Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter XXI

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Chapter XXI

So Redclyffe left the Hospital, where he had spent many weeks of strange and not unhappy life, and went to accept the invitation of the lord of Braithwaite Hall. It was with a thrill of strange delight, poignant almost to pain, that he found himself driving up to the door of the Hall, and actually passing the threshold of the house. He looked, as he stept over it, for the Bloody Footstep, with which the house had so long been associated in his imagination; but could nowhere see it. The footman ushered him into a hall, which seemed to be in the centre of the building, and where, little as the autumn was advanced, a fire was nevertheless burning and glowing on the hearth; nor was its effect undesirable in the somewhat gloomy room. The servants had evidently received orders respecting the guest; for they ushered him at once to his chamber, which seemed not to be one of those bachelor's rooms, where, in an English mansion, young and single men are forced to be entertained with very bare and straitened accommodations; but a large, well, though antiquely and solemnly furnished room, with a curtained bed, and all manner of elaborate contrivances for repose; but the deep embrasures of the windows made it gloomy, with the little light that they admitted through their small panes. There must have been English attendance in this department of the household arrangements, at least; for nothing could exceed the exquisite nicety and finish of everything in the room, the cleanliness, the attention to comfort, amid antique aspects of furniture; the rich, deep preparations for repose.

The servant told Redclyffe that his master had ridden out, and, adding that luncheon would be on the table at two o'clock, left him; and Redclyffe sat some time trying to make out and distinguish the feelings with which he found himself here, and realizing a lifelong dream. He ran back over all the legends which the Doctor used to tell about this mansion, and wondered whether this old, rich chamber were the one where any of them had taken place; whether the shadows of the dead haunted here. But, indeed, if this were the case, the apartment must have been very much changed, antique though it looked, with the second, or third, or whatever other numbered arrangement, since those old days of tapestry hangings and rush-strewed floor. Otherwise this stately and gloomy chamber was as likely as any other to have been the one where his ancestor appeared for the last time in the paternal mansion; here he might have been the night before that mysterious Bloody Footstep was left on the threshold, whence had arisen so many wild legends, and since the impression of which nothing certain had ever been known respecting that ill-fated man,--nothing certain in England at least,-- and whose story was left so ragged and questionable even by all that he could add.

Do what he could, Redclyffe still was not conscious of that deep home- feeling which he had imagined he should experience when, if ever, he should come back to the old ancestral place; there was strangeness, a struggle within himself to get hold of something that escaped him, an effort to impress on his mind the fact that he was, at last, established at his temporary home in the place that he had so long looked forward to, and that this was the moment which he would have thought more interesting than any other in his life. He was strangely cold and indifferent, frozen up as it were, and fancied that he would have cared little had he been to leave the mansion without so much as looking over the remaining part of it.

At last, he became weary of sitting and indulging this fantastic humor of indifference, and emerged from his chamber with the design of finding his way about the lower part of the house. The mansion had that delightful intricacy which can never be contrived; never be attained by design; but is the happy result of where many builders, many designs,-- many ages, perhaps,--have concurred in a structure, each pursuing his own design. Thus it was a house that you could go astray in, as in a city, and come to unexpected places, but never, until after much accustomance, go where you wished; so Redclyffe, although the great staircase and wide corridor by which he had been led to his room seemed easy to find, yet soon discovered that he was involved in an unknown labyrinth, where strange little bits of staircases led up and down, and where passages promised much in letting him out, but performed nothing. To be sure, the old English mansion had not much of the stateliness of one of Mrs. Radcliffe's castles, with their suites of rooms opening one into another; but yet its very domesticity--its look as if long ago it had been lived in--made it only the more ghostly; and so Redclyffe felt the more as if he were wandering through a homely dream; sensible of the ludicrousness of his position, he once called aloud; but his voice echoed along the passages, sounding unwontedly to his ears, but arousing nobody. It did not seem to him as if he were going afar, but were bewildered round and round, within a very small compass; a predicament in which a man feels very foolish usually.

