Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter XVIII

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Chapter XVIII

After the two friends had parted from the young lady, they passed through the village, and entered the park gate of Braithwaite Hall, pursuing a winding road through its beautiful scenery, which realized all that Redclyffe had read or dreamed about the perfect beauty of these sylvan creations, with the clumps of trees, or sylvan oaks, picturesquely disposed. To heighten the charm, they saw a herd of deer reposing, who, on their appearance, rose from their recumbent position, and began to gaze warily at the strangers; then, tossing their horns, they set off on a stampede, but only swept round, and settled down not far from where they were. Redclyffe looked with great interest at these deer, who were at once wild and civilized; retaining a kind of free forest citizenship, while yet they were in some sense subject to man. It seemed as if they were a link between wild nature and tame; as if they could look back, in their long recollections, through a vista, into the times when England's forests were as wild as those of America, though now they were but a degree more removed from domesticity than cattle, and took their food in winter from the hand of man, and in summer reposed upon his lawns. This seemed the last touch of that delightful conquered and regulated wildness, which English art has laid upon the whole growth of English nature, animal or vegetable.

"There is nothing really wild in your whole island," he observed to the Warden. "I have a sensation as if somebody knew, and had cultivated and fostered, and set out in its proper place, every tree that grows; as if somebody had patted the heads of your wildest animals and played with them. It is very delightful to me, for the present; and yet, I think, in the course of time, I should feel the need for something genuine, as it were,--something that had not the touch and breath of man upon it. I suppose even your skies are modified by the modes of human life that are going on beneath it. London skies, of course, are so; but the breath of a great people, to say nothing of its furnace vapors and hearth-smokes, make the sky other than it was a thousand years ago."

"I believe we English have a feeling like this occasionally," replied the Warden, "and it is from that, partly, that we must account for our adventurousness into other regions, especially for our interest in what is wild and new. In your own forests, now, and prairies, I fancy we find a charm that Americans do not. In the sea, too, and therefore we are yachters. For my part, however, I have grown to like Nature a little smoothed down, and enriched; less gaunt and wolfish than she would be if left to herself."

"Yes; I feel that charm too," said Redclyffe. "But yet life would be slow and heavy, methinks, to see nothing but English parks."

Continuing their course through the noble clumps of oaks, they by and by had a vista of the distant hall itself. It was one of the old English timber and plaster houses, many of which are of unknown antiquity; as was the case with a portion of this house, although other portions had been renewed, repaired, or added, within a century. It had, originally, the Warden said, stood all round an enclosed courtyard, like the great houses of the Continent; but now one side of the quadrangle had long been removed, and there was only a front, with two wings; the beams of old oak being picked out with black, and three or four gables in a line forming the front, while the wings seemed to be stone. It was the timber portion that was most ancient. A clock was on the midmost gable, and pointed now towards one o'clock. The whole scene impressed Redclyffe, not as striking, but as an abode of ancient peace, where generation after generation of the same family had lived, each making the most of life, because the life of each successive dweller there was eked out with the lives of all who had hitherto lived there, and had in it equally those lives which were to come afterwards; so that there was a rare and successful contrivance for giving length, fulness, body, substance, to this thin and frail matter of human life. And, as life was so rich in comprehensiveness, the dwellers there made the most of it for the present and future, each generation contriving what it could to add to the cosiness, the comfortableness, the grave, solid respectability, the sylvan beauty, of the house with which they seemed to be connected both before and after death. The family had its home there; not merely the individual. Ancient shapes, that had apparently gone to the family tomb, had yet a right by family hearth and in family hall; nor did they come thither cold and shivering, and diffusing dim ghostly terrors, and repulsive shrinkings, and death in life; but in warm, genial attributes, making this life now passing more dense as it were, by adding all the substance of their own to it. Redclyffe could not compare this abode, and the feelings that it aroused, to the houses of his own country; poor tents of a day, inns of a night, where nothing was certain, save that the family of him who built it would not dwell here, even if he himself should have the bliss to die under the roof, which, with absurdest anticipations, he had built for his posterity. Posterity! An American can have none.

"All this sort of thing is beautiful; the family institution was beautiful in its day," ejaculated he, aloud, to himself, not to his companion; "but it is a thing of the past. It is dying out in England; and as for ourselves, we never had it. Something better will come up; but as for this, it is past."

"That is a sad thing to say," observed the Warden, by no means comprehending what was passing in his friend's mind. "But if you wish to view the interior of the Hall, we will go thither; for, harshly as I have spoken of the owner, I suppose he has English feeling enough to give us lunch and show us the old house of his forefathers."

"Not at present, if you please," replied Redclyffe. "I am afraid of destroying my delightful visionary idea of the house by coming too near it. Before I leave this part of the country, I should be glad to ramble over the whole of it, but not just now."

