Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A romance/Chapter XXV
Redclyffe, apparently, had not communicated to his agent in London his change of address, when he left the Warden's residence to avail himself of the hospitality of Braithwaite Hall; for letters arrived for him, from his own country, both private and with the seal of state upon them; one among the rest that bore on the envelope the name of the President of the United States. The good Warden was impressed with great respect for so distinguished a signature, and, not knowing but that the welfare of the Republic (for which he had an Englishman's contemptuous interest) might be involved in its early delivery at its destination, he determined to ride over to Braithwaite Hall, call on his friend, and deliver it with his own hand. With this purpose, he mounted his horse, at the hour of his usual morning ride, and set forth; and, before reaching the village, saw a figure before him which he recognized as that of the pensioner. [Endnote: 1.]
"Soho! whither go you, old friend?" said the Warden, drawing his bridle as he came up with the old man.
"To Braithwaite Hall, sir," said the pensioner, who continued to walk diligently on; "and I am glad to see your honor (if it be so) on the same errand."
"Why so?" asked the Warden. "You seem much in earnest. Why should my visit to Braithwaite Hall be a special cause of rejoicing?"
"Nay," said the pensioner, "your honor is specially interested in this young American, who has gone thither to abide; and when one is in a strange country he needs some guidance. My mind is not easy about the young man."
"Well," said the Warden, smiling to himself at the old gentleman's idle and senile fears, "I commend your diligence on behalf of your friend."
He rode on as he spoke, and deep in one of the woodland paths he saw the flutter of a woman's garment, and, greatly to his surprise, overtook Elsie, who seemed to be walking along with great rapidity, and, startled by the approach of hoofs behind her, looked up at him, with a pale cheek.
"Good morning, Miss Elsie," said the Warden. "You are taking a long walk this morning. I regret to see that I have frightened you."
"Pray, whither are you going?" said she.
"To the Hall," said the Warden, wondering at the abrupt question.
"Ah, sir," exclaimed Elsie, "for Heaven's sake, pray insist on seeing Mr. Redclyffe,--take no excuse. There are reasons for it."
"Certainly, fair lady," responded the Warden, wondering more and more at this injunction from such a source. "And when I see this fascinating gentleman, pray what message am I to give him from Miss Elsie,--who, moreover, seems to be on the eve of visiting him in person?"
"See him! see him! Only see him!" said Elsie, with passionate earnestness, "and in haste! See him now!"
She waved him onward as she spoke; and the Warden, greatly commoted for the nonce, complied with the maiden's fantasy so far as to ride on at a quicker pace, uneasily marvelling at what could have aroused this usually shy and reserved girl's nervousness to such a pitch. The incident served at all events to titillate his English sluggishness; so that he approached the avenue of the old Hall with a vague expectation of something that had happened there, though he knew not of what nature it could possibly be. However, he rode round to the side entrance, by which horsemen generally entered the house, and, a groom approaching to take his bridle, he alighted and approached the door. I know not whether it were anything more than the glistening moisture common in an English autumnal morning; but so it was, that the trace of the Bloody Footstep seemed fresh, as if it had been that very night imprinted anew, and the crime made all over again, with fresh guilt upon somebody's soul.
When the footman came to the door, responsive to his ring, the Warden inquired for Mr. Redclyffe, the American gentleman.
"The American gentleman left for London, early this morning," replied the footman, in a matter-of-fact way.
"Gone!" exclaimed the Warden. "This is sudden; and strange that he should go without saying good by. Gone," and then he remembered the old pensioner's eagerness that the Warden should come here, and Elsie's strange injunction that he should insist on seeing Redclyffe. "Pray, is Lord Braithwaite at home?"
"I think, sir, he is in the library," said the servant, "but will see; pray, sir, walk in."
He returned in a moment, and ushered the Warden through passages with which he was familiar of old, to the library, where he found Lord Braithwaite sitting with the London newspaper in his hand. He rose and welcomed his guest with great equanimity.
To the Warden's inquiries after Redclyffe, Lord Braithwaite replied that his guest had that morning left the house, being called to London by letters from America; but of what nature Lord Braithwaite was unable to say, except that they seemed to be of urgency and importance. The Warden's further inquiries, which he pushed as far as was decorous, elicited nothing more than this; and he was preparing to take his leave,--not seeing any reason for insisting (according to Elsie's desire) on the impossibility of seeing a man who was not there,--nor, indeed, any reason for so doing. And yet it seemed very strange that Redclyffe should have gone so unceremoniously; nor was he half satisfied, though he knew not why he should be otherwise.
