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

Chapter 10

It is very remarkable that Ned had so much good in him as we find there; in the first place, born as he seemed to be of a wild, vagrant stock, a seedling sown by the breezes, and falling among the rocks and sands; the growing up without a mother to cultivate his tenderness with kisses and the inestimable, inevitable love of love breaking out on all little occasions, without reference to merit or demerit, unfailing whether or no; mother’s faith in excellences, the buds which were yet invisible to all other eyes, but to which her warm faith was the genial sunshine necessary to their growth; mother’s generous interpretation of all that was doubtful in him, and which might turn out good or bad, according as should be believed of it; mother’s pride in whatever the boy accomplished, and unfailing excuses, explanations, apologies, so satisfactory, for all his failures; mother’s deep intuitive insight, which should see the permanent good beneath all the appearance of temporary evil, being wiser through her love than the wisest sage could be — the dullest, homeliest mother than the wisest sage. The Creator, apparently, has set a little of his own infinite wisdom and love (which are one) in a mother’s heart, so that no child, in the common course of things, should grow up without some heavenly instruction. Instead of all this, and the vast deal more that mothers do for children, there had been only the gruff, passionate Doctor, without sense of religion, with only a fitful tenderness, with years’ length between the fits, so fiercely critical, so wholly unradiant of hope, misanthropic, savagely morbid. Yes; there was little Elsie too; it must have been that she was the boy’s preserver, being childhood, sisterhood, womanhood, all that there had been for him of human life, and enough — he being naturally of such good stuff — to keep him good. He had lost much, but not all: he was not nearly what he might have been under better auspices; flaws and imperfections there were, in abundance, great uncultivated wastes and wildernesses in his moral nature, tangled wilds where there might have been stately, venerable religious groves; but there was no rank growth of evil. That unknown mother, that had no opportunity to nurse her boy, must have had gentle and noblest qualities to endow him with; a noble father, too, a long, unstained descent, one would have thought. Was this an almshouse child?

Doctor Grim knew, very probably, that there was all this on the womanly side that was wanting to Ned’s occasion; and very probably, too, being a man not without insight, he was aware that tender treatment, as a mother bestows it, tends likewise to foster strength, and manliness of character, as well as softer developments; but all this he could not have supplied, and now as little as ever. But there was something else which Ned ought to have, and might have; and this was intercourse with his kind, free circulation, free air, instead of the stived-up house, with the breeze from the graveyard blowing over it — to be drawn out of himself, and made to share the life of many, to be introduced, at one remove, to the world with which he was to contend. To this end, shortly after the scene of passion and reconciliation above described, the Doctor took the resolution of sending Ned to an academy, famous in that day, and still extant. Accordingly they all three — the grim Doctor, Ned, and Elsie — set forth, one day of spring, leaving the house to crusty Hannah and the great spider, in a carryall, being the only excursion involving a night’s absence that either of the two children remembered from the house by the graveyard, as at nightfall they saw the modest pine-built edifice, with its cupola and bell, where Ned was to be initiated into the schoolboy. The Doctor, remembering perhaps days spent in some gray, stately, legendary great school of England, instinct with the boyhood of men afterwards great, puffed forth a depreciating curse upon it; but nevertheless made all arrangements for Ned’s behoof, and next morning prepared to leave him there.

“Ned, my son, good by,” cried he, shaking the little fellow’s hand as he stood tearful and wistful beside the chaise shivering at the loneliness which he felt settling around him — a new loneliness to him — the loneliness of a crowd. “Do not be cast down, my boy. Face the world; grasp the thistle strongly, and it will sting you the less. Have faith in your own fist! Fear no man! Have no secret plot! Never do what you think wrong! If hereafter you learn to know that Doctor Grim was a bad man, forgive him, and be a better one yourself. Good by, and if my blessing be good for anything, in God’s name, I invoke it upon you heartily.”

Little Elsie was sobbing, and flung her arms about Ned’s neck, and he his about hers; so that they parted without a word. As they drove away, a singular sort of presentiment came over the boy, as he stood looking after them.

