it is your real self, or only a part of my dream, and going to vanish when I quite awake. Now I shall sleep and dream more of it."

One more waking interval he had that day, and again essayed to enter into conversation with the old man, who had thus strangely again become connected with his life, after having so long vanished from his path.

"Where am I?" asked Edward Redclyffe.

"In the home of misfortune," said Colcord.

"Ah! then I have a right to be here!" said he. "I was born in such a home. Do you remember it?"

"I know your story," said Colcord.

"Yes; from Doctor Grim," said Edward. "People whispered he had made away with you. I never believed it; but finding you here in this strange way, and myself having been shot, perhaps to death, it seems not so strange. Pooh! I wander again, and ought to sleep a little more. And this is the home of misfortune, but not like the squalid place of rage, idiocy, imbecility, drunkenness, where I was born. How many times I have blushed to remember that native home! But not of late! I have struggled; I have fought; I have triumphed. The unknown boy has come to be no undistinguished man! His ancestry, should he ever reveal himself to them, need not blush for the poor foundling."

"Hush!" said the quiet watcher. "Your fever burns you. Take this draught, and sleep a little longer." [Endnote: 7.]

Another day or two found Edward Redclyffe almost a convalescent. The singular lack of impatience that characterized his present mood--the repose of spirit into which he had lapsed--had much to do with the favorable progress of his cure. After strife, anxiety, great mental exertion, and excitement of various kinds, which had harassed him ever since he grew to be a man, had come this opportunity of perfect rest;-- this dream in the midst of which he lay, while its magic boundaries involved him, and kept far off the contact of actual life, so that its sounds and tumults seemed remote; its cares could not fret him; its ambitions, objects good or evil, were shut out from him; the electric wires that had connected him with the battery of life were broken for the time, and he did not feel the unquiet influence that kept everybody else in galvanic motion. So, under the benign influence of the old palmer, he lay in slumberous luxury, undisturbed save by some twinges of no intolerable pain; which, however, he almost was glad of, because it made him sensible that this deep luxury of quiet was essential to his cure, however idle it might seem. For the first time since he was a child, he resigned himself not to put a finger to the evolution of his fortune; he determined to accept all things that might happen, good or evil; he would not imagine an event beyond to-day, but would let one spontaneous and half-defined thought loiter after another, through his mind; listen to the spattering shower,--the puffs of shut-out wind; and look with half-shut eyes at the sunshine glimmering through the ivy- twigs, and illuminating those old devices on the wall; at the gathering twilight; at the dim lamp; at the creeping upward of another day, and with it the lark singing so far away that the thrill of its delicious song could not disturb him with an impulse to awake. Sweet as its carol was, he could almost have been content to miss the lark; sweet and clear, it was too like a fairy trumpet-call, summoning him to awake and struggle again with eager combatants for new victories, the best of which were not worth this deep repose.

The old palmer did his best to prolong a mood so beneficial to the wounded young man. The surgeon also nodded approval, and attributed this happy state of the patient's mind, and all the physical advantages growing out of it, to his own consummate skill; nor, indeed, was he undeserving of credit, not often to be awarded to medical men, for having done nothing to impede the good which kind Nature was willing to bring about. She was doing the patient more good, indeed, than either the surgeon or the palmer could fully estimate, in taking this opportunity to recreate a mind that had too early known stirring impulse, and that had been worked to a degree beyond what its organization (in some respects singularly delicate) ought to have borne. Once in a long while the weary actors in the headlong drama of life must have such repose or else go mad or die. When the machinery of human life has once been stopped by sickness or other impediment, it often needs an impulse to set it going again, even after it is nearly wound up.

