Part 2 out of 6
towards even her temporal welfare.
IV A Day Behind the Counter
TOWARDS noon, Hepzibah saw an elderly gentleman, large and
portly, and of remarkably dignified demeanor, passing slowly
along on the opposite side of the white and dusty street. On
coming within the shadow of the Pyncheon Elm, he stopt, and
(taking off his hat, meanwhile, to wipe the perspiration from his
brow) seemed to scrutinize, with especial interest, the dilapidated
and rusty-visaged House of the Seven Gables. He himself, in a
very different style, was as well worth looking at as the house.
No better model need be sought, nor could have been found, of
a very high order of respectability, which, by some indescribable
magic, not merely expressed itself in his looks and gestures, but
even governed the fashion of his garments, and rendered them all
proper and essential to the man. Without appearing to differ,
in any tangible way, from other people's clothes, there was yet a
wide and rich gravity about them that must have been a characteristic
of the wearer, since it could not be defined as pertaining either
to the cut or material. His gold-headed cane, too,--a serviceable
staff, of dark polished wood,--had similar traits, and, had it chosen
to take a walk by itself, would have been recognized anywhere as a
tolerably adequate representative of its master. This character
--which showed itself so strikingly in everything about him, and the
effect of which we seek to convey to the reader--went no deeper
than his station, habits of life, and external circumstances.
One perceived him to be a personage of marked influence and authority;
and, especially, you could feel just as certain that he was opulent
as if he had exhibited his bank account, or as if you had seen him
touching the twigs of the Pyncheon Elm, and, Midas-like, transmuting
them to gold.
In his youth, he had probably been considered a handsome man;
at his present age, his brow was too heavy, his temples too bare,
his remaining hair too gray, his eye too cold, his lips too closely
compressed, to bear any relation to mere personal beauty. He would
have made a good and massive portrait; better now, perhaps, than at
any previous period of his life, although his look might grow
positively harsh in the process of being fixed upon the canvas.
The artist would have found it desirable to study his face, and prove
its capacity for varied expression; to darken it with a frown,
--to kindle it up with a smile.
While the elderly gentleman stood looking at the Pyncheon House,
both the frown and the smile passed successively over his countenance.
His eye rested on the shop-window, and putting up a pair of gold-bowed
spectacles, which he held in his hand, he minutely surveyed Hepzibah's
little arrangement of toys and commodities. At first it seemed not to
please him,--nay, to cause him exceeding displeasure,--and yet, the
very next moment, he smiled. While the latter expression was yet on
his lips, he caught a glimpse of Hepzibah, who had involuntarily bent
forward to the window; and then the smile changed from acrid and
disagreeable to the sunniest complacency and benevolence. He bowed,
with a happy mixture of dignity and courteous kindliness, and pursued
"There he is!" said Hepzibah to herself, gulping down a very bitter
emotion, and, since she could not rid herself of it, trying to drive
it back into her heart. "What does he think of it, I wonder? Does it
please him? Ah! he is looking back!"
The gentleman had paused in the street, and turned himself half
about, still with his eyes fixed on the shop-window. In fact, he
wheeled wholly round, and commenced a step or two, as if designing
to enter the shop; but, as it chanced, his purpose was anticipated
by Hepzibah's first customer, the little cannibal of Jim Crow, who,
staring up at the window, was irresistibly attracted by an elephant
of gingerbread. What a grand appetite had this small urchin!
--Two Jim Crows immediately after breakfast!--and now an elephant,
as a preliminary whet before dinner. By the time this latter purchase
was completed, the elderly gentleman had resumed his way, and turned
the street corner.
"Take it as you like, Cousin Jaffrey." muttered the maiden lady,
as she drew back, after cautiously thrusting out her head, and
looking up and down the street,--"Take it as you like! You have
seen my little shop--window. Well!--what have you to say?--is
not the Pyncheon House my own, while I'm alive?"
After this incident, Hepzibah retreated to the back parlor, where
she at first caught up a half-finished stocking, and began knitting
at it with nervous and irregular jerks; but quickly finding herself
at odds with the stitches, she threw it aside, and walked hurriedly
about the room. At length she paused before the portrait of the
stern old Puritan, her ancestor, and the founder of the house. In
one sense, this picture had almost faded into the canvas, and hidden
itself behind the duskiness of age; in another, she could not but
fancy that it had been growing more prominent and strikingly
expressive, ever since her earliest familiarity with it as a child.
For, while the physical outline and substance were darkening away
from the beholder's eye, the bold, hard, and, at the same time,
indirect character of the man seemed to be brought out in a kind of
spiritual relief. Such an effect may occasionally be observed in
pictures of antique date. They acquire a look which an artist
(if he have anything like the complacency of artists nowadays)
would never dream of presenting to a patron as his own
characteristic expression, but which, nevertheless, we at once
recognize as reflecting the unlovely truth of a human soul. In
such cases, the painter's deep conception of his subject's inward
traits has wrought itself into the essence of the picture, and is
seen after the superficial coloring has been rubbed off by time.
While gazing at the portrait, Hepzibah trembled under its eye.
Her hereditary reverence made her afraid to judge the character
of the original so harshly as a perception of the truth compelled
her to do. But still she gazed, because the face of the picture
enabled her--at least, she fancied so--to read more accurately, and
to a greater depth, the face which she had just seen in the street.
"This is the very man!" murmured she to herself. "Let Jaffrey
Pyncheon smile as he will, there is that look beneath! Put on him
a skull-cap, and a band, and a black cloak, and a Bible in one
hand and a sword in the other,--then let Jaffrey smile as he
might,--nobody would doubt that it was the old Pyncheon come
again. He has proved himself the very man to build up a new house!
Perhaps, too, to draw down a new curse!"
Thus did Hepzibah bewilder herself with these fantasies of the old
time. She had dwelt too much alone,--too long in the Pyncheon House,
--until her very brain was impregnated with the dry-rot of its timbers.
She needed a walk along the noonday street to keep her sane.
By the spell of contrast, another portrait rose up before her,
painted with more daring flattery than any artist would have
ventured upon, but yet so delicately touched that the likeness
remained perfect. Malbone's miniature, though from the same
original, was far inferior to Hepzibah's air-drawn picture,
at which affection and sorrowful remembrance wrought together.
Soft, mildly, and cheerfully contemplative, with full, red lips,
just on the verge of a smile, which the eyes seemed to herald
by a gentle kindling-up of their orbs! Feminine traits, moulded
inseparably with those of the other sex! The miniature, likewise,
had this last peculiarity; so that you inevitably thought of the
original as resembling his mother, and she a lovely and lovable
woman, with perhaps some beautiful infirmity of character, that
made it all the pleasanter to know and easier to love her.
"Yes," thought Hepzibah, with grief of which it was only the more
tolerable portion that welled up from her heart to her eyelids,
"they persecuted his mother in him! He never was a Pyncheon!"
But here the shop-bell rang; it was like a sound from a remote
distance,--so far had Hepzibah descended into the sepulchral
depths of her reminiscences. On entering the shop, she found
an old man there, a humble resident of Pyncheon Street, and
whom, for a great many years past, she had suffered to be a kind
of familiar of the house. He was an immemorial personage, who
seemed always to have had a white head and wrinkles, and never
to have possessed but a single tooth, and that a half-decayed one,
in the front of the upper jaw. Well advanced as Hepzibah was,
she could not remember when Uncle Venner, as the neighborhood
called him, had not gone up and down the street, stooping a
little and drawing his feet heavily over the gravel or pavement.
But still there was something tough and vigorous about him,
that not only kept him in daily breath, but enabled him to fill
a place which would else have been vacant in the apparently
crowded world. To go of errands with his slow and shuffling gait,
which made you doubt how he ever was to arrive anywhere; to saw a
small household's foot or two of firewood, or knock to pieces an
old barrel, or split up a pine board for kindling-stuff; in summer,
to dig the few yards of garden ground appertaining to a low-rented
tenement, and share the produce of his labor at the halves; in winter,
to shovel away the snow from the sidewalk, or open paths to the
woodshed, or along the clothes-line; such were some of the essential
offices which Uncle Venner performed among at least a score of families.
Within that circle, he claimed the same sort of privilege, and probably
felt as much warmth of interest, as a clergyman does in the range of
his parishioners. Not that he laid claim to the tithe pig; but,
as an analogous mode of reverence, he went his rounds, every morning,
to gather up the crumbs of the table and overflowings of the dinner-pot,
as food for a pig of his own.
In his younger days--for, after all, there was a dim tradition that
he had been, not young, but younger--Uncle Venner was commonly
regarded as rather deficient, than otherwise, in his wits. In
truth he had virtually pleaded guilty to the charge, by scarcely
aiming at such success as other men seek, and by taking only that
humble and modest part in the intercourse of life which belongs to
the alleged deficiency. But now, in his extreme old age,--whether it
were that his long and hard experience had actually brightened him,
or that his decaying judgment rendered him less capable of fairly
measuring himself,--the venerable man made pretensions to no little
wisdom, and really enjoyed the credit of it. There was likewise, at
times, a vein of something like poetry in him; it was the moss or
wall-flower of his mind in its small dilapidation, and gave a charm
to what might have been vulgar and commonplace in his earlier and
middle life. Hepzibah had a regard for him, because his name was
ancient in the town and had formerly been respectable. It was a still
better reason for awarding him a species of familiar reverence that
Uncle Venner was himself the most ancient existence, whether of man
or thing, in Pyncheon Street, except the House of the Seven Gables,
and perhaps the elm that overshadowed it.
This patriarch now presented himself before Hepzibah, clad in an
old blue coat, which had a fashionable air, and must have accrued
to him from the cast-off wardrobe of some dashing clerk. As for
his trousers, they were of tow-cloth, very short in the legs,
and bagging down strangely in the rear, but yet having a suitableness
to his figure which his other garment entirely lacked. His hat had
relation to no other part of his dress, and but very little to the
head that wore it. Thus Uncle Venner was a miscellaneous old gentleman,
partly himself, but, in good measure, somebody else; patched together,
too, of different epochs; an epitome of times and fashions.
"So, you have really begun trade," said he,--" really begun trade!
Well, I'm glad to see it. Young people should never live idle in
the world, nor old ones neither, unless when the rheumatize gets
hold of them. It has given me warning already; and in two or
three years longer, I shall think of putting aside business and
retiring to my farm. That's yonder,--the great brick house, you
know,--the workhouse, most folks call it; but I mean to do my
work first, and go there to be idle and enjoy myself. And I'm
glad to see you beginning to do your work, Miss Hepzibah!"
"Thank you, Uncle Venner" said Hepzibah, smiling; for she always
felt kindly towards the simple and talkative old man. Had he been
an old woman, she might probably have repelled the freedom, which
she now took in good part. "It is time for me to begin work,
indeed! Or, to speak the truth, I have just begun when I ought
to be giving it up."
"Oh, never say that, Miss Hepzibah!" answered the old man. "You
are a young woman yet. Why, I hardly thought myself younger than
I am now, it seems so little while ago since I used to see you playing
about the door of the old house, quite a small child! Oftener, though,
you used to be sitting at the threshold, and looking gravely into the
street; for you had always a grave kind of way with you,--a grown-up
air, when you were only the height of my knee. It seems as if I saw
you now; and your grandfather with his red cloak, and his white wig,
and his cocked hat, and his cane, coming out of the house, and stepping
so grandly up the street! Those old gentlemen that grew up before the
Revolution used to put on grand airs. In my young days, the great
man of the town was commonly called King; and his wife, not Queen
to be sure, but Lady. Nowadays, a man would not dare to be called
King; and if he feels himself a little above common folks, he only
stoops so much the lower to them. I met your cousin, the Judge,
ten minutes ago; and, in my old tow-cloth trousers, as you see,
the Judge raised his hat to me, I do believe! At any rate, the Judge
bowed and smiled!"
