Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter XX

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Chapter XX

The guests were now rapidly taking their departure, and the Warden and Redclyffe were soon left alone in the antique hall, which now, in its solitude, presented an aspect far different from the gay festivity of an hour before; the duskiness up in the carved oaken beams seemed to descend and fill the hall; and the remembrance of the feast was like one of those that had taken place centuries ago, with which this was now numbered, and growing ghostly, and faded, and sad, even as they had long been.

"Well, my dear friend," said the Warden, stretching himself and yawning, "it is over. Come into my study with me, and we will have a devilled turkey-bone and a pint of sherry in peace and comfort."

"I fear I can make no figure at such a supper," said Redclyffe. "But I admire your inexhaustibleness in being ready for midnight refreshment after such a feast."

"Not a glass of good liquor has moistened my lips to-night," said the Warden, "save and except such as was supplied by a decanter of water made brown with toast; and such a sip as I took to the health of the Queen, and another to that of the Ambassador to Hohen-Linden. It is the only way, when a man has this vast labor of speechifying to do; and indeed there is no possibility of keeping up a jolly countenance for such a length of time except on toast-water."

They accordingly adjourned to the Warden's sanctum, where that worthy dignitary seemed to enjoy himself over his sherry and cracked bones, in a degree that he probably had not heretofore; while Redclyffe, whose potations had been more liberal, and who was feverish and disturbed, tried the effect of a little brandy and soda-water. As often happens at such midnight symposiums, the two friends found themselves in a more kindly and confidential vein than had happened before, great as had been the kindness and confidence already grown up between them. Redclyffe told his friend of Lord Braithwaite's invitation, and of his own resolution to accept it.

"Why not? You will do well," said the Warden; "and you will find his Lordship an accustomed host, and the old house most interesting. If he knows the secrets of it himself, and will show them, they will be well worth the seeing."

"I have had a scruple in accepting this invitation," said Redclyffe.

"I cannot see why," said the Warden. "I advise it by all means, since I shall lose nothing by it myself, as it will not lop off any part of your visit to me."

"My dear friend," said Redclyffe, irresistibly impelled to a confidence which he had not meditated a moment before, "there is a foolish secret which I must tell you, if you will listen to it; and which I have only not revealed to you because it seemed to me foolish and dream-like; because, too, I am an American, and a democrat; because I am ashamed of myself and laugh at myself."

"Is it a long story?" asked the Warden.

"I can make it of any length, and almost any brevity," said Redclyffe.

"I will fill my pipe then," answered the Warden, "and listen at my ease; and if, as you intimate, there prove to be any folly in it, I will impute it all to the kindly freedom with which you have partaken of our English hospitality, and forget it before to-morrow morning."

He settled himself in his easy-chair, in a most luxurious posture; and Redclyffe, who felt a strange reluctance to reveal--for the first time in his life--the shadowy hopes, if hopes they were, and purposes, if such they could be called, with which he had amused himself so many years, begun the story from almost the earliest period that he could remember. He told even of his earliest recollection, with an old woman, in the almshouse, and how he had been found there by the Doctor, and educated by him, with all the hints and half-revelations that had been made to him. He described the singular character of the Doctor, his scientific pursuits, his evident accomplishments, his great abilities, his morbidness and melancholy, his moodiness, and finally his death, and the singular circumstances that accompanied it. The story took a considerable time to tell; and after its close, the Warden, who had only interrupted it by now and then a question to make it plainer, continued to smoke his pipe slowly and thoughtfully for a long while.

"This Doctor of yours was a singular character," said he. "Evidently, from what you tell me as to the accuracy of his local reminiscences, he must have been of this part of the country,--of this immediate neighborhood,--and such a man could not have grown up here without being known. I myself--for I am an old fellow now--might have known him if he lived to manhood hereabouts."

"He seemed old to me when I first knew him," said Redclyffe. "But children make no distinctions of age. He might have been forty-five then, as well as I can judge."