“It is all over — all over,” said he to himself: “Doctor Grim and little Elsie are gone out of my life. They leave me and will never come back — not they to me, not I to them. O, how cold the world is! Would we three — the Doctor, and Elsie, and I— could have lain down in a row, in the old graveyard, close under the eaves of the house, and let the grass grow over us. The world is cold; and I am an alms-house child.”

The house by the graveyard seemed dismal now, no doubt, to little Elsie, who, being of a cheerful nature herself, (common natures often having this delusion about a home,) had grown up with the idea that it was the most delightful spot in the world; the place fullest of pleasant play, and of household love (because her own love welled over out of her heart, like a spring in a barrel); the place where everybody was kind and good, the world beyond its threshold appearing perhaps strange and sombre; the spot where it was pleasantest to be, for its own mere sake; the dim old, homely place, so warm and cosey in winter, so cool in summer. Who else was fortunate enough to have such a home — with that nice, kind, beautiful Ned, and that dear, kind, gentle, old Doctor Grim, with his sweet ways, so wise, so upright, so good, beyond all other men? O, happy girl that she was, to have grown up in such a home! Was there ever any other house with such cosey nooks in it? Such probably were the feelings of good little Elsie about this place, which has seemed to us so dismal; for the home feeling in the child’s heart, her warm, cheerful, affectionate nature, was a magic, so far as she herself was concerned, and made all the house and its inmates over after her own fashion. But now that little Ned was gone, there came a change. She moped about the house, and, for the first time, suspected it was dismal.

As for the grim Doctor, there did not appear to be much alteration in that hard old character; perhaps he drank a little more, though that was doubtful, because it is difficult to see where he could find niches to stick in more frequent drinks. Nor did he more frequently breathe through the pipe. He fell into desuetude, however, of his daily walk, 1 and sent Elsie to play by herself in the graveyard (a dreary business enough for the poor child) instead of taking her to country or seaside himself. He was more savage and blasphemous, sometimes, than he had been heretofore known to be; but, on the other hand, he was sometimes softer, with a kind of weary consenting to circumstances, intervals of helpless resignation, when he no longer fought and struggled in his heart. He did not seem to be alive all the time; but, on the other hand, he was sometimes a good deal too much alive, and could not bear his potations as well as he used to do, and was overheard blaspheming at himself for being so weakly, and having a brain that could not bear a thimbleful, and growing to be a milksop like Colcord, as he said. This person, of whom the Doctor and his young people had had such a brief experience, appeared nevertheless to hang upon his remembrance in a singular way — the more singular as there was little resemblance between them, or apparent possibility of sympathy. Little Elsie was startled to hear Doctor Grim sometimes call out, “Colcord! Colcord!” as if he were summoning a spirit from some secret place. He muttered, sitting by himself, long, indistinct masses of talk, in which this name was discernible, and other names. Going on mumbling, by the hour together, great masses of vague trouble, in which, if it only could have been unravelled and put in order, no doubt all the secrets of his life — secrets of wrath, guilt, vengeance, love, hatred, all beaten up together, and the best quite spoiled by the worst, might have been found. His mind evidently wandered. Sometimes, he seemed to be holding conversation with unseen interlocutors, and almost invariably, so far as could be gathered, he was bitter, and then sat, immitigable, pouring out wrath and terror, denunciating, tyrannical, speaking as to something that lay at his feet, but which he would not spare. 2 Then suddenly, he would start, look round the dark old study, upward to the dangling spider overhead, and then at the quiet little girl, who, try as she might, could not keep her affrighted looks from his face, and always met his eyes with a loyal frankness and unyielded faith in him.

“Oh, you little jade, what have you been overhearing?”

“Nothing, Doctor Grim — nothing that I could make out.”

“Make out as much as you can,” he said. “I am not afraid of you.”

“Afraid of little Elsie, dear Doctor Grim!”

“Neither of you, nor of the Devil,” murmured the Doctor — “of nobody but little Ned and that milksop Colcord. If I have wronged anybody it is them. As for the rest, let the day of judgment come. Doctor Grim is ready to fling down his burden at the judgment seat and have it sorted there.”

