Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter XIX

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Chapter XIX

High up in the old carved roof, meanwhile, the spiders of centuries still hung their flaunting webs with a profusion that old Doctor Grimshawe would have been ravished to see; but even this was to be remedied, for one day, on looking in, Redclyffe found the great hall dim with floating dust, and down through it came great floating masses of cobweb, out of which the old Doctor would have undertaken to regenerate the world; and he saw, dimly aloft, men on ladders sweeping away these accumulations of years, and breaking up the haunts and residences of hereditary spiders.

The stately old hall had been in process of cleaning and adapting to the banquet purposes of the nineteenth century, which it was accustomed to subserve, in so proud a way, in the sixteenth. It was, in the first place, well swept and cleansed; the painted glass windows were cleansed from dust, and several panes, which had been unfortunately broken and filled with common glass, were filled in with colored panes, which the Warden had picked up somewhere in his antiquarian researches. They were not, to be sure, just what was wanted; a piece of a saint, from some cathedral window, supplying what was lacking of the gorgeous purple of a mediæval king; but the general effect was rich and good, whenever the misty English atmosphere supplied sunshine bright enough to pervade it. Tapestry, too, from antique looms, faded, but still gorgeous, was hung upon the walls. Some suits of armor, that hung beneath the festal gallery, were polished till the old battered helmets and pierced breastplates sent a gleam like that with which they had flashed across the battle-fields of old. [Endnote: 1.]

So now the great day of the Warden's dinner had arrived; and, as may be supposed, there were fiery times in the venerable old kitchen. The cook, according to ancient custom, concocted many antique dishes, such as used to be set before kings and nobles; dainties that might have called the dead out of their graves; combinations of ingredients that had ceased to be put together for centuries; historic dishes, which had long, long ceased to be in the list of revels. Then there was the stalwart English cheer of the sirloin, and the round; there were the vast plum-puddings, the juicy mutton, the venison; there was the game, now just in season,--the half-tame wild fowl of English covers, the half-domesticated wild deer of English parks, the heathcock from the far-off hills of Scotland, and one little prairie hen, and some canvas- back ducks--obtained, Heaven knows how, in compliment to Redclyffe-- from his native shores. O, the old jolly kitchen! how rich the flavored smoke that went up its vast chimney! how inestimable the atmosphere of steam that was diffused through it! How did the old men peep into it, even venture across the threshold, braving the hot wrath of the cook and his assistants, for the sake of imbuing themselves with these rich and delicate flavors, receiving them in as it were spiritually; for, received through the breath and in the atmosphere, it was really a spiritual enjoyment. The ghosts of ancient epicures seemed, on that day and the few preceding ones, to haunt the dim passages, snuffing in with shadowy nostrils the rich vapors, assuming visibility in the congenial medium, almost becoming earthly again in the strength of their earthly longings for one other feast such as they used to enjoy.

Nor is it to be supposed that it was only these antique dainties that the Warden provided for his feast. No; if the cook, the cultured and recondite old cook, who had accumulated within himself all that his predecessors knew for centuries,--if he lacked anything of modern fashion and improvement, he had supplied his defect by temporary assistance from a London club; and the bill of fare was provided with dishes that Soyer would not have harshly criticised. The ethereal delicacy of modern taste, the nice adjustment of flowers, the French style of cookery, was richly attended to; and the list was long of dishes with fantastic names, fish, fowl, and flesh; and _entremets_, and "sweets," as the English call them, and sugared cates, too numerous to think of.

The wines we will not take upon ourselves to enumerate; but the juice, then destined to be quaffed, was in part the precious vintages that had been broached half a century ago, and had been ripening ever since; the rich and dry old port, so unlovely to the natural palate that it requires long English seasoning to get it down; the sherry, imported before these modern days of adulteration; some claret, the Warden said of rarest vintage; some Burgundy, of which it was the quality to warm the blood and genialize existence for three days after it was drunk. Then there was a rich liquid contributed to this department by Redclyffe himself; for, some weeks since, when the banquet first loomed in the distance, he had (anxious to evince his sense of the Warden's kindness) sent across the ocean for some famous Madeira which he had inherited from the Doctor, and never tasted yet. This, together with some of the Western wines of America, had arrived, and was ready to be broached.

