Doctor Grimshawe's Secret — a Romance, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapter 41

The children, after this conversation, often introduced the old English mansion into their dreams and little romances, which all imaginative children are continually mixing up with their lives, making the commonplace day of grown people a rich, misty, glancing orb of fairy-land to themselves. Ned, forgetting or not realizing the long lapse of time, used to fancy the true heir wandering all this while in America, and leaving a long track of bloody footsteps behind him; until the period when, his sins being expiated (whatever they might be), he should turn back upon his steps and return to his old native home. And sometimes the child used to look along the streets of the town where he dwelt, bending his thoughtful eyes on the ground, and think that perhaps some time he should see the bloody footsteps there, betraying that the wanderer had just gone that way.

As for little Elsie, it was her fancy that the hero of the legend still remained imprisoned in that dreadful secret chamber, which had made a most dread impression on her mind; and that there he was, forgotten all this time, waiting, like a naughty child shut up in a closet, until some one should come to unlock the door. In the pitifulness of her disposition, she once proposed to little Ned that, as soon as they grew big enough, they should set out in quest of the old house, and find their way into it, and find the secret chamber, and let the poor prisoner out. So they lived a good deal of the time in a half-waking dream, partly conscious of the fantastic nature of their ideas, yet with these ideas almost as real to them as the facts of the natural world, which, to children, are at first transparent and unsubstantial.

The Doctor appeared to have a pleasure, or a purpose, in keeping his legend forcibly in their memories; he often recurred to the subject of the old English family, and was continually giving new details about its history, the scenery in its neighborhood, the aspect of the mansion-house; indicating a very intense interest in the subject on his own part, of which this much talk seemed the involuntary overflowing.

There was, however, an affection mingled with this sentiment. It appeared to be his unfortunate necessity to let his thoughts dwell very constantly upon a subject that was hateful to him, with which this old English estate and manor-house and family were somehow connected; and, moreover, had he spoken thus to older and more experienced auditors, they might have detected in the manner and matter of his talk, a certain hereditary reverence and awe, the growth of ages, mixed up with a newer hatred, impelling him to deface and destroy what, at the same time, it was his deepest impulse to bow before. The love belonged to his race; the hatred, to himself individually. It was the feeling of a man lowly born, when he contracts a hostility to his hereditary superior. In one way, being of a powerful, passionate nature, gifted with force and ability far superior to that of the aristocrat, he might scorn him and feel able to trample on him; in another, he had the same awe that a country boy feels of the magistrate who flings him a sixpence and shakes his horsewhip at him.

Had the grim Doctor been an American, he might have had the vast antipathy to rank, without the trace of awe that made it so much more malignant: it required a low-born Englishman to feel the two together. What made the hatred so fiendish was a something that, in the natural course of things, would have been loyalty, inherited affection, devoted self-sacrifice to a superior. Whatever it might be, it seemed at times (when his potations took deeper effect than ordinary) almost to drive the grim Doctor mad; for he would burst forth in wild diatribes and anathemas, having a strange, rough force of expression and a depth of utterance, as if his words came from a bottomless pit within himself, where burned an everlasting fire, and where the furies had their home; and plans of dire revenge were welded into shape as in the heat of a furnace. After the two poor children had been affrighted by paroxysms of this kind, the strange being would break out into one of his roars of laughter, that seemed to shake the house, and, at all events, caused the cobwebs and spiders suspended from the ceiling, to swing and vibrate with the motion of the volumes of reverberating breath which he thus expelled from his capacious lungs. Then, catching up little Elsie upon one knee and Ned upon the other, he would become gentler than in his usual moods, and, by the powerful magnetism of his character, cause them to think him as tender and sweet an old fellow as a child could desire for a playmate. Upon the whole, strange as it may appear, they loved the grim Doctor dearly; there was a loadstone within him that drew them close to him and kept them there, in spite of the horror of many things that he said and did. One thing that, slight as it seemed, wrought mightily towards their mutually petting each other, was that no amount of racket, hubbub, shouting, laughter, or noisy mischief which the two children could perpetrate, ever disturbed the Doctor’s studies, meditations, or employments of whatever kind. He had a hardy set of nerves, not refined by careful treatment in himself or his ancestors, but probably accustomed from of old to be drummed on by harsh voices, rude sounds, and the clatter and clamor of household life among homely, uncultivated, strongly animal people.

