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

Chapter 6

About an hour thereafter there lay on a couch that had been hastily prepared in the study a person of singularly impressive presence: a thin, mild-looking man, with a peculiar look of delicacy and natural refinement about him, although he scarcely appeared to be technically and as to worldly position what we call a gentleman; plain in dress and simple in manner, not giving the idea of remarkable intellectual gifts, but with a kind of spiritual aspect, fair, clear complexion, gentle eyes, still somewhat clouded and obscured by the syncope into which a blow on the head had thrown him. He looked middle-aged, and yet there was a kind of childlike, simple expression, which, unless you looked at him with the very purpose of seeing the traces of time in his face, would make you suppose him much younger.

“And how do you find yourself now, my good fellow?” asked Doctor Grimshawe, putting forth his hand to grasp that of the stranger, and giving it a good, warm shake. “None the worse, I should hope?” 1

“Not much the worse,” answered the stranger: “not at all, it may be. There is a pleasant dimness and uncertainty in my mode of being. I am taken off my feet, as it were, and float in air, with a faint delight in my sensations. The grossness, the roughness, the too great angularity of the actual, is removed from me. It is a state that I like well. It may be, this is the way that the dead feel when they awake in another state of being, with a dim pleasure, after passing through the brief darkness of death. It is very pleasant.”

He answered dreamily, and sluggishly, reluctantly, as if there were a sense of repose in him which he disliked to break by putting any of his sensations into words. His voice had a remarkable sweetness and gentleness, though lacking in depth of melody.

“Here, take this,” said the Doctor, who had been preparing some kind of potion in a teaspoon: it may have been a dose of his famous preparation of spider’s web, for aught I know, the operation of which was said to be of a soothing influence, causing a delightful silkiness of sensation; but I know not whether it was considered good for concussions of the brain, such as it is to be supposed the present patient had undergone. “Take this: it will do you good; and here I drink your very good health in something that will do me good.”

So saying, the grim Doctor quaffed off a tumbler of brandy and water.

“How sweet a contrast,” murmured the stranger, “between that scene of violence and this great peace that has come over me! It is as when one can say, I have fought the good fight.”

“You are right,” said the Doctor, with what would have been one of his deep laughs, but which he modified in consideration of his patient’s tenderness of brain. “We both of us fought a good fight; for though you struck no actual stroke, you took them as unflinchingly as ever I saw a man, and so turned the fortune of the battle better than if you smote with a sledge-hammer. Two things puzzle me in the affair. First, whence came my assailants, all in that moment of time, unless Satan let loose out of the infernal regions a synod of fiends, hoping thus to get a triumph over me. And secondly, whence came you, my preserver, unless you are an angel, and dropped down from the sky.”

“No,” answered the stranger, with quiet simplicity. “I was passing through the street to my little school, when I saw your peril, and felt it my duty to expostulate with the people.”

“Well,” said the grim Doctor, “come whence you will, you did an angel’s office for me, and I shall do what an earthly man may to requite it. There, we will talk no more for the present.”

He hushed up the children, who were already, of their own accord, walking on tiptoe and whispering, and he himself even went so far as to refrain from the usual incense of his pipe, having observed that the stranger, who seemed to be of a very delicate organization, had seemed sensible of the disagreeable effect on the atmosphere of the room. The restraint lasted, however, only till (in the course of the day) crusty Hannah had fitted up a little bedroom on the opposite side of the entry, to which she and the grim Doctor moved the stranger, who, though tall, they observed was of no great weight and substance — the lightest man, the Doctor averred, for his size, that ever he had handled.

Every possible care was taken of him, and in a day or two he was able to walk into the study again, where he sat gazing at the sordidness and unneatness of the apartment, the strange festoons and drapery of spiders’ webs, the gigantic spider himself, and at the grim Doctor, so shaggy, grizzly, and uncouth, in the midst of these surroundings, with a perceptible sense of something very strange in it all. His mild, gentle regard dwelt too on the two beautiful children, evidently with a sense of quiet wonder how they should be here, and altogether a sense of their unfitness; they, meanwhile, stood a little apart, looking at him, somewhat disturbed and awed, as children usually are, by a sense that the stranger was not perfectly well, that he had been injured, and so set apart from the rest of the world.

“Will you come to me, little one?” said he, holding out a delicate hand to Elsie.

