Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter XVII

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Chapter XVII

To return from this long discussion, the Warden took kindly, as we have said, to Redclyffe, and thought him a miraculously good fellow, to have come from the rude American republic. Hitherto, in the little time that he had been in England, Redclyffe had received civil and even kind treatment from the English with whom he had come casually in contact; but still--perhaps partly from our Yankee narrowness and reserve--he had felt, in the closest coming together, as if there were a naked sword between the Englishman and him, as between the Arabian prince in the tale and the princess whom he wedded; he felt as if that would be the case even if he should love an Englishwoman; to such a distance, into such an attitude of self-defence, does English self-complacency and belief in England's superiority throw the stranger. In fact, in a good-natured way, John Bull is always doubling his fist in a stranger's face, and though it be good-natured, it does not always produce the most amiable feeling.

The worthy Warden, being an Englishman, had doubtless the same kind of feeling; doubtless, too, he thought ours a poor, distracted country, perhaps prosperous for the moment, but as likely as not to be the scene of anarchy five minutes hence; but being of so genial a nature, when he came to see the amiableness of his young guest, and how deeply he was impressed with England, all prejudice died away, and he loved him like a treasure that he had found for himself, and valued him as if there were something of his own in him. And so the old Warden's residence had never before been so cheery as it was now; his bachelor life passed the more pleasantly with this quiet, vivacious, yet not troublesomely restless spirit beside him,--this eager, almost childish interest in everything English, and yet this capacity to take independent views of things, and sometimes, it might be, to throw a gleam of light even on things appertaining to England. And so, the better they came to know one another, the greater was their mutual liking.

"I fear I am getting too strong to burden you much longer," said Redclyffe, this morning. "I have no pretence to be a patient now."

"Pooh! nonsense!" ejaculated the Warden. "It will not be safe to leave you to yourself for at least a month to come. And I have half a dozen excursions in a neighborhood of twenty miles, in which I mean to show you what old England is, in a way that you would never find out for yourself. Do not speak of going. This day, if you find yourself strong enough, you shall go and look at an old village church."

"With all my heart," said Redclyffe.

They went, accordingly, walking slowly, in consequence of Redclyffe's yet imperfect strength, along the highroad, which was overshadowed with elms, that grew in beautiful shape and luxuriance in that part of England, not with the slender, drooping, picturesque grace of a New England elm, but more luxuriant, fuller of leaves, sturdier in limb. It was a day which the Warden called fine, and which Redclyffe, at home, would have thought to bode rain; though here he had learned that such weather might continue for weeks together, with only a few raindrops all the time. The road was in the finest condition, hard and dry.

They had not long emerged from the gateway of the Hospital,--at the venerable front and gables of which Redclyffe turned to look with a feeling as if it were his home,--when they heard the clatter of hoofs behind them, and a gentleman on horseback rode by, paying a courteous salute to the Warden as he passed. A groom in livery followed at a little distance, and both rode roundly towards the village, whither the Warden and his friend were going.

"Did you observe that man?" asked the Warden.

"Yes," said Redclyffe. "Is he an Englishman?"

"That is a pertinent question," replied the Warden, "but I scarcely know how to answer it."

In truth, Redclyffe's question had been suggested by the appearance of the mounted gentleman, who was a dark, thin man, with black hair, and a black moustache and pointed beard setting off his sallow face, in which the eyes had a certain pointed steeliness, which did not look English, --whose eyes, methinks, are usually not so hard as those of Americans or foreigners. Redclyffe, somehow or other, had fancied that these not very pleasant eyes had been fixed in a marked way on himself, a stranger, while at the same time his salute was evidently directed towards the Warden.

"An Englishman,--why, no," continued the latter. "If you observe, he does not even sit his horse like an Englishman, but in that absurd, stiff continental way, as if a poker should get on horseback. Neither has he an English face, English manners, nor English religion, nor an English heart; nor, to sum up the whole, had he English birth. Nevertheless, as fate would have it, he is the inheritor of a good old English name, a fine patrimonial estate, and a very probable claim to an old English title. This is Lord Braithwaite of Braithwaite Hall, who if he can make his case good (and they say there is good prospect of it) will soon be Lord Hinchbrooke."

"I hardly know why, but I should be sorry for it," said Redclyffe. "He certainly is not English; and I have an odd sort of sympathy, which makes me unwilling that English honors should be enjoyed by foreigners. This, then, is the gentleman of Italian birth whom you have mentioned to me, and of whom there is a slight mention in the County History."

"Yes," said the Warden. "There have been three descents of this man's branch in Italy, and only one English mother in all that time. Positively, I do not see an English trait in his face, and as little in his manner. His civility is Italian, such as oftentimes, among his countrymen, has offered a cup of poison to a guest, or insinuated the stab of a stiletto into his heart."

