Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter XXIV

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Chapter XXIV

When awake [Endnote: 1], or beginning to awake, he lay for some time in a maze; not a disagreeable one, but thoughts were running to and fro in his mind, all mixed and jumbled together. Reminiscences of early days, even those that were Preadamite; referring, we mean, to those times in the almshouse, which he could not at ordinary times remember at all; but now there seemed to be visions of old women and men, and pallid girls, and little dirty boys, which could only be referred to that epoch. Also, and most vividly, there was the old Doctor, with his sternness, his fierceness, his mystery; and all that happened since, playing phantasmagoria before his yet unclosed eyes; nor, so mysterious was his state, did he know, when he should unclose those lids, where he should find himself. He was content to let the world go on in this way, as long as it would, and therefore did not hurry, but rather kept back the proofs of awakening; willing to look at the scenes that were unrolling for his amusement, as it seemed; and willing, too, to keep it uncertain whether he were not back in America, and in his boyhood, and all other subsequent impressions a dream or a prophetic vision. But at length something stirring near him,--or whether it stirred, or whether he dreamed it, he could not quite tell,--but the uncertainty impelled him, at last, to open his eyes, and see whereabouts he was.

Even then he continued in as much uncertainty as he was before, and lay with marvellous quietude in it, trying sluggishly to make the mystery out. It was in a dim, twilight place, wherever it might be; a place of half-awakeness, where the outlines of things were not well defined; but it seemed to be a chamber, antique and vaulted, narrow and high, hung round with old tapestry. Whether it were morning or midday he could not tell, such was the character of the light, nor even where it came from; for there appeared to be no windows, and yet it was not apparently artificial light; nor light at all, indeed, but a gray dimness. It was so like his own half-awake state that he lay in it a longer time, not incited to finish his awaking, but in a languor, not disagreeable, yet hanging heavily, heavily upon him, like a dark pall. It was, in fact, as if he had been asleep for years, or centuries, or till the last day was dawning, and then was collecting his thoughts in such slow fashion as would then be likely.

Again that noise,--a little, low, quiet sound, as of one breathing somewhere near him. The whole thing was very much like that incident which introduced him to the Hospital, and his first coming to his senses there; and he almost fancied that some such accident must again have happened to him, and that when his sight cleared he should again behold the venerable figure of the pensioner. With this idea he let his head steady itself; and it seemed to him that its dizziness must needs be the result of very long and deep sleep. What if it were the sleep of a century? What if all things that were extant when he went to sleep had passed away, and he was waking now in another epoch of time? Where was America, and the republic in which he hoped for such great things? Where England? had she stood it better than the republic? Was the old Hospital still in being,--although the good Warden must long since have passed out of his warm and pleasant life? And himself, how came he to be preserved? In what musty old nook had he been put away, where Time neglected and Death forgot him, until now he was to get up friendless, helpless,--when new heirs had come to the estate he was on the point of laying claim to,--and go onward through what remained of life? Would it not have been better to have lived with his contemporaries, and to be now dead and dust with them? Poor, petty interests of a day, how slight!

Again the noise, a little stir, a sort of quiet moan, or something that he could not quite define; but it seemed, whenever he heard it, as if some fact thrust itself through the dream-work with which he was circumfused; something alien to his fantasies, yet not powerful enough to dispel them. It began to be irksome to him, this little sound of something near him; and he thought, in the space of another hundred years, if it continued, he should have to arouse himself and see what it was. But, indeed, there was something so cheering in this long repose,--this rest from all the troubles of earth, which it sometimes seems as if only a churchyard bed would give us,--that he wished the noise would let him alone. But his thoughts were gradually getting too busy for this slumberous state. He begun, perforce, to come nearer actuality. The strange question occurred to him, Had any time at all passed? Was he not still sitting at Lord Braithwaite's table, having just now quaffed a second glass of that rare and curious Italian wine? Was it not affecting his head very strangely,--so that he was put out of time as it were? He would rally himself, and try to set his head right with another glass. He must be still at table, for now he remembered he had not gone to bed at all. [Endnote: 2.]

Ah, the noise! He could not bear it, he would awake now, now!--silence it, and then to sleep again. In fact, he started up; started to his feet, in puzzle and perplexity, and stood gazing around him, with swimming brain. It was an antique room, which he did not at all recognize, and, indeed, in that dim twilight--which how it came he could not tell--he could scarcely discern what were its distinguishing marks. But he seemed to be sensible, that, in a high-backed chair, at a little distance from him, sat a figure in a long robe; a figure of a man with snow-white hair and a long beard, who seemed to be gazing at him, quietly, as if he had been gazing a hundred years. I know not what it was, but there was an influence as if this old man belonged to some other age and category of man than he was now amongst. He remembered the old family legend of the existence of an ancestor two or three centuries in age.

"It is the old family personified," thought he.

