Part 5 out of 6
folly, neither,--to conceal the amount of his property by making
distant and foreign investments, perhaps under other names than
his own, and by various means, familiar enough to capitalists, but
unnecessary here to be specified. By Uncle Jaffrey's last will
and testament, as you are aware, his entire property was bequeathed
to me, with the single exception of a life interest to yourself in
this old family mansion, and the strip of patrimonial estate
remaining attached to it."
"And do you seek to deprive us of that?" asked Hepzibah, unable
to restrain her bitter contempt." Is this your price for ceasing
to persecute poor Clifford?"
"Certainly not, my dear cousin!" answered the Judge, smiling
benevolently. "On the contrary, as you must do me the justice to
own, I have constantly expressed my readiness to double or treble
your resources, whenever you should make up your mind to accept
any kindness of that nature at the hands of your kinsman. No, no!
But here lies the gist of the matter. Of my uncle's unquestionably
great estate, as I have said, not the half--no, not one third, as I
am fully convinced--was apparent after his death. Now, I have the
best possible reasons for believing that your brother Clifford can
give me a clew to the recovery of the remainder."
"Clifford!--Clifford know of any hidden wealth? Clifford have it
in his power to make you rich?" cried the old gentlewoman, affected
with a sense of something like ridicule at the idea. "Impossible!
You deceive yourself! It is really a thing to laugh at!"
"It is as certain as that I stand here!" said Judge Pyncheon,
striking his gold-headed cane on the floor, and at the same time
stamping his foot, as if to express his conviction the more forcibly
by the whole emphasis of his substantial person. "Clifford told
me so himself!"
"No, no!" exclaimed Hepzibah incredulously. "You are dreaming,
"I do not belong to the dreaming class of men," said the Judge
quietly. "Some months before my uncle's death, Clifford boasted
to me of the possession of the secret of incalculable wealth. His
purpose was to taunt me, and excite my curiosity. I know it well.
But, from a pretty distinct recollection of the particulars of our
conversation, I am thoroughly convinced that there was truth in
what he said. Clifford, at this moment, if he chooses,--and choose
he must!--can inform me where to find the schedule, the documents,
the evidences, in whatever shape they exist, of the vast amount of
Uncle Jaffrey's missing property. He has the secret. His boast
was no idle word. It had a directness, an emphasis, a particularity,
that showed a backbone of solid meaning within the mystery of
"But what could have been Clifford's object," asked Hepzibah,
"in concealing it so long?"
"It was one of the bad impulses of our fallen nature," replied the
Judge, turning up his eyes. "He looked upon me as his enemy.
He considered me as the cause of his overwhelming disgrace,
his imminent peril of death, his irretrievable ruin. There was
no great probability, therefore, of his volunteering information,
out of his dungeon, that should elevate me still higher on the
ladder of prosperity. But the moment has now come when he must
give up his secret."
"And what if he should refuse?" inquired Hepzibah. "Or,--as I
steadfastly believe,--what if he has no knowledge of this wealth?"
"My dear cousin," said Judge Pyncheon, with a quietude which
he had the power of making more formidable than any violence,
"since your brother's return, I have taken the precaution (a highly
proper one in the near kinsman and natural guardian of an
individual so situated) to have his deportment and habits
constantly and carefully overlooked. Your neighbors have been
eye-witnesses to whatever has passed in the garden. The butcher,
the baker, the fish-monger, some of the customers of your shop,
and many a prying old woman, have told me several of the secrets
of your interior. A still larger circle--I myself, among the
rest--can testify to his extravagances at the arched window.
Thousands beheld him, a week or two ago, on the point of finging
himself thence into the street. From all this testimony, I am
led to apprehend--reluctantly, and with deep grief--that Clifford's
misfortunes have so affected his intellect, never very strong,
that he cannot safely remain at large. The alternative, you must
be aware,--and its adoption will depend entirely on the decision
which I am now about to make,--the alternative is his confinement,
probably for the remainder of his life, in a public asylum for
persons in his unfortunate state of mind."
"You cannot mean it!" shrieked Hepzibah.
"Should my cousin Clifford," continued Judge Pyncheon, wholly
undisturbed, "from mere malice, and hatred of one whose
interests ought naturally to be dear to him,--a mode of passion
that, as often as any other, indicates mental disease,--should he
refuse me the information so important to myself, and which he
assuredly possesses, I shall consider it the one needed jot of
evidence to satisfy my mind of his insanity. And, once sure of
the course pointed out by conscience, you know me too well,
Cousin Hepzibah, to entertain a doubt that I shall pursue it."
"O Jaffrey,--Cousin Jaffrey." cried Hepzibah mournfully, not
passionately, "it is you that are diseased in mind, not Clifford!
You have forgotten that a woman was your mother!--that you
have had sisters, brothers, children of your own!--or that there
ever was affection between man and man, or pity from one man
to another, in this miserable world! Else, how could you have
dreamed of this? You are not young, Cousin Jaffrey!--no, nor
middle-aged,--but already an old man! The hair is white upon
your head! How many years have you to live? Are you not rich
enough for that little time? Shall you be hungry,--shall you
lack clothes, or a roof to shelter you,--between this point
and the grave? No! but, with the half of what you now possess,
you could revel in costly food and wines, and build a house twice
as splendid as you now inhabit, and make a far greater show to the
world,--and yet leave riches to your only son, to make him bless
the hour of your death! Then, why should you do this cruel,
cruel thing?--so mad a thing, that I know not whether to call it
wicked! Alas, Cousin Jaffrey, this hard and grasping spirit has
run in our blood these two hundred years. You are but doing
over again, in another shape, what your ancestor before you did,
and sending down to your posterity the curse inherited from him!"
"Talk sense, Hepzibah, for Heaven's sake!" exclaimed the Judge,
with the impatience natural to a reasonable man, on hearing
anything so utterly absurd as the above, in a discussion about
matters of business. "I have told you my determination. I am
not apt to change. Clifford must give up his secret, or take
the consequences. And let him decide quickly; for I have several
affairs to attend to this morning, and an important dinner
engagement with some political friends."
"Clifford has no secret!" answered Hepzibah. "And God will not
let you do the thing you meditate!"
"We shall see," said the unmoved Judge. "Meanwhile, choose whether
you will summon Clifford, and allow this business to be amicably
settled by an interview between two kinsmen, or drive me to harsher
measures, which I should be most happy to feel myself justified in
avoiding. The responsibility is altogether on your part."
"You are stronger than I," said Hepzibah, after a brief
consideration; "and you have no pity in your strength! Clifford
is not now insane; but the interview which you insist upon may
go far to make him so. Nevertheless, knowing you as I do,
I believe it to be my best course to allow you to judge for
yourself as to the improbability of his possessing any valuable
secret. I will call Clifford. Be merciful in your dealings with
him!--be far more merciful than your heart bids you be!--for God
is looking at you, Jaffrey Pyncheon!"
The Judge followed his cousin from the shop, where the
foregoing conversation had passed, into the parlor, and flung
himself heavily in to the great ancestral chair. Many a former
Pyncheon had found repose in its capacious arms: rosy children,
after their sports; young men, dreamy with love; grown men,
weary with cares; old men, burdened with winters, --they had
mused, and slumbered, and departed to a yet profounder sleep.
It had been a long tradition, though a doubtful one, that this
was the very chair, seated in which the earliest of the Judge's
New England forefathers--he whose picture still hung upon the
wall--had given a dead man's silent and stern reception to the
throng of distinguished guests. From that hour of evil omen
until the present, it may be,--though we know not the secret
of his heart,--but it may be that no wearier and sadder man
had ever sunk into the chair than this same Judge Pyncheon,
whom we have just beheld so immitigably hard and resolute.
Surely, it must have been at no slight cost that he had thus
fortified his soul with iron. Such calmness is a mightier effort
than the violence of weaker men. And there was yet a heavy task
for him to do. Was it a little matter--a trifle to be prepared
for in a single moment, and to be rested from in another moment,
--that he must now, after thirty years, encounter a kinsman
risen from a living tomb, and wrench a secret from him, or else
consign him to a living tomb again?
"Did you speak?" asked Hepzibah, looking in from the threshold
of the parlor; for she imagined that the Judge had uttered some
sound which she was anxious to interpret as a relenting impulse.
"I thought you called me back."
"No, no" gruffly answered Judge Pyncheon with a harsh frown,
while his brow grew almost a black purple, in the shadow of the
room. "Why should I call you back? Time flies! Bid Clifford
come to me!"
The Judge had taken his watch from his vest pocket and now
held it in his hand, measuring the interval which was to ensue
before the appearance of Clifford.
XVI Clifford's Chamber
NEVER had the old house appeared so dismal to poor Hepzibah
as when she departed on that wretched errand. There was a
strange aspect in it. As she trode along the foot-worn passages,
and opened one crazy door after another, and ascended the
creaking staircase, she gazed wistfully and fearfully around.
It would have been no marvel, to her excited mind, if, behind
or beside her, there had been the rustle of dead people's
garments, or pale visages awaiting her on the landing-place above.
Her nerves were set all ajar by the scene of passion and terror
through which she had just struggled. Her colloquy with Judge
Pyncheon, who so perfectly represented the person and attributes
of the founder of the family, had called back the dreary past.
It weighed upon her heart. Whatever she had heard, from legendary
aunts and grandmothers, concerning the good or evil fortunes of
the Pyncheons,--stories which had heretofore been kept warm in
her remembrance by the chimney-corner glow that was associated
with them,--now recurred to her, sombre, ghastly, cold, like most
passages of family history, when brooded over in melancholy
mood. The whole seemed little else but a series of calamity,
reproducing itself in successive generations, with one general hue,
and varying in little, save the outline. But Hepzibah now felt as
if the Judge, and Clifford, and herself,--they three together,
--were on the point of adding another incident to the annals of
the house, with a bolder relief of wrong and sorrow, which would
cause it to stand out from all the rest. Thus it is that the grief
of the passing moment takes upon itself an individuality, and a
character of climax, which it is destined to lose after a while,
and to fade into the dark gray tissue common to the grave or glad
events of many years ago. It is but for a moment, comparatively,
that anything looks strange or startling,--a truth that has the
bitter and the sweet in it.
But Hepzibah could not rid herself of the sense of something
unprecedented at that instant passing and soon to be accomplished.
Her nerves were in a shake. Instinctively she paused before the
arched window, and looked out upon the street, in order to seize
its permanent objects with her mental grasp, and thus to steady
herself from the reel and vibration which affected her more
immediate sphere. It brought her up, as we may say, with a kind
of shock, when she beheld everything under the same appearance
as the day before, and numberless preceding days, except for the
difference between sunshine and sullen storm. Her eyes travelled
along the street, from doorstep to doorstep, noting the wet
sidewalks, with here and there a puddle in hollows that had been
imperceptible until filled with water. She screwed her dim optics
to their acutest point, in the hope of making out, with greater
distinctness, a certain window, where she half saw, half guessed,
that a tailor's seamstress was sitting at her work. Hepzibah
flung herself upon that unknown woman's companionship, even thus
far off. Then she was attracted by a chaise rapidly passing,
and watched its moist and glistening top, and its splashing wheels,
until it had turned the corner, and refused to carry any further
her idly trifling, because appalled and overburdened, mind.
When the vehicle had disappeared, she allowed herself still
another loitering moment; for the patched figure of good Uncle
Venner was now visible, coming slowly from the head of the street
downward, with a rheumatic limp, because the east wind had got
into his joints. Hepzibah wished that he would pass yet more
slowly, and befriend her shivering solitude a little longer.
Anything that would take her out of the grievous present, and
interpose human beings betwixt herself and what was nearest to
her,--whatever would defer for an instant the inevitable errand
on which she was bound,--all such impediments were welcome. Next
to the lightest heart, the heaviest is apt to be most playful.
