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

Chapter 5

Doctor Grim 1 had the English faith in open air and daily acquaintance with the weather, whatever it might be; and it was his habit, not only to send the two children to play, for lack of a better place, in the graveyard, but to take them himself on long rambles, of which the vicinity of the town afforded a rich variety. It may be that the Doctor’s excursions had the wider scope, because both he and the children were objects of curiosity in the town, and very much the subject of its gossip: so that always, in its streets and lanes, the people turned to gaze, and came to their windows and to the doors of shops to see this grim, bearded figure, leading along the beautiful children each by a hand, with a surly aspect like a bulldog. Their remarks were possibly not intended to reach the ears of the party, but certainly were not so cautiously whispered but they occasionally did do so. The male remarks, indeed, generally died away in the throats that uttered them; a circumstance that doubtless saved the utterer from some very rough rejoinder at the hands of the Doctor, who had grown up in the habit of a very ready and free recourse to his fists, which had a way of doubling themselves up seemingly of their own accord. But the shrill feminine voices sometimes sent their observations from window to window without dread of any such repartee on the part of the subject of them.

“There he goes, the old Spider-witch!” quoth one shrill woman, “with those two poor babes that he has caught in his cobweb, and is going to feed upon, poor little tender things! The bloody Englishman makes free with the dead bodies of our friends and the living ones of our children!”

“How red his nose is!” quoth another; “he has pulled at the brandy-bottle pretty stoutly today, early as it is! Pretty habits those children will learn, between the Devil in the shape of a great spider, and this devilish fellow in his own shape! It were well that our townsmen tarred and feathered the old British wizard!”

And, as he got further off, two or three little blackguard barefoot boys shouted shrilly after him —

“Doctor Grim, Doctor Grim,
The Devil wove a web for him!”

being a nonsensical couplet that had been made for the grim Doctor’s benefit, and was hooted in the streets, and under his own windows. Hearing such remarks and insults, the Doctor would glare round at them with red eyes, especially if the brandy-bottle had happened to be much in request that day.

Indeed, poor Doctor Grim had met with a fortune which befalls many a man with less cause than drew the public attention on this odd humorist; for, dwelling in a town which was as yet but a larger village, where everybody knew everybody, and claimed the privilege to know and discuss their characters, and where there were few topics of public interest to take off their attention, a very considerable portion of town talk and criticism fell upon him. The old town had a certain provincialism, which is less the characteristic of towns in these days, when society circulates so freely, than then: besides, it was a very rude epoch, just when the country had come through the war of the Revolution, and while the surges of that commotion were still seething and swelling, and while the habits and morals of every individual in the community still felt its influence; and especially the contest was too recent for an Englishman to be in very good odor, unless he should cease to be English, and become more American than the Americans themselves in repudiating British prejudices or principles, habits, mode of thought, and everything that distinguishes Britons at home or abroad. As Doctor Grim did not see fit to do this, and as, moreover, he was a very doubtful, questionable, morose, unamiable old fellow, not seeking to make himself liked nor deserving to be so, he was a very unpopular person in the town where he had chosen to reside. Nobody thought very well of him; the respectable people had heard of his pipe and brandy-bottle; the religious community knew that he never showed himself at church or meeting; so that he had not that very desirable strength (in a society split up into many sects) of being able to rely upon the party sympathies of any one of them. The mob hated him with the blind sentiment that makes one surly cur hostile to another surly cur. He was the most isolated individual to be found anywhere; and, being so unsupported, everybody was his enemy.