"Yes," said Hepzibah, with something bitter stealing unawares
into her tone; "my cousin Jaffrey is thought to have a very
"And so he has" replied Uncle Venner. "And that's rather remarkable
in a Pyncheon; for, begging your pardon, Miss Hepzibah, they never
had the name of being an easy and agreeable set of folks. There
was no getting close to them. But Now, Miss Hepzibah, if an old
man may be bold to ask, why don't Judge Pyncheon, with his great
means, step forward, and tell his cousin to shut up her little shop
at once? It's for your credit to be doing something, but it's not
for the Judge's credit to let you!"
"We won't talk of this, if you please, Uncle Venner," said Hepzibah
coldly. "I ought to say, however, that, if I choose to earn bread
for myself, it is not Judge Pyncheon's fault. Neither will he deserve
the blame," added she more kindly, remembering Uncle Venner's privileges
of age and humble familiarity, "if I should, by and by, find it
convenient to retire with you to your farm."
"And it's no bad place, either, that farm of mine!" cried the old
man cheerily, as if there were something positively delightful in
the prospect. "No bad place is the great brick farm-house,
especially for them that will find a good many old cronies there,
as will be my case. I quite long to be among them, sometimes,
of the winter evenings; for it is but dull business for a
lonesome elderly man, like me, to be nodding, by the hour together,
with no company but his air-tight stove. Summer or winter,
there's a great deal to be said in favor of my farm! And, take it
in the autumn, what can be pleasanter than to spend a whole day
on the sunny side of a barn or a wood-pile, chatting with somebody
as old as one's self; or, perhaps, idling away the time with a
natural-born simpleton, who knows how to be idle, because even
our busy Yankees never have found out how to put him to any use?
Upon my word, Miss Hepzibah, I doubt whether I've ever been so
comfortable as I mean to be at my farm, which most folks call
the workhouse. But you,--you're a young woman yet,--you never
need go there! Something still better will turn up for you.
I'm sure of it!"
Hepzibah fancied that there was something peculiar in her
venerable friend's look and tone; insomuch, that she gazed into
his face with considerable earnestness, endeavoring to discover
what secret meaning, if any, might be lurking there. Individuals
whose affairs have reached an utterly desperate crisis almost
invariably keep themselves alive with hopes, so much the more
airily magnificent as they have the less of solid matter within
their grasp whereof to mould any judicious and moderate expectation
of good. Thus, all the while Hepzibah was perfecting the scheme
of her little shop, she had cherished an unacknowledged idea that
some harlequin trick of fortune would intervene in her favor.
For example, an uncle--who had sailed for India fifty years before,
and never been heard of since--might yet return, and adopt her to
be the comfort of his very extreme and decrepit age, and adorn her
with pearls, diamonds, and Oriental shawls and turbans, and make
her the ultimate heiress of his unreckonable riches. Or the member
of Parliament, now at the head of the English branch of the family,
--with which the elder stock, on this side of the Atlantic, had held
little or no intercourse for the last two centuries,--this eminent
gentleman might invite Hepzibah to quit the ruinous House of the
Seven Gables, and come over to dwell with her kindred at Pyncheon
Hall. But, for reasons the most imperative, she could not yield to
his request. It was more probable, therefore, that the descendants
of a Pyncheon who had emigrated to Virginia, in some past generation,
and became a great planter there,--hearing of Hepzibah's destitution,
and impelled by the splendid generosity of character with which their
Virginian mixture must have enriched the New England blood,--would
send her a remittance of a thousand dollars, with a hint of repeating
the favor annually. Or,--and, surely, anything so undeniably just
could not be beyond the limits of reasonable anticipation,--the great
claim to the heritage of Waldo County might finally be decided in
favor of the Pyncheons; so that, instead of keeping a cent-shop,
Hepzibah would build a palace, and look down from its highest tower
on hill, dale, forest, field, and town, as her own share of the
These were some of the fantasies which she had long dreamed about;
and, aided by these, Uncle Venner's casual attempt at encouragement
kindled a strange festal glory in the poor, bare, melancholy chambers
of her brain, as if that inner world were suddenly lighted up with gas.
But either he knew nothing of her castles in the air,--as how should he?
--or else her earnest scowl disturbed his recollection, as it might a
more courageous man's. Instead of pursuing any weightier topic,
Uncle Venner was pleased to favor Hepzibah with some sage counsel in
her shop-keeping capacity.
"Give no credit!"--these were some of his goldenmxims,--"Never
take paper-money. Look well to your change! Ring the silver on
the four-pound weight! Shove back all English half-pence and base
copper tokens, such as are very plenty about town! At your leisure
hours, knit children's woollen socks and mittens! Brew your own
yeast, and make your own ginger-beer!"
And while Hepzibah was doing her utmost to digest the hard little
pellets of his already uttered wisdom, he gave vent to his final,
and what he declared to be his all-important advice, as follows:--
"Put on a bright face for your customers, and smile pleasantly as
you hand them what they ask for! A stale article, if you dip it
in a good, warm, sunny smile, will go off better than a fresh one
that you've scowled upon."
To this last apothegm poor Hepzibah responded with a sigh so
deep and heavy that it almost rustled Uncle Venner quite away,
like a withered leaf,--as he was,--before an autumnal gale.
Recovering himself, however, he bent forward, and, with a good
deal of feeling in his ancient visage, beckoned her nearer to him.
"When do you expect him home?" whispered he.
"Whom do you mean?" asked Hepzibah, turning pale.
"Ah? you don't love to talk about it," said Uncle Venner. "Well,
well! we'll say no more, though there's word of it all over town.
I remember him, Miss Hepzibah, before he could run alone!"
During the remainder of the day, poor Hepzibah acquitted herself
even less creditably, as a shop-keeper, than in her earlier efforts.
She appeared to be walking in a dream; or, more truly, the vivid
life and reality assumed by her emotions made all outward
occurrences unsubstantial, like the teasing phantasms of a
half-conscious slumber. She still responded, mechanically,
to the frequent summons of the shop-bell, and, at the demand of
her customers, went prying with vague eyes about the shop,
proffering them one article after another, and thrusting aside
--perversely, as most of them supposed--the identical thing
they asked for. There is sad confusion, indeed, when the spirit
thus flits away into the past, or into the more awful future, or,
in any manner, steps across the spaceless boundary betwixt its
own region and the actual world; where the body remains to guide
itself as best it may, with little more than the mechanism of
animal life. It is like death, without death's quiet privilege,
--its freedom from mortal care. Worst of all, when the actual duties
are comprised in such petty details as now vexed the brooding soul
of the old gentlewoman. As the animosity of fate would have it,
there was a great influx of custom in the course of the afternoon.
Hepzibah blundered to and fro about her small place of business,
committing the most unheard-of errors: now stringing up twelve,
and now seven, tallow-candles, instead of ten to the pound; selling
ginger for Scotch snuff, pins for needles, and needles for pins;
misreckoning her change, sometimes to the public detriment, and
much oftener to her own; and thus she went on, doing her utmost
to bring chaos back again, until, at the close of the day's labor,
to her inexplicable astonishment, she found the money-drawer almost
destitute of coin. After all her painful traffic, the whole proceeds
were perhaps half a dozen coppers, and a questionable ninepence which
ultimately proved to be copper likewise.
At this price, or at whatever price, she rejoiced that the day had
reached its end. Never before had she had such a sense of the
intolerable length of time that creeps between dawn and sunset,
and of the miserable irksomeness of having aught to do, and of
the better wisdom that it would be to lie down at once, in sullen
resignation, and let life, and its toils and vexations, trample over
one's prostrate body as they may! Hepzibah's final operation was
with the little devourer of Jim Crow and the elephant, who now
proposed to eat a camel. In her bewilderment, she offered him
first a wooden dragoon, and next a handful of marbles; neither
of which being adapted to his else omnivorous appetite, she
hastily held out her whole remaining stock of natural history in
gingerbread, and huddled the small customer out of the shop. She
then muffled the bell in an unfinished stocking, and put up the
oaken bar across the door.
During the latter process, an omnibus came to a stand-still under
the branches of the elm-tree. Hepzibah's heart was in her mouth.
Remote and dusky, and with no sunshine on all the intervening
space, was that region of the Past whence her only guest might
be expected to arrive! Was she to meet him. now?
Somebody, at all events, was passing from the farthest interior of
the omnibus towards its entrance. A gentleman alighted; but it was
only to offer his hand to a young girl whose slender figure, nowise
needing such assistance, now lightly descended the steps, and made
an airy little jump from the final one to the sidewalk. She rewarded
her cavalier with a smile, the cheery glow of which was seen
reflected on his own face as he reentered the vehicle. The girl
then turned towards the House of the Seven Gables, to the door of
which, meanwhile,--not the shop-door, but the antique portal,--the
omnibus-man had carried a light trunk and a bandbox. First giving
a sharp rap of the old iron knocker, he left his passenger and
her luggage at the door-step, and departed.
"Who can it be?" thought Hepzibah, who had been screwing her
visual organs into the acutest focus of which they were capable.
"The girl must have mistaken the house." She stole softly into
the hall, and, herself invisible, gazed through the dusty side-lights
of the portal at the young, blooming, and very cheerful face
which presented itself for admittance into the gloomy old
mansion. It was a face to which almost any door would have
opened of its own accord.
The young girl, so fresh, so unconventional, and yet so orderly
and obedient to common rules, as you at once recognized her to
be, was widely in contrast, at that moment, with everything about
her. The sordid and ugly luxuriance of gigantic weeds that grew
in the angle of the house, and the heavy projection that overshadowed
her, and the time-worn framework of the door,--none of these things
belonged to her sphere. But, even as a ray of sunshine, fall into
what dismal place it may, instantaneously creates for itself a
propriety in being there, so did it seem altogether fit that the
girl should be standing at the threshold. It was no less evidently
proper that the door should swing open to admit her. The maiden
lady herself, sternly inhospitable in her first purposes, soon began
to feel that the door ought to be shoved back, and the rusty key be
turned in the reluctant lock.
"Can it be Phoebe?" questioned she within herself. "It must be
little Phoebe; for it can be nobody else,--and there is a look
of her father about her, too! But what does she want here? And
how like a country cousin, to come down upon a poor body in
this way, without so much as a day's notice, or asking whether
she would be welcome! Well; she must have a night's lodging,
I suppose; and to-morrow the child shall go back to her mother."
Phoebe, it must be understood, was that one little offshoot of the
Pyncheon race to whom we have already referred, as a native of
a rural part of New England, where the old fashions and feelings
of relationship are still partially kept up. In her own circle,
it was regarded as by no means improper for kinsfolk to visit one
another without invitation, or preliminary and ceremonious warning.
Yet, in consideration of Miss Hepzibah's recluse way of life, a letter
had actually been written and despatched, conveying information of
Phoebe's projected visit. This epistle, for three or four days past,
had been in the pocket of the penny-postman, who, happening to have
no other business in Pyncheon Street, had not yet made it convenient
to call at the House of the Seven Gables.
"No--she can stay only one night," said Hepzibah, unbolting the
door. "If Clifford were to find her here, it might disturb him!"
V May and November
PHOEBE PYNCHEON slept, on the night of her arrival, in a chamber
that looked down on the garden of the old house. It fronted
towards the east, so that at a very seasonable hour a glow of
crimson light came flooding through the window, and bathed the
dingy ceiling and paper-hangings in its own hue. There were
curtains to Phoebe's bed; a dark, antique canopy, and ponderous
festoons of a stuff which had been rich, and even magnificent,
in its time; but which now brooded over the girl like a cloud,
making a night in that one corner, while elsewhere it was
beginning to be day. The morning light, however, soon stole
into the aperture at the foot of the bed, betwixt those faded
curtains. Finding the new guest there,--with a bloom on her
cheeks like the morning's own, and a gentle stir of departing
slumber in her limbs, as when an early breeze moves the foliage,
--the dawn kissed her brow. It was the caress which a dewy
maiden--such as the Dawn is, immortally--gives to her sleeping
sister, partly from the impulse of irresistible fondness, and
partly as a pretty hint that it is time now to unclose her eyes.