Hepzibah had little hardihood for her own proper pain, and far
less for what she must inflict on Clifford. Of so slight a nature,
and so shattered by his previous calamities, it could not well be
short of utter ruin to bring him face to face with the hard,
relentless man who had been his evil destiny through life. Even
had there been no bitter recollections, nor any hostile interest
now at stake between them, the mere natural repugnance of the
more sensitive system to the massive, weighty, and unimpressible
one, must, in itself, have been disastrous to the former. It would
be like flinging a porcelain vase, with already a crack in it,
against a granite column. Never before had Hepzibah so adequately
estimated the powerful character of her cousin Jaffrey,--powerful
by intellect, energy of will, the long habit of acting among men,
and, as she believed, by his unscrupulous pursuit of selfish ends
through evil means. It did but increase the difficulty that Judge
Pyncheon was under a delusion as to the secret which he supposed
Clifford to possess. Men of his strength of purpose and customary
sagacity, if they chance to adopt a mistaken opinion in practical
matters, so wedge it and fasten it among things known to be true,
that to wrench it out of their minds is hardly less difficult than
pulling up an oak. Thus, as the Judge required an impossibility of
Clifford, the latter, as he could not perform it, must needs perish.
For what, in the grasp of a man like this, was to become of Clifford's
soft poetic nature, that never should have had a task more stubborn
than to set a life of beautiful enjoyment to the flow and rhythm of
musical cadences! Indeed, what had become of it already? Broken!
Blighted! All but annihilated! Soon to be wholly so!
For a moment, the thought crossed Hepzibah's mind, whether
Clifford might not really have such knowledge of their deceased
uncle's vanished estate as the Judge imputed to him. She remembered
some vague intimations, on her brother's part, which--if the
supposition were not essentially preposterous --might have been
so interpreted. There had been schemes of travel and residence
abroad, day-dreams of brilliant life at home, and splendid castles
in the air, which it would have required boundless wealth to build
and realize. Had this wealth been in her power, how gladly would
Hepzibah have bestowed it all upon her iron-hearted kinsman, to buy
for Clifford the freedom and seclusion of the desolate old house!
But she believed that her brother's schemes were as destitute of
actual substance and purpose as a child's pictures of its future life,
while sitting in a little chair by its mother's knee. Clifford had
none but shadowy gold at his command; and it was not the stuff to
satisfy Judge Pyncheon!
Was there no help in their extremity? It seemed strange that there
should be none, with a city round about her. It would be so easy
to throw up the window, and send forth a shriek, at the strange
agony of which everybody would come hastening to the rescue,
well understanding it to be the cry of a human soul, at some
dreadful crisis! But how wild, how almost laughable, the fatality,
--and yet how continually it comes to pass, thought Hepzibah, in this
dull delirium of a world,--that whosoever, and with however kindly
a purpose, should come to help, they would be sure to help the
strongest side! Might and wrong combined, like iron magnetized,
are endowed with irresistible attraction. There would be Judge
Pyncheon, --a person eminent in the public view, of high station
and great wealth, a philanthropist, a member of Congress and of the
church, and intimately associated with whatever else bestows good
name,--so imposing, in these advantageous lights, that Hepzibah
herself could hardly help shrinking from her own conclusions as
to his hollow integrity. The Judge, on one side! And who, on the
other? The guilty Clifford! Once a byword! Now, an indistinctly
Nevertheless, in spite of this perception that the Judge would
draw all human aid to his own behalf, Hepzibah was so
unaccustomed to act for herself, that the least word of counsel
would have swayed her to any mode of action. Little Phoebe
Pyncheon would at once have lighted up the whole scene, if not
by any available suggestion, yet simply by the warm vivacity of
her character. The idea of the artist occurred to Hepzibah.
Young and unknown, mere vagrant adventurer as he was, she had
been conscious of a force in Holgrave which might well adapt him
to be the champion of a crisis. With this thought in her mind,
she unbolted a door, cobwebbed and long disused, but which had
served as a former medium of communication between her own part
of the house and the gable where the wandering daguerreotypist had
now established his temporary home. He was not there. A book, face
downward, on the table, a roll of manuscript, a half-written sheet,
a newspaper, some tools of his present occupation, and several
rejected daguerreotypes, conveyed an impression as if he were
close at hand. But, at this period of the day, as Hepzibah might
have anticipated, the artist was at his public rooms. With an
impulse of idle curiosity, that flickered among her heavy thoughts,
she looked at one of the daguerreotypes, and beheld Judge Pyncheon
frowning at her. Fate stared her in the face. She turned back from
her fruitless quest, with a heartsinking sense of disappointment.
In all her years of seclusion, she had never felt, as now, what it
was to be alone. It seemed as if the house stood in a desert, or,
by some spell, was made invisible to those who dwelt around, or
passed beside it; so that any mode of misfortune, miserable accident,
or crime might happen in it without the possibility of aid. In her
grief and wounded pride, Hepzibah had spent her life in divesting
herself of friends; she had wilfully cast off the support which God
has ordained his creatures to need from one another; and it was now
her punishment, that Clifford and herself would fall the easier
victims to their kindred enemy.
Returning to the arched window, she lifted her eyes,--scowling,
poor, dim-sighted Hepzibah, in the face of Heaven!--and strove
hard to send up a prayer through the dense gray pavement of clouds.
Those mists had gathered, as if to symbolize a great, brooding mass
of human trouble, doubt, confusion, and chill indifference, between
earth and the better regions. Her faith was too weak; the prayer too
heavy to be thus uplifted. It fell back, a lump of lead, upon her
heart. It smote her with the wretched conviction that Providence
intermeddled not in these petty wrongs of one individual to his
fellow, nor had any balm for these little agonies of a solitary
soul; but shed its justice, and its mercy, in a broad, sunlike
sweep, over half the universe at once. Its vastness made it nothing.
But Hepzibah did not see that, just as there comes a warm sunbeam
into every cottage window, so comes a lovebeam of God's care and
pity for every separate need.
At last, finding no other pretext for deferring the torture that she
was to inflict on Clifford,--her reluctance to which was the true
cause of her loitering at the window, her search for the artist,
and even her abortive prayer,--dreading, also, to hear the stern
voice of Judge Pyncheon from below stairs, chiding her delay,--she
crept slowly, a pale, grief-stricken figure, a dismal shape of woman,
with almost torpid limbs, slowly to her brother's door, and knocked!
There was no reply.
And how should there have been? Her hand, tremulous with the
shrinking purpose which directed it, had smitten so feebly against
the door that the sound could hardly have gone inward. She knocked
again. Still no response! Nor was it to be wondered at. She had
struck with the entire force of her heart's vibration, communicating,
by some subtile magnetism, her own terror to the summons. Clifford
would turn his face to the pillow, and cover his head beneath the
bedclothes, like a startled child at midnight. She knocked a third
time, three regular strokes, gentle, but perfectly distinct, and with
meaning in them; for, modulate it with what cautious art we will,
the hand cannot help playing some tune of what we feel upon the
Clifford returned no answer.
"Clifford! dear brother." said Hepzibah. "Shall I come in?"
Two or three times, and more, Hepzibah repeated his name,
without result; till, thinking her brother's sleep unwontedly
profound, she undid the door, and entering, found the chamber
vacant. How could he have come forth, and when, without her
knowledge? Was it possible that, in spite of the stormy day,
and worn out with the irksomeness within doors he had betaken
himself to his customary haunt in the garden, and was now
shivering under the cheerless shelter of the summer-house? She
hastily threw up a window, thrust forth her turbaned head and the
half of her gaunt figure, and searched the whole garden through,
as completely as her dim vision would allow. She could see the
interior of the summer-house, and its circular seat, kept moist
by the droppings of the roof. It had no occupant. Clifford was
not thereabouts; unless, indeed, he had crept for concealment
(as, for a moment, Hepzibah fancied might be the case) into a great,
wet mass of tangled and broad-leaved shadow, where the squash-vines
were clambering tumultuously upon an old wooden framework,
set casually aslant against the fence. This could not be,
however; he was not there; for, while Hepzibah was looking,
a strange grimalkin stole forth from the very spot, and picked
his way across the garden. Twice he paused to snuff the air,
and then anew directed his course towards the parlor window.
Whether it was only on account of the stealthy, prying manner
common to the race, or that this cat seemed to have more than
ordinary mischief in his thoughts, the old gentlewoman, in spite
of her much perplexity, felt an impulse to drive the animal away,
and accordingly flung down a window stick. The cat stared up at her,
like a detected thief or murderer, and, the next instant, took
to flight. No other living creature was visible in the garden.
Chanticleer and his family had either not left their roost,
disheartened by the interminable rain, or had done the next wisest
thing, by seasonably returning to it. Hepzibah closed the window.
But where was Clifford? Could it be that, aware of the presence
of his Evil Destiny, he had crept silently down the staircase,
while the Judge and Hepzibah stood talking in the shop, and had
softly undone the fastenings of the outer door, and made his
escape into the street? With that thought, she seemed to behold
his gray, wrinkled, yet childlike aspect, in the old-fashioned
garments which he wore about the house; a figure such as one
sometimes imagines himself to be, with the world's eye upon
him, in a troubled dream. This figure of her wretched brother
would go wandering through the city, attracting all eyes, and
everybody's wonder and repugnance, like a ghost, the more to be
shuddered at because visible at noontide. To incur the ridicule
of the younger crowd, that knew him not,--the harsher scorn and
indignation of a few old men, who might recall his once familiar
features! To be the sport of boys, who, when old enough to run
about the streets, have no more reverence for what is beautiful
and holy, nor pity for what is sad,--no more sense of sacred
misery, sanctifying the human shape in which it embodies itself,
--than if Satan were the father of them all! Goaded by their
taunts, their loud, shrill cries, and cruel laughter,--insulted
by the filth of the public ways, which they would fling upon him,
--or, as it might well be, distracted by the mere strangeness of
his situation, though nobody should afflict him with so much as
a thoughtless word,--what wonder if Clifford were to break into
some wild extravagance which was certain to be interpreted as
lunacy? Thus Judge Pyncheon's fiendish scheme would be ready
accomplished to his hands!
Then Hepzibah reflected that the town was almost completely
water-girdled. The wharves stretched out towards the centre of
the harbor, and, in this inclement weather, were deserted by the
ordinary throng of merchants, laborers, and sea-faring men; each
wharf a solitude, with the vessels moored stem and stern, along
its misty length. Should her brother's aimless footsteps stray
thitherward, and he but bend, one moment, over the deep, black
tide, would he not bethink himself that here was the sure refuge
within his reach, and that, with a single step, or the slightest
overbalance of his body, he might be forever beyond his kinsman's
gripe? Oh, the temptation! To make of his ponderous sorrow a
security! To sink, with its leaden weight upon him, and never
The horror of this last conception was too much for Hepzibah.
Even Jaffrey Pyncheon must help her now She hastened down
the staircase, shrieking as she went.
"Clifford is gone!" she cried. "I cannot find my brother.
Help, Jaffrey Pyncheon! Some harm will happen to him!"
She threw open the parlor-door. But, what with the shade of
branches across the windows, and the smoke-blackened ceiling,
and the dark oak-panelling of the walls, there was hardly so
much daylight in the room that Hepzibah's imperfect sight could
accurately distinguish the Judge's figure. She was certain,
however, that she saw him sitting in the ancestral armchair,
near the centre of the floor, with his face somewhat averted,
and looking towards a window. So firm and quiet is the nervous
system of such men as Judge Pyncheon, that he had perhaps stirred
not more than once since her departure, but, in the hard composure
of his temperament, retained the position into which accident had
"I tell you, Jaffrey," cried Hepzibah impatiently, as she turned
from the parlor-door to search other rooms, "my brother is not in
his chamber! You must help me seek him!"
But Judge Pyncheon was not the man to let himself be startled
from an easy-chair with haste ill-befitting either the dignity
of his character or his broad personal basis, by the alarm of an
hysteric woman. Yet, considering his own interest in the matter,
he might have bestirred himself with a little more alacrity.