While Redclyffe was still enjoying the frank hospitality of his new friend, a rather marked event occurred in his life; yet not so important in reality as it seemed to his English friend.

A large letter was delivered to him, bearing the official seal of the United States, and the indorsement of the State Department; a very important-looking document, which could not but add to the importance of the recipient in the eyes of any Englishman, accustomed as they are to bow down before any seal of government. Redclyffe opened it rather coolly, being rather loath to renew any of his political remembrances, now that he was in peace; or to think of the turmoil of modern and democratic politics, here in this quietude of gone-by ages and customs. The contents, however, took him by surprise; nor did he know whether to be pleased or not.

The official package, in short, contained an announcement that he had been appointed by the President, by and with the advice of the Senate, to one of the Continental missions, usually esteemed an object of considerable ambition to any young man in politics; so that, if consistent with his own pleasure, he was now one of the Diplomatic Corps, a Minister, and representative of his country. On first considering the matter, Redclyffe was inclined to doubt whether this honor had been obtained for him altogether by friendly aid, though it did happen to have much in it that might suit his half-formed purpose of remaining long abroad; but with an eye already rendered somewhat oblique by political practice, he suspected that a political rival--a rival, though of his own party--had been exerting himself to provide an inducement for Redclyffe to leave the local field to him; while he himself should take advantage of the vacant field, and his rival be thus insidiously, though honorably, laid on the shelf, whence if he should try to remove himself a few years hence the shifting influences of American politics would be likely enough to thwart him; so that, for the sake of being a few years nominally somebody, he might in fine come back to his own country and find himself permanently nobody. But Redclyffe had already sufficiently begun to suspect that he lacked some qualities that a politician ought to have, and without which a political life, whether successful or otherwise, is sure to be a most irksome one: some qualities he lacked, others he had, both almost equally an obstacle. When he communicated the offer, therefore, to his friend, the Warden, it was with the remark that he believed he should accept it.

"Accept it?" cried the Warden, opening his eyes. "I should think so, indeed! Why, it puts you above the level of the highest nobility of the Court to which you are accredited; simple republican as you are, it gives you rank with the old blood and birth of Europe. Accept it? By all means; and I will come and see you at your court."

"Nothing is more different between England and America," said Redclyffe, "than the different way in which the citizen of either country looks at official station. To an Englishman, a commission, of whatever kind, emanating from his sovereign, brings apparently a gratifying sense of honor; to an American, on the contrary, it offers really nothing of the kind. He ceases to be a sovereign,--an atom of sovereignty, at all events,--and stoops to be a servant. If I accept this mission, honorable as you think it, I assure you I shall not feel myself quite the man I have hitherto been; although there is no obstacle in the way of party obligations or connections to my taking it, if I please."

"I do not well understand this," quoth the good Warden. "It is one of the promises of Scripture to the wise man, that he shall stand before kings, and that this embassy will enable you to do. No man--no man of your country surely--is more worthy to do so; so pray accept."

"I think I shall," said Redclyffe.

Much as the Warden had seemed to affectionize Redclyffe hitherto, the latter could not but be sensible, thereafter, of a certain deference in his friend towards him, which he would fain have got rid of, had it been in his power. However, there was still the same heartiness under it all; and after a little he seemed, in some degree, to take Redclyffe's own view of the matter;--namely, that, being so temporary as these republican distinctions are, they really do not go skin deep, have no reality in them, and that the sterling quality of the man, be it higher or lower, is nowise altered by it;--an apothegm that is true even of an hereditary nobility, and still more so of our own Honorables and Excellencies. However, the good Warden was glad of his friend's dignity, and perhaps, too, a little glad that this high fortune had befallen one whom he chanced to be entertaining under his roof. As it happened, there was an opportunity which might be taken advantage of to celebrate the occasion; at least, to make it known to the English world so far as the extent of the county. [Endnote: 1.]

It was an hereditary custom for the warden of Braithwaite Hospital, once a year, to give a grand dinner to the nobility and gentry of the neighborhood; and to this end a bequest had been made by one of the former squires or lords of Braithwaite which would of itself suffice to feed forty or fifty Englishmen with reasonable sumptuousness. The present Warden, being a gentleman of private fortune, was accustomed to eke the limited income, devoted for this purpose, with such additions from his own resources as brought the rude and hearty hospitality contemplated by the first founder on a par with modern refinements of gourmandism. The banquet was annually given in the fine old hall where James II. had feasted; and on some of these occasions the Warden's table had been honored with illustrious guests; especially when any of them happened to be wanting an opportunity to come before the public in an after-dinner speech. Just at present there was no occasion of that sort; and the good Warden fancied that he might give considerable _éclat_ to his hereditary feast by bringing forward the young American envoy, a distinguished and eloquent man, to speak on the well- worn topic of the necessity of friendly relations between England and America.

"You are eloquent, I doubt not, my young friend?" inquired he.

