Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter XXIII

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Chapter XXIII

Redclyffe was now established in the great house which had been so long and so singularly an object of interest with him. With his customary impressibility by the influences around him, he begun to take in the circumstances, and to understand them by more subtile tokens than he could well explain to himself. There was the steward, [Endnote: 1] or whatever was his precise office; so quiet, so subdued, so nervous, so strange! What had been this man's history? What was now the secret of his daily life? There he was, creeping stealthily up and down the staircases, and about the passages of the house; always as if he were afraid of meeting somebody. On seeing Redclyffe in the house, the latter fancied that the man expressed a kind of interest in his face; but whether pleasure or pain he could not well tell; only he sometimes found that he was contemplating him from a distance, or from the obscurity of the room in which he sat,--or from a corridor, while he smoked his cigar on the lawn. A great part, if not the whole of this, he imputed to his knowledge of Redclyffe's connections with the Doctor; but yet this hardly seemed sufficient to account for the pertinacity with which the old man haunted his footsteps,--the poor, nervous old thing,--always near him, or often unexpectedly so; and yet apparently not very willing to hold conversation with him, having nothing of importance to say.

"Mr. Omskirk," said Redclyffe to him, a day or two after the commencement of his visit, "how many years have you now been in this situation?"

"0, sir, ever since the Doctor's departure for America," said Omskirk, "now thirty and five years, five months, and three days."

"A long time," said Redclyffe, smiling, "and you seem to keep the account of it very accurately."

"A very long time, your honor," said Omskirk; "so long, that I seem to have lived one life before it began, and I cannot think of any life than just what I had. My life was broken off short in the midst; and what belonged to the earlier part of it was another man's life; this is mine."

"It might be a pleasant life enough, I should think, in this fine old Hall," said Redclyffe; "rather monotonous, however. Would you not like a relaxation of a few days, a pleasure trip, in all these thirty-five years? You old Englishmen are so sturdily faithful to one thing. You do not resemble my countrymen in that."

"0, none of them ever lived in an old mansion-house like this," replied Omskirk, "they do not know the sort of habits that a man gets here. They do not know my business either, nor any man's here."

"Is your master then, so difficult?" said Redclyffe.

"My master! Who was speaking of him?" said the old man, as if surprised. "Ah, I was thinking of Dr. Grimshawe. He was my master, you know."

And Redclyffe was again inconceivably struck with the strength of the impression that was made on the poor old man's mind by the character of the old Doctor; so that, after thirty years of other service, he still felt him to be the master, and could not in the least release himself from those earlier bonds. He remembered a story that the Doctor used to tell of his once recovering a hanged person, and more and more came to the conclusion that this was the man, and that, as the Doctor had said, this hold of a strong mind over a weak one, strengthened by the idea that he had made him, had subjected the man to him in a kind of slavery that embraced the soul.

And then, again, the lord of the estate interested him greatly, and not unpleasantly. He compared what he seemed to be now with what, according to all reports, he had been in the past, and could make nothing of it, nor reconcile the two characters in the least. It seemed as if the estate were possessed by a devil,--a foul and melancholy fiend,--who resented the attempted possession of others by subjecting them to himself. One had turned from quiet and sober habits to reckless dissipation; another had turned from the usual gayety of life to recluse habits, and both, apparently, by the same influence; at least, so it appeared to Redclyffe, as he insulated their story from all other circumstances, and looked at them by one light. He even thought that he felt a similar influence coming over himself, even in this little time that he had spent here; gradually, should this be his permanent residence,--and not so very gradually either,--there would come its own individual mode of change over him. That quick suggestive mind would gather the moss and lichens of decay. Palsy of its powers would probably be the form it would assume. He looked back through the vanished years to the time which he had spent with the old Doctor, and he felt unaccountably as if the mysterious old man were yet ruling him, as he did in his boyhood; as if his inscrutable, inevitable eye were upon him in all his movements; nay, as if he had guided every step that he took in coming hither, and were stalking mistily before him, leading him about. He sometimes would gladly have given up all these wild and enticing prospects, these dreams that had occupied him so long, if he could only have gone away and looked back upon the house, its inmates, and his own recollections no more; but there came a fate, and took the shape of the old Doctor's apparition, holding him back.

