Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter XXII

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Chapter XXII

Lord Braithwaite came into the principal door of the library as the priest was speaking, and stood a moment just upon the threshold, looking keenly out of the stronger light into this dull and darksome apartment, as if unable to see perfectly what was within; or rather, as Redclyffe fancied, trying to discover what was passing between those two. And, indeed, as when a third person comes suddenly upon two who are talking of him, the two generally evince in their manner some consciousness of the fact; so it was in this case, with Redclyffe at least, although the priest seemed perfectly undisturbed, either through practice of concealment, or because he had nothing to conceal.

His Lordship, after a moment's pause, came forward, presenting his hand to Redclyffe, who shook it, and not without a certain cordiality; till he perceived that it was the left hand, when he probably intimated some surprise by a change of manner.

"I am an awkward person," said his Lordship. "The left hand, however, is nearest the heart; so be assured I mean no discourtesy."

"The Signor Ambassador and myself," observed the priest, "have had a most interesting conversation (to me at least) about books and bookworms, spiders, and other congruous matters; and I find his Excellency has heretofore made acquaintance with a great spider bearing strong resemblance to the hermit of our library."

"Indeed," said his Lordship. "I was not aware that America had yet enough of age and old misfortune, crime, sordidness, that accumulate with it, to have produced spiders like this. Had he sucked into himself all the noisomeness of your heat?"

Redclyffe made some slight answer, that the spider was a sort of pet of an old virtuoso to whom he owed many obligations in his boyhood; and the conversation turned from this subject to others suggested by topics of the day and place. His Lordship was affable, and Redclyffe could not, it must be confessed, see anything to justify the prejudices of the neighbors against him. Indeed, he was inclined to attribute them, in great measure, to the narrowness of the English view,--to those insular prejudices which have always prevented them from fully appreciating what differs from their own habits. At lunch, which was soon announced, the party of three became very pleasant and sociable, his Lordship drinking a light Italian red wine, and recommending it to Redclyffe; who, however, was English enough to prefer some bitter ale, while the priest contented himself with pure water,--which is, in truth, a less agreeable drink in chill, moist England than in any country we are acquainted with.

"You must make yourself quite at home here," said his Lordship, as they rose from table. "I am not a good host, nor a very genial man, I believe. I can do little to entertain you; but here is the house and the grounds at your disposal,--horses in the stable,--guns in the hall,--here is Father Angelo, good at chess. There is the library. Pray make the most of them all; and if I can contribute in any way to your pleasure, let me know."

All this certainly seemed cordial, and the manner in which it was said seemed in accordance with the spirit of the words; and yet, whether the fault was in anything of morbid suspicion in Redclyffe's nature, or whatever it was, it did not have the effect of making him feel welcome, which almost every Englishman has the natural faculty of producing on a guest, when once he has admitted him beneath his roof. It might be in great measure his face, so thin and refined, and intellectual without feeling; his voice which had melody, but not heartiness; his manners, which were not simple by nature, but by art;--whatever it was, Redclyffe found that Lord Braithwaite did not call for his own naturalness and simplicity, but his art, and felt that he was inevitably acting a part in his intercourse with him, that he was on his guard, playing a game; and yet he did not wish to do this. But there was a mobility, a subtleness in his nature, an unconscious tact, --which the mode of life and of mixing with men in America fosters and perfects,--that made this sort of finesse inevitable to him, with any but a natural character; with whom, on the other hand, Redclyffe could be as fresh and natural as any Englishman of them all.

Redclyffe spent the time between lunch and dinner in wandering about the grounds, from which he had hitherto felt himself debarred by motives of delicacy. It was a most interesting ramble to him, coming to trees which his ancestor, who went to America, might have climbed in his boyhood, might have sat beneath, with his lady-love, in his youth; deer there were, the descendants of those which he had seen; old stone stiles, which his foot had trodden. The sombre, clouded light of the day fell down upon this scene, which in its verdure, its luxuriance of vegetable life, was purely English, cultivated to the last extent without losing the nature out of a single thing. In the course of his walk he came to the spot where he had been so mysteriously wounded on his first arrival in this region; and, examining the spot, he was startled to see that there was a path leading to the other side of a hedge, and this path, which led to the house, had brought him here.