"You are particularly bitter against this poor man," said Redclyffe, laughing at the Warden's vehemence. "His appearance--and yet he is a handsome man--is certainly not prepossessing; but unless it be countersigned by something in his actual life, I should hardly think it worth while to condemn him utterly."

"Well, well; you can forgive a little English prejudice," said the Warden, a little ashamed. "But, in good earnest, the man has few or no good traits, takes no interest in the country, dislikes our sky, our earth, our people, is close and inhospitable, a hard landlord, and whatever may be his good qualities, they are not such as flourish in this soil and climate, or can be appreciated here." [Endnote: 1.]

"Has he children?" asked Redclyffe.

"They say so,--a family by an Italian wife, whom some, on the other hand, pronounce to be no wife at all. His son is at a Catholic college in France; his daughter in a convent there."

In talk like this they were drawing near the little rustic village of Braithwaite, and saw, above a cloud of foliage, the small, low, battlemented tower, the gray stones of which had probably been laid a little after the Norman conquest. Approaching nearer, they passed a thatched cottage or two, very plain and simple edifices, though interesting to Redclyffe from their antique aspect, which denoted that they were probably older than the settlement of his own country, and might very likely have nursed children who had gone, more than two centuries ago, to found the commonwealth of which he was a citizen. If you considered them in one way, prosaically, they were ugly enough; but then there were the old latticed windows, and there the thatch, which was verdant with leek, and strange weeds, possessing a whole botanical growth. And birds flew in and out, as if they had their homes there. Then came a row of similar cottages, all joined on together, and each with a little garden before it divided from its neighbors by a hedge, now in full verdure. Redclyffe was glad to see some symptoms of natural love of beauty here, for there were plants of box, cut into queer shapes of birds, peacocks, etc., as if year after year had been spent in bringing these vegetable sculptures to perfection. In one of the gardens, moreover, the ingenious inhabitant had spent his leisure in building grotto-work, of which the English are rather ludicrously fond, on their little bits of lawn, and in building a miniature castle of oyster-shells, where were seen turrets, ramparts, a frowning arched gateway, and miniature cannon looking from the embrasures. A pleasanter and better adornment were the homely household flowers, and a pleasant sound, too, was the hum of bees, who had their home in several beehives, and were making their honey among the flowers of the garden, or come from afar, buzzing dreamily through the air, laden with honey that they had found elsewhere. Fruit trees stood erect, or, in some instances, were flattened out against the walls of cottages, looking somewhat like hawks nailed _in terrorem_ against a barn door. The male members of this little community were probably afield, with the exception of one or two half-torpid great-grandsires, who [were] moving rheumatically about the gardens, and some children not yet in breeches, who stared with stolid eyes at the passers-by; but the good dames were busy within doors, where Redclyffe had glimpses of their interior with its pavement of stone flags. Altogether it seemed a comfortable settlement enough.

"Do you see that child yonder," observed the Warden, "creeping away from the door, and displaying a vista of his petticoats as he does so? That sturdy boy is the lineal heir of one of the oldest families in this part of England,--though now decayed and fallen, as you may judge. So, you see, with all our contrivances to keep up an aristocracy, there still is change forever going on."

"There is something not agreeable, and something otherwise, in the thought," replied Redclyffe. "What is the name of the old family, whose representative is in such a case?"

"Moseby," said the Warden. "Their family residence stood within three miles of Braithwaite Hall, but was taken down in the last century, and its place supplied by a grand show-place, built by a Birmingham manufacturer, who also originated here."

They kept onward from this outskirt of the village, and soon, passing over a little rising ground, and descending now into a hollow came to the new portion of it, clustered around its gray Norman church, one side of the tower of which was covered with ivy, that was carefully kept, the Warden said, from climbing to the battlements, on account of some old prophecy that foretold that the tower would fall, if ever the ivy mantled over its top. Certainly, however, there seemed little likelihood that the square, low mass would fall, unless by external violence, in less than as many ages as it had already stood.

Redclyffe looked at the old tower and little adjoining edifice with an interest that attached itself to every separate, moss-grown stone; but the Warden, like most Englishmen, was at once amazed and wearied with the American's enthusiasm for this spot, which to him was uninteresting for the very reason that made it most interesting to Redclyffe, because it had stood there such a weary while. It was too common an object to excite in his mind, as it did in Redclyffe's, visions of the long ago time when it was founded, when mass was first said there, and the glimmer of torches at the altar was seen through the vista of that broad-browed porch; and of all the procession of villagers that had since gone in and come out during nine hundred years, in their varying costume and fashion, but yet--and this was the strongest and most thrilling part of the idea--all, the very oldest of them, bearing a resemblance of feature, the kindred, the family likeness, to those who died yesterday,--to those who still went thither to worship; and that all the grassy and half-obliterated graves around had held those who bore the same traits.