"You are now twenty-seven or eight," said the Warden, "and were four years old when you first knew him. He might now be sixty-five. Do you know, my friend, that I have something like a certainty that I know who your Doctor was?"

"How strange this seems!" exclaimed Redclyffe. "It has never struck me that I should be able to identify this singular personage with any surroundings or any friends."

The Warden, to requite his friend's story,--and without as yet saying a word, good or bad, on his ancestral claims,--proceeded to tell him some of the gossip of the neighborhood,--what had been gossip thirty or forty years ago, but was now forgotten, or, at all events, seldom spoken of, and only known to the old, at the present day. He himself remembered it only as a boy, and imperfectly. There had been a personage of that day, a man of poor estate, who had fallen deeply in love and been betrothed to a young lady of family; he was a young man of more than ordinary abilities, and of great promise, though small fortune. It was not well known how, but the match between him and the young lady was broken off, and his place was supplied by the then proprietor of Braithwaite Hall; as it was supposed, by the artifices of her mother. There had been circumstances of peculiar treachery in the matter, and Mr. Oglethorpe had taken it severely to heart; so severely, indeed, that he had left the country, after selling his ancestral property, and had only been occasionally heard of again. Now, from certain circumstances, it had struck the Warden that this might be the mysterious Doctor of whom Redclyffe spoke. [Endnote: 1.]

"But why," suggested Redclyffe, "should a man with these wrongs to avenge take such an interest in a descendant of his enemy's family?"

"That is a strong point in favor of my supposition," replied the Warden. "There is certainly, and has long been, a degree of probability that the true heir of this family exists in America. If Oglethorpe could discover him, he ousts his enemy from the estate and honors, and substitutes the person whom he has discovered and educated. Most certainly there is revenge in the thing. Should it happen now, however, the triumph would have lost its sweetness, even were Oglethorpe alive to partake of it; for his enemy is dead, leaving no heir, and this foreign branch has come in without Oglethorpe's aid."

The friends remained musing a considerable time, each in his own train of thought, till the Warden suddenly spoke.

"Do you mean to prosecute this apparent claim of yours?"

"I have not intended to do so," said Redclyffe.

"Of course," said the Warden, "that should depend upon the strength of your ground; and I understand you that there is some link wanting to establish it. Otherwise, I see not how you can hesitate. Is it a little thing to hold a claim to an old English estate and honors?"

"No; it is a very great thing, to an Englishman born, and who need give up no higher birthright to avail himself of it," answered Redclyffe. "You will laugh at me, my friend; but I cannot help feeling that I, a simple citizen of a republic, yet with none above me except those whom I help to place there,--and who are my servants, not my superiors,-- must stoop to take these honors. I leave a set of institutions which are the noblest that the wit and civilization of man have yet conceived, to enlist myself in one that is based on a far lower conception of man, and which therefore lowers every one who shares in it. Besides," said the young man, his eyes kindling with the ambition which had been so active a principle in his life, "what prospects--what rewards for spirited exertion--what a career, only open to an American, would I give up, to become merely a rich and idle Englishman, belonging (as I should) nowhere, without a possibility of struggle, such as a strong man loves, with only a mockery of a title, which in these days really means nothing,--hardly more than one of our own Honorables. What has any success in English life to offer (even were it within my reach, which, as a stranger, it would not be) to balance the proud career of an American statesman?"

"True, you might be a President, I suppose," said the Warden, rather contemptuously,--"a four years' potentate. It seems to me an office about on a par with that of the Lord Mayor of London. For my part, I would rather be a baron of three or four hundred years' antiquity."

"We talk in vain," said Redclyffe, laughing. "We do not approach one another's ideas on this subject. But, waiving all speculations as to my attempting to avail myself of this claim, do you think I can fairly accept this invitation to visit Lord Braithwaite? There is certainly a possibility that I may arraign myself against his dearest interests. Conscious of this, can I accept his hospitality?"

