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Considering that Doctor Grimshawe, when we first look upon him, had
dwelt only a few years in the house by the graveyard, it is wonderful
what an appearance he, and his furniture, and his cobwebs, and their
unweariable spinners, and crusty old Hannah, all had of having
permanently attached themselves to the locality. For a century, at
least, it might be fancied that the study in particular had existed
just as it was now; with those dusky festoons of spider-silk hanging
along the walls, those book-cases with volumes turning their parchment
or black-leather backs upon you, those machines and engines, that
table, and at it the Doctor, in a very faded and shabby dressing-gown,
smoking a long clay pipe, the powerful fumes of which dwelt continually
in his reddish and grisly beard, and made him fragrant wherever he
went. This sense of fixedness--stony intractability--seems to belong to
people who, instead of hope, which exalts everything into an airy,
gaseous exhilaration, have a fixed and dogged purpose, around which
everything congeals and crystallizes. [Endnote: 1] Even the sunshine,
dim through the dustiness of the two casements that looked upon the
graveyard, and the smoke, as it came warm out of Doctor Grimshawe's
mouth, seemed already stale. But if the two children, or either of
them, happened to be in the study,--if they ran to open the door at the
knock, if they came scampering and peeped down over the banisters,--the
sordid and rusty gloom was apt to vanish quite away. The sunbeam itself
looked like a golden rule, that had been flung down long ago, and had
lain there till it was dusty and tarnished. They were cheery little
imps, who sucked up fragrance and pleasantness out of their
surroundings, dreary as these looked; even as a flower can find its
proper perfume in any soil where its seed happens to fall. The great
spider, hanging by his cordage over the Doctor's head, and waving
slowly, like a pendulum, in a blast from the crack of the door, must
have made millions and millions of precisely such vibrations as these;
but the children were new, and made over every day, with yesterday's
weariness left out.
The little girl, however, was the merrier of the two. It was quite
unintelligible, in view of the little care that crusty Hannah took of
her, and, moreover, since she was none of your prim, fastidious
children, how daintily she kept herself amid all this dust; how the
spider's webs never clung to her, and how, when--without being
solicited--she clambered into the Doctor's arms and kissed him, she
bore away no smoky reminiscences of the pipe that he kissed
continually. She had a free, mellow, natural laughter, that seemed the
ripened fruit of the smile that was generally on her little face, to be
shaken off and scattered abroad by any breeze that came along. Little
Elsie made playthings of everything, even of the grim Doctor, though
against his will, and though, moreover, there were tokens now and then
that the sight of this bright little creature was not a pleasure to
him, but, on the contrary, a positive pain; a pain, nevertheless,
indicating a profound interest, hardly less deep than though Elsie had
been his daughter.
Elsie did not play with the great spider, but she moved among the whole
brood of spiders as if she saw them not, and, being endowed with other
senses than those allied to these things, might coexist with them and
not be sensible of their presence. Yet the child, I suppose, had her
crying fits, and her pouting fits, and naughtiness enough to entitle
her to live on earth; at least crusty Hannah often said so, and often
made grievous complaint of disobedience, mischief, or breakage,
attributable to little Elsie; to which the grim Doctor seldom responded
by anything more intelligible than a puff of tobacco-smoke, and,
sometimes, an imprecation; which, however, hit crusty Hannah instead of
the child. Where the child got the tenderness that a child needs to
live upon, is a mystery to me; perhaps from some aged or dead mother,
or in her dreams; perhaps from some small modicum of it, such as boys
have, from the little boy; or perhaps it was from a Persian kitten,
which had grown to be a cat in her arms, and slept in her little bed,
and now assumed grave and protective airs towards her former playmate.
The boy, [Endnote: 3] as we have said, was two or three years Elsie's
elder, and might now be about six years old. He was a healthy and
cheerful child, yet of a graver mood than the little girl, appearing to
lay a more forcible grasp on the circumstances about him, and to tread
with a heavier footstep on the solid earth; yet perhaps not more so
than was the necessary difference between a man-blossom, dimly
conscious of coming things, and a mere baby, with whom there was
neither past nor future. Ned, as he was named, was subject very early
to fits of musing, the subject of which--if they had any definite
subject, or were more than vague reveries--it was impossible to guess.
They were of those states of mind, probably, which are beyond the
sphere of human language, and would necessarily lose their essence in
the attempt to communicate or record them. The little girl, perhaps,
had some mode of sympathy with these unuttered thoughts or reveries,
which grown people had ceased to have; at all events, she early learned
to respect them, and, at other times as free and playful as her Persian
kitten, she never in such circumstances ventured on any greater freedom
than to sit down quietly beside him, and endeavor to look as thoughtful
as the boy himself.
