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

Chapter 8

At the breakfast-table the next morning, however, appeared Doctor Grimshawe, wearing very much the same aspect of an uncombed, unshorn, unbrushed, odd sort of a pagan as at other times, and making no difference in his breakfast, except that he poured a pretty large dose of brandy into his cup of tea; a thing, however, by no means unexampled or very unusual in his history. There were also the two children, fresher than the morning itself, rosy creatures, with newly scrubbed cheeks, made over again for the new day, though the old one had left no dust upon them;1 laughing with one another, flinging their little jokes about the table, and expecting that the Doctor might, as was often his wont, set some ponderous old English joke trundling round among the breakfast cups; eating the corn-cakes which crusty Hannah, with the aboriginal part of her, had a knack of making in a peculiar and exquisite fashion. But there was an empty chair at table; one cup, one little jug of milk, and another of pure water, with no guest to partake of them.

“Where is the schoolmaster?” said Ned, pausing as he was going to take his seat.

“Yes, Doctor Grim?” said little Elsie.

“He has overslept himself for once,” quoth Doctor Grim gruffly; “a strange thing, too, for a man whose victuals and drink are so light as the schoolmaster’s. The fiend take me if I thought he had mortal mould enough in him ever to go to sleep at all; though he is but a kind of dream-stuff in his widest-awake state. Hannah, you bronze jade, call the schoolmaster to come to breakfast.”

Hannah departed on her errand, and was heard knocking at the door of the schoolmaster’s chamber several times, till the Doctor shouted to her wrathfully to cease her clatter and open the door at once, which she appeared to do, and speedily came back.

“He no there, massa. Schoolmaster melted away!”

“Vanished like a bubble!” quoth the Doctor.

“The great spider caught him like a fly,” quoth crusty Hannah, chuckling with a sense of mischief that seemed very pleasant to her strange combination.

“He has taken a morning walk,” said little Ned; “don’t you think so, Doctor Grim?”

“Yes,” said the grim Doctor. “Go on with your breakfast, little monkey; the walk may be a long one, or he is so slight a weight that the wind may blow him overboard.”

A very long walk it proved; or it might be that some wind, whether evil or good, had blown him, as the Doctor suggested, into parts unknown; for, from that time forth, the Yankee schoolmaster returned no more. It was a singular disappearance.

The bed did not appear to have been slept in; there was a bundle, in a clean handkerchief, containing two shirts, two pocket handkerchiefs, two pairs of cotton socks, a Testament, and that was all. Had he intended to go away, why did he not take this little luggage in his hand, being all he had, and of a kind not easily dispensed with? The Doctor made small question about it, however; he had seemed surprised, at first, yet gave certainly no energetic token of it; and when Ned, who began to have notions of things, proposed to advertise him in the newspapers, or send the town crier round, the Doctor ridiculed the idea unmercifully.

“Lost, a lank Yankee schoolmaster,” quoth he, uplifting his voice after the manner of the town crier; “supposed to have been blown out of Doctor Grim’s window, or perhaps have ridden off astride of a humble-bee.”

“It is not pretty to laugh in that way, Doctor Grim,” said little Elsie, looking into his face, with a grave shake of her head.

“And why not, you saucy little witch?” said the Doctor.

“It is not the way to laugh, Doctor Grim,” persisted the child, but either could not or would not assign any reason for her disapprobation, although what she said appeared to produce a noticeable effect on Doctor Grimshawe, who lapsed into a rough, harsh manner, that seemed to satisfy Elsie better. Crusty Hannah, meanwhile, seemed to dance about the house with a certain singular alacrity, a wonderful friskiness, indeed, as if the diabolical result of the mixture in her nature was particularly pleased with something; so she went, with queer gesticulations, crossings, contortions, friskings, evidently in a very mirthful state; until, being asked by her master what was the matter, she replied, “Massa, me know what became of the schoolmaster. Great spider catch in his web and eat him!”

