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

Chapter 16

On entering the old palmer’s apartment, they found him looking over some ancient papers, yellow and crabbedly written, and on one of them a large old seal, all of which he did up in a bundle and enclosed in a parchment cover, so that, before they were well in the room, the documents were removed from view.

“Those papers and parchments have a fine old yellow tint, Colcord,” said the Warden, “very satisfactory to an antiquary.”

“There is nothing in them,” said the old man, “of general interest. Some old papers they are, which came into my possession by inheritance, and some of them relating to the affairs of a friend of my youth; — a long past time, and a long past friend,” added he, sighing.

“Here is a new friend, at all events,” said the kindly Warden, wishing to cheer the old man, “who feels himself greatly indebted to you for your care.” 1

There now ensued a conversation between the three, in the course of which reference was made to America, and the Warden’s visit there.

“You are so mobile,” he said, “you change so speedily, that I suppose there are few external things now that I should recognize. The face of your country changes like one of your own sheets of water, under the influence of sun, cloud, and wind; but I suppose there is a depth below that is seldom effectually stirred. It is a great fault of the country that its sons find it impossible to feel any patriotism for it.”

“I do not by any means acknowledge that impossibility,” responded Redclyffe, with a smile. “I certainly feel that sentiment very strongly in my own breast, more especially since I have left America three thousand miles behind me.”

“Yes, it is only the feeling of self-assertion that rises against the self-complacency of the English,” said the Warden. “Nothing else; for what else have you become the subject of this noble weakness of patriotism? You cannot love anything beyond the soil of your own estate; or in your case, if your heart is very large, you may possibly take in, in a quiet sort of way, the whole of New England. What more is possible? How can you feel a heart’s love for a mere political arrangement, like your Union? How can you be loyal, where personal attachment — the lofty and noble and unselfish attachment of a subject to his prince — is out of the question? where your sovereign is felt to be a mere man like yourselves, whose petty struggles, whose ambition — mean before it grew to be audacious — you have watched, and know him to be just the same now as yesterday, and that tomorrow he will be walking unhonored amongst you again? Your system is too bare and meagre for human nature to love, or to endure it long. These stately degrees of society, that have so strong a hold upon us in England, are not to be done away with so lightly as you think. Your experiment is not yet a success by any means; and you will live to see it result otherwise than you think!”

“It is natural for you Englishmen to feel thus,” said Redclyffe; “although, ever since I set my foot on your shores — forgive me, but you set me the example of free speech — I have had a feeling of coming change among all that you look upon as so permanent, so everlasting; and though your thoughts dwell fondly on things as they are and have been, there is a deep destruction somewhere in this country, that is inevitably impelling it in the path of my own. But I care not for this. I do aver that I love my country, that I am proud of its institutions, that I have a feeling unknown, probably, to any but a republican, but which is the proudest thing in me, that there is no man above me — for my ruler is only myself, in the person of another, whose office I impose upon him — nor any below me. If you would understand me, I would tell you of the shame I felt when first, on setting foot in this country, I heard a man speaking of his birth as giving him privileges; saw him looking down on laboring men, as of an inferior race. And what I can never understand, is the pride which you positively seem to feel in having men and classes of men above you, born to privileges which yon can never hope to share. It may be a thing to be endured, but surely not one to be absolutely proud of. And yet an Englishman is so.”

“Ah! I see we lack a ground to meet upon,” said the Warden. “We can never truly understand each other. What you have last mentioned is one of our inner mysteries. It is not a thing to be reasoned about, but to be felt — to be born within one; and I uphold it to be a generous sentiment, and good for the human heart.”

“Forgive me, sir,” said Redclyffe, “but I would rather be the poorest and lowest man in America than have that sentiment.”

“But it might change your feeling, perhaps,” suggested the Warden, “if you were one of the privileged class.”

“I dare not say that it would not,” said Redclyffe, “for I know I have a thousand weaknesses, and have doubtless as many more that I never suspected myself of. But it seems to me at this moment impossible that I should ever have such an ambition, because I have a sense of meanness in not starting fair, in beginning the world with advantages that my fellows have not.”

“Really this is not wise,” said the Warden, bluntly, “How can the start in life be fair for all? Providence arranges it otherwise. Did you yourself — a gentleman evidently by birth and education — did you start fair in the race of life?”

Redclyffe remembered what his birth, or rather what his first recollected place had been, and reddened.

“In birth, certainly, I had no advantages,” said he, and would have explained further but was kept back by invincible reluctance; feeling that the bare fact of his origin in an almshouse would be accepted, while all the inward assurances and imaginations that had reconciled himself to the ugly fact would go for nothing. “But there were advantages, very early in life,” added he, smiling, “which perhaps I ought to have been ashamed to avail myself of.”