"Do you hear me, Jaffrey Pyncheon?" screamed Hepzibah, as she
again approached the parlor-door, after an ineffectual search
elsewhere. "Clifford is gone."
At this instant, on the threshold of the parlor, emerging from
within, appeared Clifford himself! His face was preternaturally
pale; so deadly white, indeed, that, through all the glimmering
indistinctness of the passageway, Hepzibah could discern his
features, as if a light fell on them alone. Their vivid and wild
expression seemed likewise sufficient to illuminate them; it was
an expression of scorn and mockery, coinciding with the emotions
indicated by his gesture. As Clifford stood on the threshold,
partly turning back, he pointed his finger within the parlor,
and shook it slowly as though he would have summoned, not Hepzibah
alone, but the whole world, to gaze at some object inconceivably
ridiculous. This action, so ill-timed and extravagant,--accompanied,
too, with a look that showed more like joy than any other kind of
excitement,--compelled Hepzibah to dread that her stern kinsman's
ominous visit had driven her poor brother to absolute insanity.
Nor could she otherwise account for the Judge's quiescent mood
than by supposing him craftily on the watch, while Clifford
developed these symptoms of a distracted mind.
"Be quiet, Clifford!" whispered his sister, raising her hand to
impress caution. "Oh, for Heaven's sake, be quiet!"
"Let him be quiet! What can he do better?" answered Clifford,
with a still wilder gesture, pointing into the room which he had
just quitted. "As for us, Hepzibah, we can dance now!--we can
sing, laugh, play, do what we will! The weight is gone, Hepzibah!
It is gone off this weary old world, and we may be as light-hearted
as little Phoebe herself."
And, in accordance with his words, he began to laugh, still
pointing his finger at the object, invisible to Hepzibah, within
the parlor. She was seized with a sudden intuition of some horrible
thing. She thrust herself past Clifford, and disappeared into the
room; but almost immediately returned, with a cry choking in her
throat. Gazing at her brother with an affrighted glance of inquiry,
she beheld him all in a tremor and a quake, from head to foot, while,
amid these commoted elements of passion or alarm, still flickered
his gusty mirth.
"My God! what is to become of us?" gasped Hepzibah.
"Come!" said Clifford in a tone of brief decision, most unlike what
was usual with him. "We stay here too long! Let us leave the old
house to our cousin Jaffrey! He will take good care of it!"
Hepzibah now noticed that Clifford had on a cloak,--a garment
of long ago,--in which he had constantly muffled himself during
these days of easterly storm. He beckoned with his hand, and
intimated, so far as she could comprehend him, his purpose that
they should go together from the house. There are chaotic, blind,
or drunken moments, in the lives of persons who lack real force
of character,--moments of test, in which courage would most assert
itself,--but where these individuals, if left to themselves,
stagger aimlessly along, or follow implicitly whatever guidance
may befall them, even if it be a child's. No matter how preposterous
or insane, a purpose is a Godsend to them. Hepzibah had reached
this point. Unaccustomed to action or responsibility,--full of
horror at what she had seen, and afraid to inquire, or almost to
imagine, how it had come to pass,--affrighted at the fatality which
seemed to pursue her brother,--stupefied by the dim, thick, stifling
atmosphere of dread which filled the house as with a death-smell,
and obliterated all definiteness of thought,--she yielded without
a question, and on the instant, to the will which Clifford expressed.
For herself, she was like a person in a dream, when the will always
sleeps. Clifford, ordinarily so destitute of this faculty, had found
it in the tension of the crisis.
"Why do you delay so?" cried he sharply. "Put on your cloak
and hood, or whatever it pleases you to wear! No matter what;
you cannot look beautiful nor brilliant, my poor Hepzibah! Take
your purse, with money in it, and come along!"
Hepzibah obeyed these instructions, as if nothing else were to be
done or thought of. She began to wonder, it is true, why she did
not wake up, and at what still more intolerable pitch of dizzy
trouble her spirit would struggle out of the maze, and make her
conscious that nothing of all this had actually happened. Of
course it was not real; no such black, easterly day as this had
yet begun to be; Judge Pyncheon had not talked with, her. Clifford
had not laughed, pointed, beckoned her away with him; but she
had merely been afflicted--as lonely sleepers often are--with a
great deal of unreasonable misery, in a morning dream!
"Now--now--I shall certainly awake!" thought Hepzibah, as she went
to and fro, making her little preparations. "I can bear it no longer
I must wake up now!"
But it came not, that awakening moment! It came not, even
when, just before they left the house, Clifford stole to the
parlor-door, and made a parting obeisance to the sole occupant
of the room.
"What an absurd figure the old fellow cuts now!" whispered he
to Hepzibah. "Just when he fancied he had me completely under
his thumb! Come, come; make haste! or he will start up, like
Giant Despair in pursuit of Christian and Hopeful, and catch
As they passed into the street, Clifford directed Hepzibah's
attention to something on one of the posts of the front door.
It was merely the initials of his own name, which, with somewhat
of his characteristic grace about the forms of the letters, he had
cut there when a boy. The brother and sister departed, and left
Judge Pyncheon sitting in the old home of his forefathers, all by
himself; so heavy and lumpish that we can liken him to nothing
better than a defunct nightmare, which had perished in the midst
of its wickedness, and left its flabby corpse on the breast of
the tormented one, to be gotten rid of as it might!
XVII The Flight of Two Owls
SUMMER as it was, the east wind set poor Hepzibah's few
remaining teeth chattering in her head, as she and Clifford faced
it, on their way up Pyncheon Street, and towards the centre of
the town. Not merely was it the shiver which this pitiless blast
brought to her frame (although her feet and hands, especially,
had never seemed so death-a-cold as now), but there was a moral
sensation, mingling itself with the physical chill, and causing
her to shake more in spirit than in body. The world's broad,
bleak atmosphere was all so comfortless! Such, indeed, is the
impression which it makes on every new adventurer, even if he
plunge into it while the warmest tide of life is bubbling through
his veins. What, then, must it have been to Hepzibah and
Clifford,--so time-stricken as they were, yet so like children
in their inexperience,--as they left the doorstep, and passed
from beneath the wide shelter of the Pyncheon Elm! They were
wandering all abroad, on precisely such a pilgrimage as a child
often meditates, to the world's end, with perhaps a sixpence and
a biscuit in his pocket. In Hepzibah's mind, there was the
wretched consciousness of being adrift. She had lost the faculty
of self-guidance; but, in view of the difficulties around her,
felt it hardly worth an effort to regain it, and was, moreover,
incapable of making one.
As they proceeded on their strange expedition, she now and then
cast a look sidelong at Clifford, and could not but observe that
he was possessed and swayed by a powerful excitement. It was
this, indeed, that gave him the control which he had at once, and
so irresistibly, established over his movements. It not a little
resembled the exhilaration of wine. Or, it might more fancifully
be compared to a joyous piece of music, played with wild vivacity,
but upon a disordered instrument. As the cracked jarring note
might always be heard, and as it jarred loudest amidst the loftiest
exultation of the melody, so was there a continual quake through
Clifford, causing him most to quiver while he wore a triumphant
smile, and seemed almost under a necessity to skip in his gait.
They met few people abroad, even on passing from the retired
neighborhood of the House of the Seven Gables into what was
ordinarily the more thronged and busier portion of the town.
Glistening sidewalks, with little pools of rain, here and there,
along their unequal surface; umbrellas displayed ostentatiously in
the shop-windows, as if the life of trade had concentrated itself
in that one article; wet leaves of the, horse-chestnut or elm-trees,
torn off untimely by the blast and scattered along the public way;
an unsightly, accumulation of mud in the middle of the street,
which perversely grew the more unclean for its long and laborious
washing,--these were the more definable points of a very sombre
picture. In the way of movement and human life, there was the
hasty rattle of a cab or coach, its driver protected by a waterproof
cap over his head and shoulders; the forlorn figure of an old man,
who seemed to have crept out of some subterranean sewer, and was
stooping along the kennel, and poking the wet rubbish with a stick,
in quest of rusty nails; a merchant or two, at the door of the
post-office, together with an editor and a miscellaneous politician,
awaiting a dilatory mail; a few visages of retired sea-captains at
the window of an insurance office, looking out vacantly at the vacant
street, blaspheming at the weather, and fretting at the dearth as
well of public news as local gossip. What a treasure-trove to
these venerable quidnuncs, could they have guessed the secret which
Hepzibah and Clifford were carrying along with them! But their two
figures attracted hardly so much notice as that of a young girl,
who passed at the same instant, and happened to raise her skirt
a trifle too high above her ankles. Had it been a sunny and
cheerful day, they could hardly have gone through the streets
without making themselves obnoxious to remark. Now, probably,
they were felt to be in keeping with the dismal and bitter weather,
and therefore did not stand out in strong relief, as if the sun
were shining on them, but melted into the gray gloom and were
forgotten as soon as gone.
Poor Hepzibah! Could she have understood this fact, it would have
brought her some little comfort; for, to all her other troubles,
--strange to say!--there was added the womanish and old-maiden-like
misery arising from a sense of unseemliness in her attire. Thus,
she was fain to shrink deeper into herself, as it were, as if in the
hope of making people suppose that here was only a cloak and hood,
threadbare and woefully faded, taking an airing in the midst of the
storm, without any wearer!
As they went on, the feeling of indistinctness and unreality kept
dimly hovering round about her, and so diffusing itself into her
system that one of her hands was hardly palpable to the touch of
the other. Any certainty would have been preferable to this. She
whispered to herself, again and again, "Am I awake?--Am I awake?"
and sometimes exposed her face to the chill spatter of the wind,
for the sake of its rude assurance that she was. Whether it was
Clifford's purpose, or only chance, had led them thither, they
now found themselves passing beneath the arched entrance of a
large structure of gray stone. Within, there was a spacious
breadth, and an airy height from floor to roof, now partially
filled with smoke and steam, which eddied voluminously upward
and formed a mimic cloud-region over their heads. A train of
cars was just ready for a start; the locomotive was fretting and
fuming, like a steed impatient for a headlong rush; and the bell
rang out its hasty peal, so well expressing the brief summons
which life vouchsafes to us in its hurried career. Without
question or delay,--with the irresistible decision, if not rather
to be called recklessness, which had so strangely taken possession
of him, and through him of Hepzibah,--Clifford impelled her
towards the cars, and assisted her to enter. The signal was given;
the engine puffed forth its short, quick breaths; the train began
its movement; and, along with a hundred other passengers, these
two unwonted travellers sped onward like the wind.
At last, therefore, and after so long estrangement from everything
that the world acted or enjoyed, they had been drawn into the
great current of human life, and were swept away with it, as by
the suction of fate itself.
Still haunted with the idea that not one of the past incidents,
inclusive of Judge Pyncheon's visit, could be real, the recluse
of the Seven Gables murmured in her brother's ear,--
"Clifford! Clifford! Is not this a dream?"
"A dream, Hepzibah!" repeated he, almost laughing in her face.
"On the contrary, I have never been awake before!"
Meanwhile, looking from the window, they could see the world
racing past them. At one moment, they were rattling through a
solitude; the next, a village had grown up around them; a few
breaths more, and it had vanished, as if swallowed by an earthquake.
The spires of meeting-houses seemed set adrift from their foundations;
the broad-based hills glided away. Everything was unfixed from its
age-long rest, and moving at whirlwind speed in a direction opposite
to their own.
Within the car there was the usual interior life of the railroad,
offering little to the observation of other passengers, but full
of novelty for this pair of strangely enfranchised prisoners.
