Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter XIV

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Chapter XIV

The next day he called for his clothes, and, with the assistance of the pensioner, managed to be dressed, and awaited the arrival of the surgeon, sitting in a great easy-chair, with not much except his pale, thin cheeks, dark, thoughtful eyes, and his arm in a sling, to show the pain and danger through which he had passed. Soon after the departure of the professional gentleman, a step somewhat louder than ordinary was heard on the staircase, and in the corridor leading to the sick- chamber; the step (as Redclyffe's perceptions, nicely attempered by his weakness, assured him) of a man in perfect and robust health, and of station and authority. A moment afterwards, a gentleman of middle age, or a little beyond, appeared in the doorway, in a dress that seemed clerical, yet not very decidedly so; he had a frank, kindly, yet authoritative bearing, and a face that might almost be said to beam with geniality, when, as now, the benevolence of his nature was aroused and ready to express itself.

"My friend," said he, "Doctor Portingale tells me you are much better; and I am most happy to hear it."

There was something brusque and unceremonious in his manner, that a little jarred against Redclyffe's sensitiveness, which had become morbid in sympathy with his weakness. He felt that the new-comer had not probably the right idea as to his own position in life; he was addressing him most kindly, indeed, but as an inferior.

"I am much better, sir," he replied, gravely, and with reserve; "so nearly well, that I shall very soon be able to bid farewell to my kind nurse here, and to this ancient establishment, to which I owe so much."

The visitor seemed struck by Mr. Redclyffe's tone, and finely modulated voice, and glanced at his face, and then over his dress and figure, as if to gather from them some reliable data as to his station.

"I am the Warden of this Hospital," said he, with not less benignity than heretofore, and greater courtesy; "and, in that capacity, must consider you under my care,--as my guest, in fact,--although, owing to my casual absence, one of the brethren of the house has been the active instrument in attending you. I am most happy to find you so far recovered. Do you feel yourself in a condition to give any account of the accident which has befallen you?"

"It will be a very unsatisfactory one, at best," said Redclyffe, trying to discover some definite point in his misty reminiscences. "I am a stranger to this country, and was on a pedestrian tour with the purpose of making myself acquainted with the aspects of English scenery and life. I had turned into a footpath, being told that it would lead me within view of an old Hall, which, from certain early associations, I was very desirous of seeing. I think I went astray; at all events, the path became indistinct; and, so far as I can recollect, I had just turned to retrace my steps,--in fact, that is the last thing in my memory."

"You had almost fallen a sacrifice," said the Warden, "to the old preference which our English gentry have inherited from their Norman ancestry, of game to man. You had come unintentionally as an intruder into a rich preserve much haunted by poachers, and exposed yourself to the deadly mark of a spring-gun, which had not the wit to distinguish between a harmless traveller and a poacher. At least, such is our conclusion; for our old friend here, (who luckily for you is a great rambler in the woods,) when the report drew him to the spot, found you insensible, and the gun discharged."

"A gun has so little discretion," said Redclyffe, smiling, "that it seems a pity to trust entirely to its judgment, in a matter of life and death. But, to confess the truth, I had come this morning to the suspicion that there was a direct human agency in the matter; for I find missing a little pocket-book which I carried."

"Then," said the Warden, "that certainly gives a new aspect to the affair. Was it of value?"

"Of none whatever," said Redclyffe, "merely containing pencil memoranda, and notes of a traveller's little expenses. I had papers about me of far more value, and a moderate sum of money, a letter of credit, which have escaped. I do not, however, feel inclined, on such grounds, to transfer the guilt decidedly from the spring-gun to any more responsible criminal; for it is very possible that the pocket- book, being carelessly carried, might have been lost on the way. I had not used it since the preceding day."

"Much more probable, indeed," said the Warden. "The discharged gun is strong evidence against itself. Mr. Colcord," continued he, raising his voice, "how long was the interval between the discharge of the gun and your arrival on the spot."

"Five minutes, or less," said the old man, "for I was not far off, and made what haste I could, it being borne in on my spirit that mischief was abroad."

"Did you hear two reports?" asked the Warden.

"Only one," replied Colcord.

"It is a plain case against the spring-gun," said the Warden; "and, as you tell me you are a stranger, I trust you will not suppose that our peaceful English woods and parks are the haunt of banditti. We must try to give you a better idea of us. May I ask, are you an American, and recently come among us?"

"I believe a letter of credit is considered as decisive as most modes of introduction," said Redclyffe, feeling that the good Warden was desirous of knowing with some precision who and what he was, and that, in the circumstances, he had a right to such knowledge. "Here is mine, on a respectable house in London."