“An old cobwebby library — an old dwelling by a graveyard — an old Doctor, busied with his own fantasies, and entangled in his own cobwebs — and a little girl for a playmate: these were things that you might lawfully avail yourself of,” said Colcord, unheard by the Warden, who, thinking the conversation had lasted long enough, had paid a slight passing courtesy to the old man, and was now leaving the room. “Do you remain here long?” he added.

“If the Warden’s hospitality holds out,” said the American, “I shall be glad; for the place interests me greatly.”

“No wonder,” replied Colcord.

“And wherefore no wonder?” said Redclyffe, impressed with the idea that there was something peculiar in the tone of the old man’s remark.

“Because,” returned the other quietly, “it must be to you especially interesting to see an institution of this kind, whereby one man’s benevolence or penitence is made to take the substance and durability of stone, and last for centuries; whereas, in America, the solemn decrees and resolutions of millions melt away like vapor, and everything shifts like the pomp of sunset clouds; though it may be as pompous as they. Heaven intended the past as a foundation for the present, to keep it from vibrating and being blown away with every breeze.”

“But,” said Redclyffe, “I would not see in my country what I see elsewhere — the Past hanging like a mill-stone round a country’s neck, or encrusted in stony layers over the living form; so that, to all intents and purposes, it is dead.”

“Well,” said Colcord, “we are only talking of the Hospital. You will find no more interesting place anywhere. Stay amongst us; this is the very heart of England, and if you wish to know the fatherland — the place whence you sprung — this is the very spot!”

Again Redclyffe was struck with the impression that there was something marked, something individually addressed to himself, in the old man’s words; at any rate, it appealed to that primal imaginative vein in him which had so often, in his own country, allowed itself to dream over the possibilities of his birth. He knew that the feeling was a vague and idle one; but yet, just at this time, a convalescent, with a little play moment in what had heretofore been a turbulent life, he felt an inclination to follow out this dream, and let it sport with him, and by and by to awake to realities, refreshed by a season of unreality. At a firmer and stronger period of his life, though Redclyffe might have indulged his imagination with these dreams, yet he would not have let them interfere with his course of action; but having come hither in utter weariness of active life, it seemed just the thing for him to do — just the fool’s paradise for him to be in.

“Yes,” repeated the old man, looking keenly in his face, “you will not leave us yet.”

Redclyffe returned through the quadrangle to the Warden’s house; and there were the brethren, sitting on benches, loitering in the sun, which, though warm for England, seemed scarcely enough to keep these old people warm, even with their cloth robes. They did not seem unhappy; nor yet happy; if they were so, it must be with the mere bliss of existence, a sleepy sense of comfort, and quiet dreaminess about things past, leaving out the things to come — of which there was nothing, indeed, in their future, save one day after another, just like this, with loaf and ale, and such substantial comforts, and prayers, and idle days again, gathering by the great kitchen fire, and at last a day when they should not be there, but some other old men in their stead. And Redclyffe wondered whether, in the extremity of age, he himself would like to be one of the brethren of the Leopard’s Head. The old men, he was sorry to see, did not seem very genial towards one another; in fact, there appeared to be a secret enjoyment of one another’s infirmities, wherefore it was hard to tell, unless that each individual might fancy himself to possess an advantage over his fellow, which he mistook for a positive strength; and so there was sometimes a sardonic smile, when, on rising from his seat, the rheumatism was a little evident in an old fellow’s joints; or when the palsy shook another’s fingers so that he could barely fill his pipe; or when a cough, the gathered spasmodic trouble of thirty years, fairly convulsed another. Then, any two that happened to be sitting near one another looked into each other’s cold eyes, and whispered, or suggested merely by a look (for they were bright to such perceptions), “The old fellow will not outlast another winter.”

Methinks it is not good for old men to be much together. An old man is a beautiful object in his own place, in the midst of a circle of young people, going down in various gradations to infancy, and all looking up to the patriarch with filial reverence, keeping him warm by their own burning youth; giving him the freshness of their thought and feeling, with such natural influx that it seems as if it grew within his heart; while on them he reacts with an influence that sobers, tempers, keeps them down. His wisdom, very probably, is of no great account — he cannot fit to any new state of things; but, nevertheless, it works its effect. In such a situation, the old man is kind and genial, mellow, more gentle and generous, and wider-minded than ever before. But if left to himself, or wholly to the society of his contemporaries, the ice gathers about his heart, his hope grows torpid, his love — having nothing of his own blood to develop it — grows cold; he becomes selfish, when he has nothing in the present or the future worth caring about in himself; so that, instead of a beautiful object, he is an ugly one, little, mean, and torpid. I suppose one chief reason to be, that unless he has his own race about him he doubts of anybody’s love, he feels himself a stranger in the world, and so becomes unamiable.