The Warden tested these modern wines, and recognized a new flavor, but gave it only a moderate approbation; for, in truth, an elderly Englishman has not a wide appreciation of wines, nor loves new things in this kind more than in literature or life. But he tasted the Madeira, too, and underwent an ecstasy, which was only alleviated by the dread of gout, which he had an idea that this wine must bring on,-- and truly, if it were so splendid a wine as he pronounced it, some pain ought to follow as the shadow of such a pleasure.

As it was a festival of antique date, the dinner hour had been fixed earlier than is usual at such stately banquets; namely, at six o'clock, which was long before the dusky hour at which Englishmen love best to dine. About that period, the carriages drove into the old courtyard of the Hospital in great abundance; blocking up, too, the ancient portal, and remaining in a line outside. Carriages they were with armorial bearings, family coaches in which came Englishmen in their black coats and white neckcloths, elderly, white-headed, fresh-colored, squat; not beautiful, certainly, nor particularly dignified, nor very well dressed, nor with much of an imposing air, but yet, somehow or other, producing an effect of force, respectability, reliableness, trust, which is probably deserved, since it is invariably experienced. Cold they were in deportment, and looked coldly on the stranger, who, on his part, drew himself up with an extra haughtiness and reserve, and felt himself in the midst of his enemies, and more as if he were going to do battle than to sit down to a friendly banquet. The Warden introduced him, as an American diplomatist, to one or two of the gentlemen, who regarded him forbiddingly, as Englishmen do before dinner.

Not long after Redclyffe had entered the reception-room, which was but shortly before the hour appointed for the dinner, there was another arrival betokened by the clatter of hoofs and grinding wheels in the courtyard; and then entered a gentleman of different mien from the bluff, ruddy, simple-minded, yet worldly Englishmen around him. He was a tall, dark man, with a black moustache and almost olive skin, a slender, lithe figure, a flexible face, quick, flashing, mobile. His deportment was graceful; his dress, though it seemed to differ in little or nothing from that of the gentlemen in the room, had yet a grace and picturesqueness in his mode of wearing it. He advanced to the Warden, who received him with distinction, and yet, Redclyffe fancied, not exactly with cordiality. It seemed to Redclyffe that the Warden looked round, as if with the purpose of presenting Redclyffe to this gentleman, but he himself, from some latent reluctance, had turned away and entered, into conversation with one of the other gentlemen, who said now, looking at the new-comer, "Are you acquainted with this last arrival?"

"Not at all," said Redclyffe. "I know Lord Braithwaite by sight, indeed, but have had no introduction. He is a man, certainly, of distinguished appearance."

"Why, pretty well," said the gentleman, "but un-English, as also are his manners. It is a pity to see an old English family represented by such a person. Neither he, his father, nor grandfather was born among us; he has far more Italian blood than enough to drown the slender stream of Anglo-Saxon and Norman. His modes of life, his prejudices, his estates, his religion, are unlike our own; and yet here he is in the position of an old English gentleman, possibly to be a peer. You, whose nationality embraces that of all the world, cannot, I suppose, understand this English feeling." [Endnote: 2.]

"Pardon me," said Redclyffe, "I can perfectly understand it. An American, in his feelings towards England, has all the jealousy and exclusiveness of Englishmen themselves,--perhaps, indeed, a little exaggerated."

"I beg your pardon," said the Englishman, incredulously, "I think you cannot possibly understand it!" [Endnote: 3.]

