Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter XV

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Chapter XV

After lunch, the Warden showed a good degree of kind anxiety about his guest, and ensconced him in a most comfortable chair in his study, where he gave him his choice of books old and new, and was somewhat surprised, as well as amused, to see that Redclyffe seemed most attracted towards a department of the library filled with books of English antiquities, and genealogies, and heraldry; the two latter, indeed, having the preference over the others.

"This is very remarkable," said he, smiling. "By what right or reason, by what logic of character, can you, a democrat, renouncing all advantages of birth,--neither priding yourself on family, nor seeking to found one,--how therefore can you care for genealogies, or for this fantastic science of heraldry? Having no antiquities, being a people just made, how can you care for them?"

"My dear sir," said Redclyffe, "I doubt whether the most devoted antiquarian in England ever cares to search for an old thing merely because it is old, as any American just landed on your shores would do. Age is our novelty; therefore it attracts and absorbs us. And as for genealogies, I know not what necessary repulsion there may be between it and democracy. A line of respectable connections, being the harder to preserve where there is nothing in the laws to defend it, is therefore the more precious when we have it really to boast of."

"True," said the Warden, "when a race keeps itself distinguished among the grimy order of your commonalty, all with equal legal rights to place and eminence as itself, it must needs be because there is a force and efficacy in the blood. I doubt not," he said, looking with the free approval of an elder man at the young man's finely developed face and graceful form,--"I doubt not that you can look back upon a line of ancestry, always shining out from the surrounding obscurity of the mob."

Redclyffe, though ashamed of himself, could not but feel a paltry confusion and embarrassment, as he thought of his unknown origin, and his advent from the almshouse; coming out of that squalid darkness as if he were a thing that had had a spontaneous birth out of poverty, meanness, petty crime; and here in ancestral England, he felt more keenly than ever before what was his misfortune.

"I must not let you lie under this impression," said he manfully to the Warden. "I have no ancestry; at the very first step my origin is lost in impenetrable obscurity. I only know that but for the aid of a kind friend--on whose benevolence I seem to have had no claim whatever--my life would probably have been poor, mean, unenlightened."

"Well, well," said the kind Warden,--hardly quite feeling, however, the noble sentiment which he expressed,--"it is better to be the first noble illustrator of a name than even the worthy heir of a name that has been noble and famous for a thousand years. The highest pride of some of our peers, who have won their rank by their own force, has been to point to the cottage whence they sprung. Your posterity, at all events, will have the advantage of you,--they will know their ancestor."

Redclyffe sighed, for there was truly a great deal of the foolish yearning for a connection with the past about him; his imagination had taken this turn, and the very circumstances of his obscure birth gave it a field to exercise itself.

"I advise you," said the Warden, by way of changing the conversation, "to look over the excellent history of the county which you are now in. There is no reading better, to my mind, than these country histories; though doubtless a stranger would hardly feel so much interest in them as one whose progenitors, male or female, have strewn their dust over the whole field of which the history treats. This history is a fine specimen of the kind."

The work to which Redclyffe's attention was thus drawn was in two large folio volumes, published about thirty years before, bound in calf by some famous artist in that line, illustrated with portraits and views of ruined castles, churches, cathedrals, the seats of nobility and gentry; Roman, British, and Saxon remains, painted windows, oak carvings, and so forth.

And as for its contents the author ascended for the history of the county as far as into the pre-Roman ages, before Caesar had ever heard of Britain; and brought it down, an ever swelling and increasing tale, to his own days; inclusive of the separate histories, and pedigrees, and hereditary legends, and incidents, of all the principal families. In this latter branch of information, indeed, the work seemed particularly full, and contained every incident that would have worked well into historical romance.

"Aye, aye," said the Warden, laughing at some strange incident of this sort which Redclyffe read out to him. "My old friend Gibber, the learned author of this work, (he has been dead this score of years, so he will not mind my saying it,) had a little too much the habit of seeking his authorities in the cottage chimney-corners. I mean that an old woman's tale was just about as acceptable to him as a recorded fact; and to say the truth, they are really apt to have ten times the life in them."