Elsie came to his side without any hesitation, though without any of the rush that accompanied her advent to those whom she affected. “And you, my little man,” added the stranger, quietly, and looking to Ned, who likewise willingly approached, and, shaking him by the offered hand, let it go again, but continued standing by his side.

“Do you know, my little friends,” said the stranger, “that it is my business in life to instruct such little people as you?”

“Do they obey you well, sir?” asked Ned, perhaps conscious of a want of force in the person whom he addressed.

The stranger smiled faintly. “Not too well,” said he. “That has been my difficulty; for I have moral and religious objections, and also a great horror, to the use of the rod, and I have not been gifted with a harsh voice and a stern brow; so that, after a while, my little people sometimes get the better of me. The present generation of men is too gross for gentle treatment.”

“You are quite right,” quoth Doctor Grimshawe, who had been observing this little scene, and trying to make out, from the mutual deportment of the stranger and the two children, what sort of man this fair, quiet stranger was, with his gentleness and weakness — characteristics that were not attractive to himself, yet in which he acknowledged, as he saw them here, a certain charm; nor did he know, scarcely, whether to despise the one in whom he saw them, or to yield to a strange sense of reverence. So he watched the children, with an indistinct idea of being guided by them. “You are quite right: the world now — and always before, as far as I ever heard — requires a great deal of brute force, a great deal of animal food and brandy in the man that is to make an impression on it.”

The convalescence of the stranger — he gave his name as Colcord — proceeded favorably; for the Doctor remarked that, delicate as his system was, it had a certain purity — a simple healthfulness that did not run into disease as stronger constitutions might. It did not apparently require much to crush down such a being as this — not much unkindly breath to blow out the taper of his life — and yet, if not absolutely killed, there was a certain aptness to keep alive in him not readily to be overcome.

No sooner was he in a condition so to do, than he went forth to look after the little school that he had spoken of, but soon came back, announcing in a very quiet and undisturbed way that, during his withdrawal from duty, the scholars had been distributed to other instructors, and consequently he was without place or occupation 2 3 4

“A hard case,” said the Doctor, flinging a gruff curse at those who had so readily deserted the poor schoolmaster.

“Not so hard,” replied Colcord. “These little fellows are an unruly set, born of parents who have led rough lives — here in battle time, too, with the spirit of battle in them — therefore rude and contentious beyond my power to cope with them. I have been taught, long ago,” he added, with a peaceful smile, “that my business in life does not lie with grown-up and consolidated men and women; and so, not to be useless in my day, and to gain the little that my sustenance requires, I have thought to deal with children. But even for this I lack force.”

“I dare say,” said the Doctor, with a modified laugh. “Little devils they are, harder to deal with than men. Well, I am glad of your failure for one reason, and of your being thrown out of business; because we shall have the benefit of you the longer. Here is this boy to be instructed. I have made some attempts myself; but having no art of instructing, no skill, no temper I suppose, I make but an indifferent hand at it: and besides I have other business that occupies my thoughts. Take him in hand, if you like, and the girl for company. No matter whether you teach her anything, unless you happen to be acquainted with needlework.”

“I will talk with the children,” said Colcord, “and see if I am likely to do good with them. The lad, I see, has a singular spirit of aspiration and pride — no ungentle pride — but still hard to cope with. I will see. The little girl is a most comfortable child.”

“You have read the boy as if you had his heart in your hand,” said the Doctor, rather surprised. “I could not have done it better myself, though I have known him all but from the egg.”

Accordingly, the stranger, who had been thrust so providentially into this odd and insulated little community, abode with them, without more words being spoken on the subject: for it seemed to all concerned a natural arrangement, although, on both parts, they were mutually sensible of something strange in the companionship thus brought about. To say the truth, it was not easy to imagine two persons apparently less adapted to each other’s society than the rough, uncouth, animal Doctor, whose faith was in his own right arm, so full of the old Adam as he was, so sturdily a hater, so hotly impulsive, so deep, subtle, and crooked, so obstructed by his animal nature, so given to his pipe and black bottle, so wrathful and pugnacious and wicked — and this mild spiritual creature, so milky, with so unforceful a grasp; and it was singular to see how they stood apart and eyed each other, each tacitly acknowledging a certain merit and kind of power, though not well able to appreciate its value. The grim Doctor’s kindness, however, and gratitude, had been so thoroughly awakened, that he did not feel the disgust that he probably otherwise might at what seemed the mawkishness of Colcord’s character; his want, morally speaking, of bone and muscle; his fastidiousness of character, the essence of which it seemed to be to bear no stain upon it; otherwise it must die.