The guests were by this time all assembled, and at the Warden's bidding they moved from the reception-room to the dining-hall, in some order and precedence, of which Redclyffe could not exactly discover the principle, though he found that to himself--in his quality, doubtless, of Ambassador--there was assigned a pretty high place. A venerable dignitary of the Church--a dean, he seemed to be--having asked a blessing, the fair scene of the banquet now lay before the guests, presenting a splendid spectacle, in the high-walled, antique, tapestried hall, overhung with the dark, intricate oaken beams, with the high Gothic windows, through one of which the setting sunbeams streamed, and showed the figures of kings and warriors, and the old Braithwaites among them. Beneath and adown the hall extended the long line of the tables, covered with the snow of the damask tablecloth, on which glittered, gleamed, and shone a good quality of ancient ancestral plate, and an _épergne_ of silver, extending down the middle; also the gleam of golden wine in the decanters; and truly Redclyffe thought that it was a noble spectacle, made so by old and stately associations, which made a noble banquet of what otherwise would be only a vulgar dinner. The English have this advantage and know how to make use of it. They bring--in these old, time-honored feasts--all the past to sit down and take the stately refreshment along with them, and they pledge the historic characters in their wine.

A printed bill of fare, in gold letters, lay by each plate, on which Redclyffe saw the company glancing with great interest. The first dish, of course, was turtle soup, of which--as the gentleman next him, the Mayor of a neighboring town, told Redclyffe--it was allowable to take twice. This was accompanied, according to one of those rules which one knows not whether they are arbitrary or founded on some deep reason, by a glass of punch. Then came the noble turbot, the salmon, the sole, and divers of fishes, and the dinner fairly set in. The genial Warden seemed to have given liberal orders to the attendants, for they spared not to offer hock, champagne, sherry, to the guests, and good bitter ale, foaming in the goblet; and so the stately banquet went on, with somewhat tedious magnificence; and yet with a fulness of effect and thoroughness of sombre life that made Redclyffe feel that, so much importance being assigned to it,--it being so much believed in,--it was indeed a feast. The cumbrous courses swept by, one after another; and Redclyffe, finding it heavy work, sat idle most of the time, regarding the hall, the old decaying beams, the armor hanging beneath the galleries, and these Englishmen feasting where their fathers had feasted for so many ages, the same occasion, the same men, probably, in appearance, though the black coat and the white neckcloth had taken the place of ruff, embroidered doublet, and the magnificence of other ages. After all, the English have not such good things to eat as we in America, and certainly do not know better how to make them palatable. [Endnote: 4.]

Well; but by and by the dinner came to a conclusion, as regarded the eating part; the cloth was withdrawn; a dessert of fruits, fresh and dried, pines, hothouse grapes, and all candied conserves of the Indies, was put on the long extent of polished mahogany. There was a tuning up of musicians, an interrogative drawing of fiddle-bows, and other musical twangs and puffs; the decanters opposite the Warden and his vice-president,--sherry, port, Redclyffe's Madeira, and claret, were put in motion along the table, and the guests filled their glasses for the toast which, at English dinner-tables, is of course the first to be honored,--the Queen. Then the band struck up the good old anthem, "God save the Queen," which the whole company rose to their feet to sing. It was a spectacle both interesting and a little ludicrous to Redclyffe,-- being so apart from an American's sympathies, so unlike anything that he has in his life or possibilities,--this active and warm sentiment of loyalty, in which love of country centres, and assimilates, and transforms itself into a passionate affection for a person, in whom they love all their institutions. To say the truth, it seemed a happy notion; nor could the American--while he comforted himself in the pride of his democracy, and that he himself was a sovereign--could he help envying it a little, this childlike love and reverence for a person embodying all their country, their past, their earthly future. He felt that it might be delightful to have a sovereign, provided that sovereign were always a woman,--and perhaps a young and fine one. But, indeed, this is not the difficulty, methinks, in English institutions which the American finds it hardest to deal with. We could endure a born sovereign, especially if made such a mere pageant as the English make of theirs. What we find it hardest to conceive of is, the satisfaction with which Englishmen think of a race above them, with privileges that they cannot share, entitled to condescend to them, and to have gracious and beautiful manners at their expense; to be kind, simple, unpretending, because these qualities are more available than haughtiness; to be specimens of perfect manhood;--all these advantages in consequence of their position. If the peerage were a mere name, it would be nothing to envy; but it is so much more than a name; it enables men to be really so superior. The poor, the lower classes, might bear this well enough; but the classes that come next to the nobility,--the upper middle classes,--how they bear it so lovingly is what must puzzle the American. But probably the advantage of the peerage is the less perceptible the nearer it is looked at.