Redclyffe saw in the volume a full account of the founding of the Hospital, its regulations and purposes, its edifices; all of which he reserved for future reading, being for the present more attracted by the mouldy gossip of family anecdotes which we have alluded to. Some of these, and not the least singular, referred to the ancient family which had founded the Hospital; and he was attracted by seeing a mention of a Bloody Footstep, which reminded him of the strange old story which good Doctor Grimshawe had related by his New England fireside, in those childish days when Edward dwelt with him by the graveyard, On reading it, however, he found that the English legend, if such it could be called, was far less full and explicit than that of New England. Indeed, it assigned various origins to the Bloody Footstep;--one being, that it was the stamp of the foot of the Saxon thane, who fought at his own threshold against the assault of the Norman baron, who seized his mansion at the Conquest; another, that it was the imprint of a fugitive who had sought shelter from the lady of the house during the Wars of the Roses, and was dragged out by her husband, and slain on the door- step; still another, that it was the footstep of a Protestant in Bloody Mary's days, who, being sent to prison by the squire of that epoch, had lifted his hands to Heaven, and stamped his foot, in appeal as against the unjust violence with which he was treated, and stamping his foot, it had left the bloody mark. It was hinted too, however, that another version, which out of delicacy to the family the author was reluctant to state, assigned the origin of the Bloody Footstep to so late a period as the wars of the Parliament. And, finally, there was an odious rumor that what was called the Bloody Footstep was nothing miraculous, after all, but most probably a natural reddish stain in the stone door- step; but against this heresy the excellent Dr. Gibber set his face most sturdily.

The original legend had made such an impression on Redclyffe's childish fancy, that he became strangely interested in thus discovering it, or something remotely like it, in England, and being brought by such unsought means to reside so near it. Curious about the family to which it had occurred, he proceeded to examine its records, as given in the County History. The name was Redclyffe. Like most English pedigrees, there was an obscurity about a good many of the earlier links; but the line was traced out with reasonable definiteness from the days of Coeur de Lion, and there was said to be a cross-legged ancestor in the village church, who (but the inscription was obliterated) was probably a Redclyffe, and had fought either under the Lion Heart or in the Crusades. It was, in subsequent ages, one of the most distinguished families, though there had been turbulent men in all those turbulent times, hard fighters. In one age, a barony of early creation seemed to have come into the family, and had been, as it were, playing bo-peep with the race for several centuries. Some of them had actually assumed the title; others had given it up for lack of sufficient proof; but still there was such a claim, and up to the time at which this County History was written, it had neither been made out, nor had the hope of doing so been relinquished.

"Have the family," asked Redclyffe of his host, "ever yet made out their claim to this title, which has so long been playing the will-of- the-wisp with them?"

"No, not yet," said the Warden, puffing out a volume of smoke from his meerschaum, and making it curl up to the ceiling. "Their claim has as little substance, in my belief, as yonder vanishing vapor from my pipe. But they still keep up their delusion. I had supposed that the claim would perish with the last squire, who was a childless man,--at least, without legitimate heirs; but this estate passed to one whom we can scarcely call an Englishman, he being a Catholic, the descendant of forefathers who have lived in Italy since the time of George II., and who is, moreover, a Catholic. We English would not willingly see an ancestral honor in the possession of such a man!"

"Is there, do you think, a prospect of his success?"

"I have heard so, but hardly believe it," replied the Warden. "I remember, some dozen or fifteen years ago, it was given out that some clue had been found to the only piece of evidence that was wanting. It had been said that there was an emigration to your own country, above a hundred years ago, and on account of some family feud; the true heir had gone thither and never returned. Now, the point was to prove the extinction of this branch of the family. But, excuse me, I must pay an official visit to my charge here. Will you accompany me, or continue to pore over the County History?"