At the touch of those lips of light, Phoebe quietly awoke, and,
for a moment, did not recognize where she was, nor how those heavy
curtains chanced to be festooned around her. Nothing, indeed,
was absolutely plain to her, except that it was now early morning,
and that, whatever might happen next, it was proper, first of all,
to get up and say her prayers. She was the more inclined to devotion
from the grim aspect of the chamber and its furniture, especially
the tall, stiff chairs; one of which stood close by her bedside,
and looked as if some old-fashioned personage had been sitting there
all night, and had vanished only just in season to escape discovery.
When Phoebe was quite dressed, she peeped out of the window,
and saw a rosebush in the garden. Being a very tall one, and of
luxuriant growth, it had been propped up against the side of the
house, and was literally covered with a rare and very beautiful
species of white rose. A large portion of them, as the girl
afterwards discovered, had blight or mildew at their hearts; but,
viewed at a fair distance, the whole rosebush looked as if it had
been brought from Eden that very summer, together with the mould
in which it grew. The truth was, nevertheless, that it had been
planted by Alice Pyncheon,--she was Phoebe's great-great-grand-aunt,
--in soil which, reckoning only its cultivation as a garden-plat,
was now unctuous with nearly two hundred years of vegetable decay.
Growing as they did, however, out of the old earth, the flowers
still sent a fresh and sweet incense up to their Creator; nor could
it have been the less pure and acceptable because Phoebe's young
breath mingled with it, as the fragrance floated past the window.
Hastening down the creaking and carpetless staircase, she found
her way into the garden, gathered some of the most perfect of the
roses, and brought them to her chamber.
Little Phoebe was one of those persons who possess, as their
exclusive patrimony, the gift of practical arrangement. It
is a kind of natural magic that enables these favored ones to
bring out the hidden capabilities of things around them; and
particularly to give a look of comfort and habitableness to any
place which, for however brief a period, may happen to be their
home. A wild hut of underbrush, tossed together by wayfarers
through the primitive forest, would acquire the home aspect by
one night's lodging of such a woman, and would retain it long
after her quiet figure had disappeared into the surrounding shade.
No less a portion of such homely witchcraft was requisite to
reclaim, as it were, Phoebe's waste, cheerless, and dusky
chamber, which had been untenanted so long--except by spiders,
and mice, and rats, and ghosts--that it was all overgrown with
the desolation which watches to obliterate every trace of man's
happier hours. What was precisely Phoebe's process we find it
impossible to say. She appeared to have no preliminary design,
but gave a touch here and another there; brought some articles of
furniture to light and dragged others into the shadow; looped up
or let down a window-curtain; and, in the course of half an hour,
had fully succeeded in throwing a kindly and hospitable smile over
the apartment. N o longer ago than the night before, it had
resembled nothing so much as the old maid's heart; for there was
neither sunshine nor household fire in one nor the other, and,
Save for ghosts and ghostly reminiscences, not a guest, for many
years gone by, had entered the heart or the chamber.
There was still another peculiarity of this inscrutable charm.
The bedchamber, No doubt, was a chamber of very great and varied
experience, as a scene of human life: the joy of bridal nights
had throbbed itself away here; new immortals had first drawn
earthly breath here; and here old people had died. But--whether
it were the white roses, or whatever the subtile influence might
be--a person of delicate instinct would have known at once that
it was now a maiden's bedchamber, and had been purified of all
former evil and sorrow by her sweet breath and happy thoughts.
Her dreams of the past night, being such cheerful ones, had
exorcised the gloom, and now haunted the chamber in its stead.
After arranging matters to her satisfaction, Phoebe emerged from
her chamber, with a purpose to descend again into the garden.
Besides the rosebush, she had observed several other species of
flowers growing there in a wilderness of neglect, and obstructing
one another's development (as is often the parallel case in human
society) by their uneducated entanglement and confusion. At the
head of the stairs, however, she met Hepzibah, who, it being still
early, invited her into a room which she would probably have called
her boudoir, had her education embraced any such French phrase.
It was strewn about with a few old books, and a work-basket, and a
dusty writing-desk; and had, on one side, a large black article of
furniture, of very strange appearance, which the old gentlewoman
told Phoebe was a harpsichord. It looked more like a coffin than
anything else; and, indeed,--not having been played upon, or opened,
for years,--there must have been a vast deal of dead music in it,
stifled for want of air. Human finger was hardly known to have
touched its chords since the days of Alice Pyncheon, who had
learned the sweet accomplishment of melody in Europe.
Hepzibah bade her young guest sit down, and, herself taking a
chair near by, looked as earnestly at Phoebe's trim little figure
as if she expected to see right into its springs and motive secrets.
"Cousin Phoebe," said she, at last, "I really can't see my way
clear to keep you with me."
These words, however, had not the inhospitable bluntness with
which they may strike the reader; for the two relatives, in a talk
before bedtime, had arrived at a certain degree of mutual
understanding. Hepzibah knew enough to enable her to appreciate
the circumstances (resulting from the second marriage of the
girl's mother) which made it desirable for Phoebe to establish
herself in another home. Nor did she misinterpret Phoebe's
character, and the genial activity pervading it,--one of the most
valuable traits of the true New England woman,--which had
impelled her forth, as might be said, to seek her fortune, but with
a self-respecting purpose to confer as much benefit as she could
anywise receive. As one of her nearest kindred, she had naturally
betaken herself to Hepzibah, with no idea of forcing herself on
her cousin's protection, but only for a visit of a week or two,
which might be indefinitely extended, should it prove for the
happiness of both.
To Hepzibah's blunt observation, therefore, Phoebe replied as frankly,
and more cheerfully.
"Dear cousin, I cannot tell how it will be," said she. "But I really
think we may suit one another much better than you suppose."
"You are a nice girl,--I see it plainly," continued Hepzibah; "and
it is not any question as to that point which makes me hesitate.
But, Phoebe, this house of mine is but a melancholy place for a
young person to be in. It lets in the wind and rain, and the Snow,
too, in the garret and upper chambers, in winter-time, but it never
lets in the sunshine. And as for myself, you see what I am,--a dismal
and lonesome old woman (for I begin to call myself old, Phoebe),
whose temper, I am afraid, is none of the best, and whose spirits
are as bad as can be I cannot make your life pleasant, Cousin Phoebe,
neither can I so much as give you bread to eat."
"You will find me a cheerful little, body" answered Phoebe, smiling,
and yet with a kind of gentle dignity. "and I mean to earn my bread.
You know I have not been brought up a Pyncheon. A girl learns many
things in a New England village."
"Ah! Phoebe," said Hepzibah, sighing, "your knowledge would do
but little for you here! And then it is a wretched thought that
you should fling away your young days in a place like this.
Those cheeks would not be so rosy after a month or two. Look
at my face!"and, indeed, the contrast was very striking,--"you see
how pale I am! It is my idea that the dust and continual decay
of these old houses are unwholesome for the lungs."
"There is the garden,--the flowers to be taken care of," observed
Phoebe. "I should keep myself healthy with exercise in the open air."
"And, after all, child," exclaimed Hepzibah, suddenly rising, as if
to dismiss the subject, "it is not for me to say who shall be a guest
or inhabitant of the old Pyncheon House. Its master is coming."
"Do you mean Judge Pyncheon?" asked Phoebe in surprise.
"Judge Pyncheon!" answered her cousin angrily. "He will hardly
cross the threshold while I live! No, no! But, Phoebe, you shall
see the face of him I speak of."
She went in quest of the miniature already described, and
returned with it in her hand. Giving it to Phoebe, she watched
her features narrowly, and with a certain jealousy as to the mode
in which the girl would show herself affected by the picture.
"How do you like the face?" asked Hepzibah.
"It is handsome!--it is very beautiful!" said Phoebe admiringly.
"It is as sweet a face as a man's can be, or ought to be. It has
something of a child's expression,--and yet not childish,--only one
feels so very kindly towards him! He ought never to suffer
anything. One would bear much for the sake of sparing him toil
or sorrow. Who is it, Cousin Hepzibah?"
"Did you never hear," whispered her cousin, bending towards her,
"of Clifford Pyncheon?"
"Never. I thought there were no Pyncheons left, except yourself
and our cousin Jaffrey," answered Phoebe. "And yet I seem to
have heard the name of Clifford Pyncheon. Yes!--from my father
or my mother. but has he not been a long while dead?"
"Well, well, child, perhaps he has!" said Hepzibah with a sad,
hollow laugh; "but, in old houses like this, you know, dead
people are very apt to come back again! We shall see. And,
Cousin Phoebe, since, after all that I have said, your courage
does not fail you, we will not part so soon. You are welcome,
my child, for the present, to such a home as your kinswoman
can offer you."
With this measured, but not exactly cold assurance of a
hospitable purpose, Hepzibah kissed her cheek.
They now went below stairs, where Phoebe--not so much assuming
the office as attracting it to herself, by the magnetism of
innate fitness--took the most active part in preparing breakfast.
The mistress of the house, meanwhile, as is usual with persons
of her stiff and unmalleable cast, stood mostly aside; willing
to lend her aid, yet conscious that her natural inaptitude would
be likely to impede the business in hand. Phoebe and the fire
that boiled the teakettle were equally bright, cheerful, and
efficient, in their respective offices. Hepzibah gazed forth
from her habitual sluggishness, the necessary result of long
solitude, as from another sphere. She could not help being
interested, however, and even amused, at the readiness with
which her new inmate adapted herself to the circumstances,
and brought the house, moreover, and all its rusty old appliances,
into a suitableness for her purposes. Whatever she did, too,
was done without conscious effort, and with frequent outbreaks of
song, which were exceedingly pleasant to the ear. This natural
tunefulness made Phoebe seem like a bird in a shadowy tree;
or conveyed the idea that the stream of life warbled through her
heart as a brook sometimes warbles through a pleasant little dell.
It betokened the cheeriness of an active temperament, finding joy
in its activity, and, therefore, rendering it beautiful; it was a
New England trait,--the stern old stuff of Puritanism with a gold
thread in the web.
Hepzibah brought out Some old silver spoons with the family
crest upon them, and a china tea-set painted over with grotesque
figures of man, bird, and beast, in as grotesque a landscape.
These pictured people were odd humorists, in a world of their
own,--a world of vivid brilliancy, so far as color went, and still
unfaded, although the teapot and small cups were as ancient as
the custom itself of tea-drinking.
"Your great-great-great-great-grandmother had these cups, when
she was married," said Hepzibah to Phoebe."She was a
Davenport, of a good family. They were almost the first teacups
ever seen in the colony; and if one of them were to be broken,
my heart would break with it. But it is Nonsense to speak so
about a brittle teacup, when I remember what my heart has gone
through without breaking."
The cups--not having been used, perhaps, since Hepzibah's
youth--had contracted no small burden of dust, which Phoebe
washed away with so much care and delicacy as to satisfy even
the proprietor of this invaluable china.
"What a nice little housewife you. are" exclaimed the latter,
smiling, and at the Same time frowning so prodigiously that the
smile was sunshine under a thunder-cloud. "Do you do other
things as well? Are you as good at your book as you are at
"Not quite, I am afraid," said Phoebe, laughing at the form of
Hepzibah's question. "But I was schoolmistress for the little
children in our district last summer, and might have been so still."