It was novelty enough, indeed, that there were fifty human beings
in close relation with them, under one long and narrow roof, and
drawn onward by the same mighty influence that had taken their
two selves into its grasp. It seemed marvellous how all these
people could remain so quietly in their seats, while so much
noisy strength was at work in their behalf. Some, with tickets
in their hats (long travellers these, before whom lay a hundred
miles of railroad), had plunged into the English scenery and
adventures of pamphlet novels, and were keeping company with dukes
and earls. Others, whose briefer span forbade their devoting
themselves to studies so abstruse, beguiled the little tedium of
the way with penny-papers. A party of girls, and one young man,
on opposite sides of the car, found huge amusement in a game
of ball. They tossed it to and fro, with peals of laughter that
might be measured by mile-lengths; for, faster than the nimble
ball could fly, the merry players fled unconsciously along,
leaving the trail of their mirth afar behind, and ending their
game under another sky than had witnessed its commencement.
Boys, with apples, cakes, candy, and rolls of variously tinctured
lozenges,--merchandise that reminded Hepzibah of her deserted
shop,--appeared at each momentary stopping-place, doing up their
business in a hurry, or breaking it short off, lest the market
should ravish them away with it. New people continually entered.
Old acquaintances--for such they soon grew to be, in this rapid
current of affairs--continually departed. Here and there, amid
the rumble and the tumult, sat one asleep. Sleep; sport; business;
graver or lighter study; and the common and inevitable movement
onward! It was life itself!
Clifford's naturally poignant sympathies were all aroused.
He caught the color of what was passing about him, and threw it
back more vividly than he received it, but mixed, nevertheless,
with a lurid and portentous hue. Hepzibah, on the other hand,
felt herself more apart from human kind than even in the seclusion
which she had just quitted.
"You are not happy, Hepzibah!" said Clifford apart, in a tone
of aproach. "You are thinking of that dismal old house, and
of Cousin, Jaffrey"--here came the quake through him,--"and of
Cousin Jaffrey sitting there, all by himself! Take my advice,
--follow my example,--and let such things slip aside. Here
we are, in the world, Hepzibah!--in the midst of life!--in the
throng of our fellow beings! Let you and I be happy! As happy
as that youth and those pretty girls, at their game of ball!"
"Happy--" thought Hepzibah, bitterly conscious, at the word, of
her dull and heavy heart, with the frozen pain in it,--"happy.
He is mad already; and, if I could once feel myself broad awake,
I should go mad too!"
If a fixed idea be madness, she was perhaps not remote from it.
Fast and far as they had rattled and clattered along the iron
track, they might just as well, as regarded Hepzibah's mental
images, have been passing up and down Pyncheon Street. With miles
and miles of varied scenery between, there was no scene for her
save the seven old gable-peaks, with their moss, and the tuft of
weeds in one of the angles, and the shop-window, and a customer
shaking the door, and compelling the little bell to jingle fiercely,
but without disturbing Judge Pyncheon! This one old house was
everywhere! It transported its great, lumbering bulk with more
than railroad speed, and set itself phlegmatically down on whatever
spot she glanced at. The quality of Hepzibah's mind was too
unmalleable to take new impressions so readily as Clifford's.
He had a winged nature; she was rather of the vegetable kind,
and could hardly be kept long alive, if drawn up by the roots.
Thus it happened that the relation heretofore existing between
her brother and herself was changed. At home, she was his guardian;
here, Clifford had become hers, and seemed to comprehend whatever
belonged to their new position with a singular rapidity of
intelligence. He had been startled into manhood and intellectual
vigor; or, at least, into a condition that resembled them,
though it might be both diseased and transitory.
The conductor now applied for their tickets; and Clifford, who
had made himself the purse-bearer, put a bank-note into his hand,
as he had observed others do.
"For the lady and yourself?" asked the conductor. "And how far?"
"As far as that will carry us," said Clifford. "It is no great
matter. We are riding for pleasure merely."
"You choose a strange day for it, sir!" remarked a gimlet-eyed
old gentleman on the other side of the car, looking at Clifford
and his companion, as if curious to make them out." The best
chance of pleasure, in an easterly rain, I take it, is in a man's
own house, with a nice little fire in the chimney."
"I cannot precisely agree with you," said Clifford, courteously
bowing to the old gentleman, and at once taking up the clew of
conversation which the latter had proffered. "It had just occurred
to me, on the contrary, that this admirable invention of the railroad
--with the vast and inevitable improvements to be looked for, both as
to speed and convenience--is destined to do away with those stale
ideas of home and fireside, and substitute something better."
"In the name of common-sense," asked the old gentleman rather
testily, "what can be better for a man than his own parlor and
"These things have not the merit which many good people attribute
to them," replied Clifford. "They may be said, in few and pithy
words, to have ill served a poor purpose. My impression is,
that our wonderfully increased and still increasing facilities
of locomotion are destined to bring us around again to the
nomadic state. You are aware, my dear sir,--you must have
observed it in your own experience,--that all human progress is
in a circle; or, to use a more accurate and beautiful figure,
in an ascending spiral curve. While we fancy ourselves going
straight forward, and attaining, at every step, an entirely new
position of affairs, we do actually return to something long ago
tried and abandoned, but which we now find etherealized, refined,
and perfected to its ideal. The past is but a coarse and sensual
prophecy of the present and the future. To apply this truth to
the topic now under discussion. In the early epochs of our race,
men dwelt in temporary huts, of bowers of branches, as easily
constructed as a bird's-nest, and which they built,--if it should
be called building, when such sweet homes of a summer solstice
rather grew than were made with hands,--which Nature, we will
say, assisted them to rear where fruit abounded, where fish and
game were plentiful, or, most especially, where the sense of
beauty was to be gratified by a lovelier shade than elsewhere,
and a more exquisite arrangement of lake, wood, and hill. This
life possessed a charm which, ever since man quitted it, has
vanished from existence. And it typified something better than
itself. It had its drawbacks; such as hunger and thirst, inclement
weather, hot sunshine, and weary and foot-blistering marches over
barren and ugly tracts, that lay between the sites desirable for
their fertility and beauty. But in our ascending spiral, we escape
all this. These railroads--could but the whistle be made musical,
and the rumble and the jar got rid of--are positively the greatest
blessing that the ages have wrought out for us. They give us wings;
they annihilate the toil and dust of pilgrimage; they spiritualize
travel! Transition being so facile, what can be any man's inducement
to tarry in one spot? Why, therefore, should he build a more cumbrous
habitation than can readily be carried off with him? Why should he
make himself a prisoner for life in brick, and stone, and old
worm-eaten timber, when he may just as easily dwell, in one sense,
nowhere,--in a better sense, wherever the fit and beautiful shall
offer him a home?"
Clifford's countenance glowed, as he divulged this theory; a youthful
character shone out from within, converting the wrinkles and pallid
duskiness of age into an almost transparent mask. The merry girls let
their ball drop upon the floor, and gazed at him. They said to themselves,
perhaps, that, before his hair was gray and the crow's-feet tracked his
temples, this now decaying man must have stamped the impress of his
features on many a woman's heart. But, alas! no woman's eye had seen
his face while it was beautiful.
"I should scarcely call it an improved state of things," observed
Clifford's new acquaintance, "to live everywhere and nowhere!"
"Would you not?" exclaimed Clifford, with singular energy. "It
is as clear to me as sunshine,--were there any in the sky,--that
the greatest possible stumbling-blocks in the path of human
happiness and improvement are these heaps of bricks and stones,
consolidated with mortar, or hewn timber, fastened together with
spike-nails, which men painfully contrive for their own torment,
and call them house and home! The soul needs air; a wide sweep
and frequent change of it. Morbid influences, in a thousand-fold
variety, gather about hearths, and pollute the life of households.
There is no such unwholesome atmosphere as that of an old home,
rendered poisonous by one's defunct forefathers and relatives. I
speak of what I know. There is a certain house within my familiar
recollection,--one of those peaked-gable (there are seven of them),
projecting-storied edifices, such as you occasionally see in our
older towns,--a rusty, crazy, creaky, dry-rotted, dingy, dark, and
miserable old dungeon, with an arched window over the porch, and a
little shop-door on one side, and a great, melancholy elm before it!
Now, sir, whenever my thoughts recur to this seven-gabled mansion
(the fact is so very curious that I must needs mention it),
immediately I have a vision or image of an elderly man, of remarkably
stern countenance, sitting in an oaken elbow-chair, dead, stone-dead,
with an ugly flow of blood upon his shirt-bosom! Dead, but with
open eyes! He taints the whole house, as I remember it. I could
never flourish there, nor be happy, nor do nor enjoy what God
meant me to do and enjoy."
His face darkened, and seemed to contract, and shrivel itself up,
and wither into age.
"Never, sir" he repeated. "I could never draw cheerful breath there!"
"I should think not," said the old gentleman, eyeing Clifford
earnestly, and rather apprehensively. "I should conceive not, sir,
with that notion in your head!"
"Surely not," continued Clifford; "and it were a relief to me if
that house could be torn down, or burnt up, and so the earth be
rid of it, and grass be sown abundantly over its foundation. Not
that I should ever visit its site again! for, sir, the farther I
get away from it, the more does the joy, the lightsome freshness,
the heart-leap, the intellectual dance, the youth, in short,--yes,
my youth, my youth!--the more does it come back to me. No longer
ago than this morning, I was old. I remember looking in the glass,
and wondering at my own gray hair, and the wrinkles, many and deep,
right across my brow, and the furrows down my cheeks, and the
prodigious trampling of crow's-feet about my temples! It was too
soon! I could not bear it! Age had no right to come! I had not lived!
But now do I look old? If so, my aspect belies me strangely; for--a
great weight being off my mind--I feel in the very heyday of my
youth, with the world and my best days before me!"
"I trust you may find it so," said the old gentleman, who seemed
rather embarrassed, and desirous of avoiding the observation
which Clifford's wild talk drew on them both. "You have my
best wishes for it."
"For Heaven's sake, dear Clifford, be quiet!" whispered his sister.
"They think you mad."
"Be quiet yourself, Hepzibah!" returned her brother. "No matter
what they think! I am not mad. For the first time in thirty years
my thoughts gush up and find words ready for them. I must talk,
and I will!"
He turned again towards the old gentleman, and renewed the conversation.
"Yes, my dear sir," said he, "it is my firm belief and hope that
these terms of roof and hearth-stone, which have so long been
held to embody something sacred, are soon to pass out of men's
daily use, and be forgotten. Just imagine, for a moment, how
much of human evil will crumble away, with this one change! What
we call real estate--the solid ground to build a house on--is the
broad foundation on which nearly all the guilt of this world rests.
A man will commit almost any wrong,--he will heap up an immense
pile of wickedness, as hard as granite, and which will weigh as
heavily upon his soul, to eternal ages,--only to build a great,
gloomy, dark-chambered mansion, for himself to die in, and for
his posterity to be miserable in. He lays his own dead corpse
beneath the underpinning, as one may say, and hangs his frowning
picture on the wall, and, after thus converting himself into an
evil destiny, expects his remotest great-grandchildren to be happy
there. I do not speak wildly. I have just such a house in my
"Then, sir," said the old gentleman, getting anxious to drop the
subject, "you are not to blame for leaving it."
"Within the lifetime of the child already born," Clifford went on,
"all this will be done away. The world is growing too ethereal and
spiritual to bear these enormities a great while longer. To me,
though, for a considerable period of time, I have lived chiefly
in retirement, and know less of such things than most men,--even
to me, the harbingers of a better era are unmistakable. Mesmerism,
now! Will that effect nothing, think you, towards purging away the
grossness out of human life?"
"All a humbug!" growled the old gentleman."
These rapping spirits, that little Phoebe told us of, the other day,"
said Clifford,--"what are these but the messengers of the spiritual world,
knocking at the door of substance? And it shall be flung wide open!"
"A humbug, again!" cried the old gentleman, growing more and more
testy at these glimpses of Clifford's metaphysics. "I should
like to rap with a good stick on the empty pates of the dolts
who circulate such nonsense!"