As he stood at an old window, stone-mullioned, at the end of a passage into which he had come twice over, a door near him opened, and a personage looked out whom he had not before seen. It was a face of great keenness and intelligence, and not unpleasant to look at, though dark and sallow. The dress had something which Redclyffe recognized as clerical, though not exactly pertaining to the Church of England,--a sort of arrangement of the vest and shirt-collar; and he had knee breeches of black. He did not seem like an English clerical personage, however; for even in this little glimpse of him Redclyffe saw a mildness, gentleness, softness, and asking-of-leave, in his manner, which he had not observed in persons so well assured of their position as the Church of England clergy.

He seemed at once to detect Redclyffe's predicament, and came forward with a pleasant smile, speaking in good English, though with a somewhat foreign accent.

"Ah, sir, you have lost your way. It is a labyrinthian house for its size, this old English Hall,--full of perplexity. Shall I show you to any point?"

"Indeed, sir," said Redclyffe, laughing, "I hardly know whither I want to go; being a stranger, and yet knowing nothing of the public places of the house. To the library, perhaps, if you will be good enough to direct me thither."

"Willingly, my dear sir," said the clerical personage; "the more easily too, as my own quarters are close adjacent; the library being my province. Do me the favor to enter here."

So saying, the priest ushered Redclyffe into an austere-looking yet exceedingly neat study, as it seemed, on one side of which was an oratory, with a crucifix and other accommodations for Catholic devotion. Behind a white curtain there were glimpses of a bed, which seemed arranged on a principle of conventual austerity in respect to limits and lack of softness; but still there was in the whole austerity of the premises a certain character of restraint, poise, principle, which Redclyffe liked. A table was covered with books, many of them folios in an antique binding of parchment, and others were small, thick-set volumes, into which antique lore was rammed and compressed. Through an open door, opposite to the one by which he had entered, there was a vista of a larger apartment, with alcoves, a rather dreary- looking room, though a little sunshine came through a window at the further end, distained with colored glass.

"Will you sit down in my little home?" said the courteous priest. "I hope we may be better acquainted; so allow me to introduce myself. I am Father Angelo, domestic chaplain to his Lordship. You, I know, are the American diplomatic gentleman, from whom his Lordship has been expecting a visit."

Redclyffe bowed.

"I am most happy to know you," continued the priest. "Ah; you have a happy country, most catholic, most recipient of all that is outcast on earth. Men of my religion must ever bless it."

"It certainly ought to be remembered to our credit," replied Redclyffe, "that we have shown no narrow spirit in this matter, and have not, like other Protestant countries, rejected the good that is found in any man on account of his religious faith. American statesmanship comprises Jew, Catholic, all."

After this pleasant little acknowledgment, there ensued a conversation having some reference to books; for though Redclyffe, of late years, had known little of what deserves to be called literature,--having found political life as much estranged from it as it is apt to be with politicians,--yet he had early snuffed the musty fragrance of the Doctor's books, and had learned to love its atmosphere. At the time he left college, he was just at the point where he might have been a scholar; but the active tendencies of American life had interfered with him, as with thousands of others, and drawn him away from pursuits which might have been better adapted to some of his characteristics than the one he had adopted. The priest gently felt and touched around his pursuits, and finding some remains of classic culture, he kept up a conversation on these points; showing him the possessions of the library in that department, where, indeed, were some treasures that he had discovered, and which seemed to have been collected at least a century ago.

"Generally, however," observed he, as they passed from one dark alcove to another, "the library is of little worth, except to show how much of living truth each generation contributes to the botheration of life, and what a public benefactor a bookworm is, after all. There, now! did you ever happen to see one? Here is one that I have watched at work, some time past, and have not thought it worth while to stop him."