As the two children grew apace, it behooved their strange guardian to take some thought for their instruction. So far as little Elsie was concerned, however, he seemed utterly indifferent to her having any cultivation: having imbibed no modern ideas respecting feminine capacities and privileges, but regarding woman, whether in the bud or in the blossom, as the plaything of man’s idler moments, and the helpmeet — but in a humble capacity — of his daily life. He sometimes bade her go to the kitchen and take lessons of crusty Hannah in bread-making, sweeping, dusting, washing, the coarser needlework, and such other things as she would require to know when she came to be a woman; but carelessly allowed her to gather up the crumbs of such instruction as he bestowed on her playmate Ned, and thus learn to read, write, and cipher; which, to say the truth, was about as far in the way of scholarship as little Elsie cared to go.

But towards little Ned the grim Doctor adopted a far different system. No sooner had he reached the age when the soft and tender intellect of the child became capable of retaining impressions, than he took him vigorously in hand, assigning him such tasks as were fit for him, and curiously investigating what were the force and character of the powers with which the child grasped them. Not that the Doctor pressed him forward unduly; indeed, there was no need of it; for the boy manifested a remarkable docility for instruction, and a singular quickness in mastering the preliminary steps which lead to science: a subtle instinct, indeed, which it seemed wonderful a child should possess for anything as artificial as systems of grammar and arithmetic. A remarkable boy, in truth, he was, to have been found by chance in an almshouse; except that, such being his origin, we are at liberty to suppose for him whatever long cultivation and gentility we may think necessary, in his parentage of either side — such as was indicated also by his graceful and refined beauty of person. He showed, indeed, even before he began to read at all, an instinctive attraction towards books, and a love for and interest in even the material form of knowledge — the plates, the print, the binding of the Doctor’s volumes, and even in a bookworm which he once found in an old volume, where it had eaten a circular furrow. But the little boy had too quick a spirit of life to be in danger of becoming a bookworm himself. He had this side of the intellect, but his impulse would be to mix with men, and catch something from their intercourse fresher than books could give him; though these would give him what they might.

In the grim Doctor, rough and uncultivated as he seemed, this budding intelligence found no inadequate instructor. Doctor Grimshawe proved himself a far more thorough scholar, in the classics and mathematics, than could easily have been found in our country. He himself must have had rigid and faithful instruction at an early period of life, though probably not in his boyhood. For, though the culture had been bestowed, his mind had been left in so singularly rough a state that it seemed as if the refinement of classical study could not have been begun very early. Or possibly the mind and nature were incapable of polish; or he may have had a coarse and sordid domestic life around him in his infancy and youth. He was a gem of coarse texture, just hewn out. An American with a like education would more likely have gained a certain fineness and grace, and it would have been difficult to distinguish him from one who had been born to culture and refinement. This sturdy Englishman, after all that had been done for his mind, and though it had been well done, was still but another ploughman, of a long race of such, with a few scratchings of refinement on his hard exterior. His son, if he left one, might be a little less of the ploughman; his grandson, provided the female element were well chosen, might approach to refinement; three generations — a century at least — would be required for the slow toil of hewing, chiselling, and polishing a gentleman out of this ponderous block, now rough from the quarry of human nature. But, in the mean time, he evidently possessed in an unusual degree the sort of learning that refines other minds — the critical acquaintance with the great poets and historians of antiquity, and apparently an appreciation of their merits, and power to teach their beauty. So the boy had an able tutor, capable, it would seem, of showing him the way to the graces he did not himself possess; besides helping the growth of the strength without which refinement is but sickly and disgusting.

Another sort of culture, which it seemed odd that this rude man should undertake, was that of manners; but, in fact, rude as the grim Doctor’s own manners were, he was one of the nicest and severest censors in that department that was ever known. It is difficult to account for this; although it is almost invariably found that persons in a low rank of life, such as servants and laborers, will detect the false pretender to the character of a gentleman, with at least as sure an instinct as the class into which they seek to thrust themselves. Perhaps they recognize something akin to their own vulgarity, rather than appreciate what is unlike themselves. The Doctor possessed a peculiar power of rich rough humor on this subject, and used to deliver lectures, as it were, to little Ned, illustrated with sketches of living individuals in the town where they dwelt; by an unscrupulous use of whom he sought to teach the boy what to avoid in manners, if he sought to be a gentleman. But it must be confessed he spared himself as little as other people, and often wound up with this compendious injunction — “Be everything in your behavior that Doctor Grim is not!”