On Colcord’s part there was a good deal of evidence to be detected, by a nice observer, that he found it difficult to put up with the Doctor’s coarse peculiarities, whether physical or moral. His animal indulgences of appetite struck him with wonder and horror; his coarse expressions, his free indulgence of wrath, his sordid and unclean habits; the dust, the cobwebs, the monster that dangled from the ceiling; his pipe, diffusing its fragrance through the house, and showing, by the plainest and simplest proof, how we all breathe one another’s breath, nice and proud as we may be, kings and daintiest ladies breathing the air that has already served to inflate a beggar’s lungs. He shrank, too, from the rude manhood of the Doctor’s character, with its human warmth — an element which he seemed not to possess in his own character. He was capable only of gentle and mild regard — that was his warmest affection; and the warmest, too, that he was capable of exciting in others. So that he was doomed as much apparently as the Doctor himself to be a lonely creature, without any very deep companionship in the world, though not incapable, when he, by some rare chance, met a soul distantly akin, of holding a certain high spiritual communion. With the children, however, he succeeded in establishing some good and available relations; his simple and passionless character coincided with their simplicity, and their as yet unawakened passions: they appeared to understand him better than the Doctor ever succeeded in doing. He touched springs and elements in the nature of both that had never been touched till now, and that sometimes made a sweet, high music. But this was rarely; and as far as the general duties of an instructor went, they did not seem to be very successfully performed. Something was cultivated; the spiritual germ grew, it might be; but the children, and especially Ned, were intuitively conscious of a certain want of substance in the instructor — a something of earthly bulk; a too etherealness. But his connection with our story does not lie in any excellence, or lack of excellence, that he showed as an instructor, and we merely mention these things as illustrating more or less his characteristics.

The grim Doctor’s curiosity was somewhat piqued by what he could see of the schoolmaster’s character, and he was desirous of finding out what sort of a life such a man could have led in a world which he himself had found so rough a one; through what difficulties he had reached middle age without absolutely vanishing away in his contact with more positive substances than himself; how the world had given him a subsistence, if indeed he recognized anything more dense than fragrance, like a certain people whom Pliny mentioned in Africa — a point, in fact, which the grim Doctor denied, his performance at table being inappreciable, and confined, at least almost entirely, to a dish of boiled rice, which crusty Hannah set before him, preparing it, it might be, with a sympathy of her East Indian part towards him.

Well, Doctor Grimshawe easily got at what seemed to be all of the facts of Colcord’s life; how that he was a New–Englander, the descendant of an ancient race of settlers, the last of them; for, once pretty numerous in their quarter of the country, they seemed to have been dying out — exhaling from the earth, and passing to some other region.

“No wonder,” said the Doctor bluffly. “You have been letting slip the vital principle, if you are a fair specimen of the race. You do not clothe yourself in substance. Your souls are not coated sufficiently. Beef and brandy would have saved you. You have exhaled for lack of them.”

The schoolmaster shook his head, and probably thought his earthly salvation and sustenance not worth buying at such a cost. The remainder of his history was not tangible enough to afford a narrative. There seemed, from what he said, to have always been a certain kind of refinement in his race, a nicety of conscience, a nicety of habit, which either was in itself a want of force, or was necessarily connected with it, and which, the Doctor silently thought, had culminated in the person before him.

“It was always in us,” continued Colcord, with a certain pride which people generally feel in their ancestral characteristics, be they good or evil. “We had a tradition among us of our first emigrant, and the causes that brought him to the New World; and it was said that he had suffered so much, before quitting his native shores, so painful had been his track, that always afterwards on the forest leaves of this land his foot left a print of blood wherever he trod.” 5

1 Author’s note. —“He had a sort of horror of violence, and of the strangeness that it should be done to him; this affected him more than the blow.”

2 Author’s note. —“Jokes occasionally about the schoolmaster’s thinness and lightness — how he might suspend himself from the spider’s web and swing, etc.”

3 Author’s note. —“The Doctor and the Schoolmaster should have much talk about England.”

4 Author’s note. —“The children were at play in the churchyard.”

5 Author’s note. —“He mentions that he was probably buried in the churchyard there.”

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