"Then there is electricity,--the demon, the angel, the mighty
physical power, the all-pervading intelligence!" exclaimed Clifford.
"Is that a humbug, too? Is it a fact--or have I dreamt it--that,
by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve,
vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather,
the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence!
Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no
longer the substance which we deemed it!"
"If you mean the telegraph," said the old gentleman, glancing his
eye toward its wire, alongside the rail-track, "it is an excellent
thing,--that is, of course, if the speculators in cotton and politics
don't get possession of it. A great thing, indeed, sir, particularly
as regards the detection of bank-robbers and murderers."
"I don't quite like it, in that point of view," replied Clifford.
"A bank-robber, and what you call a murderer, likewise, has his
rights, which men of enlightened humanity and conscience should
regard in so much the more liberal spirit, because the bulk of
society is prone to controvert their existence. An almost spiritual
medium, like the electric telegraph, should be consecrated to high,
deep, joyful, and holy missions. Lovers, day by, day--hour by hour,
if so often moved to do it,--might send their heart-throbs from
Maine to Florida, with some such words as these `I love you forever!'
--`My heart runs over with love!'--`I love you more than I can!'
and, again, at the next message 'I have lived an hour longer,
and love you twice as much!' Or, when a good man has departed,
his distant friend should be conscious of an electric thrill,
as from the world of happy spirits, telling him 'Your dear friend
is in bliss!' Or, to an absent husband, should come tidings thus
`An immortal being, of whom you are the father, has this moment
come from God!' and immediately its little voice would seem to have
reached so far, and to be echoing in his heart. But for these poor
rogues, the bank-robbers,--who, after all, are about as honest as
nine people in ten, except that they disregard certain formalities,
and prefer to transact business at midnight rather than 'Change-hours,
--and for these murderers, as you phrase it, who are often excusable
in the motives of their deed, and deserve to be ranked among public
benefactors, if we consider only its result,--for unfortunate
individuals like these, I really cannot applaud the enlistment of
an immaterial and miraculous power in the universal world-hunt
at their heels!"
"You can't, hey?" cried the old gentleman, with a hard look.
"Positively, no!" answered Clifford. "It puts them too miserably
at disadvantage. For example, sir, in a dark, low, cross-beamed,
panelled room of an old house, let us suppose a dead man,
sitting in an arm-chair, with a blood-stain on his shirt-bosom,
--and let us add to our hypothesis another man, issuing from the
house, which he feels to be over-filled with the dead man's
presence,--and let us lastly imagine him fleeing, Heaven knows
whither, at the speed of a hurricane, by railroad! Now, sir, if
the fugutive alight in some distant town, and find all the people
babbling about that self-same dead man, whom he has fled so far
to avoid the sight and thought of, will you not allow that his
natural rights have been infringed? He has been deprived of his
city of refuge, and, in my humble opinion, has suffered infinite
"You are a strange man; sir" said the old gentleman, bringing his
gimlet-eye to a point on Clifford, as if determined to bore right
into him. "I can't see through you!"
"No, I'll be bound you can't!" cried Clifford, laughing. "And yet,
my dear sir, I am as transparent as the water of Maule's well!
But come, Hepzibah! We have flown far enough for once. Let us
alight, as the birds do, and perch ourselves on the nearest twig,
and consult wither we shall fly next!"
Just then, as it happened, the train reached a solitary way-station.
Taking advantage of the brief pause, Clifford left the car, and
drew Hepzibah along with him. A moment afterwards, the train--with
all the life of its interior, amid which Clifford had made himself
so conspicuous an object--was gliding away in the distance, and
rapidly lessening to a point which, in another moment, vanished.
The world had fled away from these two wanderers. They gazed
drearily about them. At a little distance stood a wooden church,
black with age, and in a dismal state of ruin and decay, with broken
windows, a great rift through the main body of the edifice, and a
rafter dangling from the top of the square tower. Farther off was
a farm-house, in the old style, as venerably black as the church,
with a roof sloping downward from the three-story peak, to within
a man's height of the ground. It seemed uninhabited. There were
the relics of a wood-pile, indeed, near the door, but with grass
sprouting up among the chips and scattered logs. The small rain-drops
came down aslant; the wind was not turbulent, but sullen, and full
of chilly moisture.
Clifford shivered from head to foot. The wild effervescence of
his mood--which had so readily supplied thoughts, fantasies,
and a strange aptitude of words, and impelled him to talk from
the mere necessity of giving vent to this bubbling-up gush of ideas
had entirely subsided. A powerful excitement had given him energy
and vivacity. Its operation over, he forthwith began to sink.
"You must take the lead now, Hepzibah!" murmured he, with a
torpid and reluctant utterance. "Do with me as you will!"
She knelt down upon the platform where they were standing and
lifted her clasped hands to the sky. The dull, gray weight of
clouds made it invisible; but it was no hour for disbelief,--no
juncture this to question that there was a sky above, and an
Almighty Father looking from it!
"O God!"--ejaculated poor, gaunt Hepzibah,--then paused a moment,
to consider what her prayer should be,--"O God,--our Father,
--are we not thy children? Have mercy on us!"
XVIII Governor Pyncheon
JUDGE PYNCHEON, while his two relatives have fled away with such
ill-considered haste, still sits in the old parlor, keeping house,
as the familiar phrase is, in the absence of its ordinary occupants.
To him, and to the venerable House of the Seven Gables, does our
story now betake itself, like an owl, bewildered in the daylight,
and hastening back to his hollow tree.
The Judge has not shifted his position for a long while now.
He has not stirred hand or foot, nor withdrawn his eyes so much as
a hair's-breadth from their fixed gaze towards the corner of the
room, since the footsteps of Hepzibah and Clifford creaked along
the passage, and the outer door was closed cautiously behind
their exit. He holds his watch in his left hand, but clutched in
such a manner that you cannot see the dial-plate. How profound
a fit of meditation! Or, supposing him asleep, how infantile a
quietude of conscience, and what wholesome order in the gastric
region, are betokened by slumber so entirely undisturbed with
starts, cramp, twitches, muttered dreamtalk, trumpet-blasts
through the nasal organ, or any slightest irregularity of breath!
You must hold your own breath, to satisfy yourself whether he breathes
at all. It is quite inaudible. You hear the ticking of his watch;
his breath you do not hear. A most refreshing slumber, doubtless!
And yet, the Judge cannot be asleep. His eyes are open! A veteran
politician, such as he, would never fall asleep with wide-open
eyes, lest some enemy or mischief-maker, taking him thus at
unawares, should peep through these windows into his consciousness,
and make strange discoveries among the remniniscences, projects,
hopes, apprehensions, weaknesses, and strong points, which he has
heretofore shared with nobody. A cautious man is proverbially said
to sleep with one eye open. That may be wisdom. But not with both;
for this were heedlessness! No, no! Judge Pyncheon cannot be asleep.
It is odd, however, that a gentleman so burdened with engagements,
--and noted, too, for punctuality,--should linger thus in an old
lonely mansion, which he has never seemed very fond of visiting.
The oaken chair, to be sure, may tempt him with its roominess.
It is, indeed, a spacious, and, allowing for the rude age that
fashioned it, a moderately easy seat, with capacity enough, at
all events, and offering no restraint to the Judge's breadth
of beam. A bigger man might find ample accommodation in it.
His ancestor, now pictured upon the wall, with all his English
beef about him, used hardly to present a front extending from
elbow to elbow of this chair, or a base that would cover its
whole cushion. But there are better chairs than this,--mahogany,
black walnut, rosewood, spring-seated and damask-cushioned,
with varied slopes, and innumerable artifices to make them easy,
and obviate the irksomeness of too tame an ease,--a score of
such might be at Judge Pyncheon's service. Yes! in a score of
drawing-rooms he would be more than welcome. Mamma would advance
to meet him, with outstretched hand; the virgin daughter, elderly
as he has now got to be,--an old widower, as he smilingly describes
himself,--would shake up the cushion for the Judge, and do her
pretty utmost to make him comfortable. For the Judge is a
prosperous man. He cherishes his schemes, moreover, like other
people, and reasonably brighter than most others; or did so, at
least, as he lay abed this morning, in an agreeable half-drowse,
planning the business of the day, and speculating on the
probabilities of the next fifteen years. With his firm health,
and the little inroad that age has made upon him, fifteen years
or twenty--yes, or perhaps five-and-twenty!--are no more than he
may fairly call his own. Five-and-twenty years for the enjoyment
of his real estate in town and country, his railroad, bank, and
insurance shares, his United States stock,--his wealth, in short,
however invested, now in possession, or soon to be acquired;
together with the public honors that have fallen upon him, and
the weightier ones that are yet to fall! It is good! It is
excellent! It is enough!
Still lingering in the old chair! If the Judge has a little
time to throw away, why does not he visit the insurance office,
as is his frequent custom, and sit awhile in one of their
leathern-cushioned arm-chairs, listening to the gossip of the
day, and dropping some deeply designed chance-word, which will
be certain to become the gossip of to-morrow. And have not the
bank directors a meeting at which it was the Judge's purpose to
be present, and his office to preside? Indeed they have; and the
hour is noted on a card, which is, or ought to be, in Judge
Pyncheon's right vest-pocket. Let him go thither, and loll at ease
upon his moneybags! He has lounged long enough in the old chair!
This was to have been such a busy day. In the first place, the
interview with Clifford. Half an hour, by the Judge's reckoning,
was to suffice for that; it would probably be less, but--taking
into consideration that Hepzibah was first to be dealt with, and
that these women are apt to make many words where a few would do
much better--it might be safest to allow half an hour. Half an
hour? Why, Judge, it is already two hours, by your own undeviatingly
accurate chronometer. Glance your eye down at it and see! Ah! he
will not give himself the trouble either to bend his head, or elevate
his hand, so as to bring the faithful time-keeper within his range
of vision! Time, all at once, appears to have become a matter of no
moment with the Judge!
And has he forgotten all the other items of his memoranda?
Clifford's affair arranged, he was to meet a State Street broker,
who has undertaken to procure a heavy percentage, and the best
of paper, for a few loose thousands which the Judge happens to
have by him, uninvested. The wrinkled note-shaver will have
taken his railroad trip in vain. Half an hour later, in the street
next to this, there was to be an auction of real estate, including
a portion of the old Pyncheon property, originally belonging to
Maule's garden ground. It has been alienated from the Pyncheons
these four-score years; but the Judge had kept it in his eye, and
had set his heart on reannexing it to the small demesne still left
around the Seven Gables; and now, during this odd fit of oblivion,
the fatal hammer must have fallen, and transferred our ancient
patrimony to some alien possessor. Possibly, indeed, the sale
may have been postponed till fairer weather. If so, will the
Judge make it convenient to be present, and favor the auctioneer
with his bid, On the proximate occasion?
The next affair was to buy a horse for his own driving. The one
heretofore his favorite stumbled, this very morning, on the road
to town, and must be at once discarded. Judge Pyncheon's neck
is too precious to be risked on such a contingency as a stumbling
steed. Should all the above business be seasonably got through
with, he might attend the meeting of a charitable society; the
very name of which, however, in the multiplicity of his
benevolence, is quite forgotten; so that this engagement may pass
unfulfilled, and no great harm done. And if he have time, amid
the press of more urgent matters, he must take measures for the
renewal of Mrs. Pyncheon's tombstone, which, the sexton tells
him, has fallen on its marble face, and is cracked quite in twain.
She was a praiseworthy woman enough, thinks the Judge, in spite
of her nervousness, and the tears that she was so oozy with, and
her foolish behavior about the coffee; and as she took her
departure so seasonably, he will not grudge the second tombstone.