Whether that was the mode of his disappearance, or some other, certainly the schoolmaster was gone; and the children were left in great bewilderment at the sudden vacancy in his place. They had not contracted a very yearning affection for him, and yet his impression had been individual and real, and they felt that something was gone out of their lives, now that he was no longer there. Something strange in their circumstances made itself felt by them; they were more sensible of the grim Doctor’s uncouthness, his strange, reprehensible habits, his dark, mysterious life — in looking at these things, and the spiders, and the graveyard, and their insulation from the world, through the crystal medium of this stranger’s character. In remembering him in connection with these things, a certain seemly beauty in him showed strikingly the unfitness, the sombre and tarnished color, the outréness, of the rest of their lot. Little Elsie perhaps felt the loss of him more than her playmate, although both had been interested by him. But now things returned pretty much to their old fashion; although, as is inevitably the case, whenever persons or things have been taken suddenly or unaccountably out of our sphere, without telling us whither and why they have disappeared, the children could not, for a long while, bring themselves to feel that he had really gone. Perhaps, in imitation of the custom in that old English house, of which the Doctor had told them, little Elsie insisted that his place should still be kept at the table; and so, whenever crusty Hannah neglected to do so, she herself would fetch a plate, and a little pitcher of water, and set it beside a vacant chair; and sometimes, so like a shadow had he been, this pale, slender creature, it almost might have been thought that he was sitting with them. But crusty Hannah shook her head, and grinned. “The spider know where he is. We never see him more!”

His abode in the house had been of only two or three weeks; and in the natural course of things, had he come and gone in an ordinary way, his recollection would have grown dim and faded out in two or three weeks more; but the speculations, the expectations, the watchings for his reappearance, served to cut and grave the recollection of him into the children’s hearts, so that it remained a life-long thing with them — a sense that he was something that had been lost out of their life too soon, and that was bound, sooner or later, to reappear, and finish what business he had with them. Sometimes they prattled around the Doctor’s chair about him, and they could perceive sometimes that he appeared to be listening, and would chime in with some remark; but he never expressed either wonder or regret; only telling Ned, once, that he had no reason to be sorry for his disappearance.

“Why, Doctor Grim?” asked the boy.

The Doctor mused, and smoked his pipe, as if he himself were thinking why, and at last he answered, “He was a dangerous fellow, my old boy.”

“Why?” said Ned again.

“He would have taken the beef out of you,” said the Doctor.

I know not how long it was before any other visitor (except such as brought their shattered constitutions there in hopes that the Doctor would make the worn-out machinery as good as new) came to the lonely little household on the corner of the graveyard. The intercourse between themselves and the rest of the town remained as scanty as ever. Still, the grim, shaggy Doctor was seen setting doggedly forth, in all seasons and all weathers, at a certain hour of the day, with the two children, going for long walks on the sea-shore, or into the country, miles away, and coming back, hours afterwards, with plants and herbs that had perhaps virtue in them, or flowers that had certainly beauty; even, in their season, the fragrant magnolias, leaving a trail of fragrance after them, that grow only in spots, the seeds having been apparently dropped by some happy accident when those proper to the climate were distributed. Shells there were, also, in the baskets that they carried, minerals, rare things, that a magic touch seemed to have created out of the rude and common things that others find in a homely and ordinary region. The boy was growing tall, and had got out of the merely infantile age; agile he was, bright, but still with a remarkable thoughtfulness, or gravity, or I know not what to call it; but it was a shadow, no doubt, falling upon him from something sombre in his warp of life, which the impressibility of his age and nature so far acknowledged as to be a little pale and grave, without positive unhappiness; and when a playful moment came, as they often did to these two healthy children, it seemed all a mistake that you had ever thought either of them too grave for their age. But little Elsie was still the merrier. They were still children, although they quarrelled seldomer than of yore, and kissed seldomer, and had ceased altogether to complain of one another to the Doctor; perhaps the time when Nature saw these bickerings to be necessary to the growth of some of their faculties was nearly gone. When they did have a quarrel, the boy stood upon his dignity, and visited Elsie with a whole day, sometimes, of silent and stately displeasure, which she was accustomed to bear, sometimes with an assumption of cold indifference, sometimes with liveliness, mirth in double quantity, laughter almost as good as real, — little arts which showed themselves in her as naturally as the gift of tears and smiles. In fact, having no advantage of female intercourse, she could not well have learnt them unless from crusty Hannah, who was such an anomaly of a creature, with all her mixtures of race, that she struck you as having lost all sex as one result of it. Yet this little girl was truly feminine, and had all the manners and preeminently uncriticisable tenets proper to women at her early age.