And then, too, the thought of Elsie had much influence in keeping him quietly here; her natural sunshine was the one thing that, just now, seemed to have a good influence upon the world. She, too, was evidently connected with this place, and with the fate, whatever it might be, that awaited him here. The Doctor, the ruler of his destiny, had provided her as well as all the rest; and from his grave, or wherever he was, he still seemed to bring them together.

So here, in this darkened dream, he waited for what should come to pass; and daily, when he sat down in the dark old library, it was with the thought that this day might bring to a close the doubt amid which he lived,--might give him the impetus to go forward. In such a state, no doubt, the witchcraft of the place was really to be recognized, the old witchcraft, too, of the Doctor, which he had escaped by the quick ebullition of youthful spirit, long ago, while the Doctor lived; but which had been stored up till now, till an influence that remained latent for years had worked out in active disease. He held himself open for intercourse with the lord of the mansion; and intercourse of a certain nature they certainly had, but not of the kind which Redclyffe desired. They talked together of politics, of the state of the relations between England and America, of the court to which Redclyffe was accredited; sometimes Redclyffe tried to lead the conversation to the family topics, nor, in truth, did Lord Braithwaite seem to decline his lead; although it was observable that very speedily the conversation would be found turned upon some other subject, to which it had swerved aside by subtle underhand movements. Yet Redclyffe was not the less determined, and at no distant period, to bring up the subject on which his mind dwelt so much, and have it fairly discussed between them.

He was sometimes a little frightened at the position and circumstances in which he found himself; a great disturbance there was in his being, the causes of which he could not trace. It had an influence on his dreams, through which the Doctor seemed to pass continually, and when he awoke it was often with the sensation that he had just the moment before been holding conversation with the old man, and that the latter --with that gesture of power that he remembered so well--had been impressing some command upon him; but what that command was, he could not possibly call to mind. He wandered among the dark passages of the house, and up its antique staircases, as if expecting at every turn to meet some one who would have the word of destiny to say to him. When he went forth into the park, it was as if to hold an appointment with one who had promised to meet him there; and he came slowly back, lingering and loitering, because this expected one had not yet made himself visible, yet plucked up a little alacrity as he drew near the house, because the communicant might have arrived in his absence, and be waiting for him in the dim library. It seemed as if he was under a spell; he could neither go away nor rest,--nothing but dreams, troubled dreams. He had ghostly fears, as if some one were near him whom he could not make out; stealing behind him, and starting away when he was impelled to turn round. A nervousness that his healthy temperament had never before permitted him to be the victim of, assailed him now. He could not help imputing it partly to the influence of the generations who had left a portion of their individual human nature in the house, which had become magnetic by them and could not rid itself of their presence in one sense, though, in another, they had borne it as far off as to where the gray tower of the village church rose above their remains.

Again, he was frightened to perceive what a hold the place was getting upon him; how the tendrils of the ivy seemed to hold him and would not let him go; how natural and homelike (grim and sombre as they were) the old doorways and apartments were becoming; how in no place that he had ever known had he had such a home-like feeling. To be sure, poor fellow, he had no earlier home except the almshouse, where his recollection of a fireside crowded by grim old women and pale, sickly children, of course never allowed him to have the reminiscences of a private, domestic home. But then there was the Doctor's home by the graveyard, and little Elsie, his constant playmate? No, even those recollections did not hold him like this heavy present circumstance. How should he ever draw himself away? No; the proud and vivid and active prospects that had heretofore spread themselves before him,--the striving to conquer, the struggle, the victory, the defeat, if such it was to be,--the experiences for good or ill,--the life, life, life,-- all possibility of these was passing from him; all that hearty earnest contest or communion of man with man; and leaving him nothing but this great sombre shade, this brooding of the old family mansion, with its dreary ancestral hall, its mouldy dignity, its life of the past, its fettering honor, which to accept must bind him hand and foot, as respects all effort, such as he had trained himself for,--such as his own country offered. It was not any value for these,--as it seemed to Redclyffe,--but a witchcraft, an indefinable spell, a something that he could not define, that enthralled him, and was now doing a work on him analogous to, though different from, that which was wrought on Omskirk and all the other inhabitants, high and low, of this old mansion.