Redclyffe looked at the learned little insect, who was eating a strange sort of circular trench into an old book of scholastic Latin, which probably only he had ever devoured,--at least ever found to his taste. The insect seemed in excellent condition, fat with learning, having doubtless got the essence of the book into himself. But Redclyffe was still more interested in observing in the corner a great spider, which really startled him,--not so much for its own terrible aspect, though that was monstrous, as because he seemed to see in it the very great spider which he had known in his boyhood; that same monster that had been the Doctor's familiar, and had been said to have had an influence in his death. He looked so startled that Father Angelo observed it.

"Do not be frightened," said he; "though I allow that a brave man may well be afraid of a spider, and that the bravest of the brave need not blush to shudder at this one. There is a great mystery about this spider. No one knows whence he came; nor how long he has been here. The library was very much shut up during the time of the last inheritor of the estate, and had not been thoroughly examined for some years when I opened it, and swept some of the dust away from its old alcoves. I myself was not aware of this monster until the lapse of some weeks, when I was startled at seeing him, one day, as I was reading an old book here. He dangled down from the ceiling, by the cordage of his web, and positively seemed to look into my face."

"He is of the species Condetas," said Redclyffe,--"a rare spider seldom seen out of the tropic regions."

"You are learned, then, in spiders," observed the priest, surprised.

"I could almost make oath, at least, that I have known this ugly specimen of his race," observed Redclyffe. "A very dear friend, now deceased, to whom I owed the highest obligations, was studious of spiders, and his chief treasure was one the very image of this."

"How strange!" said the priest. "There has always appeared to me to be something uncanny in spiders. I should be glad to talk further with you on this subject. Several times I have fancied a strange intelligence in this monster; but I have natural horror of him, and therefore refrain from interviews."

"You do wisely, sir," said Redclyffe. "His powers and purposes are questionably beneficent, at best."

In truth, the many-legged monster made the old library ghostly to him by the associations which it summoned up, and by the idea that it was really the identical one that had seemed so stuffed with poison, in the lifetime of the Doctor, and at that so distant spot. Yet, on reflection, it appeared not so strange; for the old Doctor's spider, as he had heard him say, was one of an ancestral race that he had brought from beyond the sea. They might have been preserved, for ages possibly, in this old library, whence the Doctor had perhaps taken his specimen, and possibly the one now before him was the sole survivor. It hardly, however, made the monster any the less hideous to suppose that this might be the case; and to fancy the poison of old times condensed into this animal, who might have sucked the diseases, moral and physical, of all this family into him, and to have made himself their demon. He questioned with himself whether it might not be well to crush him at once, and so perhaps do away with the evil of which he was the emblem.

"I felt a strange disposition to crush this monster at first," remarked the priest, as if he knew what Redclyffe was thinking of,--"a feeling that in so doing I should get rid of a mischief; but then he is such a curious monster. You cannot long look at him without coming to the conclusion that he is indestructible."

"Yes; and to think of crushing such a deep-bowelled monster!" said Redclyffe, shuddering. "It is too great a catastrophe."

During this conversation in which he was so deeply concerned, the spider withdrew himself, and hand over hand ascended to a remote and dusky corner, where was his hereditary abode.

"Shall I be likely to meet Lord Braithwaite here in the library?" asked Redclyffe, when the fiend had withdrawn himself. "I have not yet seen him since my arrival."

"I trust," said the priest, with great courtesy, "that you are aware of some peculiarities in his Lordship's habits, which imply nothing in detriment to the great respect which he pays all his few guests, and which, I know, he is especially desirous to pay to you. I think that we shall meet him at lunch, which, though an English institution, his Lordship has adopted very readily."

"I should hope," said Redclyffe, willing to know how far he might be expected to comply with the peculiarities--which might prove to be eccentricities--of his host, "that my presence here will not be too greatly at variance with his Lordship's habits, whatever they may be. I came hither, indeed, on the pledge that, as my host would not stand in my way, so neither would I in his."

"That is the true principle," said the priest, "and here comes his Lordship in person to begin the practice of it."