It must be confessed that Redclyffe, as he looked at this assembly of peers and gentlemen, thought with some self-gratulation of the probability that he had within his power as old a rank, as desirable a station, as the best of them; and that if he were restrained from taking it, it would probably only be by the democratic pride that made him feel that he could not, retaining all his manly sensibility, accept this gewgaw on which the ages--his own country especially--had passed judgment, while it had been suspended over his head. He felt himself, at any rate, in a higher position, having the option of taking this rank, and forbearing to do so, than if he took it. [Endnote: 5.]

After this ensued a ceremony which is of antique date in old English corporations and institutions, at their high festivals. It is called the Loving Cup. A sort of herald or toast-master behind the Warden's chair made proclamation, reciting the names of the principal guests, and announcing to them, "The Warden of the Braithwaite Hospital drinks to you in a Loving Cup"; of which cup, having sipped, or seemed to sip (for Redclyffe observed that the old drinkers were rather shy of it) a small quantity, he sent it down the table. Its progress was accompanied with a peculiar entanglement of ceremony, one guest standing up while another drinks, being pretty much as follows. First, each guest receiving it covered from the next above him, the same took from the silver cup its silver cover; the guest drank with a bow to the Warden and company, took the cover from the preceding guest, covered the cup, handed it to the next below him, then again removed the cover, replaced it after the guest had drunk, who, on his part, went through the same ceremony. And thus the cup went slowly on its way down the stately hall; these ceremonies being, it is said, originally precautions against the risk, in wild times, of being stabbed by the man who was drinking with you, or poisoned by one who should fail to be your taster. The cup was a fine, ancient piece of plate, massive, heavy, curiously wrought with armorial bearings, in which the leopard's head appeared. Its contents, so far as Redclyffe could analyze them by a moderate sip, appeared to be claret, sweetened, with spices, and, however suited to the peculiarity of antique palates, was not greatly to Redclyffe's taste. [Endnote: 6.]

Redclyffe's companion just below him, while the Loving Cup was beginning its march, had been explaining the origin of the custom as a defence of the drinker in times of deadly feud; when it had reached Lord Braithwaite, who drank and passed it to Redclyffe covered, and with the usual bow, Redclyffe looked into his Lordship's Italian eyes and dark face as he did so, and the thought struck him, that, if there could possibly be any use in keeping up this old custom, it might be so now; for, how intimated he could hardly tell, he was sensible in his deepest self of a deadly hostility in this dark, courteous, handsome face. He kept his eyes fixed on his Lordship as he received the cup, and felt that in his own glance there was an acknowledgment of the enmity that he perceived, and a defiance, expressed without visible sign, and felt in the bow with which they greeted one another. When they had both resumed their seats, Redclyffe chose to make this ceremonial intercourse the occasion of again addressing him.

"I know not whether your Lordship is more accustomed than myself to these stately ceremonials," said he.

"No," said Lord Braithwaite, whose English was very good. "But this is a good old ceremony, and an ingenious one; for does it not twine us into knotted links of love--this Loving Cup--like a wreath of Bacchanals whom I have seen surrounding an antique vase. Doubtless it has great efficacy in entwining a company of friendly guests into one affectionate society."

"Yes; it should seem so," replied Redclyffe, with a smile, and again meeting those black eyes, which smiled back on him. "It should seem so, but it appears that the origin of the custom was quite different, and that it was as a safeguard to a man when he drank with his enemy. What a peculiar flavor it must have given to the liquor, when the eyes of two deadly foes met over the brim of the Loving Cup, and the drinker knew that, if he withdrew it, a dagger would be in his heart, and the other watched him drink, to see if it was poison!"

"Ah!" responded his Lordship, "they had strange fashions in those rough old times. Nowadays, we neither stab, shoot, nor poison. I scarcely think we hate except as interest guides us, without malevolence."