She had made respectable advancement in study; that is, she had taught herself to write, with even greater mechanical facility than Ned; and other knowledge had fallen upon her, as it were, by a reflected light from him; or, to use another simile, had been spattered upon her by the full stream which the Doctor poured into the vessel of the boy’s intellect. So that she had even some knowledge of the rudiments of Latin, and geometry, and algebra; inaccurate enough, but yet with such a briskness that she was sometimes able to assist Ned in studies in which he was far more deeply grounded than herself. All this, however, was more by sympathy than by any natural taste for such things; being kindly, and sympathetic, and impressible, she took the color of what was nearest to her, and especially when it came from a beloved object, so that it was difficult to discover that it was not really one of her native tastes. The only thing, perhaps, altogether suited to her idiosyncrasy (because it was truly feminine, calculated for dainty fingers, and a nice little subtlety) was that kind of embroidery, twisting, needle-work, on textile fabric, which, as we have before said, she learnt from crusty Hannah, and which was emblematic perhaps of that creature’s strange mixture of races.

Elsie seemed not only to have caught this art in its original spirit, but to have improved upon it, creating strange, fanciful, and graceful devices, which grew beneath her finger as naturally as the variegated hues grow in a flower as it opens; so that the homeliest material assumed a grace and strangeness as she wove it, whether it were grass, twigs, shells, or what not. Never was anything seen, that so combined a wild, barbarian freedom with cultivated grace; and the grim Doctor himself, little open to the impressions of the beautiful, used to hold some of her productions in his hand, gazing at them with deep intentness, and at last, perhaps, breaking out into one of his deep roars of laughter; for it seemed to suggest thoughts to him that the children could not penetrate. This one feature of strangeness and wild faculty in the otherwise sweet and natural and homely character of Elsie had a singular effect; it was like a wreath of wild-flowers in her hair, like something that set her a little way apart from the rest of the world, and had an even more striking effect than if she were altogether strange.

Thus were the little family going on; the Doctor, I regret to say, growing more morose, self-involved, and unattainable since the disappearance of the schoolmaster than before; more given up to his one plaything, the great spider; less frequently even than before coming out of the grim seclusion of his moodiness, to play with the children, though they would often be sensible of his fierce eyes fixed upon them, and start and feel incommoded by the intensity of his regard; — thus things were going on, when one day there was really again a visitor, and not a dilapidated patient, to the grim Doctor’s study. Crusty Hannah brought up his name as Mr. Hammond, and the Doctor — filling his everlasting pipe, meanwhile, and ordering Hannah to give him a coal (perhaps this was the circumstance that made people say he had imps to bring him coals from Tophet)— ordered him to be shown up. 2

A fresh-colored, rather young man 3 entered the study, a person of rather cold and ungraceful manners, yet genial-looking enough; at least, not repulsive. He was dressed in rather a rough, serviceable travelling-dress, and except for a nicely brushed hat, and unmistakably white linen, was rather careless in attire. You would have thought twice, perhaps, before deciding him to be a gentleman, but finally would have decided that he was; one great token being, that the singular aspect of the room into which he was ushered, the spider festoonery, and other strange accompaniments, the grim aspect of the Doctor himself, and the beauty and intelligence of his two companions, and even that horrific weaver, the great dangling spider — neither one nor all of these called any expression of surprise to the stranger’s face.

“Your name is Hammond?” begins the Doctor, with his usual sparseness of ornamental courtesy. 4

The stranger bowed.

“An Englishman, I perceive,” continued the Doctor, but nowise intimating that the fact of being a countryman was any recommendation in his eyes.

“Yes, an Englishman,” replied Hammond; “a briefless barrister, 5 in fact, of Lincoln’s Inn, who, having little or nothing to detain him at home, has come to spend a few idle months in seeing the new republic which has been made out of English substance.”

“And what,” continued Doctor Grim, not a whit relaxing the repulsiveness of his manner, and scowling askance at the stranger — “what may have drawn on me the good fortune of being compelled to make my time idle, because yours is so?”

The stranger’s cheek flushed a little; but he smiled to himself, as if saying that here was a grim, rude kind of humorist, who had lost the sense of his own peculiarity, and had no idea that he was rude at all. “I came to America, as I told you,” said he, “chiefly because I was idle, and wanted to turn my enforced idleness to what profit I could, in the way of seeing men, manners, governments, and problems, which I hope to have no time to study by and by. But I also had an errand intrusted to me, and of a singular nature; and making inquiry in this little town (where my mission must be performed, if at all), I have been directed to you, by your townspeople, as to a person not unlikely to be able to assist me in it.”

“My townspeople, since you choose to call them so,” answered the grim Doctor, “ought to know, by this time, that I am not the sort of man likely to assist any person, in any way.”

“Yet this is so singular an affair,” said the stranger, still with mild courtesy, “that at least it may excite your curiosity. I have come here to find a grave.”