It is better, at least, than if she had never needed any! The next
item on his list was to give orders for some fruit-trees, of a rare
variety, to be deliverable at his country-seat in the ensuing
autumn. Yes, buy them, by all means; and may the peaches be
luscious in your mouth, Judge Pyncheon! After this comes something
more important. A committee of his political party has besought
him for a hundred or two of dollars, in addition to his previous
disbursements, towards carrying on the fall campaign. The Judge
is a patriot; the fate of the country is staked on the November
election; and besides, as will be shadowed forth in another
paragraph, he has no trifling stake of his own in the same great
game. He will do what the committee asks; nay, he will be liberal
beyond their expectations; they shall have a check for five hundred
dollars, and more anon, if it be needed. What next? A decayed widow,
whose husband was Judge Pyncheon's early friend, has laid her case of
destitution before him, in a very moving letter. She and her fair
daughter have scarcely bread to eat. He partly intends to call on
her to-day,--perhaps so--perhaps not,--accordingly as he may happen
to have leisure, and a small bank-note.
Another business, which, however, he puts no great weight on (it
is well, you know, to be heedful, but not over-anxious, as respects
one's personal health),--another business, then, was to consult his
family physician. About what, for Heaven's sake? Why, it is rather
difficult to describe the symptoms. A mere dimness of sight and
dizziness of brain, was it?--or disagreeable choking, or stifling,
or gurgling, or bubbling, in the region of the thorax, as the
anatomists say?--or was it a pretty severe throbbing and kicking of
the heart, rather creditable to him than otherwise, as showing that
the organ had not been left out of the Judge's physical contrivance?
No matter what it was. The doctor probably would smile at the
statement of such trifles to his professional ear; the Judge would
smile in his turn; and meeting one another's eyes, they would enjoy
a hearty laugh together! But a fig for medical advice. The Judge
will never need it.
Pray, pray, Judge Pyncheon, look at your watch, Now! What--not
a glance! It is within ten minutes of the dinner hour! It surely
cannot have slipped your memory that the dinner of to-day is to
be the most important, in its consequences, of all the dinners
you ever ate. Yes, precisely the most important; although,
in the course of your somewhat eminent career, you have been
placed high towards the head of the table, at splendid banquets,
and have poured out your festive eloquence to ears yet echoing
with Webster's mighty organ-tones. No public dinner this,
however. It is merely a gathering of some dozen or so of friends
from several districts of the State; men of distinguished character
and influence, assembling, almost casually, at the house of a
common friend, likewise distinguished, who will make them
welcome to a little better than his ordinary fare. Nothing in
the way of French cookery, but an excellent dinner, nevertheless.
Real turtle, we understand, and salmon, tautog, canvas-backs, pig,
English mutton, good roast beef, or dainties of that serious kind,
fit for substantial country gentlemen, as these honorable persons
mostly are. The delicacies of the season, in short, and flavored
by a brand of old Madeira which has been the pride of many seasons.
It is the Juno brand; a glorious wine, fragrant, and full of gentle
might; a bottled-up happiness, put by for use; a golden liquid,
worth more than liquid gold; so rare and admirable, that veteran
wine-bibbers count it among their epochs to have tasted it!
It drives away the heart-ache, and substitutes no head-ache!
Could the Judge but quaff a glass, it might enable him to shake
off the unaccountable lethargy which (for the ten intervening
minutes, and five to boot, are already past) has made him such
a laggard at this momentous dinner. It would all but revive a
dead man! Would you like to sip it now, Judge Pyncheon?
Alas, this dinner. Have you really forgotten its true object?
Then let us whisper it, that you may start at once out of the
oaken chair, which really seems to be enchanted, like the one
in Comus, or that in which Moll Pitcher imprisoned your own
grandfather. But ambition is a talisman more powerful than
witchcraft. Start up, then, and, hurrying through the streets,
burst in upon the company, that they may begin before the fish
is spoiled! They wait for you; and it is little for your interest
that they should wait. These gentlemen--need you be told it?
--have assembled, not without purpose, from every quarter of
the State. They are practised politicians, every man of them,
and skilled to adjust those preliminary measures which steal
from the people, without its knowledge, the power of choosing
its own rulers. The popular voice, at the next gubernatorial
election, though loud as thunder, will be really but an echo of
what these gentlemen shall speak, under their breath, at your
friend's festive board. They meet to decide upon their candidate.
This little knot of subtle schemers will control the convention,
and, through it, dictate to the party. And what worthier candidate,
--more wise and learned, more noted for philanthropic liberality,
truer to safe principles, tried oftener by public trusts, more
spotless in private character, with a larger stake in the common
welfare, and deeper grounded, by hereditary descent, in the faith
and practice of the Puritans,--what man can be presented for the
suffrage of the people, so eminently combining all these claims
to the chief-rulership as Judge Pyncheon here before us?
Make haste, then! Do your part! The meed for which you have
toiled, and fought, and climbed, and crept, is ready for your
grasp! Be present at this dinner!--drink a glass or two of that
noble wine!--make your pledges in as low a whisper as you will!
--and you rise up from table virtually governor of the glorious
old State! Governor Pyncheon of Massachusetts!
And is there no potent and exhilarating cordial in a certainty like
this? It has been the grand purpose of half your lifetime to obtain
it. Now, when there needs little more than to signify your acceptance,
why do you sit so lumpishly in your great-great-grandfather's oaken
chair, as if preferring it to the gubernatorial one? We have all heard
of King Log; but, in these jostling times, one of that royal kindred
will hardly win the race for an elective chief-magistracy.
Well! it is absolutely too late for dinner! Turtle, salmon, tautog,
woodcock, boiled turkey, South-Down mutton, pig, roast-beef,
have vanished, or exist only in fragments, with lukewarm potatoes,
and gravies crusted over with cold fat. The Judge, had he done
nothing else, would have achieved wonders with his knife and fork.
It was he, you know, of whom it used to be said, in reference to
his ogre-like appetite, that his Creator made him a great aninmal,
but that the dinner-hour made him a great beast. Persons of his
large sensual endowments must claim indulgence, at their feeding-time.
But, for once, the Judge is entirely too late for dinner! Too late,
we fear, even to join the party at their wine! The guests are warm
and merry; they have given up the Judge; and, concluding that the
Free-Soilers have him, they will fix upon another candidate. Were our
friend now to stalk in among them, with that wide-open stare, at once
wild and stolid, his ungenial presence would be apt to change their
cheer. Neither would it be seemly in Judge Pyncheon, generally so
scrupulous in his attire, to show himself at a dinner-table with
that crimson stain upon his shirt-bosom. By the bye, how came it
there? It is an ugly sight, at any rate; and the wisest way for the
Judge is to button his coat closely over his breast, and, taking his
horse and chaise from the livery stable, to make all speed to his
own house. There, after a glass of brandy and water, and a mutton-chop,
a beefsteak, a broiled fowl, or some such hasty little dinner and
supper all in one, he had better spend the evening by the fireside.
He must toast his slippers a long while, in order to get rid of
the chilliness which the air of this vile old house has sent curdling
through his veins.
Up, therefore, Judge Pyncheon, up! You have lost a day. But
to-morrow will be here anon. Will you rise, betimes, and make
the most of it? To-morrow. To-morrow! To-morrow. We, that are
alive, may rise betimes to-morrow. As for him that has died
to-day, his morrow will be the resurrection morn.
Meanwhile the twilight is glooming upward out of the corners of
the room. The shadows of the tall furniture grow deeper, and at
first become more definite; then, spreading wider, they lose their
distinctness of outline in the dark gray tide of oblivion, as it
were, that creeps slowly over the various objects, and the one
human figure sitting in the midst of them. The gloom has not
entered from without; it has brooded here all day, and now,
taking its own inevitable time, will possess itself of everything.
The Judge's face, indeed, rigid and singularly white, refuses to
melt into this universal solvent. Fainter and fainter grows the
light. It is as if another double-handful of darkness had been
scattered through the air. Now it is no longer gray, but sable.
There is still a faint appearance at the window. neither a glow,
nor a gleam, Nor a glimmer,--any phrase of light would express
something far brighter than this doubtful perception, or sense,
rather, that there is a window there. Has it yet vanished? No!
--yes!--not quite! And there is still the swarthy whiteness,--we
shall venture to marry these ill-agreeing words,--the swarthy
whiteness of Judge Pyncheon's face. The features are all gone:
there is only the paleness of them left. And how looks it now?
There is no window! There is no face! An infinite, inscrutable
blackness has annihilated sight! Where is our universe? All
crumbled away from us; and we, adrift in chaos, may hearken to
the gusts of homeless wind, that go sighing and murmuring about
in quest of what was once a world!
Is there no other sound? One other, and a fearful one. It is the
ticking of the Judge's watch, which, ever since Hepzibah left the
room in search of Clifford, he has been holding in his hand. Be
the cause what it may, this little, quiet, never-ceasing throb of
Time's pulse, repeating its small strokes with such busy regularity,
in Judge Pyncheon's motionless hand, has an effect of terror, which
we do not find in any other accompaniment of the scene.
But, listen! That puff of the breeze was louder. it, had a tone
unlike the dreary and sullen one which has bemoaned itself, and
afflicted all mankind with miserable sympathy, for five days past.
The wind has veered about! It now comes boisterously from the
northwest, and, taking hold of the aged framework of the Seven
Gables, gives it a shake, like a wrestler that would try strength
with his antagonist. Another and another sturdy tussle with the
blast! The old house creaks again, and makes a vociferous but
somewhat unintelligible bellowing in its sooty throat (the big
flue, we mean, of its wide chimney), partly in complaint at the
rude wind, but rather, as befits their century and a half of
hostile intimacy, in tough defiance. A rumbling kind of a bluster
roars behind the fire-board. A door has slammed above stairs.
A window, perhaps, has been left open, or else is driven in by
an unruly gust. It is not to be conceived, before-hand, what
wonderful wind-instruments are these old timber mansions, and
how haunted with the strangest noises, which immediately begin
to sing, and sigh, and sob, and shriek,--and to smite with
sledge-hammers, airy but ponderous, in some distant chamber,
--and to tread along the entries as with stately footsteps,
and rustle up and down the staircase, as with silks miraculously
stiff,--whenever the gale catches the house with a window open,
and gets fairly into it. Would that we were not an attendant
spirit here! It is too awful! This clamor of the wind through
the lonely house; the Judge's quietude, as he sits invisible;
and that pertinacious ticking of his watch!
As regards Judge Pyncheon's invisibility, however, that matter
will soon be remedied. The northwest wind has swept the sky
clear. The window is distinctly seen. Through its panes,
moreover, we dimly catch the sweep of the dark, clustering
foliage outside, fluttering with a constant irregularity of
movement, and letting in a peep of starlight, now here, now
there. Oftener than any other object, these glimpses illuminate
the Judge's face. But here comes more effectual light. Observe
that silvery dance upon the upper branches of the pear-tree,
and now a little lower, and now on the whole mass of boughs,
while, through their shifting intricacies, the moonbeams fall
aslant into the room. They play over the Judge's figure and
show that he has not stirred throughout the hours of darkness.
They follow the shadows, in changeful sport, across his unchanging
features. They gleam upon his watch. His grasp conceals the
dial-plate,--but we know that the faithful hands have met;
for one of the city clocks tells midnight.
A man of sturdy understanding, like Judge Pyncheon, cares no
more for twelve o'clock at night than for the corresponding hour
of noon. However just the parallel drawn, in some of the preceding
pages, between his Puritan ancestor and himself, it fails in this
point. The Pyncheon of two centuries ago, in common with most of
his contemporaries, professed his full belief in spiritual
ministrations, although reckoning them chiefly of a malignant
character. The Pyncheon of to-night, who sits in yonder arm-chair,
believes in no such nonsense. Such, at least, was his creed,
some few hours since. His hair will not bristle, therefore,
at the stories which--in times when chimney-corners had benches
in them, where old people sat poking into the ashes of the past,
and raking out traditions like live coals--used to be told about
this very room of his ancestral house. In fact, these tales are
too absurd to bristle even childhood's hair. What sense, meaning,
or moral, for example, such as even ghost-stories should be
susceptible of, can be traced in the ridiculous legend, that,
at midnight, all the dead Pyncheons are bound to assemble in this
parlor? And, pray, for what? Why, to see whether the portrait of
their ancestor still keeps its place upon the wall, in compliance
with his testamentary directions! Is it worth while to come out
of their graves for that?