The Warden took it, and glanced it over with a slight apologetic bow; it was a credit for a handsome amount in favor of the Honorable Edward Redclyffe, a title that did not fail to impress the Englishman rather favorably towards his new acquaintance, although he happened to know something of their abundance, even so early in the republic, among the men branded sons of equality. But, at all events, it showed no ordinary ability and energy for so young a man to have held such position as this title denoted in the fiercely contested political struggles of the new democracy.

"Do you know, Mr. Redclyffe, that this name is familiar to us, hereabouts?" asked he, with a kindly bow and recognition,--"that it is in fact the principal name in this neighborhood,--that a family of your name still possesses Braithwaite Hall, and that this very Hospital, where you have happily found shelter, was founded by former representatives of your name? Perhaps you count yourself among their kindred."

"My countrymen are apt to advance claims to kinship with distinguished English families on such slight grounds as to make it ridiculous," said Redclyffe, coloring. "I should not choose to follow so absurd an example."

"Well, well, perhaps not," said the Warden, laughing frankly. "I have been amongst your republicans myself, a long while ago, and saw that your countrymen have no adequate idea of the sacredness of pedigrees, and heraldic distinctions, and would change their own names at pleasure, and vaunt kindred with an English duke on the strength of the assumed one. But I am happy to meet an American gentleman who looks upon this matter as Englishmen necessarily must. I met with great kindness in your country, Mr. Redclyffe, and shall be truly happy if you will allow me an opportunity of returning some small part of the obligation. You are now in a condition for removal to my own quarters, across the quadrangle. I will give orders to prepare an apartment, and you must transfer yourself there by dinner-time."

With this hospitable proposal, so decisively expressed, the Warden took his leave; and Edward Redclyffe had hardly yet recovered sufficient independent force to reject an invitation so put, even were he inclined; but, in truth, the proposal suited well with his wishes, such as they were, and was, moreover, backed, it is singular to say, by another of those dreamlike recognitions which had so perplexed him ever since he found himself in the Hospital. In some previous state of being, the Warden and he had talked together before.

"What is the Warden's name?" he inquired of the old pensioner.

"Hammond," said the old man; "he is a kinsman of the Redclyffe family himself, a man of fortune, and spends more than the income of his wardenship in beautifying and keeping up the glory of the establishment. He takes great pride in it."

"And he has been in America," said Redclyffe. "How strange! I knew him there. Never was anything so singular as the discovery of old acquaintances where I had reason to suppose myself unknowing and unknown. Unless dear Doctor Grim, or dear little Elsie, were to start up and greet me, I know not what may chance next."

Redclyffe took up his quarters in the Warden's house the next day, and was installed in an apartment that made a picture, such as he had not before seen, of English household comfort. He was thus established under the good Warden's roof, and, being very attractive of most people's sympathies, soon began to grow greatly in favor with that kindly personage.

When Edward Redclyffe removed from the old pensioner's narrow quarters to the far ampler accommodations of the Warden's house, the latter gentleman was taking his morning exercise on horseback. A servant, however, in a grave livery, ushered him to an apartment, where the new guest was surprised to see some luggage which two or three days before Edward had ordered from London, on finding that his stay in this part of the country was likely to be much longer than he had originally contemplated. The sight of these things--the sense which they conveyed that he was an expected and welcome guest--tended to raise the spirits of the solitary wanderer, and made him.... [Endnote: 1.]

The Warden's abode was an original part of the ancient establishment, being an entire side of the quadrangle which the whole edifice surrounded; and for the establishment of a bachelor (which was his new friend's condition), it seemed to Edward Redclyffe abundantly spacious and enviably comfortable. His own chamber had a grave, rich depth, as it were, of serene and time-long garniture, for purposes of repose, convenience, daily and nightly comfort, that it was soothing even to look at. Long accustomed, as Redclyffe had been, to the hardy and rude accommodations, if so they were to be called, of log huts and hasty, mud-built houses in the Western States of America, life, its daily habits, its passing accommodations, seemed to assume an importance, under these aspects, which it had not worn before; those deep downy beds, those antique chairs, the heavy carpet, the tester and curtains, the stateliness of the old room,--they had a charm as compared with the thin preparation of a forester's bedchamber, such as Redclyffe had chiefly known them, in the ruder parts of the country, that really seemed to give a more substantial value to life; so much pains had been taken with its modes and appliances, that it looked more solid than before. Nevertheless, there was something ghostly in that stately curtained bed, with the deep gloom within its drapery, so ancient as it was; and suggestive of slumberers there who had long since slumbered elsewhere.