Then he would lie back in his chair and look up at the great spider, who (or else it was Elsie’s fancy) seemed to be making great haste in those days, filling out his web as if he had less time than was desirable for such a piece of work.

One morning the Doctor arose as usual, and after breakfast (at which he ate nothing, and even after filling his coffee-cup half with brandy, half with coffee, left it untouched, save sipping a little out of a teaspoon) he went to the study (with a rather unsteady gait, chiefly remarkable because it was so early in the day), and there established himself with his pipe, as usual, and his medical books and machines, and his manuscript. But he seemed troubled, irresolute, weak, and at last he blew out a volley of oaths, with no apparent appropriateness, and then seemed to be communing with himself.

“It is of no use to carry this on any further,” said he, fiercely, in a decided tone, as if he had taken a resolution. “Elsie, my girl, come and kiss me.”

So Elsie kissed him, amid all the tobacco-smoke which was curling out of his mouth, as if there were a half-extinguished furnace in his inside.

“Elsie, my little girl, I mean to die today,” said the old man.

“To die, dear Doctor Grim? O, no! O, no!”

“O, yes! Elsie,” said the Doctor, in a very positive tone. “I have kept myself alive by main force these three weeks, and I find it hardly worth the trouble. It requires so much exercise of will; — and I am weary, weary. The pipe does not taste good, the brandy bewilders me. Ned is gone, too; — I have nothing else to do. I have wrought this many a year for an object, and now, taking all things into consideration, I don’t know whether to execute it or no. Ned is gone; there is nobody but my little Elsie — a good child, but not quite enough to live for. I will let myself die, therefore, before sunset.”

“O, no! Doctor Grim. Let us send for Ned, and you will think it worth the trouble of living.”

“No, Elsie, I want no one near my death-bed; when I have finished a little business, you must go out of the room, and I will turn my face to the wall, and say good-night. But first send crusty Hannah for Mr. Pickering.”

He was a lawyer of the town, a man of classical and antiquarian tastes, as well as legal acquirement, and some of whose pursuits had brought him and Doctor Grim occasionally together. Besides calling this gentleman, crusty Hannah (of her own motion, but whether out of good will to the poor Doctor Grim, or from a tendency to mischief inherent in such unnatural mixtures as hers) summoned, likewise, in all haste, a medical man — and, as it happened, the one who had taken a most decidedly hostile part to our Doctor — and a clergyman, who had often devoted our poor friend to the infernal regions, almost by name, in his sermons; a kindness, to say the truth, which the Doctor had fully reciprocated in many anathemas against the clergyman. These two worthies, arriving simultaneously, and in great haste, were forthwith ushered to where the Doctor lay half reclining in his study; and upon showing their heads, the Doctor flew into an awful rage, threatening, in his customary improper way, when angry, to make them smell the infernal regions, and proceeding to put his threats into execution by flinging his odorous tobacco-pipe in the face of the medical man, and rebaptizing the clergyman with a half-emptied tumbler of brandy and water, and sending a terrible vociferation of oaths after them both, as they clattered hastily down the stairs. Really, that crusty Hannah must have been the Devil, for she stood grinning and chuckling at the foot of the stairs, curtseying grotesquely.

“He terrible man, our old Doctor Grim,” quoth crusty Hannah. “He drive us all to the wicked place before him.”

This, however, was the final outbreak of poor Doctor Grim. Indeed, he almost went off at once in the exhaustion that succeeded. The lawyer arrived shortly after, and was shut up with him for a considerable space; after which crusty Hannah was summoned, and desired to call two indifferent persons from the street, as witnesses to a will; and this document was duly executed, and given into the possession of the lawyer. This done, and the lawyer having taken his leave, the grim Doctor desired, and indeed commanded imperatively, that crusty Hannah should quit the room, having first — we are sorry to say — placed the brandy-bottle within reach of his hand, and leaving him propped up in his arm-chair, in which he leaned back, gazing up at the great spider, who was, dangling overhead. As the door closed behind crusty Hannah’s grinning and yet strangely interested face, the Doctor caught a glimpse of little Elsie in the passage, bathed in tears, and lingering and looking earnestly into the chamber. 3

Seeing the poor little girl, the Doctor cried out to her, half wrathfully, half tenderly, “Don’t cry, you little wretch! Come and kiss me once more.” So Elsie, restraining her grief with a great effort, ran to him and gave him a last kiss.