"Why, no," answered Redclyffe, modestly.

"Ah, yes, I know it," returned the Warden. "If one have all the natural prerequisites of eloquence; a quick sensibility, ready thought, apt expression, a good voice--and not making its way into the world through your nose either, as they say most of your countrymen's voices do. You shall make the crack speech at my dinner; and so strengthen the bonds of good fellowship between our two countries, that there shall be no question of war for at least six months to come."

Accordingly, the preparations for this stately banquet went on with great spirit; and the Warden exhorted Redclyffe to be thinking of some good topics for his international speech; but the young man laughed it off, and told his friend that he thought the inspiration of the moment, aided by the good old wine which the Warden had told him of, as among the treasures of the Hospital, would perhaps serve him better than any elaborate preparation.

Redclyffe, being not even yet strong, used to spend much time, when the day chanced to be pleasant, (which was oftener than his preconceptions of English weather led him to expect,) in the garden behind the Warden's house. It was an extensive one, and apparently as antique as the foundation of the establishment; and during all these years it had probably been growing richer and richer. Here were flowers of ancient race, and some that had been merely field or wayside flowers when first they came into the garden; but by long cultivation and hereditary care, instead of dying out, they had acquired a new richness and beauty, so that you would scarcely recognize the daisy or the violet. Roses too, there were, which Doctor Hammond said had been taken from those white and red rose-trees in the Temple Gardens, whence the partisans of York and Lancaster had plucked their fatal badges. With these, there were all the modern and far-fetched flowers from America, the East, and elsewhere; even the prairie flowers and the California blossoms were represented here; for one of the brethren had horticultural tastes, and was permitted freely to exercise them there. The antique character of the garden was preserved, likewise, by the alleys of box, a part of which had been suffered to remain, and was now grown to a great height and density, so as to make impervious green walls. There were also yew trees clipped into strange shapes of bird and beast, and uncouth heraldic figures, among which of course the leopard's head grinned triumphant; and as for fruit, the high garden wall was lined with pear trees, spread out flat against it, where they managed to produce a cold, flavorless fruit, a good deal akin to cucumbers.

Here, in these genial old arbors, Redclyffe used to recline in the sweet, mild summer weather, basking in the sun, which was seldom too warm to make its full embrace uncomfortable; and it seemed to him, with its fertility, with its marks everywhere of the quiet long-bestowed care of man, the sweetest and cosiest seclusion he had ever known; and two or three times a day, when he heard the screech of the railway train, rushing on towards distant London, it impressed him still more with a sense of safe repose here.

Not unfrequently he here met the white-bearded palmer in whose chamber he had found himself, as if conveyed thither by enchantment, when he first came to the Hospital. The old man was not by any means of the garrulous order; and yet he seemed full of thoughts, full of reminiscences, and not disinclined to the company of Redclyffe. In fact, the latter sometimes flattered himself that a tendency for his society was one of the motives that brought him to the garden; though the amount of their intercourse, after all, was not so great as to warrant the idea of any settled purpose in so doing. Nevertheless, they talked considerably; and Redclyffe could easily see that the old man had been an extensive traveller, and had perhaps occupied situations far different from his present one, and had perhaps been a struggler in troubled waters before he was drifted into the retirement where Redclyffe found him. He was fond of talking about the unsuspected relationship that must now be existing between many families in England and unknown consanguinity in the new world, where, perhaps, really the main stock of the family tree was now existing, and with a new spirit and life, which the representative growth here in England had lost by too long continuance in one air and one mode of life. For history and observation proved that all people--and the English people by no means less than others--needed to be transplanted, or somehow renewed, every few generations; so that, according to this ancient philosopher's theory, it would be good for the whole people of England now, if it could at once be transported to America, where its fatness, its sleepiness, its too great beefiness, its preponderant animal character, would be rectified by a different air and soil; and equally good, on the other hand, for the whole American people to be transplanted back to the original island, where their nervousness might be weighted with heavier influences, where their little women might grow bigger, where their thin, dry men might get a burden of flesh and good stomachs, where their children might, with the air, draw in a reverence for age, forms, and usage.

Redclyffe listened with complacency to these speculations, smiling at the thought of such an exodus as would take place, and the reciprocal dissatisfaction which would probably be the result. But he had greater pleasure in drawing out some of the old gentleman's legendary lore, some of which, whether true or not, was very curious. [Endnote: 2.]