“To find a grave!” said Doctor Grim, giving way to a grim sense of humor, and relaxing just enough to let out a joke, the tameness of which was a little redeemed, to his taste, by its grimness. “I might help you there, to be sure, since it is all in the way of business. Like others of my profession, I have helped many people to find their graves, no doubt, and shall be happy to do the same for you. You have hit upon the one thing in which my services are ready.”

“I thank you, my dear sir,” said the young stranger, having tact enough to laugh at Dr. Grim’s joke, and thereby mollifying him a little; “but as far as I am personally concerned, I prefer to wait a while before making the discovery of that little spot in Mother Earth which I am destined to occupy. It is a grave which has been occupied as such for at least a century and a half which I am in quest of; and it is as an antiquarian, a genealogist, a person who has had dealings with the dead of long ago, not as a professional man engaged in adding to their number, that I ask your aid.”

“Ah, ahah!” said the Doctor, laying down his pipe, and looking earnestly at the stranger; not kindly nor genially, but rather with a lurid glance of suspicion out of those red eyes of his, but no longer with a desire to escape an intruder; rather as one who meant to clutch him. “Explain your meaning, sir, at once.”

“Then here it is,” said Mr. Hammond. “There is an old English family, one of the members of which, very long ago, emigrated to this part of America, then a wilderness, and long afterwards a British colony. He was on ill terms with his family. There is reason to believe that documents, deeds, titular proofs, or some other thing valuable to the family, were buried in the grave of this emigrant; and there have been various attempts, within a century, to find this grave, and if possible some living descendant of the man, or both, under the idea that either of these cases might influence the disputed descent of the property, and enable the family to prove its claims to an ancient title. Now, rather as a matter of curiosity, than with any real hope of success — and being slightly connected with the family — I have taken what seems to myself a wild-goose chase; making it merely incidental, you well understand, not by any means the main purpose of my voyage to America.”

“What is the name of this family?” asked the Doctor, abruptly.

“The man whose grave I seek,” said the stranger, “lived and died, in this country, under the assumed name of Colcord.”

“How do you expect to succeed in this ridiculous quest?” asked the Doctor, “and what marks, signs, directions, have you to guide your search? And moreover, how have you come to any knowledge whatever about the matter, even that the emigrant ever assumed this name of Colcord, and that he was buried anywhere, and that his place of burial, after more than a century, is of the slightest importance?”

“All this was ascertained by a messenger on a similar errand with my own, only undertaken nearly a century ago, and more in earnest than I can pretend to be,” replied the Englishman. “At that period, however, there was probably a desire to find nothing that might take the hereditary possessions of the family out of the branch which still held them; and there is strong reason to suspect that the information acquired was purposely kept secret by the person in England into whose hands it came. The thing is differently situated now; the possessor of the estate is recently dead; and the discovery of an American heir would not be unacceptable to many. At all events, any knowledge gained here would throw light on a somewhat doubtful matter.”

“Where, as nearly as you can judge,” said the Doctor, after a turn or two through the study, “was this man buried?”

“He spent the last years of his life, certainly, in this town,” said Hammond, “and may be found, if at all, among the dead of that period.”

“And they — their miserable dust, at least, which is all that still exists of them — were buried in the graveyard under these windows,” said the Doctor. “What marks, I say — for you might as well seek a vanished wave of the sea, as a grave that surged upward so long ago.”

“On the gravestone,” said Hammond, “a slate one, there was rudely sculptured the impress of a foot. What it signifies I cannot conjecture, except it had some reference to a certain legend of a bloody footstep, which is currently told, and some token of which yet remains on one of the thresholds of the ancient mansion-house.”

Ned and Elsie had withdrawn themselves from the immediate vicinity of the fireside, and were playing at fox and geese in a corner near the window. But little Elsie, having very quick ears, and a faculty of attending to more affairs than one, now called out, “Doctor Grim, Ned and I know where that gravestone is.”

“Hush, Elsie,” whispered Ned, earnestly.

“Come forward here, both of you,” said Doctor Grimshawe.

1 Author’s note. —“They had got up in remarkably good case that morning.”

2 Author’s note. —“The stranger may be the future master of the Hospital. — Describe the winter day.”

3 Author’s note. —“Describe him as clerical.”

4 Author’s note. —“Represent him as a refined, agreeable, genial young man, of frank, kindly, gentlemanly manners.”

5 Alternative reading: “A clergyman.”

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