The old servant, whose grave, circumspect courtesy was a matter quite beyond Redclyffe's experience, soon knocked at the chamber door, and suggested that the guest might desire to await the Warden's arrival in the library, which was the customary sitting-room. Redclyffe assenting, he was ushered into a spacious apartment, lighted by various Gothic windows, surrounded with old oaken cases, in which were ranged volumes, most or many of which seemed to be coeval with the foundation of the hospital; and opening one of them, Redclyffe saw for the first time in his life [Endnote: 2] a genuine book-worm, that ancient form of creature living upon literature; it had gnawed a circular hole, penetrating through perhaps a score of pages of the seldom opened volume, and was still at his musty feast. There was a fragrance of old learning in this ancient library; a soothing influence, as the American felt, of time-honored ideas, where the strife, novelties, uneasy agitating conflict, attrition of unsettled theories, fresh-springing thought, did not attain a foothold; a good place to spend a life which should not be agitated with the disturbing element; so quiet, so peaceful; how slowly, with how little wear, would the years pass here! How unlike what he had hitherto known, and was destined to know,--the quick, violent struggle of his mother country, which had traced lines in his young brow already. How much would be saved by taking his former existence, not as dealing with things yet malleable, but with fossils, things that had had their life, and now were unchangeable, and revered, here!

At one end of this large room there was a bowed window, the space near which was curtained off from the rest of the library, and, the window being filled with painted glass (most of which seemed old, though there were insertions evidently of modern and much inferior handiwork), there was a rich gloom of light, or you might call it a rich glow, according to your mood of mind. Redclyffe soon perceived that this curtained recess was the especial study of his friend, the Warden, and as such was provided with all that modern times had contrived for making an enjoyment out of the perusal of old books; a study table, with every convenience of multifarious devices, a great inkstand, pens; a luxurious study chair, where thought [Endnote: 3] upon. To say the truth, there was not, in this retired and thoughtful nook, anything that indicated to Redclyffe that the Warden had been recently engaged in consultation of learned authorities,--or in abstract labor, whether moral, metaphysical or historic; there was a volume of translations of Mother Goose's Melodies into Greek and Latin, printed for private circulation, and with the Warden's name on the title-page; a London newspaper of the preceding day; Lillebullero, Chevy Chase, and the old political ballads; and, what a little amused Redclyffe, the three volumes of a novel from a circulating library; so that Redclyffe came to the conclusion that the good Warden, like many educated men, whose early scholastic propensities are backed up by the best of opportunities, and all desirable facilities and surroundings, still contented himself with gathering a flower or two, instead of attempting the hard toil requisite to raise a crop.

It must not be omitted, that there was a fragrance in the room, which, unlike as the scene was, brought back, through so many years, to Redclyffe's mind a most vivid remembrance of poor old Doctor Grim's squalid chamber, with his wild, bearded presence in the midst of it, puffing his everlasting cloud; for here was the same smell of tobacco, and on the mantel-piece of a chimney lay a German pipe, and an old silver tobacco-box into which was wrought the leopard's head and the inscription in black letter. The Warden had evidently availed himself of one of the chief bachelor sources of comfort. Redclyffe, whose destiny had hitherto, and up to a very recent period, been to pass a feverishly active life, was greatly impressed by all these tokens of learned ease,--a degree of self-indulgence combined with duties enough to quiet an otherwise uneasy conscience,--by the consideration that this pensioner acted a good part in a world where no one is entitled to be an unprofitable laborer. He thought within himself, that his prospects in his own galvanized country, that seemed to him, a few years since, to offer such a career for an adventurous young man, conscious of motive power, had nothing so enticing as such a nook as this,--a quiet recess of unchangeable old time, around which the turbulent tide now eddied and rushed, but could not disturb it. Here, to be sure, hope, love, ambition, came not, progress came not; but here was what, just now, the early wearied American could appreciate better than aught else,--here was rest.

The fantasy took Edward to imitate the useful labors of the learned Warden, and to make trial whether his own classical condition--the results of Doctor Grim's tuition, and subsequently that of an American College--had utterly deserted him, by attempting a translation of a few verses of Yankee Doodle; and he was making hopeful progress when the Warden came in fresh and rosy from a morning's ride in a keen east wind. He shook hands heartily with his guest, and, though by no means frigid at their former interview, seemed to have developed at once into a kindlier man, now that he had suffered the stranger to cross his threshold, and had thus made himself responsible for his comfort.