"Ah! 'tis all very well!" observed the maiden lady, drawing herself
up. "But these things must have come to you with your mother's
blood. I never knew a Pyncheon that had any turn for them."
It is very queer, but not the less true, that people are generally
quite as vain, or even more so, of their deficiencies than of their
available gifts; as was Hepzibah of this native inapplicability,
so to speak, of the Pyncheons to any useful purpose. She regarded
it as an hereditary trait; and so, perhaps, it was, but unfortunately
a morbid one, such as is often generated in families that remain
long above the surface of society.
Before they left the breakfast-table, the shop-bell rang sharply,
and Hepzibah set down the remnant of her final cup of tea, with
a look of sallow despair that was truly piteous to behold. In cases
of distasteful occupation, the second day is generally worse than
the first. we return to the rack with all the soreness of the
preceding torture in our limbs. At all events, Hepzibah had fully
satisfied herself of the impossibility of ever becoming wonted to
this peevishly obstreperous little bell. Ring as often as it might,
the sound always smote upon her nervous system rudely and suddenly.
And especially now, while, with her crested teaspoons and antique
china, she was flattering herself with ideas of gentility, she felt
an unspeakable disinclination to confront a customer.
"Do not trouble yourself, dear cousin!" cried Phoebe, starting
lightly up. "I am shop-keeper today."
"You, child!" exclaimed Hepzibah. "What can a little country girl
know of such matters?"
"Oh, I have done all the shopping for the family at our village
store," said Phoebe. "And I have had a table at a fancy fair, and
made better sales than anybody. These things are not to be learnt;
they depend upon a knack that comes, I suppose," added she,
smiling, "with one's mother's blood. You shall see that I am
as nice a little saleswoman as I am a housewife!"
The old gentlewoman stole behind Phoebe, and peeped from the
passageway into the shop, to note how she would manage her
undertaking. It was a case of some intricacy. A very ancient
woman, in a white short gown and a green petticoat, with a string
of gold beads about her neck, and what looked like a nightcap
on her head, had brought a quantity of yarn to barter for the
commodities of the shop. She was probably the very last person
in town who still kept the time-honored spinning-wheel in constant
revolution. It was worth while to hear the croaking and hollow
tones of the old lady, and the pleasant voice of Phoebe, mingling
in one twisted thread of talk; and still better to contrast their
figures,--so light and bloomy,--so decrepit and dusky,--with only
the counter betwixt them, in one sense, but more than threescore
years, in another. As for the bargain, it was wrinkled slyness
and craft pitted against native truth and sagacity.
"Was not that well done?" asked Phoebe, laughing, when the
customer was gone.
"Nicely done, indeed, child!" answered Hepzibah."I could not
have gone through with it nearly so well. As you say, it must be
a knack that belongs to you on the mother's side."
It is a very genuine admiration, that with which persons too shy
or too awkward to take a due part in the bustling world regard
the real actors in life's stirring scenes; so genuine, in fact,
that the former are usually fain to make it palatable to their
self-love, by assuming that these active and forcible qualities
are incompatible with others, which they choose to deem higher
and more important. Thus, Hepzibah was well content to acknowledge
Phoebe's vastly superior gifts as a shop-keeper'--she listened,
with compliant ear, to her suggestion of various methods whereby
the influx of trade might be increased, and rendered profitable,
without a hazardous outlay of capital. She consented that the
village maiden should manufacture yeast, both liquid and in cakes;
and should brew a certain kind of beer, nectareous to the palate,
and of rare stomachic virtues; and, moreover, should bake and
exhibit for sale some little spice-cakes, which whosoever tasted
would longingly desire to taste again. All such proofs of a
ready mind and skilful handiwork were highly acceptable to the
aristocratic hucksteress, so long as she could murmur to herself
with a grim smile, and a half-natural sigh, and a sentiment of
mixed wonder, pity, and growing affection,--
"What a nice little body she is! If she only could be a lady;
too--but that's impossible! Phoebe is no Pyncheon. She takes
everything from her mother."
As to Phoebe's not being a lady, or whether she were a lady or
no, it was a point, perhaps, difficult to decide, but which could
hardly have come up for judgment at all in any fair and healthy
mind. Out of New England, it would be impossible to meet with
a person combining so many ladylike attributes with so many
others that form no necessary (if compatible) part of the
character. She shocked no canon of taste; she was admirably in
keeping with herself, and never jarred against surrounding
circumstances. Her figure, to be sure,--so small as to be almost
childlike, and so elastic that motion seemed as easy or easier to
it than rest,would hardly have suited one's idea of a countess.
Neither did her face--with the brown ringlets on either side, and
the slightly piquant nose, and the wholesome bloom, and the
clear shade of tan, and the half dozen freckles, friendly
remembrances of the April sun and breeze--precisely give us a
right to call her beautiful. But there was both lustre and depth in
her eyes. She was very pretty; as graceful as a bird, and graceful
much in the same way; as pleasant about the house as a gleam of
sunshine falling on the floor through a shadow of twinkling leaves,
or as a ray of firelight that dances on the wall while evening is
drawing nigh. Instead of discussing her claim to rank among ladies,
it would be preferable to regard Phoebe as the example of feminine
grace and availability combined, in a state of society, if there
were any such, where ladies did not exist. There it should be
woman's office to move in the midst of practical affairs, and to
gild them all, the very homeliest,--were it even the scouring of
pots and kettles,--with an atmosphere of loveliness and joy.
Such was the sphere of Phoebe. To find the born and educated
lady, on the other hand, we need look no farther than Hepzibah,
our forlorn old maid, in her rustling and rusty silks, with her
deeply cherished and ridiculous consciousness of long descent,
her shadowy claims to princely territory, and, in the way of
accomplishment, her recollections, it may be, of having formerly
thrummed on a harpsichord, and walked a minuet, and worked an
antique tapestry-stitch on her sampler. It was a fair parallel
between new Plebeianism and old Gentility.
It really seemed as if the battered visage of the House of the
Seven Gables, black and heavy-browed as it still certainly looked,
must have shown a kind of cheerfulness glimmering through its
dusky windows as Phoebe passed to and fro in the interior.
Otherwise, it is impossible to explain how the people of the
neighborhood so soon became aware of the girl's presence. There
was a great run of custom, setting steadily in, from about ten o'
clock until towards noon,--relaxing, somewhat, at dinner-time,
but recommencing in the afternoon, and, finally, dying away a half
an hour or so before the long day's sunset. One of the stanchest
patrons was little Ned Higgins, the devourer of Jim Crow and the
elephant, who to-day signalized his omnivorous prowess by
swallowing two dromedaries and a locomotive. Phoebe laughed,
as she summed up her aggregate of sales upon the slate; while
Hepzibah, first drawing on a pair of silk gloves, reckoned over
the sordid accumulation of copper coin, not without silver
intermixed, that had jingled into the till.
"We must renew our stock, Cousin Hepzibah!" cried the little
saleswoman. "The gingerbread figures are all gone, and so are
those Dutch wooden milkmaids, and most of our other playthings.
There has been constant inquiry for cheap raisins, and a great
cry for whistles, and trumpets, and jew's-harps; and at least a
dozen little boys have asked for molasses-candy. And we must
contrive to get a peck of russet apples, late in the season as
it is. But, dear cousin, what an enormous heap of copper!
Positively a copper mountain!"
"Well done! well done! well done!" quoth Uncle Venner, who had
taken occasion to shuffle in and out of the shop several times
in the course of the day. "Here's a girl that will never end
her days at my farm! Bless my eyes, what a brisk little soul!"
"Yes, Phoebe is a nice girl!" said Hepzibah, with a scowl of
austere approbation. "But, Uncle Venner, you have known the
family a great many years. Can you tell me whether there ever
was a Pyncheon whom she takes after?"
"I don't believe there ever was," answered the venerable man.
"At any rate, it never was my luck to see her like among them,
nor, for that matter, anywhere else. I've seen a great deal of
the world, not only in people's kitchens and back-yards but at
the street-corners, and on the wharves, and in other places
where my business calls me; and I'm free to say, Miss Hepzibah,
that I never knew a human creature do her work so much like one
of God's angels as this child Phoebe does!"
Uncle Venner's eulogium, if it appear rather too high-strained
for the person and occasion, had, nevertheless, a sense in which
it was both subtile and true. There was a spiritual quality in
Phoebe's activity. The life of the long and busy day--spent in
occupations that might so easily have taken a squalid and ugly
aspect--had been made pleasant, and even lovely, by the
spontaneous grace with which these homely duties seemed to
bloom out of her character; so that labor, while she dealt with
it, had the easy and flexible charm of play. Angels do not toil,
but let their good works grow out of them; and so did Phoebe.
The two relatives--the young maid and the old one--found time
before nightfall, in the intervals of trade, to make rapid advances
towards affection and confidence. A recluse, like Hepzibah,
usually displays remarkable frankness, and at least temporary
affability, on being absolutely cornered, and brought to the point
of personal intercourse; like the angel whom Jacob wrestled with,
she is ready to bless you when once overcome.
The old gentlewoman took a dreary and proud satisfaction in
leading Phoebe from room to room of the house, and recounting
the traditions with which, as we may say, the walls were
lugubriously frescoed. She showed the indentations made by the
lieutenant-governor's sword-hilt in the door-panels of the
apartment where old Colonel Pyncheon, a dead host, had received
his affrighted visitors with an awful frown. The dusky terror of
that frown, Hepzibah observed, was thought to be lingering ever
since in the passageway. She bade Phoebe step into one of the
tall chairs, and inspect the ancient map of the Pyncheon territory
at the eastward. In a tract of land on which she laid her finger,
there existed a silver mine, the locality of which was precisely
pointed out in some memoranda of Colonel Pyncheon himself, but
only to be made known when the family claim should be recognized
by government. Thus it was for the interest of all New England
that the Pyncheons should have justice done them. She told, too,
how that there was undoubtedly an immense treasure of English
guineas hidden somewhere about the house, or in the cellar, or
possibly in the garden.
"If you should happen to find it, Phoebe," said Hepzibah, glancing
aside at her with a grim yet kindly smile, "we will tie up the
shop-bell for good and all!"
"Yes, dear cousin," answered Phoebe; "but, in the mean time, I hear
somebody ringing it!"
When the customer was gone, Hepzibah talked rather vaguely,
and at great length, about a certain Alice Pyncheon, who had
been exceedingly beautiful and accomplished in her lifetime,
a hundred years ago. The fragrance of her rich and delightful
character still lingered about the place where she had lived,
as a dried rosebud scents the drawer where it has withered
and perished. This lovely Alice had met with some great and
mysterious calamity, and had grown thin and white, and gradually
faded out of the world. But, even now, she was supposed to
haunt the House of the Seven Gables, and, a great many times,
--especially when one of the Pyncheons was to die,--she had
been heard playing sadly and beautifully on the harpsichord.
One of these tunes, just as it had sounded from her spiritual
touch, had been written down by an amateur of music; it was so
exquisitely mournful that nobody, to this day, could bear to
hear it played, unless when a great sorrow had made them know
the still profounder sweetness of it.
"Was it the same harpsichord that you showed me?" inquired Phoebe.
"The very same," said Hepzibah. "It was Alice Pyncheon's
harpsichord. When I was learning music, my father would never
let me open it. So, as I could only play on my teacher's
instrument, I have forgotten all my music long ago."
Leaving these antique themes, the old lady began to talk about
the daguerreotypist, whom, as he seemed to be a well-meaning
and orderly young man, and in narrow circumstances, she had
permitted to take up his residence in one of the seven gables.