Once, slowly emerging from one of these waking reveries, little Ned
gazed about him, and saw Elsie sitting with this pretty pretence of
thoughtfulness and dreaminess in her little chair, close beside him;
now and then peeping under her eyelashes to note what changes might
come over his face. After looking at her a moment or two, he quietly
took her willing and warm little hand in his own, and led her up to the
The group, methinks, must have been a picturesque one, made up as it
was of several apparently discordant elements, each of which happened
to be so combined as to make a more effective whole. The beautiful
grave boy, with a little sword by his side and a feather in his hat, of
a brown complexion, slender, with his white brow and dark, thoughtful
eyes, so earnest upon some mysterious theme; the prettier little girl,
a blonde, round, rosy, so truly sympathetic with her companion's mood,
yet unconsciously turning all to sport by her attempt to assume one
similar;--these two standing at the grim Doctor's footstool; he
meanwhile, black, wild-bearded, heavy-browed, red-eyed, wrapped in his
faded dressing-gown, puffing out volumes of vapor from his long pipe,
and making, just at that instant, application to a tumbler, which, we
regret to say, was generally at his elbow, with some dark-colored
potation in it that required to be frequently replenished from a
neighboring black bottle. Half, at least, of the fluids in the grim
Doctor's system must have been derived from that same black bottle, so
constant was his familiarity with its contents; and yet his eyes were
never redder at one time than another, nor his utterance thicker, nor
his mood perceptibly the brighter or the duller for all his
conviviality. It is true, when, once, the bottle happened to be empty
for a whole day together, Doctor Grimshawe was observed by crusty
Hannah and by the children to be considerably fiercer than usual: so
that probably, by some maladjustment of consequences, his intemperance
was only to be found in refraining from brandy.
Nor must we forget--in attempting to conceive the effect of these two
beautiful children in such a sombre room, looking on the graveyard, and
contrasted with the grim Doctor's aspect of heavy and smouldering
fierceness--that over his head, at this very moment, dangled the
portentous spider, who seemed to have come down from his web aloft for
the purpose of hearing what the two young people could have to say to
his patron, and what reference it might have to certain mysterious
documents which the Doctor kept locked up in a secret cupboard behind
"Grim Doctor," said Ned, after looking up into the Doctor's face, as a
sensitive child inevitably does, to see whether the occasion was
favorable, yet determined to proceed with his purpose whether so or
not,--"Grim Doctor, I want you to answer me a question."
"Here's to your good health, Ned!" quoth the Doctor, eying the pair
intently, as he often did, when they were unconscious. "So you want to
ask me a question? As many as you please, my fine fellow; and I shall
answer as many, and as much, and as truly, as may please myself!"
"Ah, grim Doctor!" said the little girl, now letting go of Ned's hand,
and climbing upon the Doctor's knee, "'ou shall answer as many as Ned
please to ask, because to please him and me!"
"Well, child," said Doctor Grimshawe, "little Ned will have his rights
at least, at my hands, if not other people's rights likewise; and, if
it be right, I shall answer his question. Only, let him ask it at once;
for I want to be busy thinking about something else."
"Then, Doctor Grim," said little Ned, "tell me, in the first place,
where I came from, and how you came to have me?"
The Doctor looked at the little man, so seriously and earnestly putting
this demand, with a perplexed, and at first it might almost seem a
"That is a question, indeed, my friend Ned!" ejaculated he, putting
forth a whiff of smoke and imbibing a nip from his tumbler before he
spoke; and perhaps framing his answer, as many thoughtful and secret
people do, in such a way as to let out his secret mood to the child,
because knowing he could not understand it: "Whence did you come?
Whence did any of us come? Out of the darkness and mystery; out of
nothingness; out of a kingdom of shadows; out of dust, clay, mud, I
think, and to return to it again. Out of a former state of being,
whence we have brought a good many shadowy revelations, purporting that
it was no very pleasant one. Out of a former life, of which the present
one is the hell!--And why are you come? Faith, Ned, he must be a wiser
man than Doctor Grim who can tell why you or any other mortal came
hither; only one thing I am well aware of,--it was not to be happy. To
toil and moil and hope and fear; and to love in a shadowy, doubtful
sort of way, and to hate in bitter earnest,--that is what you came
"Ah, Doctor Grim! this is very naughty," said little Elsie. "You are
making fun of little Ned, when he is in earnest."
"Fun!" quoth Doctor Grim, bursting into a laugh peculiar to him, very
loud and obstreperous. "I am glad you find it so, my little woman.