"I shall take it greatly amiss," said he, "if you do not pick up fast under my roof, and gather a little English ruddiness, moreover, in the walks and rides that I mean to take you. Your countrymen, as I saw them, are a sallow set; but I think you must have English blood enough in your veins to eke out a ruddy tint, with the help of good English beef and ale, and daily draughts of wholesome light and air."

"My cheeks would not have been so very pale," said Edward, laughing, "if an English shot had not deprived me of a good deal of my American blood."

"Only follow my guidance," said the Warden, "and I assure you you shall have back whatever blood we have deprived you of, together with an addition. It is now luncheon-time, and we will begin the process of replenishing your veins."

So they went into a refectory, where were spread upon the board what might have seemed a goodly dinner to most Americans; though for this Englishman it was but a by-incident, a slight refreshment, to enable him to pass the midway stage of life. It is an excellent thing to see the faith of a hearty Englishman in his own stomach, and how well that kindly organ repays his trust; with what devout assimilation he takes to himself his kindred beef, loving it, believing in it, making a good use of it, and without any qualms of conscience or prescience as to the result. They surely eat twice as much as we; and probably because of their undoubted faith it never does them any harm. Dyspepsia is merely a superstition with us. If we could cease to believe in its existence, it would exist no more. Redclyffe, eating little himself, his wound compelling him to be cautious as to his diet, was secretly delighted to see what sweets the Warden found in a cold round of beef, in a pigeon pie, and a cut or two of Yorkshire ham; not that he was ravenous, but that his stomach was so healthy.

"You eat little, my friend," said the Warden, pouring out a glass of sherry for Redclyffe, and another for himself. "But you are right, in such a predicament as yours. Spare your stomach while you are weakly, and it will help you when you are strong This, now, is the most enjoyable meal of the day with me. You will not see me play such a knife and fork at dinner; though there too, especially if I have ridden out in the afternoon, I do pretty well. But, come now, if (like most of your countrymen, as I have heard) you are a lover of the weed, I can offer you some as delicate Latakia as you are likely to find in England."

"I lack that claim upon your kindness, I am sorry to say," replied Redclyffe. "I am not a good smoker, though I have occasionally taken a cigar at need."

"Well, when you find yourself growing old, and especially if you chance to be a bachelor, I advise you to cultivate the habit," said the Warden. "A wife is the only real obstacle or objection to a pipe; they can seldom be thoroughly reconciled, and therefore it is well for a man to consider, beforehand, which of the two he can best dispense with. I know not how it might have been once, had the conflicting claim of these two rivals ever been fairly presented to me; but I now should be at no loss to choose the pipe."

They returned to the study; and while the Warden took his pipe, Redclyffe, considering that, as the guest of this hospitable Englishman, he had no right to continue a stranger, thought it fit to make known to him who he was, and his condition, plans, and purposes. He represented himself as having been liberally educated, bred to the law, but (to his misfortune) having turned aside from that profession to engage in politics. In this pursuit, indeed, his success wore a flattering outside; for he had become distinguished, and, though so young, a leader, locally at least, in the party which he had adopted. He had been, for a biennial term, a member of Congress, after winning some distinction in the legislature of his native State; but some one of those fitful changes to which American politics are peculiarly liable had thrown him out, in his candidacy for his second term; and the virulence of party animosity, the abusiveness of the press, had acted so much upon a disposition naturally somewhat too sensitive for the career which he had undertaken, that he had resolved, being now freed from legislative cares, to seize the opportunity for a visit to England, whither he was drawn by feelings which every educated and impressible American feels, in a degree scarcely conceivable by the English themselves. And being here (but he had already too much experience of English self-sufficiency to confess so much) he began to feel the deep yearning which a sensitive American--his mind full of English thoughts, his imagination of English poetry, his heart of English character and sentiment--cannot fail to be influenced by,--the yearning of the blood within his veins for that from which it has been estranged; the half-fanciful regret that he should ever have been separated from these woods, these fields, these natural features of scenery, to which his nature was moulded, from the men who are still so like himself, from these habits of life and thought which (though he may not have known them for two centuries) he still perceives to have remained in some mysterious way latent in the depths of his character, and soon to be reassumed, not as a foreigner would do it, but like habits native to him, and only suspended for a season.

This had been Redclyffe's state of feeling ever since he landed in England, and every day seemed to make him more at home; so that it seemed as if he were gradually awakening to a former reality.