But, on seeing more of Mr. Holgrave, she hardly knew what to
make of him. He had the strangest companions imaginable; men
with long beards, and dressed in linen blouses, and other such
new-fangled and ill-fitting garments; reformers, temperance
lecturers, and all manner of cross-looking philanthropists;
community-men, and come-outers, as Hepzibah believed, who
acknowledged no law, and ate no solid food, but lived on the
scent of other people's cookery, and turned up their noses at
the fare. As for the daguerreotypist, she had read a paragraph
in a penny paper, the other day, accusing him of making a speech
full of wild and disorganizing matter, at a meeting of his
banditti-like associates. For her own part, she had reason to
believe that he practised animal magnetism, and, if such things
were in fashion nowadays, should be apt to suspect him of studying
the Black Art up there in his lonesome chamber.
"But, dear cousin," said Phoebe, "if the young man is so
dangerous, why do you let him stay? If he does nothing worse,
he may set the house on fire!"
"Why, sometimes," answered Hepzibah, "I have seriously made
it a question, whether I ought not to send him away. But, with
all his oddities, he is a quiet kind of a person, and has such
a way of taking hold of one's mind, that, without exactly liking
him (for I don't know enough of the young man), I should be
sorry to lose sight of him entirely. A woman clings to slight
acquaintances when she lives so much alone as I do."
"But if Mr. Holgrave is a lawless person!" remonstrated Phoebe,
a part of whose essence it was to keep within the limits of law.
"Oh!" said Hepzibah carelessly,--for, formal as she was, still,
in her life's experience, she had gnashed her teeth against human
law,--"I suppose he has a law of his own!"
VI MAULE'S WELL
AFTER an early tea, the little country-girl strayed into the
garden. The enclosure had formerly been very extensive, but was
now contracted within small compass, and hemmed about, partly
by high wooden fences, and partly by the outbuildings of houses
that stood on another street. In its centre was a grass-plat,
surrounding a ruinous little structure, which showed just enough
of its original design to indicate that it had once been a
summer-house. A hop-vine, springing from last year's root,
was beginning to clamber over it, but would be long in covering
the roof with its green mantle. Three of the seven gables either
fronted or looked sideways, with a dark solemnity of aspect,
down into the garden.
The black, rich soil had fed itself with the decay of a long
period of time; such as fallen leaves, the petals of flowers,
and the stalks and seed--vessels of vagrant and lawless plants,
more useful after their death than ever while flaunting in the sun.
The evil of these departed years would naturally have sprung up
again, in such rank weeds (symbolic of the transmitted vices of
society) as are always prone to root themselves about human
dwellings. Phoebe Saw, however, that their growth must have
been checked by a degree of careful labor, bestowed daily and
systematically on the garden. The white double rose-bush had
evidently been propped up anew against the house since the
commencement of the season; and a pear-tree and three damson-trees,
which, except a row of currant-bushes, constituted the only varieties
of fruit, bore marks of the recent amputation of several superfluous
or defective limbs. There were also a few species of antique
and hereditary flowers, in no very flourishing condition, but
scrupulously weeded; as if some person, either out of love or
curiosity, had been anxious to bring them to such perfection as
they were capable of attaining. The remainder of the garden
presented a well-selected assortment of esculent vegetables,
in a praiseworthy state of advancement. Summer squashes almost
in their golden blossom; cucumbers, now evincing a tendency to
spread away from the main stock, and ramble far and wide; two
or three rows of string-beans and as many more that were about
to festoon themselves on poles; tomatoes, occupying a site so
sheltered and sunny that the plants were already gigantic, and
promised an early and abundant harvest.
Phoebe wondered whose care and toil it could have been that had
planted these vegetables, and kept the soil so clean and orderly.
Not surely her cousin Hepzibah's, who had no taste nor spirits
for the lady-like employment of cultivating flowers, and--with
her recluse habits, and tendency to shelter herself within the
dismal shadow of the house--would hardly have come forth under
the speck of open sky to weed and hoe among the fraternity of
beans and squashes.
It being her first day of complete estrangement from rural
objects, Phoebe found an unexpected charm in this little nook
of grass, and foliage, and aristocratic flowers, and plebeian
vegetables. The eye of Heaven seemed to look down into it
pleasantly, and with a peculiar smile, as if glad to perceive
that nature, elsewhere overwhelmed, and driven out of the dusty
town, had here been able to retain a breathing-place. The spot
acquired a somewhat wilder grace, and yet a very gentle one, from
the fact that a pair of robins had built their nest in the
pear-tree, and were making themselves exceed ingly busy and happy
in the dark intricacy of its boughs. Bees, too,--strange to say,
--had thought it worth their while to come hither, possibly from
the range of hives beside some farm-house miles away. How many
aerial voyages might they have made, in quest of honey, or
honey-laden, betwixt dawn and sunset! Yet, late as it now was,
there still arose a pleasant hum out of one or two of the
squash-blossoms, in the depths ofwich these bees were plying
their golden labor. There was one other object in the garden
which Nature might fairly claim as her inalienable property,
in spite of whatever man could do to render it his own. This was
a fountain, set round with a rim of old mossy stones, and paved,
in its bed, with what appeared to be a sort of mosaic-work of
variously colored pebbles. The play and slight agitation of
the water, in its upward gush, wrought magically with these
variegated pebbles, and made a continually shifting apparition
of quaint figures, vanishing too suddenly to be definable. Thence,
swelling over the rim of moss-grown stones, the water stole away
under the fence, through what we regret to call a gutter, rather
than a channel. Nor must we forget to mention a hen-coop of very
reverend antiquity that stood in the farther corner of the garden,
not a great way from the fountain. It now contained only Chanticleer,
his two wives, and a solitary chicken. All of them were pure
specimens of a breed which had been transmitted down as an heirloom
in the Pyncheon family, and were said, while in their prime, to
have attained almost the size of turkeys, and, on the score of
delicate flesh, to be fit for a prince's table. In proof of
the authenticity of this legendary renown, Hepzibah could have
exhibited the shell of a great egg, which an ostrich need hardly
have been ashamed of. Be that as it might, the hens were now
scarcely larger than pigeons, and had a queer, rusty, withered
aspect, and a gouty kind of movement, and a sleepy and melancholy
tone throughout all the variations of their clucking and cackling.
It was evident that the race had degenerated, like many a noble
race besides, in consequence of too strict a watchfulness to keep
it pure. These feathered people had existed too long in their
distinct variety; a fact of which the present representatives,
judging by their lugubrious deportment, seemed to be aware.
They kept themselves alive, unquestionably, and laid now and
then an egg, and hatched a chicken; not for any pleasure of their
own, but that the world might not absolutely lose what had once
been so admirable a breed of fowls. The distinguishing mark of
the hens was a crest of lamentably scanty growth, in these latter
days, but so oddly and wickedly analogous to Hepzibah's turban,
that Phoebe--to the poignant distress of her conscience, but
inevitably --was led to fancy a general resemblance betwixt these
forlorn bipeds and her respectable relative.
The girl ran into the house to get some crumbs of bread,
cold potatoes, and other such scraps as were suitable to the
accommodating appetite of fowls. Returning, she gave a peculiar
call, which they seemed to recognize. The chicken crept through
the pales of the coop and ran, with some show of liveliness, to
her feet; while Chanticleer and the ladies of his household regarded
her with queer, sidelong glances, and then croaked one to another,
as if communicating their sage opinions of her character. So wise,
as well as antique, was their aspect, as to give color to the idea,
not merely that they were the descendants of a time-honored
race, but that they had existed, in their individual capacity,
ever since the House of the Seven Gables was founded, and were
somehow mixed up with its destiny. They were a species of tutelary
sprite, or Banshee; although winged and feathered differently
from most other guardian angels.
"Here, you odd little chicken!" said Phoebe; "here are some nice
crumbs for you!"
The chicken, hereupon, though almost as venerable in appearance
as its, mother--possessing, indeed, the whole antiquity of its
progenitors in miniature,--mustered vivacity enough to flutter
upward and alight on Phoebe's shoulder.
"That little fowl pays you a high compliment!" said a voice
Turning quickly, she was surprised at sight of a young man, who
had found access into the garden by a door opening out of
another gable than that whence she had emerged. He held a hoe
in his hand, and, while Phoebe was gone in quest of the crumbs,
had begun to busy himself with drawing up fresh earth about the
roots of the tomatoes.
"The chicken really treats you like an old acquaintance,"
continued he in a quiet way, while a smile made his face
pleasanter than Phoebe at first fancied it. "Those venerable
personages in the coop, too, seem very affably disposed. You are
lucky to be in their good graces so soon! They have known me much
longer, but never honor me with any familiarity, though hardly a
day passes without my bringing them food. Miss Hepzibah,
I suppose, will interweave the fact with her other traditions,
and set it down that the fowls know you to be a Pyncheon!"
"The secret is," said Phoebe, smiling, "that I have learned how
to talk with hens and chickens."
"Ah, but these hens," answered the young man,--"these hens of
aristocratic lineage would scorn to understand the vulgar language
of a barn-yard fowl. I prefer to think--and so would Miss Hepzibah
--that they recognize the family tone. For you are a Pyncheon?"
"My name is Phoebe Pyncheon," said the girl, with a manner of
some reserve; for she was aware that her new acquaintance could
be no other than the daguerreotypist, of whose lawless propensities
the old maid had given her a disagreeable idea. "I did not know
that my cousin Hepzibah's garden was under another person's care."
"Yes," said Holgrave, "I dig, and hoe, and weed, in this black
old earth, for the sake of refreshing myself with what little
nature and simplicity may be left in it, after men have so long
sown and reaped here. I turn up the earth by way of pastime.
My sober occupation, so far as I have any, is with a lighter
material. In short, I make pictures out of sunshine; and, not to
be too much dazzled with my own trade, I have prevailed with Miss
Hepzibah to let me lodge in one of these dusky gables. It is like
a bandage over one's eyes, to come into it. But would you like to
see a specimen of my productions?"
"A daguerreotype likeness, do you mean?" asked Phoebe with less reserve;
for, in spite of prejudice, her own youthfulness sprang forward to meet
his. "I don't much like pictures of that sort,--they are so hard and
stern; besides dodging away from the eye, and trying to escape altogether.
They are conscious of looking very unamiable, I suppose, and therefore
hate to be seen."
"If you would permit me," said the artist, looking at Phoebe,
"I should like to try whether the daguerreotype can bring out
disagreeable traits on a perfectly amiable face. But there
certainly is truth in what you have said. Most of my likenesses
do look unamiable; but the very sufficient reason, I fancy, is,
because the originals are so. There is a wonderful insight in
Heaven's broad and simple sunshine. While we give it credit only
for depicting the merest surface, it actually brings out the secret
character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon,
even could he detect it. There is, at least, no flattery in my
humble line of art. Now, here is a likeness which I have taken
over and over again, and still with no better result. Yet the
original wears, to common eyes, a very different expression.
It would gratify me to have your judgment on this character."
He exhibited a daguerreotype miniature in a morocco case.
Phoebe merely glanced at it, and gave it back.
"I know the face," she replied; "for its stern eye has been
following me about all day. It is my Puritan ancestor, who hangs
yonder in the parlor. To be sure, you have found some way of
copying the portrait without its black velvet cap and gray beard,
and have given him a modern coat and satin cravat, instead of his
cloak and band. I don't think him improved by your alterations."
"You would have seen other differences had you looked a little
longer," said Holgrave, laughing, yet apparently much struck.
"I can assure you that this is a modern face, and one which you
will very probably meet. Now, the remarkable point is, that the
original wears, to the world's eye,--and, for aught I know, to his
most intimate friends,--an exceedingly pleasant countenance,
indicative of benevolence, openness of heart, sunny good-humor,
and other praiseworthy qualities of that cast. The sun, as you see,
tells quite another story, and will not be coaxed out of it, after
half a dozen patient attempts on my part. Here we have the man,
sly, subtle, hard, imperious, and, withal, cold as ice. Look at
that eye! Would you like to be at its mercy? At that mouth! Could
it ever smile? And yet, if you could only see the benign smile
of the original! It is so much the More unfortunate, as he is a
public character of some eminence, and the likeness was intended
to be engraved."