Well, and so you bid me tell absolutely where he came from?"
Elsie nodded her bright little head.
"And you, friend Ned, insist upon knowing?"
"That I do, Doctor Grim!" answered Ned. His white, childish brow had
gathered into a frown, such was the earnestness of his determination;
and he stamped his foot on the floor, as if ready to follow up his
demand by an appeal to the little tin sword which hung by his side. The
Doctor looked at him with a kind of smile,--not a very pleasant one;
for it was an unamiable characteristic of his temper that a display of
spirit, even in a child, was apt to arouse his immense combativeness,
and make him aim a blow without much consideration how heavily it might
fall, or on how unequal an antagonist.
"If you insist upon an answer, Master Ned, you shall have it," replied
he. "You were taken by me, boy, a foundling from an almshouse; and if
ever hereafter you desire to know your kindred, you must take your
chance of the first man you meet. He is as likely to be your father as
The child's eyes flashed, and his brow grew as red as fire. It was but
a momentary fierceness; the next instant he clasped his hands over his
face, and wept in a violent convulsion of grief and shame. Little Elsie
clasped her arms about him, kissing his brow and chin, which were all
that her lips could touch, under his clasped hands; but Ned turned away
uncomforted, and was blindly making his way towards the door.
"Ned, my little fellow, come back!" said Doctor Grim, who had very
attentively watched the cruel effect of his communication.
As the boy did not reply, and was still tending towards the door, the
grim Doctor vouchsafed to lay aside his pipe, get up from his arm-chair
(a thing he seldom did between supper and bedtime), and shuffle after
the two children in his slippers. He caught them on the threshold,
brought little Ned back by main force,--for he was a rough man even in
his tenderness,--and, sitting down again and taking him on his knee,
pulled away his hands from before his face. Never was a more pitiful
sight than that pale countenance, so infantile still, yet looking old
and experienced already, with a sense of disgrace, with a feeling of
loneliness; so beautiful, nevertheless, that it seemed to possess all
the characteristics which fine hereditary traits and culture, or many
forefathers, could do in refining a human stock. And this was a
nameless weed, sprouting from some chance seed by the dusty wayside!
"Ned, my dear old boy," said Doctor Grim,--and he kissed that pale,
tearful face,--the first and last time, to the best of my belief, that
he was ever betrayed into that tenderness; "forget what I have said!
Yes, remember, if you like, that you came from an almshouse; but
remember, too,--what your friend Doctor Grim is ready to affirm and
make oath of,--that he can trace your kindred and race through that
sordid experience, and back, back, for a hundred and fifty years, into
an old English line. Come, little Ned, and look at this picture."
He led the boy by the hand to a corner of the room, where hung upon the
wall a portrait which Ned had often looked at. It seemed an old
picture; but the Doctor had had it cleaned and varnished, so that it
looked dim and dark, and yet it seemed to be the representation of a
man of no mark; not at least of such mark as would naturally leave his
features to be transmitted for the interest of another generation. For
he was clad in a mean dress of old fashion,--a leather jerkin it
appeared to be,--and round his neck, moreover, was a noose of rope, as
if he might have been on the point of being hanged. But the face of the
portrait, nevertheless, was beautiful, noble, though sad; with a great
development of sensibility, a look of suffering and endurance amounting
to triumph,--a peace through all.
"Look at this," continued the Doctor, "if you must go on dreaming about
your race. Dream that you are of the blood of this being; for, mean as
his station looks, he comes of an ancient and noble race, and was the
noblest of them all! Let me alone, Ned, and I shall spin out the web
that shall link you to that man. The grim Doctor can do it!"
The grim Doctor's face looked fierce with the earnestness with which he
said these words. You would have said that he was taking an oath to
overthrow and annihilate a race, rather than to build one up by
bringing forward the infant heir out of obscurity, and making plain the
links--the filaments--which cemented this feeble childish life, in a
far country, with the great tide of a noble life, which had come down
like a chain from antiquity, in old England.
Having said the words, however, the grim Doctor appeared ashamed both
of the heat and of the tenderness into which he had been betrayed; for
rude and rough as his nature was, there was a kind of decorum in it,
too, that kept him within limits of his own. So he went back to his
chair, his pipe, and his tumbler, and was gruffer and more taciturn
than ever for the rest of the evening. And after the children went to
bed, he leaned back in his chair and looked up at the vast tropic
spider, who was particularly busy in adding to the intricacies of his
web; until he fell asleep with his eyes fixed in that direction, and
the extinguished pipe in one hand and the empty tumbler in the other.
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