Musing upon this mysterious circumstance, and how it should have happened in so orderly a country as England, so tamed and subjected to civilization,--an incident to happen in an English park which seemed better suited to the Indian-haunted forests of the wilder parts of his own land,--and how no researches which the Warden had instituted had served in the smallest degree to develop the mystery,--he clambered over the hedge, and followed the footpath. It plunged into dells, and emerged from them, led through scenes which seemed those of old romances, and at last, by these devious ways, began to approach the old house, which, with its many gray gables, put on a new aspect from this point of view. Redclyffe admired its venerableness anew; the ivy that overran parts of it; the marks of age; and wondered at the firmness of the institutions which, through all the changes that come to man, could have kept this house the home of one lineal race for so many centuries; so many, that the absence of his own branch from it seemed but a temporary visit to foreign parts, from which he was now returned, to be again at home, by the old hearthstone.

"But what do I mean to do?" said he to himself, stopping short, and still looking at the old house. "Am I ready to give up all the actual life before me for the sake of taking up with what I feel to be a less developed state of human life? Would it not be better for me to depart now, to turn my back on this flattering prospect? I am not fit to be here,--I, so strongly susceptible of a newer, more stirring life than these men lead; I, who feel that, whatever the thought and cultivation of England may be, my own countrymen have gone forward a long, long march beyond them, not intellectually, but in a way that gives them a further start. If I come back hither, with the purpose to make myself an Englishman, especially an Englishman of rank and hereditary estate, --then for me America has been discovered in vain, and the great spirit that has been breathed into us is in vain; and I am false to it all!"

But again came silently swelling over him like a flood all that ancient peace, and quietude, and dignity, which looked so stately and beautiful as brooding round the old house; all that blessed order of ranks, that sweet superiority, and yet with no disclaimer of common brotherhood, that existed between the English gentleman and his inferiors; all that delightful intercourse, so sure of pleasure, so safe from rudeness, lowness, unpleasant rubs, that exists between gentleman and gentleman, where, in public affairs, all are essentially of one mind, or seem so to an American politician, accustomed to the fierce conflicts of our embittered parties; where life was made so enticing, so refined, and yet with a sort of homeliness that seemed to show that all its strength was left behind; that seeming taking in of all that was desirable in life, and all its grace and beauty, yet never giving life a hard enamel of over-refinement. What could there be in the wild, harsh, ill- conducted American approach to civilization, which could compare with this? What to compare with this juiciness and richness? What other men had ever got so much out of life as the polished and wealthy Englishmen of to-day? What higher part was to be acted, than seemed to lie before him, if he willed to accept it?

He resumed his walk, and, drawing near the manor-house, found that he was approaching another entrance than that which had at first admitted him; a very pleasant entrance it was, beneath a porch, of antique form, and ivy-clad, hospitable and inviting; and it being the approach from the grounds, it seemed to be more appropriate to the residents of the house than the other one. Drawing near, Redclyffe saw that a flight of steps ascended within the porch, old-looking, much worn; and nothing is more suggestive of long time than a flight of worn steps; it must have taken so many soles, through so many years, to make an impression. Judging from the make of the outside of the edifice, Redclyffe thought that he could make out the way from the porch to the hall and library; so he determined to enter this way.

There had been, as was not unusual, a little shower of rain during the afternoon; and as Redclyffe came close to the steps, they were glistening with the wet. The stones were whitish, like marble, and one of them bore on it a token that made him pause, while a thrill like terror ran through his system. For it was the mark of a footstep, very decidedly made out, and red, like blood,--the Bloody Footstep,--the mark of a foot, which seemed to have been slightly impressed into the rock, as if it had been a soft substance, at the same time sliding a little, and gushing with blood. The glistening moisture of which we have spoken made it appear as if it were just freshly stamped there; and it suggested to Redclyffe's fancy the idea, that, impressed more than two centuries ago, there was some charm connected with the mark which kept it still fresh, and would continue to do so to the end of time. It was well that there was no spectator there,--for the American would have blushed to have it known how much this old traditionary wonder had affected his imagination. But, indeed, it was as old as any bugbear of his mind--as any of those bugbears and private terrors which grow up with people, and make the dreams and nightmares of childhood, and the fever-images of mature years, till they haunt the deliriums of the dying bed, and after that possibly, are either realized or known no more. The Doctor's strange story vividly recurred to him, and all the horrors which he had since associated with this trace; and it seemed to him as if he had now struck upon a bloody track, and as if there were other tracks of this supernatural foot which he was bound to search out; removing the dust of ages that had settled on them, the moss and deep grass that had grown over them, the forest leaves that might have fallen on them in America--marking out the pathway, till the pedestrian lay down in his grave.