He felt greatly interested in the master of the mansion; although perhaps it was not from anything in his nature; but partly because he conceived that he himself had a controlling power over his fortunes, and likewise from the vague perception of this before-mentioned trouble in him. It seemed, whatever it might be, to have converted an ordinary superficial man of the world into a being that felt and suffered inwardly, had pangs, fears, a conscience, a sense of unseen things. It seemed as if underneath this manor-house were the entrance to the cave of Trophonius, one visit to which made a man sad forever after; and that Lord Braithwaite had been there once, or perhaps went nightly, or at any hour. Or the mansion itself was like dark-colored experience, the reality; the point of view where things were seen in their true lights; the true world, all outside of which was delusion, and here-- dreamlike as its structures seemed--the absolute truth. All those that lived in it were getting to be a brotherhood; and he among them; and perhaps before the blood-stained threshold would grow up an impassable barrier, which would cause himself to sit down in dreary quiet, like the rest of them.

Redclyffe, as has been intimated, had an unavowed--unavowed to himself --suspicion that the master of the house cherished no kindly purpose towards him; he had an indistinct feeling of danger from him; he would not have been surprised to know that he was concocting a plot against his life; and yet he did not think that Lord Braithwaite had the slightest hostility towards him. It might make the thing more horrible, perhaps; but it has been often seen in those who poison for the sake of interest, without feelings of personal malevolence, that they do it as kindly as the nature of the thing will permit; they, possibly, may even have a certain degree of affection for their victims, enough to induce them to make the last hours of life sweet and pleasant; to wind up the fever of life with a double supply of enjoyable throbs; to sweeten and delicately flavor the cup of death that they offer to the lips of him whose life is inconsistent with some stated necessity of their own. "Dear friend," such a one might say to the friend whom he reluctantly condemned to death, "think not that there is any base malice, any desire of pain to thee, that actuates me in this thing. Heaven knows, I earnestly wish thy good. But I have well considered the matter,--more deeply than thou hast,--and have found that it is essential that one thing should be, and essential to that thing that thou, my friend, shouldst die. Is that a doom which even thou wouldst object to with such an end to be answered? Thou art innocent; thou art not a man of evil life; the worst thing that can come of it, so far as thou art concerned, would be a quiet, endless repose in yonder churchyard, among dust of thy ancestry, with the English violets growing over thee there, and the green, sweet grass, which thou wilt not scorn to associate with thy dissolving elements, remembering that thy forefather owed a debt, for his own birth and growth, to this English soil, and paid it not,-- consigned himself to that rough soil of another clime, under the forest leaves. Pay it, dear friend, without repining, and leave me to battle a little longer with this troublesome world, and in a few years to rejoin thee, and talk quietly over this matter which we are now arranging. How slight a favor, then, for one friend to do another, will seem this that I seek of thee."

Redclyffe smiled to himself, as he thus gave expression to what he really half fancied were Lord Braithwaite's feelings and purposes towards him, and he felt them in the kindness and sweetness of his demeanor, and his evident wish to make him happy, combined with his own subtile suspicion of some design with which he had been invited here, or which had grown up since he came.

Whoever has read Italian history must have seen such instances of this poisoning without malice or personal ill-feeling.

His own pleasant, companionable, perhaps noble traits and qualities, may have made a favorable impression on Lord Braithwaite, and perhaps he regretted the necessity of acting as he was about to do, but could not therefore weakly relinquish his deliberately formed design. And, on his part, Redclyffe bore no malice towards Lord Braithwaite, but felt really a kindly interest in him, and could he have made him happy at any less cost than his own life, or dearest interests, would perhaps have been glad to do so. He sometimes felt inclined to remonstrate with him in a friendly way; to tell him that his intended course was not likely to lead to a good result; that they had better try to arrange the matter on some other basis, and perhaps he would not find the American so unreasonable as he supposed.

All this, it will be understood, were the mere dreamy suppositions of Redclyffe, in the idleness and languor of the old mansion, letting his mind run at will, and following it into dim caves, whither it tended. He did not actually believe anything of all this; unless it be a lawyer, or a policeman, or some very vulgar natural order of mind, no man really suspects another of crime. It is the hardest thing in the world for a noble nature--the hardest and the most shocking--to be convinced that a fellow-being is going to do a wrong thing, and the consciousness of one's own inviolability renders it still more difficult to believe that one's self is to be the object of the wrong. What he had been fancying looked to him like a romance. The strange part of the matter was, what suggested such a romance in regard to his kind and hospitable host, who seemed to exercise the hospitality of England with a kind of refinement and pleasant piquancy that came from his Italian mixture of blood? Was there no spiritual whisper here?