A very few days in the Warden’s hospitable mansion produced an excellent effect on Redclyffe’s frame; his constitution being naturally excellent, and a flow of cheerful spirits contributing much to restore him to health, especially as the abode in this old place, which would probably have been intolerably dull to most young Englishmen, had for this young American a charm like the freshness of Paradise. In truth it had that charm, and besides it another intangible, evanescent, perplexing charm, full of an airy enjoyment, as if he had been here before. What could it be? It could be only the old, very deepest, inherent nature, which the Englishman, his progenitor, carried over the sea with him, nearly two hundred years before, and which had lain buried all that time under heaps of new things, new customs, new institutions, new snows of winter, new layers of forest leaves, until it seemed dead, and was altogether forgotten as if it had never been; but, now, his return had seemed to dissolve or dig away all this incrustation, and the old English nature awoke all fresh, so that he saw the green grass, the hedgerows, the old structures and old manners, the old clouds, the old raindrops, with a recognition, and yet a newness. Redclyffe had never been so quietly happy as now. He had, as it were, the quietude of the old man about him, and the freshness of his own still youthful years.

The Warden was evidently very favorably impressed with his Transatlantic guest, and he seemed to be in a constant state of surprise to find an American so agreeable a kind of person.

“You are just like an Englishman,” he sometimes said. “Are you quite sure that you were not born on this side of the water?”

This is said to be the highest compliment that an Englishman can pay to an American; and doubtless he intends it as such. All the praise and good will that an Englishman ever awards to an American is so far gratifying to the recipient, that it is meant for him individually, and is not to be put down in the slightest degree to the score of any regard to his countrymen generally. So far from this, if an Englishman were to meet the whole thirty millions of Americans, and find each individual of them a pleasant, amiable, well-meaning, and well-mannered sort of fellow, he would acknowledge this honestly in each individual case, but still would speak of the whole nation as a disagreeable people.

As regards Redclyffe being precisely like an Englishman, we cannot but think that the good Warden was mistaken. No doubt, there was a common ground; the old progenitor (whose blood, moreover, was mixed with a hundred other streams equally English) was still there, under this young man’s shape, but with a vast difference. Climate, sun, cold, heat, soil, institutions, had made a change in him before he was born, and all the life that he had lived since (so unlike any that he could have lived in England) had developed it more strikingly. In manners, I cannot but think that he was better than the generality of Englishmen, and different from the highest-mannered men, though most resembling them. His natural sensitiveness, a tincture of reserve, had been counteracted by the frank mixture with men which his political course had made necessary; he was quicker to feel what was right at the moment, than the Englishman; more alive; he had a finer grain; his look was more aristocratic than that of a thousand Englishmen of good birth and breeding; he had a faculty of assimilating himself to new manners, which, being his most unEnglish trait, was what perhaps chiefly made the Warden think him so like an Englishman. When an Englishman is a gentleman, to be sure, it is as deep in him as the marrow of his bones, and the deeper you know him, the more you are aware of it, and that generation after generation has contributed to develop and perfect these unpretending manners, which, at first, may have failed to impress you, under his plain, almost homely exterior. An American often gets as good a surface of manners, in his own progress from youth, through the wear and attrition of a successful life, to some high station in middle age; whereas a plebeian Englishman, who rises to eminent station, never does credit to it by his manners. Often you would not know the American ambassador from a duke. This is often merely external; but in Redclyffe, having delicate original traits in his character, it was something more; and, we are bold to say, when our countrymen are developed, or any one class of them, as they ought to be, they will show finer traits than have yet been seen. We have more delicate and quicker sensibilities; nerves more easily impressed; and these are surely requisites for perfect manners; and, moreover, the courtesy that proceeds on the ground of perfect equality is better than that which is a gracious and benignant condescension — as is the case with the manners of the aristocracy of England.

An American, be it said, seldom turns his best side outermost abroad; and an observer, who has had much opportunity of seeing the figure which they make, in a foreign country, does not so much wonder that there should be severe criticism on their manners as a people. I know not exactly why, but all our imputed peculiarities — our nasal pronunciation, our ungraceful idioms, our forthputtingness, our uncouth lack of courtesy — do really seem to exist on a foreign shore; and even, perhaps, to be heightened of malice prepense. The cold, unbelieving eye of Englishmen, expectant of solecisms in manners, contributes to produce the result which it looks for. Then the feeling of hostility and defiance in the American must be allowed for; and partly, too, the real existence of a different code of manners, founded on, and arising from, different institutions; and also certain national peculiarities, which may be intrinsically as good as English peculiarities; but being different, and yet the whole result being just too nearly alike, and, moreover, the English manners having the prestige of long establishment, and furthermore our own manners being in a transition state between those of old monarchies and what is proper to a new republic — it necessarily followed that the American, though really a man of refinement and delicacy, is not just the kind of gentleman that the English can fully appreciate. In cases where they do so, their standard being different from ours, they do not always select for their approbation the kind of man or manners whom we should judge the best; we are perhaps apt to be a little too fine, a little too sedulously polished, and of course too conscious of it — a deadly social crime, certainly.

1 Several passages, which are essentially reproductions of what had been previously treated, are omitted from this chapter. It belongs to an earlier version of the romance.

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