His pupil, very probably, profited somewhat by these instructions; for there are specialties and arbitrary rules of behavior which do not come by nature. But these are few; and beautiful, noble, and genial manners may almost be called a natural gift; and these, however he inherited them, soon proved to be an inherent possession of little Ned. He had a kind of natural refinement, which nothing could ever soil or offend; it seemed, by some magic or other, absolutely to keep him from the knowledge of much of the grim Doctor’s rude and sordid exterior, and to render what was around him beautiful by a sort of affiliation, or reflection from that quality in himself, glancing its white light upon it. The Doctor himself was puzzled, and apparently both startled and delighted at the perception of these characteristics. Sometimes he would make a low, uncouth bow, after his fashion, to the little fellow, saying, “Allow me to kiss your hand, my lord!” and little Ned, not quite knowing what the grim Doctor meant, yet allowed the favor he asked, with a grave and gracious condescension that seemed much to delight the suitor. This refusal to recognize or to suspect that the Doctor might be laughing at him was a sure token, at any rate, of the lack of one vulgar characteristic in little Ned.

In order to afford little Ned every advantage to these natural gifts, Doctor Grim nevertheless failed not to provide the best attainable instructor for such positive points of a polite education as his own fierce criticism, being destructive rather than generative, would not suffice for. There was a Frenchman in the town — a M. Le Grand, secretly calling himself a Count — who taught the little people, and, indeed, some of their elders, the Parisian pronunciation of his own language; and likewise dancing (in which he was more of an adept and more successful than in the former branch) and fencing: in which, after looking at a lesson or two, the grim Doctor was satisfied of his skill. Under his instruction, with the stimulus of the Doctor’s praise and criticism, Ned soon grew to be the pride of the Frenchman’s school, in both the active departments; and the Doctor himself added a further gymnastic acquirement (not absolutely necessary, he said, to a gentleman’s education, but very desirable to a man perfect at all points) by teaching him cudgel-playing and pugilism. In short, in everything that related to accomplishments, whether of mind or body, no pains were spared with little Ned; but of the utilitarian line of education, then almost exclusively adopted, and especially desirable for a fortuneless boy like Ned, dependent on a man not wealthy, there was little given.

At first, too, the Doctor paid little attention to the moral and religious culture of his pupil; nor did he ever make a system of it. But by and by, though with a singular reluctance and kind of bashfulness, he began to extend his care to these matters; being drawn into them unawares, and possibly perceiving and learning what he taught as he went along. One evening, I know not how, he was betrayed into speaking on this point, and a sort of inspiration seized him. A vista opened before him: handling an immortal spirit, he began to know its requisitions, in a degree far beyond what he had conceived them to be when his great task was undertaken. His voice grew deep, and had a strange, impressive pathos in it; his talk became eloquent with depth of meaning and feeling, as he told the boy of the moral dangers of the world, for which he was seeking to educate him; and which, he said, presented what looked like great triumphs, and yet were the greatest and saddest of defeats. He told him that many things that seemed nearest and dearest to the heart of man were destructive, eating and gnawing away and corroding what was best in him; and what a high, noble, re-creating triumph it was when these dark impulses were resisted and overthrown; and how, from that epoch, the soul took a new start. He denounced the selfish greed of gold, lawless passion, revenge — and here the grim Doctor broke out into a strange passion and zeal of anathema against this deadly sin, making a dreadful picture of the ruin that it creates in the heart where it establishes itself, and how it makes a corrosive acid of those genial juices. Then he told the boy that the condition of all good was, in the first place, truth; then, courage; then, justice; then, mercy; out of which principles operating upon one another would come all brave, noble, high, unselfish actions, and the scorn of all mean ones; and how that from such a nature all hatred would fall away, and all good affections would be ennobled.