So the time wore on; and Redclyffe began to be sensible that he must soon decide upon the course that he was to take; for his diplomatic position waited for him, and he could not loiter many days more away in this half delicious, half painful reverie and quiet in the midst of his struggling life. He was yet as undetermined what to do as ever; or, if we may come down to the truth, he was perhaps loath to acknowledge to himself the determination that he had actually formed.

One day, at dinner, which now came on after candle-light, he and Lord Braithwaite sat together at table, as usual, while Omskirk waited at the sideboard. It was a wild, gusty night, in which an autumnal breeze of later autumn seemed to have gone astray, and come into September intrusively. The two friends--for such we may call them--had spent a pleasant day together, wandering in the grounds, looking at the old house at all points, going to the church, and examining the cross- legged stone statues; they had ridden, too, and taken a great deal of healthful exercise, and had now that pleasant sense of just weariness enough which it is the boon of the climate of England to incite and permit men to take. Redclyffe was in one of his most genial moods, and Lord Braithwaite seemed to be the same; so kindly they were both disposed to one another, that the American felt that he might not longer refrain from giving his friend some light upon the character in which he appeared, or in which, at least, he had it at his option to appear. Lord Braithwaite might or might not know it already; but at all events it was his duty to tell him, or to take his leave, having thus far neither gained nor sought anything from their connection which would tend to forward his pursuit--should he decide to undertake it.

When the cheerful fire, the rare wine, and the good fare had put them both into a good physical state, Redclyffe said to Lord Braithwaite,--

"There is a matter upon which I have been some time intending to speak to you."

Braithwaite nodded.

"A subject," continued he, "of interest to both of us. Has it ever occurred to you, from the identity of name, that I may be really, what we have jokingly assumed me to be,--a relation?"

"It has," said Lord Braithwaite, readily enough. "The family would be proud to acknowledge such a kinsman, whose abilities and political rank would add a public lustre that it has long wanted."

Redclyffe bowed and smiled.

"You know, I suppose, the annals of your house," he continued, "and have heard how, two centuries ago, or somewhat less, there was an ancestor who mysteriously disappeared. He was never seen again. There were tales of private murder, out of which a hundred legends have come down to these days, as I have myself found, though most of them in so strange a shape that I should hardly know them, had I not myself a clue."

"I have heard some of these legends," said Lord Braithwaite.

"But did you ever hear, among them," asked Redclyffe, "that the lost ancestor did not really die,--was not murdered,--but lived long, though in another hemisphere,--lived long, and left heirs behind him?"

"There is such a legend," said Lord Braithwaite.

"Left posterity," continued Redclyffe,--"a representative of whom is alive at this day."

"That I have not known, though I might conjecture something like it," said Braithwaite.

The coolness with which he took this perplexed Redclyffe. He resolved to make trial at once whether it were possible to move him.

"And I have reason to believe," he added, "that that representative is myself."

"Should that prove to be the case, you are welcome back to your own," said Lord Braithwaite, quietly. "It will be a very remarkable case, if the proofs for two hundred years, or thereabouts, can be so distinctly made out as to nullify the claim of one whose descent is undoubted. Yet it is certainly not impossible. I suppose it would hardly be fair in me to ask what are your proofs, and whether I may see them."

"The documents are in the hands of my agents in London," replied Redclyffe; "and seem to be ample, among them being a certified genealogy from the first emigrant downward, without a break. A declaration of two men of note among the first settlers, certifying that they knew the first emigrant, under a change of name, to be the eldest son of the house of Braithwaite; full proofs, at least on that head."

"You are a lawyer, I believe," said Braithwaite, "and know better than I what may be necessary to prove your claim. I will frankly own to you, that I have heard, long ago,--as long as when my connection with this hereditary property first began,--that there was supposed to be an heir extant for a long course of years, and that there, was no proof that that main line of the descent had ever become extinct. If these things had come fairly before me, and been represented to me with whatever force belongs to them, before my accession to the estate,--these and other facts which I have since become acquainted with,--I might have deliberated on the expediency of coming to such a doubtful possession. The property, I assure you, is not so desirable that, taking all things into consideration, it has much increased my happiness. But, now, here I am, having paid a price in a certain way,--which you will understand, if you ever come into the property,--a price of a nature that cannot possibly be refunded. It can hardly be presumed that I shall see your right a moment sooner than you make it manifest by law."