"Do you happen to know Mr. Redclyffe's address in London," asked the Warden.
"Not at all," said Braithwaite. "But I presume there is courtesy enough in the American character to impel him to write to me, or both of us, within a day or two, telling us of his whereabouts and whatabouts. Should you know, I beg you will let me know; for I have really been pleased with this gentleman, and should have been glad could he have favored me with a somewhat longer visit."
There was nothing more to be said; and the Warden took his leave, and was about mounting his horse, when he beheld the pensioner approaching the house, and he remained standing until he should come up.
"You are too late," said he, as the old man drew near. "Our friend has taken French leave."
"Mr. Warden," said the old man solemnly, "let me pray you not to give him up so easily. Come with me into the presence of Lord Braithwaite."
The Warden made some objections; but the pensioner's manner was so earnest, that he soon consented; knowing that the strangeness of his sudden return might well enough be put upon the eccentricities of the pensioner, especially as he was so well known to Lord Braithwaite. He accordingly again rang at the door, which being opened by the same stolid footman, the Warden desired him to announce to Lord Braithwaite that the Warden and a pensioner desired to see him. He soon returned, with a request that they would walk in, and ushered them again to the library, where they found the master of the house in conversation with Omskirk at one end of the apartment,--a whispered conversation, which detained him a moment, after their arrival. The Warden fancied that he saw in old Omskirk's countenance a shade more of that mysterious horror which made him such a bugbear to children; but when Braithwaite turned from him and approached his visitor, there was no trace of any disturbance, beyond a natural surprise to see his good friend the Warden so soon after his taking leave. [Endnote: 2.]
"I see you are surprised," said the latter. "But you must lay the blame, if any, on our good old friend here, who, for some reason, best known to himself, insisted on having my company here."
Braithwaite looked to the old pensioner, with a questioning look, as if good-humoredly (yet not as if he cared much about it) asking for an explanation. As Omskirk was about leaving the room, having remained till this time, with that nervous look which distinguished him gazing towards the party, the pensioner made him a sign, which he obeyed as if compelled to do so.
"Well, my friend," said the Warden, somewhat impatient of the aspect in which he himself appeared, "I beg of you, explain at once to Lord Braithwaite why you have brought me back in this strange way."
"It is," said the pensioner quietly, "that in your presence I request him to allow me to see Mr. Redclyffe."
"Why, my friend," said Braithwaite, "how can I show you a man who has left my house, and whom in the chances of this life, I am not very likely to see again, though hospitably desirous of so doing?"
Here ensued a laughing sort of colloquy between the Warden and Braithwaite, in which the former jocosely excused himself for having yielded to the whim of the pensioner, and returned with him on an errand which he well knew to be futile.
"I have long been aware," he said apart, in a confidential way, "of something a little awry in our old friend's mental system. You will excuse him, and me for humoring him."
"Of course, of course," said Braithwaite, in the same tone. "I shall not be moved by anything the old fellow can say."
The old pensioner, meanwhile, had been as it were heating up, and gathering himself into a mood of energy which those who saw him had never before witnessed in his usually quiet person. He seemed somehow to grow taller and larger, more impressive. At length, fixing his eyes on Lord Braithwaite, he spoke again.
"Dark, murderous man," exclaimed he. "Your course has not been unwatched; the secrets of this mansion are not unknown. For two centuries back, they have been better known to them who dwell afar off than to those resident within the mansion. The foot that made the Bloody Footstep has returned from its long wanderings, and it passes on, straight as destiny,--sure as an avenging Providence,--to the punishment and destruction of those who incur retribution."
"Here is an odd kind of tragedy," said Lord Braithwaite, with a scornful smile. "Come, my old friend, lay aside this vein and talk sense."
"Not thus do you escape your penalty, hardened and crafty one!" exclaimed the pensioner. "I demand of you, before this worthy Warden, access to the secret ways of this mansion, of which thou dost unjustly retain possession. I shall disclose what for centuries has remained hidden,--the ghastly secrets that this house hides."
"Humor him," whispered the Warden, "and hereafter I will take care that the exuberance of our old friend shall be duly restrained. He shall not trouble you again."