I know not at what point it was, precisely, in these ethical instructions that an insight seemed to strike the grim Doctor that something more — vastly more — was needed than all he had said; and he began, doubtfully, to speak of man’s spiritual nature and its demands, and the emptiness of everything which a sense of these demands did not pervade, and condense, and weighten into realities. And going on in this strain, he soared out of himself and astonished the two children, who stood gazing at him, wondering whether it were the Doctor who was speaking thus; until some interrupting circumstance seemed to bring him back to himself, and he burst into one of his great roars of laughter. The inspiration, the strange light whereby he had been transfigured, passed out of his face; and there was the uncouth, wild-bearded, rough, earthy, passionate man, whom they called Doctor Grim, looking ashamed of himself, and trying to turn the whole matter into a jest. 2

It was a sad pity that he should have been interrupted, and brought into this mocking mood, just when he seemed to have broken away from the sinfulness of his hot, evil nature, and to have soared into a region where, with all his native characteristics transfigured, he seemed to have become an angel in his own likeness. Crusty Hannah, who had been drawn to the door of the study by the unusual tones of his voice — a kind of piercing sweetness in it — always averred that she saw the gigantic spider swooping round his head in great crafty circles, and clutching, as it were, at his brain with its great claws. But it was the old woman’s absurd idea that this hideous insect was the Devil, in that ugly guise — a superstition which deserves absolutely no countenance. Nevertheless, though this paroxysm of devotional feeling and insight returned no more to the grim Doctor, it was ever after a memorable occasion to the two children. It touched that religious chord, in both their hearts, which there was no mother to touch; but now it vibrated long, and never ceased to vibrate so long as they remained together — nor, perhaps, after they were parted from each other and from the grim Doctor. And even then, in those after years, the strange music that had been awakened was continued, as it were the echo from harps on high. Now, at all events, they made little prayers for themselves, and said them at bedtime, generally in secret, sometimes in unison; and they read in an old dusty Bible which lay among the grim Doctor’s books; and from little heathens, they became Christian children. Doctor Grimshawe was perhaps conscious of this result of his involuntary preachment, but he never directly noticed it, and did nothing either to efface or deepen the impression.

It was singular, however, that, in both the children’s minds, this one gush of irresistible religious sentiment, breaking out of the grim Doctor’s inner depths, like a sort of holy lava from a volcano that usually emitted quite other matter, (such as hot, melted wrath and hate,) quite threw out of sight, then and always afterwards, his darker characteristics. They remembered him, with faith and love, as a religious man, and forgot — what perhaps had made no impression on their innocent hearts — all the traits that other people might have called devilish. To them the grim Doctor was a saint, even during his lifetime and constant intercourse with them, and canonized forever afterwards. There is almost always, to be sure, this profound faith, with regard to those they love, in childhood; but perhaps, in this instance, the children really had a depth of insight that grown people lacked; a profound recognition of the bottom of this strange man’s nature, which was of such stuff as martyrs and heroic saints might have been made of, though here it had been wrought miserably amiss. At any rate, his face with the holy awe upon it was what they saw and remembered, when they thought of their friend Doctor Grim.

One effect of his zealous and analytic instruction of the boy was very perceptible. Heretofore, though enduring him, and occasionally making a plaything of him, it may be doubted whether the grim Doctor had really any strong affection for the child: it rather seemed as if his strong will were forcing him to undertake, and carry sedulously forward, a self-imposed task. All that he had done — his redeeming the bright child from poverty and nameless degradation, ignorance, and a sordid life hopeless of better fortune, and opening to him the whole realm of mighty possibilities in an American life — did not imply any love for the little individual whom he thus benefited. It had some other motive.

But now, approaching the child in this close, intimate, and helpful way, it was very evident that his interest took a tenderer character. There was everything in the boy, that a boy could possess, to attract affection; he would have been a father’s pride and joy. Doctor Grimshawe, indeed, was not his father; but to a person of his character this was perhaps no cause of lesser love than if there had been the whole of that holy claim of kindred between them. We speak of the natural force of blood; we speak of the paternal relation as if it were productive of more earnest affection than can exist between two persons, one of whom is protective, but unrelated. But there are wild, forcible, unrestricted characters, on whom the necessity and even duty of loving their own child is a sort of barrier to love. They perhaps do not love their own traits, which they recognize in their children; they shrink from their own features in the reflection presented by these little mirrors. A certain strangeness and unlikeness (such as gives poignancy to the love between the sexes) would excite a livelier affection. Be this as it may, it is not probable that Doctor Grimshawe would have loved a child of his own blood, with the coarse characteristics that he knew both in his race and himself, with nearly such fervor as this beautiful, slender, yet strenuous, intelligent, refined boy — with such a high-bred air, handling common things with so refined a touch, yet grasping them so firmly; throwing a natural grace on all he did. Was he not his father — he that took this fair blossom out of the sordid mud in which he must soon have withered and perished? Was not this beautiful strangeness, which he so wondered at, the result of his care?