"Well, I don't wish to see it any more," observed Phoebe, turning
away her eyes. "It is certainly very like the old portrait. But my
cousin Hepzibah has another picture,--a miniature. If the original
is still in the world, I think he might defy the sun to make him
look stern and hard."
"You have seen that picture, then!" exclaimed the artist, with an
expression of much interest. "I never did, but have a great
curiosity to do so. And you judge favorably of the face?"
"There never was a sweeter one," said Phoebe. "It is almost too
soft and gentle for a man's."
"Is there nothing wild in the eye?" continued Holgrave, so earnestly
that it embarrassed Phoebe, as did also the quiet freedom with which
he presumed on their so recent acquaintance. "Is there nothing dark
or sinister anywhere? Could you not conceive the original to have been
guilty of a great crime?"
"It is nonsense," said Phoebe a little impatiently, "for us to talk
about a picture which you have never seen. You mistake it for
some other. A crime, indeed! Since you are a friend of my
cousin Hepzibah's, you should ask her to show you the picture."
"It will suit my purpose still better to see the original," replied
the daguerreotypist coolly. "As to his character, we need not
discuss its points; they have already been settled by a competent
tribunal, or one which called itself competent. But, stay! Do not
go yet, if you please! I have a proposition to make you."
Phoebe was on the point of retreating, but turned back, with
some hesitation; for she did not exactly comprehend his manner,
although, on better observation, its feature seemed rather to be
lack of ceremony than any approach to offensive rudeness. There
was an odd kind of authority, too, in what he now proceeded to
say, rather as if the garden were his own than a place to which
he was admitted merely by Hepzibah's courtesy.
"If agreeable to you," he observed, "it would give me pleasure to
turn over these flowers, and those ancient and respectable fowls,
to your care. Coming fresh from country air and occupations,
you will soon feel the need of some such out-of-door employment.
My own sphere does not so much lie among flowers. You can trim
and tend them, therefore, as you please; and I will ask only the
least trifle of a blossom, now and then, in exchange for all the
good, honest kitchen vegetables with which I propose to enrich Miss
Hepzibah's table. So we will be fellow-laborers, somewhat on the
Silently, and rather surprised at her own compliance, Phoebe
accordingly betook herself to weeding a flower-bed, but busied
herself still more with cogitations respecting this young man,
with whom she so unexpectedly found herself on terms approaching
to familiarity. She did not altogether like him. His character
perplexed the little country-girl, as it might a more practised
observer; for, while the tone of his conversation had generally
been playful, the impression left on her mind was that of gravity,
and, except as his youth modified it, almost sternness. She
rebelled, as it were, against a certain magnetic element in the
artist's nature, which he exercised towards her, possibly without
being conscious of it.
After a little while, the twilight, deepened by the shadows of
the fruit-trees and the surrounding buildings, threw an obscurity
over the garden.
"There," said Holgrave, "it is time to give over work! That last
stroke of the hoe has cut off a beanstalk. Good-night, Miss Phoebe
Pyncheon! Any bright day, if you will put one of those rosebuds in
your hair, and come to my rooms in Central Street, I will seize the
purest ray of sunshine, and make a picture of the flower and its
wearer." He retired towards his own solitary gable, but turned his
head, on reaching the door, and called to Phoebe, with a tone which
certainly had laughter in it, yet which seemed to be more than half
"Be careful not to drink at Maule's well!" said he. "Neither drink
nor bathe your face in it!"
"Maule's well!" answered Phoebe. "Is that it with the rim of
mossy stones? I have no thought of drinking there,--but why not?"
"Oh," rejoined the daguerreotypist, "because, like an old lady's
cup of tea, it is water bewitched!"
He vanished; and Phoebe, lingering a moment, saw a glimmering
light, and then the steady beam of a lamp, in a chamber of the
gable. On returning into Hepzibah's apartment of the house, she
found the low-studded parlor so dim and dusky that her eyes
could not penetrate the interior. She was indistinctly aware,
however, that the gaunt figure of the old gentlewoman was sitting
in one of the straight-backed chairs, a little withdrawn from the
window, the faint gleam of which showed the blanched paleness
of her cheek, turned sideways towards a corner.
"Shall I light a lamp, Cousin Hepzibah?" she asked.
"Do, if you please, my dear child," answered Hepzibah. "But put
it on the table in the corner of the passage. My eyes are weak;
and I can seldom bear the lamplight on them."
What an instrument is the human voice! How wonderfully
responsive to every emotion of the human soul! In Hepzibah's
tone, at that moment, there was a certain rich depth and moisture,
as if the words, commonplace as they were, had been steeped in
the warmth of her heart. Again, while lighting the lamp in the
kitchen, Phoebe fancied that her cousin spoke to her.
"In a moment, cousin!" answered the girl. "These matches just
glimmer, and go out."
But, instead of a response from Hepzibah, she seemed to hear the
murmur of an unknown voice. It was strangely indistinct, however,
and less like articulate words than an unshaped sound, such as would
be the utterance of feeling and sympathy, rather than of the intellect.
So vague was it, that its impression or echo in Phoebe's mind was
that of unreality. She concluded that she must have mistaken some
other sound for that of the human voice; or else that it was
altogether in her fancy.
She set the lighted lamp in the passage, and again entered the
parlor. Hepzibah's form, though its sable outline mingled with the
dusk, was now less imperfectly visible. In the remoter parts of
the room, however, its walls being so ill adapted to reflect light,
there was nearly the same obscurity as before.
"Cousin," said Phoebe, "did you speak to me just now?"
"No, child!" replied Hepzibah.
Fewer words than before, but with the same mysterious music in
them! Mellow, melancholy, yet not mournful, the tone seemed to
gush up out of the deep well of Hepzibah's heart, all steeped in
its profoundest emotion. There was a tremor in it, too, that
--as all strong feeling is electric--partly communicated itself
to Phoebe. The girl sat silently for a moment. But soon, her senses
being very acute, she became conscious of an irregular respiration
in an obscure corner of the room. Her physical organization,
moreover, being at once delicate and healthy, gave her a perception,
operating with almost the effect of a spiritual medium, that somebody
was near at hand.
"My dear cousin," asked she, overcoming an indefinable reluctance,
"is there not some one in the room with us?"
"Phoebe, my dear little girl," said Hepzibah, after a moment's
pause,"you were up betimes, and have been busy all day. Pray go
to bed; for I am sure you must need rest. I will sit in the parlor
awhile, and collect my thoughts. It has been my custom for more
years, child, than you have lived!" While thus dismissing her, the
maiden lady stept forward, kissed Phoebe, and pressed her to her
heart, which beat against the girl's bosom with a strong, high,
and tumultuous swell. How came there to be so much love in this
desolate old heart, that it could afford to well over thus abundantly?
"Goodnight, cousin," said Phoebe, strangely affected by Hepzibah's
manner. "If you begin to love me, I am glad!"
She retired to her chamber, but did not soon fall asleep, nor then
very profoundly. At some uncertain period in the depths of night,
and, as it were, through the thin veil of a dream, she was
conscious of a footstep mounting the stairs heavily, but not with
force and decision. The voice of Hepzibah, with a hush through
it, was going up along with the footsteps; and, again, responsive
to her cousin's voice, Phoebe heard that strange, vague murmur,
which might be likened to an indistinct shadow of human utterance.
VII The Guest
WHEN Phoebe awoke,--which she did with the early twittering
of the conjugal couple of robins in the pear-tree,--she heard
movements below stairs, and, hastening down, found Hepzibah
already in the kitchen. She stood by a window, holding a book
in close contiguity to her nose, as if with the hope of gaining
an olfactory acquaintance with its contents, since her imperfect
vision made it not very easy to read them. If any volume could
have manifested its essential wisdom in the mode suggested,
it would certainly have been the one now in Hepzibah's hand;
and the kitchen, in such an event, would forthwith have streamed
with the fragrance of venison, turkeys, capons, larded partridges,
puddings, cakes, and Christmas pies, in all manner of elaborate
mixture and concoction. It was a cookery book, full of innumerable
old fashions of English dishes, and illustrated with engravings,
which represented the arrangements of the table at such banquets
as it might have befitted a nobleman to give in the great hall
of his castle. And, amid these rich and potent devices of the
culinary art (not one of which, probably, had been tested, within
the memory of any man's grandfather), poor Hepzibah was seeking
for some nimble little titbit, which, with what skill she had,
and such materials as were at hand, she might toss up for breakfast.
Soon, with a deep sigh, she put aside the savory volume, and
inquired of Phoebe whether old Speckle, as she called one of the
hens, had laid an egg the preceding day. Phoebe ran to see,
but returned without the expected treasure in her hand. At that
instant, however, the blast of a fish-dealer's conch was heard,
announcing his approach along the street. With energetic raps at
the shop-window, Hepzibah summoned the man in, and made purchase
of what he warranted as the finest mackerel in his cart, and as
fat a one as ever he felt with his finger so early in the season.
Requesting Phoebe to roast some coffee,--which she casually observed
was the real Mocha, and so long kept that each of the small berries
ought to be worth its weight in gold,--the maiden lady heaped fuel
into the vast receptacle of the ancient fireplace in such quantity
as soon to drive the lingering dusk out of the kitchen. The country-girl,
willing to give her utmost assistance, proposed to make an Indian cake,
after her mother's peculiar method, of easy manufacture, and which
she could vouch for as possessing a richness, and, if rightly
prepared, a delicacy, unequalled by any other mode of breakfast-cake.
Hepzibah gladly assenting, the kitchen was soon the scene of
savory preparation. Perchance, amid their proper element of smoke,
which eddied forth from the ill-constructed chimney, the ghosts of
departed cook-maids looked wonderingly on, or peeped down the great
breadth of the flue, despising the simplicity of the projected meal,
yet ineffectually pining to thrust their shadowy hands into each
inchoate dish. The half-starved rats, at any rate, stole visibly
out of their hiding-places, and sat on their hind-legs, snuffing the
fumy atmosphere, and wistfully awaiting an opportunity to nibble.
Hepzibah had no natural turn for cookery, and, to say the truth,
had fairly incurred her present meagreness by often choosing to
go without her dinner rather than be attendant on the rotation of
the spit, or ebullition of the pot. Her zeal over the fire,
therefore, was quite an heroic test of sentiment. It was touching,
and positively worthy of tears (if Phoebe, the only spectator, except
the rats and ghosts aforesaid, had not been better employed than
in shedding them), to see her rake out a bed of fresh and glowing
coals, and proceed to broil the mackerel. Her usually pale cheeks
were all ablaze with heat and hurry. She watched the fish with
as much tender care and minuteness of attention as if,--we know
not how to express it otherwise,--as if her own heart were on the
gridiron, and her immortal happiness were involved in its being
done precisely to a turn!
Life, within doors, has few pleasanter prospects than a neatly
arranged and well-provisioned breakfast-table. We come to it
freshly, in the dewy youth of the day, and when our spiritual
and sensual elements are in better accord than at a later period;
so that the material delights of the morning meal are capable of
being fully enjoyed, without any very grievous reproaches, whether
gastric or conscientious, for yielding even a trifle overmuch to
the animal department of our nature. The thoughts, too, that run
around the ring of familiar guests have a piquancy and mirthfulness,
and oftentimes a vivid truth, which more rarely find their way into
the elaborate intercourse of dinner. Hepzibah's small and ancient
table, supported on its slender and graceful legs, and covered with
a cloth of the richest damask, looked worthy to be the scene and
centre of one of the cheerfullest of parties. The vapor of the broiled
fish arose like incense from the shrine of a barbarian idol, while
the fragrance of the Mocha might have gratified the nostrils of a
tutelary Lar, or whatever power has scope over a modern breakfast-table.