“Tell Ned,” said the Doctor solemnly, “to think no more of the old English hall, or of the bloody footstep, or of the silver key, or any of all that nonsense. Good by, my dear!” Then he said, with his thunderous and imperative tone, “Let no one come near me till tomorrow morning.”

So that parting was over; but still the poor little desolate child hovered by the study door all day long, afraid to enter, afraid to disobey, but unable to go. Sometimes she heard the Doctor muttering, as was his wont; once she fancied he was praying, and dropping on her knees, she also prayed fervently, and perhaps acceptably; then, all at once, the Doctor called out, in a loud voice, “No, Ned, no. Drop it, drop it!”

And then there was an utter silence, unbroken forevermore by the lips that had uttered so many objectionable things.

And finally, after an interval which had been prescribed by the grim Doctor, a messenger was sent by the lawyer to our friend Ned, to inform him of this sad event, and to bring him back temporarily to town, for the purpose of hearing what were his prospects, and what disposition was now to be made of him. We shall not attempt to describe the grief, astonishment, and almost incredulity of Ned, on discovering that a person so mixed up with and built into his whole life as the stalwart Doctor Grimshawe had vanished out of it thus unexpectedly, like something thin as a vapor — like a red flame, that one [instant] is very bright in its lurid ray, and then is nothing at all, amid the darkness. To the poor boy’s still further grief and astonishment, he found, on reaching the spot that he called home, that little Elsie (as the lawyer gave him to understand, by the express orders of the Doctor, and for reasons of great weight) had been conveyed away by a person under whose guardianship she was placed, and that Ned could not be informed of the place. Even crusty Hannah had been provided for and disposed of, and was no longer to be found. Mr. Pickering explained to Ned the dispositions in his favor which had been made by his deceased friend, who, out of a moderate property, had left him the means of obtaining as complete an education as the country would afford, and of supporting himself until his own exertions would be likely to give him the success which his abilities were calculated to win. The remainder of his property (a less sum than that thus disposed of) was given to little Elsie, with the exception of a small provision to crusty Hannah, with the recommendation from the Doctor that she should retire and spend the remainder of her life among her own people. There was likewise a certain sum left for the purpose of editing and printing (with a dedication to the Medical Society of the State) an account of the process of distilling balm from cobwebs; the bequest being worded in so singular a way that it was just as impossible as it had ever been to discover whether the grim Doctor was in earnest or no.

What disappointed the boy, in a greater degree than we shall try to express, was the lack of anything in reference to those dreams and castles of the air — any explanation of his birth; so that he was left with no trace of it, except just so far as the alms-house whence the Doctor had taken him. There all traces of his name and descent vanished, just as if he had been made up of the air, as an aerolite seems to be before it tumbles on the earth with its mysterious iron.

The poor boy, in his bewilderment, had not yet come to feel what his grief was; it was not to be conceived, in a few days, that he was deprived of every person, thing, or thought that had hitherto kept his heart warm. He tried to make himself feel it, yearning for this grief as for his sole friend. Being, for the present, domiciled with the lawyer, he obtained the key of his former home, and went through the desolate house that he knew so well, and which now had such a silent, cold, familiar strangeness, with none in it, though the ghosts of the grim Doctor, of laughing little Elsie, of crusty Hannah — dead and alive alike — were all there, and his own ghost among them; for he himself was dead, that is, his former self, which he recognized as himself, had passed away, as they were. In the study everything looked as formerly, yet with a sort of unreality, as if it would dissolve and vanish on being touched; and, indeed, it partly proved so; for over the Doctor’s chair seemed still to hang the great spider, but on looking closer at it, and finally touching it with the end of the Doctor’s stick, Ned discovered that it was merely the skin, shell, apparition, of the real spider,4 the reality of whom, it is to be supposed, had followed the grim Doctor, whithersoever he had gone.