This singular conversation was interrupted by a toast, and the rising of one of the guests to answer it. Several other toasts of routine succeeded; one of which, being to the honor of the old founder of the Hospital, Lord Braithwaite, as his representative, rose to reply,-- which he did in good phrases, in a sort of eloquence unlike that of the Englishmen around him, and, sooth to say, comparatively unaccustomed as he must have been to the use of the language, much more handsomely than they. In truth, Redclyffe was struck and amused with the rudeness, the slovenliness, the inartistic quality of the English speakers, who rather seemed to avoid grace and neatness of set purpose, as if they would be ashamed of it. Nothing could be more ragged than these utterances which they called speeches; so patched, and darned; and yet, somehow or other--though dull and heavy as all which seemed to inspire them--they had a kind of force. Each man seemed to have the faculty of getting, after some rude fashion, at the sense and feeling that was in him; and without glibness, without smoothness, without form or comeliness, still the object with which each one rose to speak was accomplished,--and what was more remarkable, it seemed to be accomplished without the speaker's having any particular plan for doing it. He was surprised, too, to observe how loyally every man seemed to think himself bound to speak, and rose to do his best, however unfit his usual habits made him for the task. Observing this, and thinking how many an American would be taken aback and dumbfounded by being called on for a dinner speech, he could not but doubt the correctness of the general opinion, that Englishmen are naturally less facile of public speech than our countrymen.

"You surpass your countrymen," said Redclyffe, when his Lordship resumed his seat, amid rapping and loud applause.

"My countrymen? I scarcely know whether yon mean the English or Italians," said Lord Braithwaite. "Like yourself, I am a hybrid, with really no country, and ready to take up with any."

"I have a country,--one which I am little inclined to deny," replied Redclyffe, gravely, while a flush (perhaps of conscientious shame) rose to his brow.

His Lordship bowed, with a dark Italian smile, but Redclyffe's attention was drawn away from the conversation by a toast which the Warden now rose to give, and in which he found himself mainly concerned. With a little preface of kind words (not particularly aptly applied) to the great and kindred country beyond the Atlantic, the worthy Warden proceeded to remark that his board was honored, on this high festival, with a guest from that new world; a gentleman yet young, but already distinguished in the councils of his country; the bearer, he remarked, of an honored English name, which might well claim to be remembered here, and on this occasion, although he had understood from his friend that the American bearers of this name did not count kindred with the English ones. This gentleman, he further observed, with considerable flourish and emphasis, had recently been called from his retirement and wanderings into the diplomatic service of his country, which he would say, from his knowledge, the gentleman was well calculated to honor. He drank the health of the Honorable Edward Redclyffe, Ambassador of the United States to the Court of Hohen- Linden.

Our English cousins received this toast with the kindest enthusiasm, as they always do any such allusion to our country; it being a festal feeling, not to be used except on holidays. They rose, with glass in hand, in honor of the Ambassador; the band struck up "Hail, Columbia"; and our hero marshalled his thoughts as well as he might for the necessary response; and when the tumult subsided he arose.

His quick apprehending had taught him something of the difference of taste between an English and an American audience at a dinner-table; he felt that there must be a certain looseness, and carelessness, and roughness, and yet a certain restraint; that he must not seem to aim at speaking well, although, for his own ambition, he was not content to speak ill; that, somehow or other, he must get a heartiness into his speech; that he must not polish, nor be too neat, and must come with a certain rudeness to his good points, as if he blundered on them, and were surprised into them. Above all, he must let the good wine and cheer, and all that he knew and really felt of English hospitality, as represented by the kind Warden, do its work upon his heart, and speak up to the extent of what he felt--and if a little more, then no great harm--about his own love for the father-land, and the broader grounds of the relations between the two countries. On this system, Redclyffe began to speak; and being naturally and habitually eloquent, and of mobile and ready sensibilities, he succeeded, between art and nature, in making a speech that absolutely delighted the company, who made the old hall echo, and the banners wave and tremble, and the board shake, and the glasses jingle, with their rapturous applause. What he said--or some shadow of it, and more than he quite liked to own--was reported in the county paper that gave a report of the dinner; but on glancing over it, it seems not worth while to produce this eloquent effort in our pages, the occasion and topics being of merely temporary interest.