The Warden paused. "You have not sought access to his house," he observed. "You have no designs, it seems, no settled designs at all events, against his Lordship,--nor is there a probability that they would be forwarded by your accepting this invitation, even if you had any. I do not see but you may go. The only danger is, that his Lordship's engaging qualities may seduce you into dropping your claims out of a chivalrous feeling, which I see is among your possibilities. To be sure, it would be more satisfactory if he knew your actual position, and should then renew his invitation."

"I am convinced," said Redclyffe, looking up from his musing posture, "that he does know them. You are surprised; but in all Lord Braithwaite's manner towards me there has been an undefinable something that makes me aware that he knows on what terms we stand towards each other. There is nothing inconceivable in this. The family have for generations been suspicious of an American line, and have more than once sent messengers to try to search out and put a stop to the apprehension. Why should it not have come to their knowledge that there was a person with such claims, and that he is now in England?"

"It certainly is possible," replied the Warden, "and if you are satisfied that his Lordship knows it, or even suspects it, you meet him on fair ground. But I fairly tell you, my good friend, that--his Lordship being a man of unknown principles of honor, outlandish, and an Italian in habit and moral sense--I scarcely like to trust you in his house, he being aware that your existence may be inimical to him. My humble board is the safer of the two."

"Pshaw!" said Redclyffe. "You Englishmen are so suspicious of anybody not regularly belonging to yourselves. Poison and the dagger haunt your conceptions of all others. In America you think we kill every third man with the bowie-knife. But, supposing there were any grounds for your suspicion, I would still encounter it. An American is no braver than an Englishman; but still he is not quite so chary of his life as the latter, who never risks it except on the most imminent necessity. We take such matters easy. In regard to this invitation, I feel that I can honorably accept it, and there are many idle and curious motives that impel me to it. I will go."

"Be it so; but you must come back to me for another week, after finishing your visit," said the Warden. "After all, it was an idle fancy in me that there could be any danger. His Lordship has good English blood in his veins, and it would take oceans and rivers of Italian treachery to wash out the sterling quality of it. And, my good friend, as to these claims of yours, I would not have you trust too much to what is probably a romantic dream; yet, were the dream to come true, I should think the British peerage honored by such an accession to its ranks. And now to bed; for we have heard the chimes of midnight, two hours agone."

They accordingly retired; and Redclyffe was surprised to find what a distinctness his ideas respecting his claim to the Braithwaite honors had assumed, now that he, after so many years, had imparted them to another. Heretofore, though his imagination had played with them so much, they seemed the veriest dreams; now, they had suddenly taken form and hardened into substance; and he became aware, in spite of all the lofty and patriotic sentiments which he had expressed to the Warden, that these prospects had really much importance in his mind.

Redclyffe, during the few days that he was to spend at the Hospital, previous to his visit to Braithwaite Hall, was conscious of a restlessness such as we have all felt on the eve of some interesting event. He wondered at himself at being so much wrought up by so simple a thing as he was about to do; but it seemed to him like a coming home after an absence of centuries. It was like an actual prospect of entrance into a castle in the air,--the shadowy threshold of which should assume substance enough to bear his foot, its thin, fantastic walls actually protect him from sun and rain, its hall echo with his footsteps, its hearth warm him. That delicious, thrilling uncertainty between reality and fancy, in which he had often been enwrapt since his arrival in this region, enveloped him more strongly than ever; and with it, too, there came a sort of apprehension, which sometimes shuddered through him like an icy draught, or the touch of cold steel to his heart. He was ashamed, too, to be conscious of anything like fear; yet he would not acknowledge it for fear; and indeed there was such an airy, exhilarating, thrilling pleasure bound up with it, that it could not really be so.

It was in this state of mind that, a day or two after the feast, he saw Colcord sitting on the bench, before the portal of the Hospital, in the sun, which--September though it was--still came warm and bright (for English sunshine) into that sheltered spot; a spot where many generations of old men had warmed their limbs, while they looked down into the life, the torpid life, of the old village that trailed its homely yet picturesque street along by the venerable buildings of the Hospital.