And little Elsie? did the grim Doctor love her as well? Perhaps not, for, in the first place, there was a natural tie, though not the nearest, between her and Doctor Grimshawe, which made him feel that she was cast upon his love: a burden which he acknowledged himself bound to undertake. Then, too, there were unutterably painful reminiscences and thoughts, that made him gasp for breath, that turned his blood sour, that tormented his dreams with nightmares and hellish phantoms; all of which were connected with this innocent and happy child; so that, cheerful and pleasant as she was, there was to the grim Doctor a little fiend playing about his floor and throwing a lurid light on the wall, as the shadow of this sun-flickering child. It is certain that there was always a pain and horror mixed with his feelings towards Elsie; he had to forget himself, as it were, and all that was connected with the causes why she came to be, before he could love her. Amid his fondness, when he was caressing her upon his knee, pressing her to his rough bosom, as he never took the freedom to press Ned, came these hateful reminiscences, compelling him to set her down, and corrugating his heavy brows as with a pang of fiercely resented, strongly borne pain. Still, the child had no doubt contrived to make her way into the great gloomy cavern of the grim Doctor’s heart, and stole constantly further and further in, carrying a ray of sunshine in her hand as a taper to light her way, and illuminate the rude dark pit into which she so fearlessly went.

1 The Doctor’s propensity for cobwebs is amplified in the following note for an earlier and somewhat milder version of the character: “According to him, all science was to be renewed and established on a sure ground by no other means than cobwebs. The cobweb was the magic clue by which mankind was to be rescued from all its errors, and guided safely back to the right. And so he cherished spiders above all things, and kept them spinning, spinning away; the only textile factory that existed at that epoch in New England. He distinguished the production of each of his ugly friends, and assigned peculiar qualities to each; and he had been for years engaged in writing a work on this new discovery, in reference to which he had already compiled a great deal of folio manuscript, and had unguessed at resources still to come. With this suggestive subject he interwove all imaginable learning, collected from his own library, rich in works that few others had read, and from that of his beloved University, crabbed with Greek, rich with Latin, drawing into itself, like a whirlpool, all that men had thought hitherto, and combining them anew in such a way that it had all the charm of a racy originality. Then he had projects for the cultivation of cobwebs, to which end, in the good Doctor’s opinion, it seemed desirable to devote a certain part of the national income; and not content with this, all public-spirited citizens would probably be induced to devote as much of their time and means as they could to the same end. According to him, there was no such beautiful festoon and drapery for the halls of princes as the spinning of this heretofore despised and hated insect; and by due encouragement it might be hoped that they would flourish, and hang and dangle and wave triumphant in the breeze, to an extent as yet generally undreamed of. And he lamented much the destruction that has heretofore been wrought upon this precious fabric by the housemaid’s broom, and insisted upon by foolish women who claimed to be good housewives. Indeed, it was the general opinion that the Doctor’s celibacy was in great measure due to the impossibility of finding a woman who would pledge herself to co-operate with him in this great ambition of his life — that of reducing the world to a cobweb factory; or who would bind herself to let her own drawing-room be ornamented with this kind of tapestry. But there never was a wife precisely fitted for our friend the Doctor, unless it had been Arachne herself, to whom, if she could again have been restored to her female shape, he would doubtless have lost no time in paying his addresses. It was doubtless the having dwelt too long among the musty and dusty clutter and litter of things gone by, that made the Doctor almost a monomaniac on this subject. There were cobwebs in his own brain, and so he saw nothing valuable but cobwebs in the world around him; and deemed that the march of created things, up to this time, had been calculated by foreknowledge to produce them.”

2 Author’s note. —“Ned must learn something of the characteristics of the Catechism, and simple cottage devotion.”

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