The town, as it happened, had been pleased to interest itself much in this matter of Doctor Grim and the two children, insomuch as he never sent them to school, nor came with them to meeting of any kind, but was bringing them up ignorant heathen to all appearances, and, as many believed, was devoting them in some way to the great spider, to which he had bartered his own soul. It had been mooted among the selectmen, the fathers of the town, whether their duty did not require them to put the children under more suitable guardianship; a measure which, it may be, was chiefly hindered by the consideration that, in that case, the cost of supporting them would probably be transferred from the grim Doctor’s shoulders to those of the community. Nevertheless, they did what they could. Maidenly ladies, prim and starched, in one or two instances called upon the Doctor — the two children meanwhile being in the graveyard at play — to give him Christian advice as to the management of his charge. But, to confess the truth, the Doctor’s reception of these fair missionaries was not extremely courteous. They were, perhaps, partly instigated by a natural feminine desire to see the interior of a place about which they had heard much, with its spiders’ webs, its strange machines and confusing tools; so, much contrary to crusty Hannah’s advice, they persisted in entering. Crusty Hannah listened at the door; and it was curious to see the delighted smile which came over her dry old visage as the Doctor’s growling, rough voice, after an abrupt question or two, and a reply in a thin voice on the part of the maiden ladies, grew louder and louder, till the door opened, and forth came the benevolent pair in great discomposure. Crusty Hannah averred that their caps were much rumpled; but this view of the thing was questioned; though it were certain that the Doctor called after them downstairs, that, had they been younger and prettier, they would have fared worse. A male emissary, who was admitted on the supposition of his being a patient, did fare worse; for (the grim Doctor having been particularly intimate with the black bottle that afternoon) there was, about ten minutes after the visitor’s entrance, a sudden fierce upraising of the Doctor’s growl; then a struggle that shook the house; and, finally, a terrible rumbling down the stairs, which proved to be caused by the precipitate descent of the hapless visitor; who, if he needed no assistance of the grim Doctor on his entrance, certainly would have been the better for a plaster or two after his departure.

Such were the terms on which Doctor Grimshawe now stood with his adopted townspeople; and if we consider the dull little town to be full of exaggerated stories about the Doctor’s oddities, many of them forged, all retailed in an unfriendly spirit; misconceptions of a character which, in its best and most candidly interpreted aspects, was sufficiently amenable to censure; surmises taken for certainties; superstitions — the genuine hereditary offspring of the frame of public mind which produced the witchcraft delusion — all fermenting together; and all this evil and uncharitableness taking the delusive hue of benevolent interest in two helpless children; — we may partly judge what was the odium in which the grim Doctor dwelt, and amid which he walked. The horrid suspicion, too, countenanced by his abode in the corner of the graveyard, affording the terrible Doctor such facilities for making free, like a ghoul as he was, with the relics of mortality from the earliest progenitor to the man killed yesterday by the Doctor’s own drugs, was not likely to improve his reputation.

He had heretofore contented himself with, at most, occasionally shaking his stick at his assailants; but this day the black bottle had imparted, it may be, a little more fire than ordinary to his blood; and besides, an unlucky urchin happened to take particularly good aim with a mud ball, which took effect right in the midst of the Doctor’s bushy beard, and, being of a soft consistency, forthwith became incorporated with it. At this intolerable provocation the grim Doctor pursued the little villain, amid a shower of similar missiles from the boy’s playmates, caught him as he was escaping into a back yard, dragged him into the middle of the street, and, with his stick, proceeded to give him his merited chastisement.

But, hereupon, it was astonishing how sudden commotion flashed up like gunpowder along the street, which, except for the petty shrieks and laughter of a few children, was just before so quiet. Forth out of every window in those dusky, mean wooden houses were thrust heads of women old and young; forth out of every door and other avenue, and as if they started up from the middle of the street, or out of the unpaved sidewalks, rushed fierce avenging forms, threatening at full yell to take vengeance on the grim Doctor; who still, with that fierce dark face of his — his muddy beard all flying abroad, dirty and foul, his hat fallen off, his red eyes flashing fire — was belaboring the poor hinder end of the unhappy urchin, paying off upon that one part of the boy’s frame the whole score which he had to settle with the rude boys of the town; giving him at once the whole whipping which he had deserved every day of his life, and not a stroke of which he had yet received. Need enough there was, no doubt, that somebody should interfere with such grim and immitigable justice; and certainly the interference was prompt, and promised to be effectual.

“Down with the old tyrant! Thrash him! Hang him! Tar and feather the viper’s fry! the wizard! the body-snatcher!” bellowed the mob, one member of which was raving with delirium tremens, and another was a madman just escaped from bedlam.