"My good friend," said Redclyffe, "I am about leaving you, for a time, --indeed, with the limited time at my disposal, it is possible that I may not be able to come back hither, except for a brief visit. Before I leave you, I would fain know something more about one whom I must ever consider my benefactor."

"Yes," said the old man, with his usual benignant quiet, "I saved your life. It is yet to be seen, perhaps, whether thereby I made myself your benefactor. I trust so."

"I feel it so, at least," answered Redclyffe, "and I assure you life has a new value for me since I came to this place; for I have a deeper hold upon it, as it were,--more hope from it, more trust in something good to come of it."

"This is a good change,--or should be so," quoth the old man.

"Do you know," continued Redclyffe, "how long you have been a figure in my life?"

"I know it," said Colcord, "though you might well have forgotten it."

"Not so," said Redclyffe. "I remember, as if it were this morning, that time in New England when I first saw you."

"The man with whom you then abode," said Colcord, "knew who I was."

"And he being dead, and finding you here now, by such a strange coincidence," said Redclyffe, "and being myself a man capable of taking your counsel, I would have you impart it to me: for I assure you that the current of my life runs darkly on, and I would be glad of any light on its future, or even its present phase."

"I am not one of those from whom the world waits for counsel," said the pensioner, "and I know not that mine would be advantageous to you, in the light which men usually prize. Yet if I were to give any, it would be that you should be gone hence."

"Gone hence!" repeated Redclyffe, surprised. "I tell you--what I have hardly hitherto told to myself--that all my dreams, all my wishes hitherto, have looked forward to precisely the juncture that seems now to be approaching. My dreaming childhood dreamt of this. If you know anything of me, you know how I sprung out of mystery, akin to none, a thing concocted out of the elements, without visible agency; how all through my boyhood I was alone; how I grew up without a root, yet continually longing for one,--longing to be connected with somebody, and never feeling myself so. Yet there was ever a looking forward to this time at which I now find myself. If my next step were death, yet while the path seemed to lead toward a certainty of establishing me in connection with my race, I would take it. I have tried to keep down this yearning, to stifle it, annihilate it, by making a position for myself, by being my own fact; but I cannot overcome the natural horror of being a creature floating in the air, attached to nothing; ever this feeling that there is no reality in the life and fortunes, good or bad, of a being so unconnected. There is not even a grave, not a heap of dry bones, not a pinch of dust, with which I can claim kindred, unless I find it here!"

"This is sad," said the old man,--"this strong yearning, and nothing to gratify it. Yet, I warn you, do not seek its gratification here. There are delusions, snares, pitfalls, in this life. I warn you, quit the search."

"No," said Redclyffe, "I will follow the mysterious clue that seems to lead me on; and, even now, it pulls me one step further."

"How is that?" asked the old man.

"It leads me onward even as far as the threshold--across the threshold --of yonder mansion," said Redclyffe.

"Step not across it; there is blood on that threshold!" exclaimed the pensioner. "A bloody footstep emerging. Take heed that there be not as bloody a one entering in!"

"Pshaw!" said Redclyffe, feeling the ridicule of the emotion into which he had been betrayed, as the old man's wildness of demeanor made him feel that he was talking with a monomaniac. "We are talking idly. I do but go, in the common intercourse of society, to see the old English residence which (such is the unhappy obscurity of my position) I fancy, among a thousand others, may have been that of my ancestors. Nothing is likely to come of it. My foot is not bloody, nor polluted with anything except the mud of the damp English soil."

"Yet go not in!" persisted the old man.

"Yes, I must go," said Redclyffe, determinedly, "and I will."

Ashamed to have been moved to such idle utterances by anything that the old man could say Redclyffe turned away, though he still heard the sad, half-uttered remonstrance of the old man, like a moan behind him, and wondered what strange fancy had taken possession of him.