Redclyffe felt enough of the elasticity of convalescence to be desirous of accompanying the Warden; and they accordingly crossed the enclosed quadrangle to the entrance of the Hospital portion of the large and intricate structure. It was a building of the early Elizabethan age, a plaster and timber structure, like many houses of that period and much earlier. [Endnote: 1] Around this court stood the building, with the date 1437 cut on the front. On each side, a row of gables looked upon the enclosed space, most venerable old gables, with heavy mullioned windows filled with little diamond panes of glass, and opening on lattices. On two sides there was a cloistered walk, under echoing arches, and in the midst a spacious lawn of the greenest and loveliest grass, such as England only can show, and which, there, is of perennial verdure and beauty. In the midst stood a stone statue of a venerable man, wrought in the best of mediæval sculpture, with robe and ruff, and tunic and venerable beard, resting on a staff, and holding what looked like a clasped book in his hand. The English atmosphere, together with the coal smoke, settling down in the space of centuries from the chimneys of the Hospital, had roughened and blackened this venerable piece of sculpture, enclosing it as it were in a superficies of decay; but still (and perhaps the more from these tokens of having stood so long among men) the statue had an aspect of venerable life, and of connection with human life, that made it strongly impressive.

"This is the effigy of Sir Edward Redclyffe, the founder of the Hospital," said the Warden. "He is a most peaceful and venerable old gentleman in his attire and aspect, as you see; but he was a fierce old fellow in his day, and is said to have founded the Hospital as a means of appeasing Heaven for some particular deed of blood, which he had imposed upon his conscience in the War of the Roses."

"Yes," said Redclyffe, "I have just read in the County History that the Bloody Footstep was said to have been imprinted in his time. But what is that thing which he holds in his hand?"

"It is a famous heirloom of the Redclyffes," said the Warden, "on the possession of which (as long as they did possess it) they prided themselves, it is said, more than on their ancient manor-house. It was a Saxon ornament, which a certain ancestor was said to have had from Harold, the old Saxon king; but if there ever was any such article, it has been missing from the family mansion for two or three hundred years. There is not known to be an antique relic of that description now in existence."

"I remember having seen such an article,--yes, precisely of that shape," observed Redclyffe, "in the possession of a very dear old friend of mine, when I was a boy."

"What, in America?" exclaimed the Warden. "That is very remarkable. The time of its being missed coincides well enough with that of the early settlement of New England. Some Puritan, before his departure, may have thought himself doing God service by filching the old golden gewgaw from the Cavalier; for it was said to be fine, ductile gold."

The circumstances struck Redclyffe with a pleasant wonder; for, indeed, the old statue held the closest possible imitation, in marble, of that strange old glitter of gold which he himself had so often played with in the Doctor's study; [Endnote: 2] so identical, that he could have fancied that he saw the very thing, changed from metal into stone, even with its bruises and other casual marks in it. As he looked at the old statue, his imagination played with it, and his naturally great impressibility half made him imagine that the old face looked at him with a keen, subtile, wary glance, as if acknowledging that it held some secret, but at the same time defying him to find it out. And then again came that visionary feeling that had so often swept over him since he had been an inmate of the Hospital.

All over the interior part of the building was carved in stone the leopard's head, with wearisome iteration; as if the founder were anxious to imprint his device so numerously, lest--when he produced this edifice as his remuneration to Eternal Justice for many sins--the Omniscient Eye should fail to be reminded that Sir Edward Redclyffe had done it. But, at all events, it seemed to Redclyffe that the ancient knight had purposed a good thing, and in a measurable degree had effected it; for here stood the venerable edifice securely founded, bearing the moss of four hundred years upon it; and though wars, and change of dynasties, and religious change, had swept around it, with seemingly destructive potency, yet here had the lodging, the food, the monastic privileges of the brethren been held secure, and were unchanged by all the altering mariners of the age. The old fellow, somehow or other, seemed to have struck upon an everlasting rock, and founded his pompous charity there.

They entered an arched door on the left of the quadrangle, and found themselves hi a dark old hall with oaken beams; to say the truth, it was a barn-like sort of enclosure, and was now used as a sort of rubbish-place for the Hospital, where they stored away old furniture, and where carpenter's work might be done. And yet, as the Warden assured Redclyffe, it was once a hall of state, hung with tapestry, carpeted, for aught he knew, with cloth of gold, and set with rich furniture, and a groaning board in the midst. Here, the hereditary patron of the Hospital had once entertained King James the First, who made a Latin speech on the occasion, a copy of which was still preserved in the archives. On the rafters of this old hall there were cobwebs in such abundance that Redclyffe could not but reflect on the joy which old Doctor Grimshawe would have had in seeing them, and the health to the human race which he would have hoped to collect and distil from them.