In front of the church was a little green, on which stood a very ancient yew tree, [Endnote: 2] all the heart of which seemed to have been eaten away by time, so that a man could now creep into the trunk, through a wide opening, and, looking upward, see another opening to the sky.

"That tree," observed the Warden, "is well worth the notice of such an enthusiastic lover of old things; though I suppose aged trees may be the one antiquity that you do not value, having them by myriads in your primeval forests. But then the interest of this tree consists greatly in what your trees have not,--in its long connection with men and the goings of men. Some of its companions were made into bows for Harold's archers. This tree is of unreckonable antiquity; so old, that in a record of the time of Edward IV. it is styled the yew tree of Braithwaite Green. That carries it back to Norman times, truly. It was in comparatively modern times when it served as a gallows for one of James II.'s bloodthirsty judges to hang his victims on after Monmouth's rebellion."

On one side of this yew was a certain structure which Redclyffe did not recognize as anything that he had before seen, but soon guessed its purpose; though, from appearances, it seemed to have been very long since it had served that purpose. It was a ponderous old oaken framework, six or seven feet high, so contrived that a heavy cross- piece shut down over another, leaving two round holes; in short, it was a pair of stocks, in which, I suppose, hundreds of vagrants and petty criminals had sat of old, but which now appeared to be merely a matter of curiosity.

"This excellent old machine," said the Warden, "had been lying in a rubbish chamber of the church tower for at least a century; when the clerk, who is a little of an antiquarian, unearthed it, and I advised him to set it here, where it used to stand;--not with any idea of its being used (though there is as much need of it now as ever), but that the present age may see what comforts it has lost."

They sat down a few moments on the circular seat, and looked at the pretty scene of this quiet little village, clustered round the old church as a centre; a collection of houses, mostly thatched, though there were one or two, with rather more pretension, that had roofs of red tiles. Some of them were stone cottages, whitewashed, but the larger edifices had timber frames, filled in with brick and plaster, which seemed to have been renewed in patches, and to be a frailer and less durable material than the old oak of their skeletons. They were gabled, with lattice windows, and picturesquely set off with projecting stones, and many little patchwork additions, such as, in the course of generations, the inhabitants had found themselves to need. There was not much commerce, apparently, in this little village, there seeming to be only one shop, with some gingerbread, penny whistles, ballads, and such matters, displayed in the window; and there, too, across the little green, opposite the church, was the village alehouse, with its bench under the low projecting eaves, with a Teniers scene of two wayfaring yeomen drinking a pot of beer and smoking their pipes.

With Redclyffe's Yankee feelings, there was something sad to think how the generations had succeeded one another, over and over, in innumerable succession, in this little spot, being born here, living, dying, lying down among their fathers' dust, and forthwith getting up again, as it were, and recommencing the same meaningless round, and really bringing nothing to pass; for probably the generation of to-day, in so secluded and motionless a place as this, had few or no ideas in advance of their ancestors of five centuries ago. It seems not worth while that more than one generation of them should have existed. Even in dress, with their smock frocks and breeches, they were just like their fathers. The stirring blood of the new land,--where no man dwells in his father's house,--where no man thinks of dying in his birthplace,--awoke within him, and revolted at the thought; and, as connected with it, revolted at all the hereditary pretensions which, since his stay here, had exercised such an influence over the fanciful part of his nature. In another mood, the village might have seemed a picture of rural peace, which it would have been worth while to give up ambition to enjoy; now, as his warmer impulse stirred, it was a weariness to think of. The new American was stronger in him than the hereditary Englishman.

"I should go mad of it!" exclaimed he aloud.

He started up impulsively, to the amazement of his companion, who of course could not comprehend what seemed so to have stung his American friend. As they passed the tree, on the other side of its huge trunk, they saw a young woman, sitting on that side of it, and sketching, apparently, the church tower, with the old Elizabethan vicarage that stood near it, with a gate opening into the churchyard, and much embowered and ivy-hung.

"Ah, Miss Cheltenham," said the Warden. "I am glad to see that you have taken the old church in hand, for it is one of the prettiest rustic churches in England, and as well worthy as any to be engraved on a sheet of note-paper or put into a portfolio. Will you let my friend and me see your sketch?"

The Warden had made his request with rather more freedom than perhaps he would to a lady whom he considered on a level with himself, though with perfect respect, that being considered; and Redclyffe, looking at the person, saw that it was the same of whose face he had had a glimpse in the looking-glass, in the old palmer's chamber.