Phoebe's Indian cakes were the sweetest offering of all,--in their
hue befitting the rustic altars of the innocent and golden age,--or,
so brightly yellow were they, resembling some of the bread which was
changed to glistening gold when Midas tried to eat it. The butter
must not be forgotten,--butter which Phoebe herself had churned,
in her own rural home, and brought it to her cousin as a propitiatory
gift,--smelling of clover-blossoms, and diffusing the charm of
pastoral scenery through the dark-panelled parlor. All this, with
the quaint gorgeousness of the old china cups and saucers, and the
crested spoons, and a silver cream-jug (Hepzibah's only other article
of plate, and shaped like the rudest porringer), set out a board at
which the stateliest of old Colonel Pyncheon's guests need not have
scorned to take his place. But the Puritan's face scowled down out
of the picture, as if nothing on the table pleased his appetite.
By way of contributing what grace she could, Phoebe gathered
some roses and a few other flowers, possessing either scent or
beauty, and arranged them in a glass pitcher, which, having long
ago lost its handle, was so much the fitter for a flower-vase.
The early sunshine--as fresh as that which peeped into Eve's bower
while she and Adam sat at breakfast there--came twinkling through
the branches of the pear-tree, and fell quite across the table.
All was now ready. There were chairs and plates for three.
A chair and plate for Hepzibah,--the same for Phoebe,--but what
other guest did her cousin look for?
Throughout this preparation there had been a constant tremor in
Hepzibah's frame; an agitation so powerful that Phoebe could see
the quivering of her gaunt shadow, as thrown by the firelight on the
kitchen wall, or by the sunshine on the parlor floor. Its manifestations
were so various, and agreed so little with one another, that the girl
knew not what to make of it. Sometimes it seemed an ecstasy of
delight and happiness. At such moments, Hepzibah would fling out
her arms, and infold Phoebe in them, and kiss her cheek as tenderly
as ever her mother had; she appeared to do so by an inevitable impulse,
and as if her bosom were oppressed with tenderness, of which she must
needs pour out a little, in order to gain breathing-room. The next
moment, without any visible cause for the change, her unwonted joy
shrank back, appalled, as it were, and clothed itself in mourning;
or it ran and hid itself, so to speak, in the dungeon of her heart,
where it had long lain chained, while a cold, spectral sorrow took
the place of the imprisoned joy, that was afraid to be enfranchised,
--a sorrow as black as that was bright. She often broke into a
little, nervous, hysteric laugh, more touching than any tears could be;
and forthwith, as if to try which was the most touching, a gush of
tears would follow; or perhaps the laughter and tears came both
at once, and surrounded our poor Hepzibah, in a moral sense, with a
kind of pale, dim rainbow. Towards Phoebe, as we have said, she was
affectionate, --far tenderer than ever before, in their brief acquaintance,
except for that one kiss on the preceding night,--yet with a Continually
recurring pettishness and irritability. She would speak sharply to her;
then, throwing aside all the starched reserve of her ordinary manner,
ask pardon, and the next instant renew the just-forgiven injury.
At last, when their mutual labor was all finished, she took
Phoebe's hand in her own trembling one.
"Bear with me, my dear child," she cried; "for truly my heart is
full to the brim! Bear with me; for I love you, Phoebe, though
I speak so roughly. Think nothing of it, dearest child! By and by,
I shall be kind, and only kind!"
"My dearest cousin, cannot you tell me what has happened?" asked Phoebe,
with a sunny and tearful sympathy. "What is it that moves you so?"
"Hush! hush! He is coming!" whispered Hepzibah, hastily wiping
her eyes. "Let him see you first, Phoebe; for you are young and rosy,
and cannot help letting a smile break out whether or no. He always
liked bright faces! And mine is old now, and the tears are hardly dry
on it. He never could abide tears. There; draw the curtain a little,
so that the shadow may fall across his side of the table! But let there
be a good deal of sunshine, too; for he never was fond of gloom, as some
people are. He has had but little sunshine in his life,--poor Clifford,
--and, oh, what a black shadow. Poor, poor Clifford!"
Thus murmuring in an undertone, as if speaking rather to her
own heart than to Phoebe, the old gentlewoman stepped on tiptoe
about the room, making such arrangements as suggested
themselves at the crisis.
Meanwhile there was a step in the passage-way, above stairs.
Phoebe recognized it as the same which had passed upward, as
through her dream, in the night-time. The approaching guest,
whoever it might be, appeared to pause at the head of the staircase;
he paused twice or thrice in the descent; he paused again at the foot.
Each time, the delay seemed to be without purpose, but rather from
a forgetfulness of the purpose which had set him in motion, or as if
the person's feet came involuntarily to a stand-still because the
motive-power was too feeble to sustain his progress. Finally,
he made a long pause at the threshold of the parlor. He took hold
of the knob of the door; then loosened his grasp without opening it.
Hepzibah, her hands convulsively clasped, stood gazing at the entrance.
"Dear Cousin Hepzibah, pray don't look so!" said Phoebe, trembling;
for her cousin's emotion, and this mysteriously reluctant step,
made her feel as if a ghost were coming into the room. "You really
frighten me! Is something awful going to happen?"
"Hush!" whispered Hepzibah. "Be cheerful! whatever may happen,
be nothing but cheerful!"
The final pause at the threshold proved so long, that Hepzibah,
unable to endure the suspense, rushed forward, threw open the
door, and led in the stranger by the hand. At the first glance,
Phoebe saw an elderly personage, in an old-fashioned dressing-gown
of faded damask, and wearing his gray or almost white hair of an
unusual length. It quite overshadowed his forehead, except when
he thrust it back, and stared vaguely about the room. After a very
brief inspection of his face, it was easy to conceive that his footstep
must necessarily be such an one as that which, slowly and with as
indefinite an aim as a child's first journey across a floor, had just
brought him hitherward. Yet there were no tokens that his physical
strength might not have sufficed for a free and determined gait. It
was the spirit of the man that could not walk. The expression of his
countenance--while, notwithstanding it had the light of reason in it
--seemed to waver, and glimmer, and nearly to die away, and feebly to
recover itself again. It was like a flame which we see twinkling among
half-extinguished embers; we gaze at it more intently than if it were
a positive blaze, gushing vividly upward,--more intently, but with
a certain impatience, as if it ought either to kindle itself into
satisfactory splendor, or be at once extinguished.
For an instant after entering the room, the guest stood still,
retaining Hepzibah's hand instinctively, as a child does that
of the grown person who guides it. He saw Phoebe, however,
and caught an illumination from her youthful and pleasant aspect,
which, indeed, threw a cheerfulness about the parlor, like the
circle of reflected brilliancy around the glass vase of flowers
that was standing in the sunshine. He made a salutation, or,
to speak nearer the truth, an ill-defined, abortive attempt at
curtsy. Imperfect as it was, however, it conveyed an idea, or,
at least, gave a hint, of indescribable grace, such as no practised
art of external manners could have attained. It was too slight to
seize upon at the instant; yet, as recollected afterwards, seemed
to transfigure the whole man.
"Dear Clifford," said Hepzibah, in the tone with which one
soothes a wayward infant, "this is our cousin Phoebe,--little
Phoebe Pyncheon,--Arthur's only child, you know. She has come
from the country to stay with us awhile; for our old house has
grown to be very lonely now."
"Phoebe--Phoebe Pyncheon?--Phoebe?" repeated the guest, with
a strange, sluggish, ill-defined utterance. "Arthur's child! Ah,
I forget! No matter. She is very welcome!"
"Come, dear Clifford, take this chair," said Hepzibah, leading him
to his place. "Pray, Phoebe, lower the curtain a very little more.
Now let us begin breakfast."
The guest seated himself in the place assigned him, and looked
strangely around. He was evidently trying to grapple with the
present scene, and bring it home to his mind with a more
satisfactory distinctness. He desired to be certain, at least,
that he was here, in the low-studded, cross-beamed, oaken-panelled
parlor, and not in some other spot, which had stereotyped itself
into his senses. But the effort was too great to be sustained with
more than a fragmentary success. Continually, as we may express
it, he faded away out of his place; or, in other words, his mind
and consciousness took their departure, leaving his wasted, gray,
and melancholy figure--a substantial emptiness, a material
ghost--to occupy his seat at table. Again, after a blank moment,
there would be a flickering taper-gleam in his eyeballs. It
betokened that his spiritual part had returned, and was doing its
best to kindle the heart's household fire, and light up intellectual
lamps in the dark and ruinous mansion, where it was doomed to
be a forlorn inhabitant.
At one of these moments of less torpid, yet still imperfect
animation, Phoebe became convinced of what she had at first
rejected as too extravagant and startling an idea. She saw that
the person before her must have been the original of the beautiful
miniature in her cousin Hepzibah's possession. Indeed, with a
feminine eye for costume, she had at once identified the damask
dressing-gown, which enveloped him, as the same in figure, material,
and fashion, with that so elaborately represented in the picture.
This old, faded garment, with all its pristine brilliancy extinct,
seemed, in some indescribable way, to translate the wearer's untold
misfortune, and make it perceptible to the beholder's eye. It was
the better to be discerned, by this exterior type, how worn and
old were the soul's more immediate garments; that form and
countenance, the beauty and grace of which had almost transcended
the skill of the most exquisite of artists. It could the more
adequately be known that the soul of the man must have suffered
some miserable wrong, from its earthly experience. There he
seemed to sit, with a dim veil of decay and ruin betwixt him
and the world, but through which, at flitting intervals, might be
caught the same expression, so refined, so softly imaginative,
which Malbone--venturing a happy touch, with suspended breath
--had imparted to the miniature! There had been something so
innately characteristic in this look, that all the dusky years,
and the burden of unfit calamity which had fallen upon him, did
not suffice utterly to destroy it.
Hepzibah had now poured out a cup of deliciously fragrant coffee,
and presented it to her guest. As his eyes met hers, he seemed
bewildered and disquieted.
"Is this you, Hepzibah?" he murmured sadly. then, more apart,
and perhaps unconscious that he was overheard, "How changed!
how changed! And is she angry with me? Why does she bend
her brow so?"
Poor Hepzibah! It was that wretched scowl which time and her
near-sightedness, and the fret of inward discomfort, had rendered
so habitual that any vehemence of mood invariably evoked it. But
at the indistinct murmur of his words her whole face grew tender,
and even lovely, with sorrowful affection; the harshness of her
features disappeared, as it were, behind the warm and misty glow.
"Angry! she repeated; "angry with you, Clifford!"
Her tone, as she uttered the exclamation, had a plaintive and really
exquisite melody thrilling through it, yet without subduing a certain
something which an obtuse auditor might still have mistaken for asperity.
It was as if some transcendent musician should draw a soul-thrilling
sweetness out of a cracked instrument, which makes its physical imperfection
heard in the midst of ethereal harmony,--so deep was the sensibility that
found an organ in Hepzibah's voice!
"There is nothing but love, here, Clifford," she added,--"nothing
but love! You are at home!"
The guest responded to her tone by a smile, which did not half
light up his face. Feeble as it was, however, and gone in a
moment, it had a charm of wonderful beauty. It was followed
by a coarser expression; or one that had the effect of coarseness
on the fine mould and outline of his countenance, because there
was nothing intellectual to temper it. It was a look of appetite.
He ate food with what might almost be termed voracity; and seemed
to forget himself, Hepzibah, the young girl, and everything else
around him, in the sensual enjoyment which the bountifully spread
table afforded. In his natural system, though high-wrought and
delicately refined, a sensibility to the delights of the palate
was probably inherent. It would have been kept in check, however,
and even converted into an accomplishment, and one of the thousand
modes of intellectual culture, had his more ethereal characteristics
retained their vigor. But as it existed now, the effect was painful
and made Phoebe droop her eyes.