From this great, antique room they crossed the quadrangle and entered the kitchen of the establishment. A hospitable fire was burning there, and there seemed to be a great variety of messes cooking; and the Warden explained to Redclyffe that there was no general table in the Hospital; but the brethren, at their own will and pleasure, either formed themselves into companies or messes, of any convenient size, or enjoyed a solitary meal by themselves, each in their own apartments. There was a goodly choice of simple, but good and enjoyable food, and a sufficient supply of potent ale, brewed in the vats of the Hospital, which, among its other praiseworthy characteristics, was famous for this; having at some epoch presumed to vie with the famous ale of Trinity, in Cambridge, and the Archdeacon of Oxford,--these having come down to the hospital from a private receipt of Sir Edward's butler, which was now lost in the Redclyffe family; nor would the ungrateful Hospital give up its secret even out of loyalty to its founder.

"I would use my influence with the brewer," said the Warden, on communicating this little fact to Redclyffe; "but the present man--now owner of the estate--is not worthy to have good ale brewed in his house; having himself no taste for anything but Italian wines, wretched fellow that he is! He might make himself an Englishman if he would take heartily to our ale; and with that end in view, I should be glad to give it him."

The kitchen fire blazed warmly, as we have said, and roast and stewed and boiled were in process of cooking, producing a pleasant fume, while great heaps of wheaten loaves were smoking hot from the ovens, and the master cook and his subordinates were in fume and hiss, like beings that were of a fiery element, and, though irritable and scorching, yet were happier here than they could have been in any other situation. The Warden seemed to have an especial interest and delight in this department of the Hospital, and spoke apart to the head cook on the subject (as Redclyffe surmised from what he overheard) of some especial delicacy for his own table that day.

"This kitchen is a genial place," said he to Redclyffe, as they retired. "In the evening, after the cooks have done their work, the brethren have liberty to use it as a sort of common room, and to sit here over their ale till a reasonable bedtime. It would interest you much to make one at such a party; for they have had a varied experience in life, each one for himself, and it would be strange to hear the varied roads by which they have come hither."

"Yes," replied Redclyffe, "and, I presume, not one of them ever dreamed of coming hither when he started in life. The only one with whom I am acquainted could hardly have expected it, at all events."

"He is a remarkable man, more so than you may have had an opportunity of knowing," said the Warden. "I know not his history, for he is not communicative on that subject, and it was only necessary for him to make out his proofs of claim to the charity to the satisfaction of the Curators. But it has often struck me that there must have been strange and striking events in his life,--though how it could have been without his attracting attention and being known, I cannot say. I have myself often received good counsel from him in the conduct of the Hospital, and the present owner of the Hall seems to have taken him for his counsellor and confidant, being himself strange to English affairs and life."

"I should like to call on him, as a matter of course rather than courtesy," observed Redclyffe, "and thank him for his great kindness."

They accordingly ascended the dark oaken staircase with its black balustrade, and approached the old man's chamber, the door of which they found open, and in the blurred looking-glass which hung deep within the room Redclyffe was surprised to perceive the young face of a woman, who seemed to be arranging her head-gear, as women are always doing. It was but a moment, and then it vanished like a vision.

"I was not aware," he said, turning to the Warden, "that there was a feminine side to this establishment."

"Nor is there," said the old bachelor, "else it would not have held together so many ages as it has. The establishment has its own wise, monkish regulations; but we cannot prevent the fact, that some of the brethren may have had foolish relations with the other sex at some previous period of their lives. This seems to be the case with our wise old friend of whom we have been speaking,--whereby he doubtless became both wiser and sadder. If you have seen a female face here, it is that of a relative who resides out of the hospital,--an excellent young lady, I believe, who has charge of a school."

While he was speaking, the young lady in question passed out, greeting the Warden in a cheerful, respectful way, in which deference to him was well combined with a sense of what was due to herself.

"That," observed the Warden, who had returned her courtesy, with a kindly air betwixt that of gentlemanly courtesy and a superior's acknowledgment,--"that is the relative of our old friend; a young person--a gentlewoman, I may almost call her--who teaches a little school in the village here, and keeps her guardian's heart warm, no doubt, with her presence. An excellent young woman, I do believe, and very useful and faithful in her station."