"No, Doctor Hammond," said the young lady, with a respectful sort of frankness, "you must excuse me. I am no good artist, and am but jotting down the old church because I like it."

"Well, well, as you please," said the Warden; and whispered aside to Redclyffe, "A girl's sketchbook is seldom worth looking at. But now, Miss Cheltenham, I am about to give my American friend here a lecture on gargoyles, and other peculiarities of sacred Gothic architecture; and if you will honor me with your attention, I should be glad to find my audience increased by one."

So the young lady arose, and Redclyffe, considering the Warden's allusion to him as a sort of partial introduction, bowed to her, and she responded with a cold, reserved, yet not unpleasant sort of courtesy. They went towards the church porch, and, looking in at the old stone bench on each side of the interior, the Warden showed them the hacks of the swords of the Roundheads, when they took it by storm. Redclyffe, mindful of the old graveyard on the edge of which he had spent his childhood, began to look at this far more antique receptacle, expecting to find there many ancient tombstones, perhaps of contemporaries or predecessors of the founders of his country. In this, however, he was disappointed, at least in a great measure; for the persons buried in the churchyard were probably, for the most part, of a humble rank in life, such as were not so ambitious as to desire a monument of any kind, but were content to let their low earth-mounds subside into the level, where their memory had waxed so faint that none among the survivors could point out the spot, or cared any longer about knowing it; while in other cases, where a monument of red freestone, or even of hewn granite, had been erected, the English climate had forthwith set to work to gnaw away the inscriptions; so that in fifty years--in a time that would have left an American tombstone as fresh as if just cut--it was quite impossible to make out the record. Their superiors, meanwhile, were sleeping less enviably in dismal mouldy and dusty vaults, instead of under the daisies. Thus Redclyffe really found less antiquity here, than in the graveyard which might almost be called his natal spot.

When he said something to this effect, the Warden nodded.

"Yes," said he, "and, in truth, we have not much need of inscriptions for these poor people. All good families--every one almost, with any pretensions to respectable station, has his family or individual recognition within the church, or upon its walls; or some of them you see on tombs on the outside. As for our poorer friends here, they are content, as they may well be, to swell and subside, like little billows of mortality, here on the outside."

"And for my part," said Redclyffe, "if there were anything particularly desirable on either side, I should like best to sleep under this lovely green turf, with the daisies strewn over me by Nature herself, and whatever other homely flowers any friend might choose to add."

"And, Doctor Hammond," said the young woman, "we see by this gravestone that sometimes a person of humble rank may happen to be commemorated, and that Nature--in this instance at least--seems to take especial pains and pleasure to preserve the record."

She indicated a flat gravestone, near the porch, which time had indeed beautified in a singular way, for there was cut deep into it a name and date, in old English characters, very deep it must originally have been; and as if in despair of obliterating it, Time had taken the kindlier method of filling up the letters with moss; so that now, high embossed in loveliest green, was seen the name "Richard Oglethorpe 1613";--green, and flourishing, and beautiful, like the memory of a good man. The inscription originally seemed to have contained some twenty lines, which might have been poetry, or perhaps a prose eulogy, or perhaps the simple record of the buried person's life; but all this, having been done in fainter and smaller letters, was now so far worn away as to be illegible; nor had they ever been deep enough to be made living in moss, like the rest of the inscription.

"How tantalizing," remarked Redclyffe, "to see the verdant shine of this name, impressed upon us as something remarkable--and nothing else. I cannot but think that there must be something worth remembering about a man thus distinguished. When two hundred years have taken all these natural pains to illustrate and emblazon 'Richard Oglethorpe 1613.' Ha! I surely recollect that name. It haunts me somehow, as if it had been familiar of old."

"And me," said the young lady.

"It was an old name, hereabouts," observed the Warden, "but has been long extinct,--a cottage name, not a gentleman's. I doubt not that Oglethorpes sleep in many of these undistinguished graves."

Redclyffe did not much attend to what his friend said, his attention being attracted to the tone--to something in the tone of the young lady, and also to her coincidence in his remark that the name appealed to some early recollection. He had been taxing his memory, to tell him when and how the name had become familiar to him; and he now remembered that it had occurred in the old Doctor's story of the Bloody Footstep, told to him and Elsie, so long ago. [Endnote: 3] To him and Elsie! It struck him--what if it were possible?--but he knew it was not--that the young lady had a remembrance also of the fact, and that she, after so many years, were mingling her thoughts with his. As this fancy recurred to him, he endeavored to get a glimpse of her face, and while he did so she turned it upon him. It was a quick, sensitive face, that did not seem altogether English; he would rather have imagined it American; but at all events he could not recognize it as one that he had seen before, and a thousand fantasies died within him as, in his momentary glance, he took in the volume of its contour.