In a little while the guest became sensible of the fragrance of
the yet untasted coffee. He quaffed it eagerly. The subtle
essence acted on him like a charmed draught, and caused the opaque
substance of his animal being to grow transparent, or, at least,
translucent; so that a spiritual gleam was transmitted through it,
with a clearer lustre than hitherto.
"More, more!" he cried, with nervous haste in his utterance, as if
anxious to retain his grasp of what sought to escape him. "This is
what I need! Give me more!"
Under this delicate and powerful influence he sat more erect,
and looked out from his eyes with a glance that took note of what
it rested on. It was not so much that his expression grew more
intellectual; this, though it had its share, was not the most
peculiar effect. Neither was what we call the moral nature so
forcibly awakened as to present itself in remarkable prominence.
But a certain fine temper of being was now not brought out in
full relief, but changeably and imperfectly betrayed, of which it
was the function to deal with all beautiful and enjoyable things.
In a character where it should exist as the chief attribute, it
would bestow on its possessor an exquisite taste, and an enviable
susceptibility of happiness. Beauty would be his life; his
aspirations would all tend toward it; and, allowing his frame and
physical organs to be in consonance, his own developments
would likewise be beautiful. Such a man should have nothing to
do with sorrow; nothing with strife; nothing with the martyrdom
which, in an infinite variety of shapes, awaits those who have the
heart, and will, and conscience, to fight a battle with the world.
To these heroic tempers, such martyrdom is the richest meed in the
world's gift. To the individual before us, it could only be a grief,
intense in due proportion with the severity of the infliction. He
had no right to be a martyr; and, beholding him so fit to be happy
and so feeble for all other purposes, a generous, strong, and noble
spirit would, methinks, have been ready to sacrifice what little
enjoyment it might have planned for itself, --it would have flung
down the hopes, so paltry in its regard,--if thereby the wintry
blasts of our rude sphere might come tempered to such a man.
Not to speak it harshly or scornfully, it seemed Clifford's nature
to be a Sybarite. It was perceptible, even there, in the dark old
parlor, in the inevitable polarity with which his eyes were
attracted towards the quivering play of sunbeams through the
shadowy foliage. It was seen in his appreciating notice of the
vase of flowers, the scent of which he inhaled with a zest almost
peculiar to a physical organization so refined that spiritual
ingredients are moulded in with it. It was betrayed in the
unconscious smile with which he regarded Phoebe, whose fresh
and maidenly figure was both sunshine and flowers,--their essence,
in a prettier and more agreeable mode of manifestation. Not less
evident was this love and necessity for the Beautiful, in the
instinctive caution with which, even so soon, his eyes turned
away from his hostess, and wandered to any quarter rather than
come back. It was Hepzibah's misfortune,--not Clifford's fault.
How could he,--so yellow as she was, so wrinkled, so sad of
mien, with that odd uncouthness of a turban on her head, and
that most perverse of scowls contorting her brow,--how could he
love to gaze at her? But, did he owe her no affection for so
much as she had silently given? He owed her nothing. A nature
like Clifford's can contract no debts of that kind. It is--we
say it without censure, nor in diminution of the claim which it
indefeasibly possesses on beings of another mould--it is always
selfish in its essence; and we must give it leave to be so, and
heap up our heroic and disinterested love upon it so much the
more, without a recompense. Poor Hepzibah knew this truth, or,
at least, acted on the instinct of it. So long estranged from
what was lovely as Clifford had been, she rejoiced--rejoiced,
though with a present sigh, and a secret purpose to shed tears
in her own chamber that he had brighter objects now before his
eyes than her aged and uncomely features. They never possessed
a charm; and if they had, the canker of her grief for him would
long since have destroyed it.
The guest leaned back in his chair. Mingled in his countenance
with a dreamy delight, there was a troubled look of effort and
unrest. He was seeking to make himself more fully sensible of
the scene around him; or, perhaps, dreading it to be a dream,
or a play of imagination, was vexing the fair moment with a
struggle for some added brilliancy and more durable illusion.
"How pleasant!--How delightful!" he murmured, but not as if
addressing any one. "Will it last? How balmy the atmosphere
through that open window! An open window! How beautiful that play
of sunshine! Those flowers, how very fragrant! That young girl's
face, how cheerful, how blooming!--a flower with the dew on it,
and sunbeams in the dew-drops! Ah! this must be all a dream!
A dream! A dream! But it has quite hidden the four stone walls"
Then his face darkened, as if the shadow of a cavern or a
dungeon had come over it; there was no more light in its expression
than might have come through the iron grates of a prison window-still
lessening, too, as if he were sinking farther into the depths. Phoebe
(being of that quickness and activity of temperament that she seldom
long refrained from taking a part, and generally a good one, in what
was going forward) now felt herself moved to address the stranger.
"Here is a new kind of rose, which I found this morning in the
garden," said she, choosing a small crimson one from among the
flowers in the vase. "There will be but five or six on the bush
this season. This is the most perfect of them all; not a speck of
blight or mildew in it. And how sweet it is!--sweet like no other
rose! One can never forget that scent!"
"Ah!--let me see!--let me hold it!" cried the guest, eagerly seizing
the flower, which, by the spell peculiar to remembered odors,
brought innumerable associations along with the fragrance that
it exhaled. "Thank you! This has done me good. I remember how
I used to prize this flower,--long ago, I suppose, very long
ago!--or was it only yesterday? It makes me feel young again!
Am I young? Either this remembrance is singularly distinct, or
this consciousness strangely dim! But how kind of the fair young
girl! Thank you! Thank you!"
The favorable excitement derived from this little crimson rose
afforded Clifford the brightest moment which he enjoyed at the
breakfast-table. It might have lasted longer, but that his eyes
happened, soon afterwards, to rest on the face of the old Puritan,
who, out of his dingy frame and lustreless canvas, was looking
down on the scene like a ghost, and a most ill-tempered and
ungenial one. The guest made an impatient gesture of the hand,
and addressed Hepzibah with what might easily be recognized as
the licensed irritability of a petted member of the family.
"Hepzibah!--Hepzibah!" cried he with no little force and
distinctness, "why do you keep that odious picture on the wall?
Yes, yes!--that is precisely your taste! I have told you, a
thousand times, that it was the evil genius of the house!--my evil
genius particularly! Take it down, at once!"
"Dear Clifford," said Hepzibah sadly, "you know it cannot be!"
"Then, at all events," continued he, still speaking with some
energy,"pray cover it with a crimson curtain, broad enough to
hang in folds, and with a golden border and tassels. I cannot
bear it! It must not stare me in the face!"
"Yes, dear Clifford, the picture shall be covered," said Hepzibah
soothingly. "There is a crimson curtain in a trunk above stairs,--a
little faded and moth-eaten, I'm afraid,--but Phoebe and I will do
wonders with it."
"This very day, remember" said he; and then added, in a low,
self-communing voice, "Why should we live in this dismal house
at all? Why not go to the South of France?--to Italy?--Paris,
Naples, Venice, Rome? Hepzibah will say we have not the
means. A droll idea that!"
He smiled to himself, and threw a glance of fine sarcastic
meaning towards Hepzibah.
But the several moods of feeling, faintly as they were marked,
through which he had passed, occurring in so brief an interval of
time, had evidently wearied the stranger. He was probably
accustomed to a sad monotony of life, not so much flowing in a
stream, however sluggish, as stagnating in a pool around his feet.
A slumberous veil diffused itself over his countenance, and had an
effect, morally speaking, on its naturally delicate and elegant
outline, like that which a brooding mist, with no sunshine in it,
throws over the features of a landscape. He appeared to become
grosser,--almost cloddish. If aught of interest or beauty--even
ruined beauty--had heretofore been visible in this man, the beholder
might now begin to doubt it, and to accuse his own imagination of
deluding him with whatever grace had flickered over that visage,
and whatever exquisite lustre had gleamed in those filmy eyes.
Before he had quite sunken away, however, the sharp and peevish tinkle
of the shop-bell made itself audible. Striking most disagreeably on
Clifford's auditory organs and the characteristic sensibility of his
nerves, it caused him to start upright out of his chair.
"Good heavens, Hepzibah! what horrible disturbance have we
now in the house?" cried he, wreaking his resentful impatience
--as a matter of course, and a custom of old--on the one person
in the world that loved him." I have never heard such a hateful
clamor! Why do you permit it? In the name of all dissonance,
what can it be?"
It was very remarkable into what prominent relief--even as if
a dim picture should leap suddenly from its canvas--Clifford's
character was thrown by this apparently trifling annoyance.
The secret was, that an individual of his temper can always
be pricked more acutely through his sense of the beautiful and
harmonious than through his heart. It is even possible--for similar
cases have often happened--that if Clifford, in his foregoing life,
had enjoyed the means of cultivating his taste to its utmost
perfectibility, that subtile attribute might, before this period,
have completely eaten out or filed away his affections. Shall we
venture to pronounce, therefore, that his long and black calamity
may not have had a redeeming drop of mercy at the bottom?
"Dear Clifford, I wish I could keep the sound from your ears,"
said Hepzibah, patiently, but reddening with a painful suffusion
of shame. "It is very disagreeable even to me. But, do you know,
Clifford, I have something to tell you? This ugly noise,--pray run,
Phoebe, and see who is there!--this naughty little tinkle is nothing
but our shop-bell!"
"Shop-bell!" repeated Clifford, with a bewildered stare.
"Yes, our shop-bell," said Hepzibah, a certain natural dignity,
mingled with deep emotion, now asserting itself in her manner.
"For you must know, dearest Clifford, that we are very poor.
And there was no other resource, but either to accept assistance
from a hand that I would push aside (and so would you!) were
it to offer bread when we were dying for it,--no help, save from
him, or else to earn our subsistence with my own hands! Alone,
I might have been content to starve. But you were to be given
back to me! Do you think, then, dear Clifford," added she, with
a wretched smile, "that I have brought an irretrievable disgrace
on the old house, by opening a little shop in the front gable?
Our great-great-grandfather did the same, when there was far less
need! Are you ashamed of me?"
"Shame! Disgrace! Do you speak these words to me, Hepzibah?"
said Clifford,--not angrily, however; for when a man's spirit has
been thoroughly crushed, he may be peevish at small offences, but
never resentful of great ones. So he spoke with only a grieved
emotion. "It was not kind to say so, Hepzibah! What shame can
befall me now?"
And then the unnerved man--he that had been born for enjoyment,
but had met a doom so very wretched--burst into a woman's passion
of tears. It was but of brief continuance, however; soon leaving
him in a quiescent, and, to judge by his countenance, not an
uncomfortable state. From this mood, too, he partially rallied
for an instant, and looked at Hepzibah with a smile, the keen,
half-derisory purport of which was a puzzle to her.
"Are we so very poor, Hepzibah?" said he.
Finally, his chair being deep and softly cushioned, Clifford fell
asleep. Hearing the more regular rise and fall of his breath (which,
however, even then, instead of being strong and full, had a feeble kind
of tremor, corresponding with the lack of vigor in his character),
--hearing these tokens of settled slumber, Hepzibah seized the opportunity
to peruse his face more attentively than she had yet dared to do. Her
heart melted away in tears; her profoundest spirit sent forth a moaning
voice, low, gentle, but inexpressibly sad. In this depth of grief and
pity she felt that there was no irreverence in gazing at his altered,
aged, faded, ruined face. But no sooner was she a little relieved than
her conscience smote her for gazing curiously at him, now that he was
so changed; and, turning hastily away, Hepzibah let down the curtain
over the sunny window, and left Clifford to slumber there.
VIII The Pyncheon of To-day