It is unaccountable where all this mischievous, bloodthirsty multitude came from — how they were born into that quietness in such a moment of time! What had they been about heretofore? Were they waiting in readiness for this crisis, and keeping themselves free from other employment till it should come to pass? Had they been created for the moment, or were they fiends sent by Satan in the likeness of a blackguard population? There you might see the offscourings of the recently finished war — old soldiers, rusty, wooden-legged: there, sailors, ripe for any kind of mischief; there, the drunken population of a neighboring grogshop, staggering helter-skelter to the scene, and tumbling over one another at the Doctor’s feet. There came the father of the punished urchin, who had never shown heretofore any care for his street-bred progeny, but who now came pale with rage, armed with a pair of tongs; and with him the mother, flying like a fury, with her cap awry, and clutching a broomstick, as if she were a witch just alighted. Up they rushed from cellar doors, and dropped down from chamber windows; all rushing upon the Doctor, but overturning and thwarting themselves by their very multitude. For, as good Doctor Grim levelled the first that came within reach of his fist, two or three of the others tumbled over him and lay grovelling at his feet; the Doctor meanwhile having retreated into the angle between two houses. Little Ned, with a valor which did him the more credit inasmuch as it was exercised in spite of a good deal of childish trepidation, as his pale face indicated, brandished his fists by the Doctor’s side; and little Elsie did what any woman may — that is, screeched in Doctor Grim’s behalf with full stretch of lungs. Meanwhile the street boys kept up a shower of mud balls, many of which hit the Doctor, while the rest were distributed upon his assailants, heightening their ferocity.

“Seize the old scoundrel! the villain! the Tory! the dastardly Englishman! Hang him in the web of his own devilish spider — ‘t is long enough! Tar and feather him! tar and feather him!”

It was certainly one of those crises that show a man how few real friends he has, and the tendency of mankind to stand aside, at least, and let a poor devil fight his own troubles, if not assist them in their attack. Here you might have seen a brother physician of the grim Doctor’s greatly tickled at his plight: or a decorous, powdered, ruffle-shirted dignitary, one of the weighty men of the town, standing at a neighbor’s corner to see what would come of it.

“He is not a respectable man, I understand, this Grimshawe — a quack, intemperate, always in these scuffles: let him get out as he may!”

And then comes a deacon of one of the churches, and several church-members, who, hearing a noise, set out gravely and decorously to see what was going forward in a Christian community.

“Ah! it is that irreligious and profane Grimshawe, who never goes to meeting. We wash our hands of him!”

And one of the selectmen said —

“Surely this common brawler ought not to have the care of these nice, sweet children; something must be done about it; and when the man is sober, he must be talked to!”

Alas! it is a hard case with a man who lives upon his own bottom and responsibility, making himself no allies, sewing himself on to nobody’s skirts, insulating himself — hard, when his trouble comes; and so poor Doctor Grimshawe was like to find it.

He had succeeded by dint of good skill, and some previous practice at quarter-staff, in keeping his assailants at bay, though not without some danger on his own part; but their number, their fierceness, and the more skilled assault of some among them must almost immediately have been successful, when the Doctor’s part was strengthened by an unexpected ally. This was a person 2 of tall, slight figure, who, without lifting his hands to take part in the conflict, thrust himself before the Doctor, and turned towards the assailants, crying —

“Christian men, what would you do? Peace — peace!”

His so well intended exhortation took effect, indeed, in a certain way, but not precisely as might have been wished: for a blow, aimed at Doctor Grim, took effect on the head of this man, who seemed to have no sort of skill or alacrity at defending himself, any more than at making an assault; for he never lifted his hands, but took the blow as unresistingly as if it had been kindly meant, and it levelled him senseless on the ground.

Had the mob really been enraged for any strenuous cause, this incident would have operated merely as a preliminary whet to stimulate them to further bloodshed. But, as they were mostly actuated only by a natural desire for mischief, they were about as well satisfied with what had been done as if the Doctor himself were the victim. And besides, the fathers and respectabilities of the town, who had seen this mishap from afar, now began to put forward, crying out, “Keep the peace! keep the peace! A riot! a riot!” and other such cries as suited the emergency; and the crowd vanished more speedily than it had congregated, leaving the Doctor and the two children alone beside the fallen victim of a quarrel not his own. Not to dwell too long on this incident, the Doctor, laying hold of the last of his enemies, after the rest had taken to their heels, ordered him sternly to stay and help him bear the man, whom he had helped to murder, to his house.

“It concerns you, friend; for, if he dies, you hang to a dead certainty!”

And this was done accordingly.

1 Author’s note. —“Make the following scene emblematic of the world’s treatment of a dissenter.”

2 Author’s note. —“Yankee characteristics should be shown in the schoolmaster’s manners.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38