A thought struck Ned while he was here; he remembered the secret niche in the wall, where he had once seen the Doctor deposit some papers. He looked, and there they were. Who was the heir of those papers, if not he? If there were anything wrong in appropriating them, it was not perceptible to him in the desolation, anxiety, bewilderment, and despair of that moment. He grasped the papers, and hurried from the room and down the stairs, afraid to look round, and half expecting to hear the gruff voice of Doctor Grim thundering after him to bring them back.

Then Ned went out of the back door, and found his way to the Doctor’s new grave, which, as it happened, was dug close beside that one which occupied the place of the one which the stranger had come to seek; and, as if to spite the Doctor’s professional antipathies, it lay beside a grave of an old physician and surgeon, one Doctor Summerton, who used to help diseases and kill patients above a hundred years ago. But Doctor Grim was undisturbed by these neighbors, and apparently not more by the grief of poor little Ned, who hid his face in the crumbly earth of the grave, and the sods that had not begun to grow, and wept as if his heart would break.

But the heart never breaks on the first grave; and, after many graves, it gets so obtuse that nothing can break it.

And now let the mists settle down over the trail of our story, hiding it utterly on its onward course, for a long way to come, until, after many years, they may disperse and discover something which, were it worth while to follow it through all that obscurity, would prove to be the very same track which that boy was treading when we last saw him — though it may have lain over land and sea since then; but the footsteps that trod there are treading here.

1 Author’s note. —“No longer could play at quarter-staff with Ned.”

2 Author’s note. —“Referring to places and people in England: the Bloody Footstep sometimes.”

3 In the original the following occurs, but marked to indicate that it was to be omitted: “And kissed his hand to her, and laughed feebly; and that was the last that she or anybody, the last glimpse they had of Doctor Grimshawe alive.”

4 Author’s notes. —“A great deal must he made out of the spiders, and their gloomy, dusky, flaunting tapestry. A web across the orifice of his inkstand every morning; everywhere, indeed, except across the snout of his brandy-bottle. — Depict the Doctor in an old dressing-gown, and a strange sort of a cap, like a wizard’s. — The two children are witnesses of many strange experiments in the study; they see his moods, too. — The Doctor is supposed to be writing a work on the Natural History of Spiders. Perhaps he used them as a blind for his real project, and used to bamboozle the learned with pretending to read them passages in which great learning seemed to be elaborately worked up, crabbed with Greek and Latin, as if the topic drew into itself, like a whirlpool, all that men thought and knew; plans to cultivate cobwebs on a large scale. Sometimes, after overwhelming them with astonishment in this way, he would burst into one of his laughs. Schemes to make the world a cobweb-factory, etc., etc. Cobwebs in his own brain. Crusty Hannah such a mixture of persons and races as could be found only at a seaport. There was a rumor that the Doctor had murdered a former maid, for having, with housewifely instinct, swept away the cobwebs; some said that he had her skeleton in a closet. Some said that he had strangled a wife with web of the great spider.”

—“Read the description of Bolton Hall, the garden, lawn, etc., Aug. 8, ‘53. — Bebbington church and churchyard, Aug. 29, ‘53. — The Doctor is able to love,-able to hate; two great and rare abilities nowadays. — Introduce two pine trees, ivy-grown, as at Lowwood Hotel, July 16, ‘58. — The family name might be Redclyffe. — Thatched cottage, June 22, ‘55. — Early introduce the mention of the cognizance of the family — the Leopard’s Head, for instance, in the first part of the romance; the Doctor may have possessed it engraved as coat of arms in a book. — The Doctor shall show Ned, perhaps, a drawing or engraving of the Hospital, with figures of the pensioners in the quadrangle, fitly dressed; and this picture and the figures shall impress themselves strongly on his memory.”

The above dates and places refer to passages in the published “English Note–Books.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55