Redclyffe sat down, and sipped his claret, feeling a little ashamed of himself, as people are apt to do after a display of this kind.

"You know the way to the English heart better than I do," remarked his Lordship, after a polite compliment to the speech. "Methinks these dull English are being improved in your atmosphere. The English need a change every few centuries,--either by immigration of new stock, or transportation of the old,--or else they grow too gross and earthly, with their beef, mutton, and ale. I think, now, it might benefit both countries, if your New England population were to be reciprocally exchanged with an equal number of Englishmen. Indeed, Italians might do as well."

"I should regret," said Redclyffe, "to change the English, heavy as they are."

"You are an admirable Englishman," said his Lordship. "For my part, I cannot say that the people are very much to my taste, any more than their skies and climate, in which I have shivered during the two years that I have spent here."

Here their conversation ceased; and Redclyffe listened to a long train of speechifying, in the course of which everybody, almost, was toasted; everybody present, at all events, and many absent. The Warden's old wine was not spared; the music rang and resounded from the gallery; and everybody seemed to consider it a model feast, although there were no very vivid signs of satisfaction, but a decorous, heavy enjoyment, a dull red heat of pleasure, without flame. Soda and seltzer-water, and coffee, by and by were circulated; and at a late hour the company began to retire.

Before taking his departure, Lord Braithwaite resumed his conversation with Redclyffe, and, as it appeared, with the purpose of making a hospitable proposition.

"I live very much alone," said he, "being insulated from my neighbors by many circumstances,--habits, religion, and everything else peculiarly English. If you are curious about old English modes of life, I can show you, at least, an English residence, little altered within a century past. Pray come and spend a week with me before you leave this part of the country. Besides, I know the court to which you are accredited, and can give you, perhaps, useful information about it."

Redclyffe looked at him in some surprise, and with a nameless hesitation; for he did not like his Lordship, and had fancied, in truth, that there was a reciprocal antipathy. Nor did he yet feel that he was mistaken in this respect; although his Lordship's invitation was given in a tone of frankness, and seemed to have no reserve, except that his eyes did not meet his like Anglo-Saxon eyes, and there seemed an Italian looking out from within the man. But Redclyffe had a sort of repulsion within himself; and he questioned whether it would be fair to his proposed host to accept his hospitality, while he had this secret feeling of hostility and repugnance,--which might be well enough accounted for by the knowledge that he secretly entertained hostile interests to their race, and half a purpose of putting them in force. And, besides this,--although Redclyffe was ashamed of the feeling,--he had a secret dread, a feeling that it was not just a safe thing to trust himself in this man's power; for he had a sense, sure as death, that he did not wish him well, and had a secret dread of the American. But he laughed within himself at this feeling, and drove it down. Yet it made him feel that there could be no disloyalty in accepting his Lordship's invitation, because it was given in as little friendship as it would be accepted.

"I had almost made my arrangements for quitting the neighborhood," said he, after a pause; "nor can I shorten the week longer which I had promised to spend with my very kind friend, the Warden. Yet your Lordship's kindness offers we a great temptation, and I would gladly spend the next ensuing week at Braithwaite Hall."

"I shall expect you, then," said Lord Braithwaite. "You will find me quite alone, except my chaplain,--a scholar, and a man of the world, whom you will not be sorry to know."

He bowed and took his leave, without shaking hands, as an American would have thought it natural to do, after such a hospitable agreement; nor did Redclyffe make any motion towards it, and was glad that his Lordship had omitted it. On the whole, there was a secret dissatisfaction with himself; a sense that he was not doing quite a frank and true thing in accepting this invitation, and he only made peace with himself on the consideration that Lord Braithwaite was as little cordial in asking the visit as he in acceding to it.