The effect which this opposition had upon him made him the more aware how much his heart was set upon this visit to the Hall; how much he had counted upon being domiciliated there; what a wrench it would be to him to tear himself away without going into that mansion, and penetrating all the mysteries wherewith his imagination, exercising itself upon the theme since the days of the old Doctor's fireside talk, had invested it. In his agitation he wandered forth from the Hospital, and, passing through the village street, found himself in the park of Braithwaite Hall, where he wandered for a space, until his steps led him to a point whence the venerable Hall appeared, with its limes and its oaks around it; its look of peace, and aged repose, and loveliness; its stately domesticity, so ancient, so beautiful; its mild, sweet simplicity; it seemed the ideal of home. The thought thrilled his bosom, that this was his home,--the home of the wild Western wanderer, who had gone away centuries ago, and encountered strange chances, and almost forgotten his origin, but still kept a clue to bring him back; and had now come back, and found all the original emotions safe within him. It even seemed to him, that, by his kindred with those who had gone before,--by the line of sensitive blood linking him with that final emigrant,--he could remember all these objects;--that tree, hardly more venerable now than then; that clock-tower, still marking the elapsing time; that spire of the old church, raising itself beyond. He spread out his arms in a kind of rapture, and exclaimed:--

"O home, my home, my forefathers' home! I have come back to thee! The wanderer has come back!"

There was a slight stir near him; and on a mossy seat, that was arranged to take advantage of a remarkably good point of view of the old Hall, he saw Elsie sitting. She had her drawing-materials with her, and had probably been taking a sketch. Redclyffe was ashamed of having been overheard by any one giving way to such idle passion as he had been betrayed into; and yet, in another sense, he was glad,--glad, at least, that something of his feeling, as yet unspoken to human being, was shared, and shared by her with whom, alone of living beings, he had any sympathies of old date, and whom he often thought of with feelings that drew him irresistibly towards her.

"Elsie," said he, uttering for the first time the old name, "Providence makes you my confidant. We have recognized each other, though no word has passed between us. Let us speak now again with one another. How came you hither? What has brought us together again?--Away with this strangeness that lurks between us! Let us meet as those who began life together, and whose life-strings, being so early twisted in unison, cannot now be torn apart."

"You are not wise," said Elsie, in a faltering voice, "to break the restraint we have tacitly imposed upon ourselves. Do not let us speak further on this subject."

"How strangely everything evades me!" exclaimed Redclyffe. "I seem to be in a land of enchantment, where I can get hold of nothing that lends me a firm support. There is no medium in my life between the most vulgar realities and the most vaporous fiction, too thin to breathe. Tell me, Elsie, how came you here? Why do you not meet me frankly? What is there to keep you apart from the oldest friend, I am bold to say, you have on earth? Are you an English girl? Are you one of our own New England maidens, with her freedom, and her know-how, and her force, beyond anything that these demure and decorous damsels can know?"

"This is wild," said Elsie, straggling for composure, yet strongly moved by the recollections that he brought up. "It is best that we should meet as strangers, and so part."

"No," said Redclyffe; "the long past comes up, with its memories, and yet it is not so powerful as the powerful present. We have met again; our adventures have shown that Providence has designed a relation in my fate to yours. Elsie, are you lonely as I am?"

"No," she replied, "I have bonds, ties, a life, a duty. I must live that life and do that duty. You have, likewise, both. Do yours, lead your own life, like me."

"Do you know, Elsie," he said, "whither that life is now tending?"

"Whither?" said she, turning towards him.

"To yonder Hall," said he.

She started up, and clasped her hands about his arm.

"No, no!" she exclaimed, "go not thither! There is blood upon the threshold! Return: a dreadful fatality awaits you here."

"Come with me, then," said he, "and I yield my purpose."

"It cannot be," said Elsie.

"Then I, too, tell you it cannot be," returned Redclyffe. [Endnote: 2.]

The dialogue had reached this point, when there came a step along the wood-path; the branches rustled, and there was Lord Braithwaite, looking upon the pair with the ordinary slightly sarcastic glance with which he gazed upon the world.

"A fine morning, fair lady and fair sir," said he. "We have few such, except in Italy."