As Redclyffe sat one day watching the old man in the garden, he could not help being struck by the scrupulous care with which he attended to the plants; it seemed to him that there was a sense of justice,--of desiring to do exactly what was right in the matter, not favoring one plant more than another, and doing all he could for each. His progress, in consequence, was so slow, that in an hour, while Redclyffe was off and on looking at him, he had scarcely done anything perceptible. Then he was so minute; and often, when he was on the point of leaving one thing to take up another, some small neglect that he saw or fancied called him back again, to spend other minutes on the same task. He was so full of scruples. It struck Redclyffe that this was conscience, morbid, sick, a despot in trifles, looking so closely into life that it permitted nothing to be done. The man might once have been strong and able, but by some unhealthy process of his life he had ceased to be so now. Nor did any happy or satisfactory result appear to come from these painfully wrought efforts; he still seemed to know that he had left something undone in doing too much in another direction. Here was a lily that had been neglected, while he paid too much attention to a rose; he had set his foot on a violet; he had grubbed up, in his haste, a little plant that he mistook for a weed, but that he now suspected was an herb of grace. Grieved by such reflections as these, he heaved a deep sigh, almost amounting to a groan, and sat down on the little stool that he carried with him in his weeding, resting his face in his hands.

Redclyffe deemed that he might be doing the old man a good service by interrupting his melancholy labors; so he emerged from the opposite door of the summer-house, and came along the adjoining walk with somewhat heavy footsteps, in order that the palmer might have warning of his approach without any grounds to suppose that he had been watched hitherto. Accordingly, when he turned into the other alley, he found the old man sitting erect on his stool, looking composed, but still sad, as was his general custom.

"After all your wanderings and experience," said he, "I observe that you come back to the original occupation of cultivating a garden,--the innocentest of all."

"Yes, so it would seem," said the old man; "but somehow or other I do not find peace in this."

"These plants and shrubs," returned Redclyffe, "seem at all events to recognize the goodness of your rule, so far as it has extended over them. See how joyfully they take the sun; how clear [they are] from all these vices that lie scattered round, in the shape of weeds. It is a lovely sight, and I could almost fancy a quiet enjoyment in the plants themselves, which they have no way of making us aware of, except by giving out a fragrance."

"Ah! how infinitely would that idea increase man's responsibility," said the old palmer, "if, besides man and beast, we should find it necessary to believe that there is also another set of beings dependent for their happiness on our doing, or leaving undone, what might have effect on them!"

"I question," said Redclyffe, smiling, "whether their pleasurable or painful experiences can be so keen, that we need trouble our consciences much with regard to what we do, merely as it affects them. So highly cultivated a conscience as that would be a nuisance to one's self and one's fellows."

"You say a terrible thing," rejoined the old man. "Can conscience be too much alive in us? is not everything however trifling it seems, an item in the great account, which it is of infinite importance therefore to have right? A terrible thing is that you have said."

"That may be," said Redclyffe; "but it is none the less certain to me, that the efficient actors--those who mould the world--are the persons in whom something else is developed more strongly than conscience. There must be an invincible determination to effect something; it may be set to work in the right direction, but after that it must go onward, trampling down small obstacles--small considerations of right and wrong--as a great rock, thundering down a hillside, crushes a thousand sweet flowers, and ploughs deep furrows in the innocent hillside."

As Redclyffe gave vent to this doctrine, which was not naturally his, but which had been the inculcation of a life, hitherto devoted to politics, he was surprised to find how strongly sensible he became of the ugliness and indefensibleness of what he said. He felt as if he were speaking under the eye of Omniscience, and as if every word he said were weighed, and its emptiness detected, by an unfailing intelligence. He had thought that he had volumes to say about the necessity of consenting not to do right in all matters minutely, for the sake of getting out an available and valuable right as the whole; but there was something that seemed to tie his tongue. Could it be the quiet gaze of this old man, so unpretending, so humble, so simple in aspect? He could not tell, only that he faltered, and finally left his speech in the midst.

But he was surprised to find how he had to struggle against a certain repulsion within himself to the old man. He seemed so nonsensical, interfering with everybody's right in the world; so mischievous, standing there and shutting out the possibility of action. It seemed well to trample him down; to put him out of the way--no matter how-- somehow. It gave him, he thought, an inkling of the way in which this poor old man had made himself odious to his kind, by opposing himself, inevitably, to what was bad in man, chiding it by his very presence, accepting nothing false. You must either love him utterly, or hate him utterly; for he could not let you alone. Redclyffe, being a susceptible man, felt this influence in the strongest way; for it was as if there was a battle within him, one party pulling, wrenching him towards the old man, another wrenching him away, so that, by the agony of the contest, he felt disposed to end it by taking flight, and never seeing the strange individual again. He could well enough conceive how a brutal nature, if capable of receiving his influence at all, might find it so intolerable that it must needs get rid of him by violence,--by taking his blood if necessary.

All these feelings were but transitory, however; they swept across him like a wind, and then he looked again at the old man and saw only his simplicity, his unworldliness,--saw little more than the worn and feeble individual in the Hospital garb, leaning on his staff; and then turning again with a gentle sigh to weed in the garden. And then Redclyffe went away, in a state of disturbance for which he could not account to himself.