The old figure made no sign, but continued to sit gazing at him in so strangely still a manner that it made Redclyffe shiver with something that seemed like affright. There was an aspect of long, long time about him; as if he had never been young, or so long ago as when the world was young along with him. He might be the demon of this old house; the representative of all that happened in it, the grief, the long languor and weariness of life, the deaths, gathering them all into himself, and figuring them in furrows, wrinkles, and white hairs,--a being that might have been young, when those old Saxon timbers were put together, with the oaks that were saplings when Caesar landed, and was in his maturity when the Conqueror came, and was now lapsing into extreme age when the nineteenth century was elderly. His garb might have been of any time, that long, loose robe that enveloped him. Redclyffe remained in this way, gazing at this aged figure; at first without the least wonder, but calmly, as we feel in dreams, when, being in a land of enchantment, we take everything as if it were a matter of course, and feel, by the right of our own marvellous nature, on terms of equal kindred with all other marvels. So it was with him when he first became aware of the old man, sitting there with that age-long regard directed towards him.

But, by degrees, a sense of wonder had its will, and grew, slowly at first, in Redclyffe's mind; and almost twin-born with it, and growing piece by piece, there was a sense of awful fear, as his waking senses came slowly back to him. In the dreamy state, he had felt no fear; but, as a waking man, it was fearful to discover that the shadowy forms did not fly from his awaking eyes. He started at last to his feet from the low couch on which he had all this time been lying.

"What are you?" he exclaimed. "Where am I?"

The old figure made no answer; nor could Redclyffe be quite sure that his voice had any effect upon it, though he fancied that it was shaken a little, as if his voice came to it from afar. But it continued to gaze at him, or at least to have its aged face turned towards him in the dim light; and this strange composure, and unapproachableness, were very frightful. As his manhood gathered about his heart, however, the American endeavored to shake off this besetting fear, or awe, or whatever it was; and to bring himself to a sense of waking things,--to burst through the mist and delusive shows that bewildered him, and catch hold of a reality. He stamped upon the floor; it was solid stone, the pavement, or oak so old and stanch that it resembled it. There was one firm thing, therefore. But the contrast between this and the slipperiness, the unaccountableness, of the rest of his position, made him the more sensible of the latter. He made a step towards the old figure; another; another. He was face to face with him, within a yard of distance. He saw the faint movement of the old man's breath; he sought, through the twilight of the room, some glimmer of perception in his eyes.

"Are you a living man?" asked Redclyffe, faintly and doubtfully.

He mumbled, the old figure, some faint moaning sound, that, if it were language at all, had all the edges and angles worn off it by decay,-- unintelligible, except that it seemed to signify a faint mournfulness and complainingness of mood; and then held his peace, continuing to gaze as before. Redclyffe could not bear the awe that filled him, while he kept at a distance, and, coming desperately forward, he stood close to the old figure; he touched his robe, to see if it were real; he laid his hand upon the withered hand that held the staff, in which he now recognized the very staff of the Doctor's legend. His fingers touched a real hand, though, bony and dry, as if it had been in the grave.

"Then you are real?" said Redclyffe doubtfully.

The old figure seemed to have exhausted itself--its energies, what there were of them--in the effort of making the unintelligible communication already vouchsafed. Then he seemed to lapse out of consciousness, and not to know what was passing, or to be sensible that any person was near him. But Redclyffe was now resuming his firmness and daylight consciousness even in the dimness. He ran over all that he had heard of the legend of the old house, rapidly considering whether there might not be something of fact in the legend of the undying old man; whether, as told or whispered in the chimney-corners, it might not be an instance of the mysterious, the half-spiritual mode, in which actual truths communicate themselves imperfectly through a medium that gives them the aspect of falsehood. Something in the atmosphere of the house made its inhabitants and neighbors dimly aware that there was a secret resident; it was by a language not audible, but of impression; there could not be such a secret in its recesses, without making itself sensible. This legend of the undying one translated it to vulgar apprehension. He remembered those early legends, told by the Doctor, in his childhood; he seemed imperfectly and doubtfully to see what was their true meaning, and how, taken aright, they had a reality, and were the craftily concealed history of his own wrongs, sufferings, and revenge. And this old man! who was he? He joined the Warden's account of the family to the Doctor's legends. He could not believe, or take thoroughly in, the strange surmise to which they led him; but, by an irresistible impulse, he acted on it.

"Sir Edward Redclyffe!" he exclaimed.

"Ha! who speaks to me?" exclaimed the old man, in a startled voice, like one who hears himself called at an unexpected moment.

"Sir Edward Redclyffe," repeated Redclyffe, "I bring you news of Norman Oglethorpe!" [Endnote: 3.]

"The villain! the tyrant! mercy! mercy! save me!" cried the old man, in most violent emotion of terror and rage intermixed, that shook his old frame as if it would be shaken asunder. He stood erect, the picture of ghastly horror, as if he saw before him that stern face that had thrown a blight over his life, and so fearfully avenged, from youth to age, the crime that he had committed. The effect, the passion, was too much,--the terror with which it smote, the rage that accompanied it, blazed up for a moment with a fierce flame, then flickered and went out. He stood tottering; Redclyffe put out his hand to support him; but he sank down in a heap on the floor, as if a thing of dry bones had been suddenly loosened at the joints, and fell in a rattling heap. [Endnote: 4.]