Lord Braithwaite, to say the truth, appeared a little flabbergasted and disturbed by these latter expressions of the old gentleman. He hesitated, turned pale; but at last, recovering his momentary confusion and irresolution, he replied, with apparent carelessness:--
"Go wherever you will, old gentleman. The house is open to you for this time. If ever you have another opportunity to disturb it, the fault will be mine."
"Follow, sir," said the pensioner, turning to the Warden; "follow, maiden![Endnote: 3] Now shall a great mystery begin to be revealed."
So saying, he led the way before them, passing out of the hall, not by the doorway, but through one of the oaken panels of the wall, which admitted the party into a passage which seemed to pass through the thickness of the wall, and was lighted by interstices through which shone gleams of light. This led them into what looked like a little vestibule, or circular room, which the Warden, though deeming himself many years familiar with the old house, had never seen before, any more than the passage which led to it. To his surprise, this room was not vacant, for in it sat, in a large old chair, Omskirk, like a toad in its hole, like some wild, fearful creature in its den, and it was now partly understood how this man had the possibility of suddenly disappearing, so inscrutably, and so in a moment; and, when all quest for him was given up, of as suddenly appearing again.
"Ha!" said old Omskirk, slowly rising, as at the approach of some event that he had long expected. "Is he coming at last?"
"Poor victim of another's iniquity," said the pensioner. "Thy release approaches. Rejoice!"
The old man arose with a sort of trepidation and solemn joy intermixed in his manner, and bowed reverently, as if there were in what he heard more than other ears could understand in it.
"Yes; I have waited long," replied he. "Welcome; if my release is come."
"Well," said Lord Braithwaite, scornfully. "This secret retreat of my house is known to many. It was the priest's secret chamber when it was dangerous to be of the old and true religion, here in England. There is no longer any use in concealing this place; and the Warden, or any man, might have seen it, or any of the curiosities of the old hereditary house, if desirous so to do."
"Aha! son of Belial!" quoth the pensioner. "And this, too!"
He took three pieces from a certain point of the wall, which he seemed to know, and stooped to press upon the floor. The Warden looked at Lord Braithwaite, and saw that he had grown deadly pale. What his change of cheer might bode, he could not guess; but, at the pressure of the old pensioner's finger, the floor, or a segment of it, rose like the lid of a box, and discovered a small darksome pair of stairs, within which burned a lamp, lighting it downward, like the steps that descend into a sepulchre.
"Follow," said he, to those who looked on, wondering.
And he began to descend. Lord Braithwaite saw him disappear, then frantically followed, the Warden next, and old Omskirk took his place in the rear, like a man following his inevitable destiny. At the bottom of a winding descent, that seemed deep and remote, and far within, they came to a door, which the pensioner pressed with a spring; and, passing through the space that disclosed itself, the whole party followed, and found themselves in a small, gloomy room. On one side of it was a couch, on which sat Redclyffe; face to face with him was a white-haired figure in a chair.
"You are come!" said Redclyffe, solemnly. "But too late!"
"And yonder is the coffer," said the pensioner. "Open but that; and our quest is ended."
"That, if I mistake not, I can do," said Redclyffe.
He drew forth--what he had kept all this time, as something that might yet reveal to him the mystery of his birth--the silver key that had been found by the grave in far New England; and applying it to the lock, he slowly turned it on the hinges, that had not been turned for two hundred years. All--even Lord Braithwaite, guilty and shame- stricken as he felt--pressed forward to look upon what was about to be disclosed. What were the wondrous contents? The entire, mysterious coffer was full of golden ringlets, abundant, clustering through the whole coffer, and living with elasticity, so as immediately, as it were, to flow over the sides of the coffer, and rise in large abundance from the long compression. Into this--by a miracle of natural production which was known likewise in other cases--into this had been resolved the whole bodily substance of that fair and unfortunate being, known so long in the legends of the family as the Beauty of the Golden Locks. As the pensioner looked at this strange sight,--the lustre of the precious and miraculous hair gleaming and glistening, and seeming to add light to the gloomy room,--he took from his breast pocket another lock of hair, in a locket, and compared it, before their faces, with that which brimmed over from the coffer.
"It is the same!" said he.
"And who are you that know it?" asked Redclyffe, surprised.
"He whose ancestors taught him the secret,--who has had it handed down to him these two centuries, and now only with regret yields to the necessity of making it known."
"You are the heir!" said Redclyffe.
In that gloomy room, beside the dead old man, they looked at him, and saw a dignity beaming on him, covering his whole figure, that broke out like a lustre at the close of day.