We are tempted to make a little sport with the idea. Ghost-stories
are hardly to be treated seriously any longer. The family-party of
the defunct Pyncheons, we presume, goes off in this wise.
First comes the ancestor himself, in his black cloak, steeple-hat,
and trunk-breeches, girt about the waist with a leathern belt,
in which hangs his steel-hilted sword; he has a long staff in his
hand, such as gentlemen in advanced life used to carry, as much
for the dignity of the thing as for the support to be derived from
it. He looks up at the portrait; a thing of no substance, gazing
at its own painted image! All is safe. The picture is still there.
The purpose of his brain has been kept sacred thus long after the
man himself has sprouted up in graveyard grass. See! he lifts his
ineffectual hand, and tries the frame. All safe! But is that a
smile?--is it not, rather a frown of deadly import, that darkens
over the shadow of his features? The stout Colonel is dissatisfied!
So decided is his look of discontent as to impart additional
distinctness to his features; through which, nevertheless, the
moonlight passes, and flickers on the wall beyond. Something has
strangely vexed the ancestor! With a grim shake of the head, he
turns away. Here come other Pyncheons, the whole tribe, in their
half a dozen generations, jostling and elbowing one another, to
reach the picture. We behold aged men and grandames, a clergyman
with the Puritanic stiffness still in his garb and mien, and a
red-coated officer of the old French war; and there comes the
shop-keeping Pyncheon of a century ago, with the ruffles turned
back from his wrists; and there the periwigged and brocaded
gentleman of the artist's legend, with the beautiful and pensive
Alice, who brings no pride out of her virgin grave. All try the
picture-frame. What do these ghostly people seek? A mother lifts
her child, that his little hands may touch it! There is evidently
a mystery about the picture, that perplexes these poor Pyncheons
when they ought to be at rest. In a corner, meanwhile, stands the
figure of an elderly man, in a leathern jerkin and breeches, with
a carpenter's rule sticking out of his side pocket; he points his
finger at the bearded Colonel and his descendants, nodding,
jeering, mocking, and finally bursting into obstreperous, though
Indulging our fancy in this freak, we have partly lost the power
of restraint and guidance. We distinguish an unlooked-for figure
in our visionary scene. Among those ancestral people there is a
young man, dressed in the very fashion of to-day: he wears a
dark frock-coat, almost destitute of skirts, gray pantaloons,
gaiter boots of patent leather, and has a finely wrought gold
chain across his breast, and a little silver-headed whalebone
stick in his hand. Were we to meet this figure at noonday, we
should greet him as young Jaffrey Pyncheon, the Judge's only
surviving child, who has been spending the last two years in
foreign travel. If still in life, how comes his shadow hither?
If dead, what a misfortune! The old Pyncheon property, together
with the great estate acquired by the young man's father, would
devolve on whom? On poor, foolish Clifford, gaunt Hepzibah, and
rustic little Phoebe! But another and a greater marvel greets us!
Can we believe our eyes? A stout, elderly gentleman has made his
appearance; he has an aspect of eminent respectability, wears a
black coat and pantaloons, of roomy width, and might be pronounced
scrupulously neat in his attire, but for a broad crimson stain
across his snowy neckcloth and down his shirt-bosom. Is it the
Judge, or no? How can it be Judge Pyncheon? We discern his figure,
as plainly as the flickering moonbeams can show us anything, still
seated in the oaken chair! Be the apparition whose it may, it
advances to the picture, seems to seize the frame, tries to
peep behind it, and turns away, with a frown as black as the
The fantastic scene just hinted at must by no means be considered
as forming an actual portion of our story. We were betrayed into
this brief extravagance by the quiver of the moonbeams; they dance
hand-in-hand with shadows, and are reflected in the looking-glass,
which, you are aware, is always a kind of window or doorway into
the spiritual world. We needed relief, moreover, from our too
long and exclusive contemplation of that figure in the chair.
This wild wind, too, has tossed our thoughts into strange confusion,
but without tearing them away from their one determined centre.
Yonder leaden Judge sits immovably upon our soul. Will he never
stir again? We shall go mad unless he stirs! You may the better
estimate his quietude by the fearlessness of a little mouse,
which sits on its hind legs, in a streak of moonlight, close by
Judge Pyncheon's foot, and seems to meditate a journey of
exploration over this great black bulk. Ha! what has startled
the nimble little mouse? It is the visage of grimalkin, outside
of the window, where he appears to have posted himself for a
deliberate watch. This grimalkin has a very ugly look. Is it
a cat watching for a mouse, or the devil for a human soul? Would
we could scare him from the window!
Thank Heaven, the night is well-nigh past! The moonbeams have
no longer so silvery a gleam, nor contrast so strongly with the
blackness of the shadows among which they fall. They are paler
now; the shadows look gray, not black. The boisterous wind is
hushed. What is the hour? Ah! the watch has at last ceased to
tick; for the Judge's forgetful fingers neglected to wind it up,
as usual, at ten o'clock, being half an hour or so before his
ordinary bedtime,--and it has run down, for the first time in five
years. But the great world-clock of Time still keeps its beat.
The dreary night--for, oh, how dreary seems its haunted waste,
behind us!--gives place to a fresh, transparent, cloudless morn.
Blessed, blessed radiance! The daybeam--even what little of it finds
its way into this always dusky parlor--seems part of the universal
benediction, annulling evil, and rendering all goodness possible,
and happiness attainable. Will Judge Pyncheon now rise up from
his chair? Will he go forth, and receive the early sunbeams on
his brow? Will he begin this new day,--which God has smiled upon,
and blessed, and given to mankind,--will he begin it with better
purposes than the many that have been spent amiss? Or are all the
deep-laid schemes of yesterday as stubborn in his heart, and as
busy in his brain, as ever?
In this latter case, there is much to do. Will the Judge still
insist with Hepzibah on the interview with Clifford? Will he buy
a safe, elderly gentleman's horse? Will he persuade the purchaser
of the old Pyncheon property to relinquish the bargain in his
favor? Will he see his family physician, and obtain a medicine
that shall preserve him, to be an honor and blessing to his race,
until the utmost term of patriarchal longevity? Will Judge
Pyncheon, above all, make due apologies to that company of
honorable friends, and satisfy them that his absence from the
festive board was unavoidable, and so fully retrieve himself in
their good opinion that he shall yet be Governor of Massachusetts?
And all these great purposes accomplished, will he walk the streets
again, with that dog-day smile of elaborate benevolence, sultry
enough to tempt flies to come and buzz in it? Or will he, after the
tomb-like seclusion of the past day and night, go forth a humbled
and repentant man, sorrowful, gentle, seeking no profit, shrinking
from worldly honor, hardly daring to love God, but bold to love
his fellow man, and to do him what good he may? Will he bear
about with him,--no odious grin of feigned benignity, insolent
in its pretence, and loathsome in its falsehood,--but the tender
sadness of a contrite heart, broken, at last, beneath its own
weight of sin? For it is our belief, whatever show of honor he
may have piled upon it, that there was heavy sin at the base of
this man's being.
Rise up, Judge Pyncheon! The morning sunshine glimmers through the
foliage, and, beautiful and holy as it is, shuns not to kindle up
your face. Rise up, thou subtle, worldly, selfish, iron-hearted
hypocrite, and make thy choice whether still to be subtle, worldly,
selfish, iron-hearted, and hypocritical, or to tear these sins out
of thy nature, though they bring the lifeblood with them! The Avenger
is upon thee! Rise up, before it be too late!
What! Thou art not stirred by this last appeal? No, not a jot!
And there we see a fly,--one of your common house-flies, such as
are always buzzing on the window-pane,--which has smelt out Governor
Pyncheon, and alights, now on his forehead, now on his chin, and now,
Heaven help us! is creeping over the bridge of his nose, towards the
would-be chief-magistrate's wide-open eyes! Canst thou not brush the
fly away? Art thou too sluggish? Thou man, that hadst so many busy
projects yesterday! Art thou too weak, that wast so powerful?
Not brush away a fly? Nay, then, we give thee up!
And hark! the shop-bell rings. After hours like these latter
ones, through which we have borne our heavy tale, it is good
to be made sensible that there is a living world, and that even
this old, lonely mansion retains some manner of connection with
it. We breathe more freely, emerging from Judge Pyncheon's
presence into the street before the Seven Gables.
XIX Alice's Posies
UNCLE VENNER, trundling a wheelbarrow, was the earliest person
stirring in the neighborhood the day after the storm.
Pyncheon Street, in front of the House of the Seven Gables, was
a far pleasanter scene than a by-lane, confined by shabby fences,
and bordered with wooden dwellings of the meaner class, could
reasonably be expected to present. Nature made sweet amends,
that morning, for the five unkindly days which had preceded it.
It would have been enough to live for, merely to look up at the
wide benediction of the sky, or as much of it as was visible
between the houses, genial once more with sunshine. Every object
was agreeable, whether to be gazed at in the breadth, or examined
more minutely. Such, for example, were the well-washed pebbles
and gravel of the sidewalk; even the sky-reflecting pools in the
centre of the street; and the grass, now freshly verdant,
that crept along the base of the fences, on the other side of
which, if one peeped over, was seen the multifarious growth of
gardens. Vegetable productions, of whatever kind, seemed more
than negatively happy, in the juicy warmth and abundance of
their life. The Pyncheon Elm, throughout its great circumference,
was all alive, and full of the morning sun and a sweet-tempered
little breeze, which lingered within this verdant sphere, and
set a thousand leafy tongues a-whispering all at once. This aged
tree appeared to have suffered nothing from the gale. It had
kept its boughs unshattered, and its full complement of leaves;
and the whole in perfect verdure, except a single branch, that,
by the earlier change with which the elm-tree sometimes prophesies
the autumn, had been transmuted to bright gold. It was like the
golden branch that gained AEneas and the Sibyl admittance into Hades.
This one mystic branch hung down before the main entrance of the
Seven Gables, so nigh the ground that any passer-by might have
stood on tiptoe and plucked it off. Presented at the door, it
would have been a symbol of his right to enter, and be made
acquainted with all the secrets of the house. So little faith is
due to external appearance, that there was really an inviting
aspect over the venerable edifice, conveying an idea that its
history must be a decorous and happy one, and such as would be
delightful for a fireside tale. Its windows gleamed cheerfully
in the slanting sunlight. The lines and tufts of green moss,
here and there, seemed pledges of familiarity and sisterhood
with Nature; as if this human dwelling-place, being of such old
date, had established its prescriptive title among primeval oaks
and whatever other objects, by virtue of their long continuance,
have acquired a gracious right to be. A person of imaginative
temperament, while passing by the house, would turn, once and
again, and peruse it well: its many peaks, consenting together in
the clustered chimney; the deep projection over its basement-story;
the arched window, imparting a look, if not of grandeur, yet of
antique gentility, to the broken portal over which it opened; the
luxuriance of gigantic burdocks, near the threshold; he would
note all these characteristics, and be conscious of something
deeper than he saw. He would conceive the mansion to have
been the residence of the stubborn old Puritan, Integrity, who,
dying in some forgotten generation, had left a blessing in all
its rooms and chambers, the efficacy of which was to be seen in
the religion, honesty, moderate competence, or upright poverty
and solid happiness, of his descendants, to this day.
One object, above all others, would take root in the imaginative
observer's memory. It was the great tuft of flowers,--weeds, you
would have called them, only a week ago,--the tuft of crimson-spotted
flowers, in the angle between the two front gables. The old people
used to give them the name of Alice's Posies, in remembrance of fair
Alice Pyncheon, who was believed to have brought their seeds from
Italy. They were flaunting in rich beauty and full bloom to-day,
and seemed, as it were, a mystic expression that something within
the house was consummated.