The foot was issuing from, not entering into, the house. Whoever had impressed it, or on whatever occasion, he had gone forth, and doubtless to return no more. Redclyffe was impelled to place his own foot on the track; and the action, as it were, suggested in itself strange ideas of what had been the state of mind of the man who planted it there; and he felt a strange, vague, yet strong surmise of some agony, some terror and horror, that had passed here, and would not fade out of the spot. While he was in these musings, he saw Lord Braithwaite looking at him through the glass of the porch, with fixed, curious eyes, and a smile on his face. On perceiving that Redclyffe was aware of his presence, he came forth without appearing in the least disturbed.

"What think you of the Bloody Footstep?" asked he.

"It seems to me, undoubtedly," said Redclyffe, stooping to examine it more closely, "a good thing to make a legend out of; and, like most legendary lore, not capable of bearing close examination. I should decidedly say that the Bloody Footstep is a natural reddish stain in the stone."

"Do you think so, indeed?" rejoined his Lordship. "It may be; but in that case, if not the record of an actual deed,--of a foot stamped down there in guilt and agony, and oozing out with unwipeupable blood,--we may consider it as prophetic;--as foreboding, from the time when the stone was squared and smoothed, and laid at this threshold, that a fatal footstep was really to be impressed here."

"It is an ingenious supposition," said Redclyffe. "But is there any sure knowledge that the prophecy you suppose has yet been fulfilled?"

"If not, it might yet be in the future," said Lord Braithwaite. "But I think there are enough in the records of this family to prove that there did one cross this threshold in a bloody agony, who has since returned no more. Great seekings, I have understood, have been had throughout the world for him, or for any sign of him, but nothing satisfactory has been heard."

"And it is now too late to expect it," observed the American.

"Perhaps not," replied the nobleman, with a glance that Redclyffe thought had peculiar meaning in it. "Ah! it is very curious to see what turnings up there are in this world of old circumstances that seem buried forever; how things come back, like echoes that have rolled away among the hills and been seemingly hushed forever. We cannot tell when a thing is really dead; it comes to life, perhaps in its old shape, perhaps in a new and unexpected one; so that nothing really vanishes out of the world. I wish it did."

The conversation now ceased, and Redclyffe entered the house, where he amused himself for some time in looking at the ancient hall, with its gallery, its armor, and its antique fireplace, on the hearth of which burned a genial fire. He wondered whether in that fire was the continuance of that custom which the Doctor's legend spoke of, and that the flame had been kept up there two hundred years, in expectation of the wanderer's return. It might be so, although the climate of England made it a natural custom enough, in a large and damp old room, into which many doors opened, both from the exterior and interior of the mansion; but it was pleasant to think the custom a traditionary one, and to fancy that a booted figure, enveloped in a cloak, might still arrive, and fling open the veiling cloak, throw off the sombre and drooping-brimmed hat, and show features that were similar to those seen in pictured faces on the walls. Was he himself--in another guise, as Lord Braithwaite had been saying--that long-expected one? Was his the echoing tread that had been heard so long through the ages--so far through the wide world--approaching the blood-stained threshold?

With such thoughts, or dreams (for they were hardly sincerely enough entertained to be called thoughts), Redclyffe spent the day; a strange, delicious day, in spite of the sombre shadows that enveloped it. He fancied himself strangely wonted, already, to the house; as if his every part and peculiarity had at once fitted into its nooks, and corners, and crannies; but, indeed, his mobile nature and active fancy were not entirely to be trusted in this matter; it was, perhaps, his American faculty of making himself at home anywhere, that he mistook for the feeling of being peculiarly at home here.