But it could not last forever. The influx of new life into his being began to have a poignancy that would not let him lie so quietly, lapped in the past, in gone by centuries, and waited on by quiet Age, in the person of the old palmer; he began to feel again that he was young, and must live in the time when his lot was cast. He began to say to himself, that it was not well to be any longer passive, but that he must again take the troublesome burden of his own life on his own shoulders. He thought of this necessity, this duty, throughout one whole day, and determined that on the morrow he would make the first step towards terminating his inaction, which he now began to be half impatient of, at the same time that he clutched it still, for the sake of the deliciousness that it had had.

"To-morrow, I hope to be clothed and in my right mind," said he to the old palmer, "and very soon I must thank you, with my whole heart, for your kind care, and go. It is a shame that I burden the hospitality of this house so long."

"No shame whatever," replied the old man, "but, on the contrary, the fittest thing that could have chanced. You are dependent on no private benevolence, nor on the good offices of any man now living, or who has lived these last three hundred years. This ancient establishment is for the support of poverty, misfortune, and age, and, according to the word of the founder, it serves him:--he was indebted to the beneficiaries, not they to him, for, in return for his temporal bequests, he asked their prayers for his soul's welfare. He needed them, could they avail him; for this ponderous structure was built upon the founder's mortal transgressions, and even, I may say, out of the actual substance of them. Sir Edward Redclyffe was a fierce fighter in the Wars of the Roses, and amassed much wealth by spoil, rapine, confiscation, and all violent and evil ways that those disturbed times opened to him; and on his death-bed he founded this Hospital for twelve men, who should be able to prove kindred with his race, to dwell here with a stipend, and pray for him; and likewise provision for a sick stranger, until he should be able to go on his way again."

"I shall pray for him willingly," said Edward, moved by the pity which awaits any softened state of our natures to steal into our hearts. "Though no Catholic, I will pray for his soul. And that is his crest which you wear embroidered on his garment?"

"It is," said the old man. "You will see it carved, painted, embroidered, everywhere about the establishment; but let us give it the better and more reasonable interpretation;--not that he sought to proclaim his own pride of ancestry and race, but to acknowledge his sins the more manifestly, by stamping the emblem of his race on this structure of his penitence."

"And are you," said Redclyffe, impressed anew by the quiet dignity of the venerable speaker, "in authority in the establishment?"

"A simple beneficiary of the charity," said the palmer; "one of the twelve poor brethren and kinsmen of the founder. Slighter proofs of kindred are now of necessity received, since, in the natural course of things, the race has long been growing scarce. But I had it in my power to make out a sufficient claim."

"Singular," exclaimed Redclyffe, "you being an American!" [Endnote: 8.]

"You remember me, then," said the old man, quietly.

"From the first," said Edward, "although your image took the fantastic aspect of the bewilderment in which I then was; and now that I am in clearer state of mind, it seems yet stranger that you should be here. We two children thought you translated, and people, I remember, whispered dark hints about your fate."

"There was nothing wonderful in my disappearance," said the old man. "There were causes, an impulse, an intuition, that made me feel, one particular night, that I might meet harm, whether from myself or others, by remaining in a place with which I had the most casual connection. But I never, so long as I remained in America, quite lost sight of you; and Doctor Grimshawe, before his death, had knowledge of where I was, and gave me in charge a duty which I faithfully endeavored to perform. Singular man that he was! much evil, much good in him. Both, it may be, will live after him!"

Redclyffe, when the conversation had reached this point, felt a vast desire to reveal to the old man all that the grim Doctor had instilled into his childish mind, all that he himself, in subsequent years, had wrought more definitely out of it, all his accompanying doubts respecting the secret of his birth and some supposed claims which he might assert, and which, only half acknowledging the purpose, had availed to bring him, a republican, hither as to an ancestral centre. He even fancied that the benign old man seemed to expect and await such a confidence; but that very idea contributed to make it impossible for him to speak.

"Another time," he said to himself. "Perhaps never. It is a fantastic folly; and with what the workhouse foundling has since achieved, he would give up too many hopes to take the representation of a mouldy old English family."

"I find my head still very weak," said he, by way of cutting short the conversation. "I must try to sleep again."