"I neither expect nor wish it," replied Redclyffe, "nor, to speak frankly, am I quite sure that you will ever have occasion to defend your title, or to question mine. When I came hither, to be your guest, it was almost with the settled purpose never to mention my proofs, nor to seek to make them manifest. That purpose is not, I may say, yet relinquished."

"Yet I am to infer from your words that it is shaken?" said Braithwaite. "You find the estate, then, so delightful,--this life of the old manor-house so exquisitely agreeable,--this air so cheering,-- this moral atmosphere so invigorating,--that your scruples are about coming to an end. You think this life of an Englishman, this fair prospect of a title, so irresistibly enticing as to be worth more than your claim, in behalf of your American birthright, to a possible Presidency."

There was a sort of sneer in this, which Redclyffe did not well know how to understand; and there was a look on Braithwaite's face, as he said it, that made him think of a condemned soul, who should be dressed in magnificent robes, and surrounded with the mockery of state, splendor, and happiness, who, if he should be congratulated on his fortunate and blissful situation, would probably wear just such a look, and speak in just that tone. He looked a moment in Braithwaite's face.

"No," he replied. "I do not think that there is much happiness in it. A brighter, healthier, more useful, far more satisfactory, though tumultuous life would await me in my own country. But there is about this place a strange, deep, sad, brooding interest, which possesses me, and draws me to it, and will not let me go. I feel as if, in spite of myself and my most earnest efforts, I were fascinated by something in the spot, and must needs linger here, and make it my home if I can."

"You shall be welcome; the old hereditary chair will be filled at last," said Braithwaite, pointing to the vacant chair. "Come, we will drink to you in a cup of welcome. Take the old chair now."

In half-frolic Redclyffe took the chair.

He called to Omskirk to bring a bottle of a particularly exquisite Italian wine, known only to the most deeply skilled in the vintages of that country, and which, he said, was oftener heard of than seen,-- oftener seen than tasted. Omskirk put it on the table in its original glass, and Braithwaite filled Redclyffe's glass and his own, and raised the latter to his lips, with a frank expression of his mobile countenance.

"May you have a secure possession of your estate," said he, "and live long in the midst of your possessions. To me, on the whole, it seems better than your American prospects."

Redclyffe thanked him, and drank off the glass of wine, which was not very much to his taste; as new varieties of wine are apt not to be. All the conversation that had passed had been in a free, careless sort of way, without apparently much earnestness in it; for they were both men who knew how to keep their more serious parts within them. But Redclyffe was glad that the explanation was over, and that he might now remain at Braithwaite's table, under his roof, without that uneasy feeling of treachery which, whether rightly or not, had haunted him hitherto. He felt joyous, and stretched his hand out for the bottle which Braithwaite kept near himself, instead of passing it.

"You do not yourself do justice to your own favorite wine," observed Redclyffe, seeing his host's full glass standing before him.

"I have filled again," said Braithwaite, carelessly; "but I know not that I shall venture to drink a second glass. It is a wine that does not bear mixture with other vintages, though of most genial and admirable qualities when taken by itself. Drink your own, however, for it will be a rare occasion indeed that would induce me to offer you another bottle of this rare stock."

Redclyffe sipped his second glass, endeavoring to find out what was this subtile and peculiar flavor that hid itself so, and yet seemed on the point of revealing itself. It had, he thought, a singular effect upon his faculties, quickening and making them active, and causing him to feel as if he were on the point of penetrating rare mysteries, such as men's thoughts are always hovering round, and always returning from. Some strange, vast, sombre, mysterious truth, which he seemed to have searched for long, appeared to be on the point of being revealed to him; a sense of something to come; something to happen that had been waiting long, long to happen; an opening of doors, a drawing away of veils; a lifting of heavy, magnificent curtains, whose dark folds hung before a spectacle of awe;--it was like the verge of the grave. Whether it was the exquisite wine of Braithwaite, or whatever it might be, the American felt a strange influence upon him, as if he were passing through the gates of eternity, and finding on the other side the revelation of some secret that had greatly perplexed him on this side. He thought that Braithwaite's face assumed a strange, subtile smile,-- not malicious, yet crafty, triumphant, and at the same time terribly sad, and with that perception his senses, his life, welled away; and left him in the deep ancestral chair at the board of Braithwaite.