It was but little after sunrise, when Uncle Venner made his
appearance, as aforesaid, impelling a wheelbarrow along the
street. He was going his matutinal rounds to collect
cabbage-leaves, turnip-tops, potato-skins, and the miscellaneous
refuse of the dinner-pot, which the thrifty housewives of the
neighborhood were accustomed to put aside, as fit only to feed
a pig. Uncle Venner's pig was fed entirely, and kept in prime
order, on these eleemosynary contributions; insomuch that the
patched philosopher used to promise that, before retiring to his
farm, he would make a feast of the portly grunter, and invite all
his neighbors to partake of the joints and spare-ribs which they
had helped to fatten. Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon's housekeeping
had so greatly improved, since Clifford became a member of the
family, that her share of the banquet would have been no lean
one; and Uncle Venner, accordingly, was a good deal disappointed
not to find the large earthen pan, full of fragmentary eatables,
that ordinarily awaited his coming at the back doorstep of the
"I never knew Miss Hepzibah so forgetful before," said the
patriarch to himself. "She must have had a dinner yesterday,
--no question of that! She always has one, nowadays. So where's
the pot-liquor and potato-skins, I ask? Shall I knock, and see if
she's stirring yet? No, no,--'t won't do! If little Phoebe was
about the house, I should not mind knocking; but Miss Hepzibah,
likely as not, would scowl down at me out of the window, and look
cross, even if she felt pleasantly. So, I'll come back at noon."
With these reflections, the old man was shutting the gate of the
little back-yard. Creaking on its hinges, however, like every other
gate and door about the premises, the sound reached the ears of
the occupant of the northern gable, one of the windows of which
had a side-view towards the gate.
"Good-morning, Uncle Venner!" said the daguerreotypist, leaning
out of the window. "Do you hear nobody stirring?"
"Not a soul," said the man of patches. "But that's no wonder.
'Tis barely half an hour past sunrise, yet. But I'm really glad
to see you, Mr. Holgrave! There's a strange, lonesome look about
this side of the house; so that my heart misgave me, somehow or
other, and I felt as if there was nobody alive in it. The front
of the house looks a good deal cheerier; and Alice's Posies are
blooming there beautifully; and if I were a young man, Mr. Holgrave,
my sweetheart should have one of those flowers in her bosom, though
I risked my neck climbing for it! Well, and did the wind keep you
awake last night?"
"It did, indeed!" answered the artist, smiling. "If I were a
believer in ghosts,--and I don't quite know whether I am or
not,--I should have concluded that all the old Pyncheons were
running riot in the lower rooms, especially in Miss Hepzibah's
part of the house. But it is very quiet now."
"Yes, Miss Hepzibah will be apt to over-sleep herself, after being
disturbed, all night, with the racket," said Uncle Venner. "But it
would be odd, now, wouldn't it, if the Judge had taken both his
cousins into the country along with him? I saw him go into the
"At what hour?" inquired Holgrave.
"Oh, along in the forenoon," said the old man. "Well, well! I
must go my rounds, and so must my wheelbarrow. But I'll be back
here at dinner-time; for my pig likes a dinner as well as a breakfast.
No meal-time, and no sort of victuals, ever seems to come amiss to
my pig. Good morning to you! And, Mr. Holgrave, if I were a
young man, like you, I'd get one of Alice's Posies, and keep it in
water till Phoebe comes back."
"I have heard," said the daguerreotypist, as he drew in his head,
"that the water of Maule's well suits those flowers best."
Here the conversation ceased, and Uncle Venner went on his way.
For half an hour longer, nothing disturbed the repose of the
Seven Gables; nor was there any visitor, except a carrier-boy,
who, as he passed the front doorstep, threw down one of his
newspapers; for Hepzibah, of late, had regularly taken it in.
After a while, there came a fat woman, making prodigious speed,
and stumbling as she ran up the steps of the shop-door. Her face
glowed with fire-heat, and, it being a pretty warm morning, she
bubbled and hissed, as it were, as if all a-fry with chimney-warmth,
and summer-warmth, and the warmth of her own corpulent velocity.
She tried the shop-door; it was fast. She tried it again, with so
angry a jar that the bell tinkled angrily back at her.
"The deuce take Old Maid Pyncheon!" muttered the irascible housewife.
"Think of her pretending to set up a cent-shop, and then lying abed
till noon! These are what she calls gentlefolk's airs, I suppose!
But I'll either start her ladyship, or break the door down!"
She shook it accordingly, and the bell, having a spiteful little
temper of its own, rang obstreperously, making its remonstrances
heard,--not, indeed, by the ears for which they were intended,
--but by a good lady on the opposite side of the street. She
opened the window, and addressed the impatient applicant.
"You'll find nobody there, Mrs. Gubbins."
"But I must and will find somebody here!" cried Mrs. Gubbins,
inflicting another outrage on the bell. "I want a half-pound
of pork, to fry some first-rate flounders for Mr. Gubbins's
breakfast; and, lady or not, Old Maid Pyncheon shall get up and
serve me with it!"
"But do hear reason, Mrs. Gubbins!" responded the lady opposite.
"She, and her brother too, have both gone to their cousin's, Judge
Pyncheon's at his country-seat. There's not a soul in the house,
but that young daguerreotype-man that sleeps in the north gable.
I saw old Hepzibah and Clifford go away yesterday; and a queer
couple of ducks they were, paddling through the mud-puddles!
They're gone, I'll assure you."
"And how do you know they're gone to the Judge's?" asked Mrs.
Gubbins. "He's a rich man; and there's been a quarrel between
him and Hepzibah this many a day, because he won't give her
a living. That's the main reason of her setting up a cent-shop."
"I know that well enough," said the neighbor. "But they're gone,
--that's one thing certain. And who but a blood relation, that
couldn't help himself, I ask you, would take in that awful-tempered
old maid, and that dreadful Clifford? That's it, you may be sure."
Mrs. Gubbins took her departure, still brimming over with hot
wrath against the absent Hepzibah. For another half-hour, or,
perhaps, considerably more, there was almost as much quiet on the
outside of the house as within. The elm, however, made a pleasant,
cheerful, sunny sigh, responsive to the breeze that was elsewhere
imperceptible; a swarm of insects buzzed merrily under its drooping
shadow, and became specks of light whenever they darted into the
sunshine; a locust sang, once or twice, in some inscrutable seclusion
of the tree; and a solitary little bird, with plumage of pale gold,
came and hovered about Alice's Posies.
At last our small acquaintance, Ned Higgins, trudged up the street,
on his way to school; and happening, for the first time in a
fortnight, to be the possessor of a cent, he could by no means
get past the shop-door of the Seven Gables. But it would not
open. Again and again, however, and half a dozen other agains,
with the inexorable pertinacity of a child intent upon some object
important to itself, did he renew his efforts for admittance.
He had, doubtless, set his heart upon an elephant; or, possibly,
with Hamlet, he meant to eat a crocodile. In response to his
more violent attacks, the bell gave, now and then, a moderate
tinkle, but could not be stirred into clamor by any exertion
of the little fellow's childish and tiptoe strength. Holding
by the door-handle, he peeped through a crevice of the curtain,
and saw that the inner door, communicating with the passage
towards the parlor, was closed.
"Miss Pyncheon!" screamed the child, rapping on the window-pane,
"I want an elephant!"
There being no answer to several repetitions of the summons,
Ned began to grow impatient; and his little pot of passion
quickly boiling over, he picked up a stone, with a naughty
purpose to fling it through the window; at the same time
blubbering and sputtering with wrath. A man--one of two who
happened to be passing by--caught the urchin's arm.
"What's the trouble, old gentleman?" he asked.
"I want old Hepzibah, or Phoebe, or any of them!" answered Ned,
sobbing. "They won't open the door; and I can't get my elephant!"
"Go to school, you little scamp!" said the man. "There's another
cent-shop round the corner. 'T is very strange, Dixey," added he
to his companion, "what's become of all these Pyncheon's! Smith,
the livery-stable keeper, tells me Judge Pyncheon put his horse
up yesterday, to stand till after dinner, and has not taken
him away yet. And one of the Judge's hired men has been in,
this morning, to make inquiry about him. He's a kind of person,
they say, that seldom breaks his habits, or stays out o' nights."
"Oh, he'll turn up safe enough!" said Dixey. "And as for Old
Maid Pyncheon, take my word for it, she has run in debt, and gone
off from her creditors. I foretold, you remember, the first morning
she set up shop, that her devilish scowl would frighten away customers.
They couldn't stand it!"
"I never thought she'd make it go," remarked his friend. "This
business of cent-shops is overdone among the women-folks. My wife
tried it, and lost five dollars on her outlay!"
"Poor business!" said Dixey, shaking his head. "Poor business!"
In the course of the morning, there were various other attempts
to open a communication with the supposed inhabitants of this
silent and impenetrable mansion. The man of root-beer came,
in his neatly painted wagon, with a couple of dozen full bottles,
to be exchanged for empty ones; the baker, with a lot of crackers
which Hepzibah had ordered for her retail custom; the butcher,
with a nice titbit which he fancied she would be eager to secure
for Clifford. Had any observer of these proceedings been aware
of the fearful secret hidden within the house, it would have
affected him with a singular shape and modification of horror,
to see the current of human life making this small eddy hereabouts,
--whirling sticks, straws and all such trifles, round and round,
right over the black depth where a dead corpse lay unseen!
The butcher was so much in earnest with his sweetbread of lamb,
or whatever the dainty might be, that he tried every accessible
door of the Seven Gables, and at length came round again to the
shop, where he ordinarily found admittance.
"It's a nice article, and I know the old lady would jump at it,"
said he to himself. "She can't be gone away! In fifteen years
that I have driven my cart through Pyncheon Street, I've never
known her to be away from home; though often enough, to be sure,
a man might knock all day without bringing her to the door.
But that was when she'd only herself to provide for"
Peeping through the same crevice of the curtain where, only a
little while before, the urchin of elephantine appetite had peeped,
the butcher beheld the inner door, not closed, as the child had
seen it, but ajar, and almost wide open. However it might have
happened, it was the fact. Through the passage-way there was a
dark vista into the lighter but still obscure interior of the parlor.
It appeared to the butcher that he could pretty clearly discern
what seemed to be the stalwart legs, clad in black pantaloons,
of a man sitting in a large oaken chair, the back of which concealed
all the remainder of his figure. This contemptuous tranquillity on
the part of an occupant of the house, in response to the butcher's
indefatigable efforts to attract notice, so piqued the man of flesh
that he determined to withdraw.
"So," thought he, "there sits Old Maid Pyncheon's bloody brother,
while I've been giving myself all this trouble! Why, if a hog
hadn't more manners, I'd stick him! I call it demeaning a man's
business to trade with such people; and from this time forth,
if they want a sausage or an ounce of liver, they shall run after
the cart for it!"
He tossed the titbit angrily into his cart, and drove off in a pet.
Not a great while afterwards there was a sound of music turning
the corner and approaching down the street, with several intervals
of silence, and then a renewed and nearer outbreak of brisk
melody. A mob of children was seen moving onward, or stopping,
in unison with the sound, which appeared to proceed from the
centre of the throng; so that they were loosely bound together
by slender strains of harmony, and drawn along captive; with ever
and anon an accession of some little fellow in an apron and
straw-hat, capering forth from door or gateway. Arriving under
the shadow of the Pyncheon Elm, it proved to be the Italian boy,
who, with his monkey and show of puppets, had once before played
his hurdy-gurdy beneath the arched window. The pleasant face of
Phoebe--and doubtless, too, the liberal recompense which she had
flung him--still dwelt in his remembrance. His expressive features
kindled up, as he recognized the spot where this trifling incident
of his erratic life had chanced. He entered the neglected yard
(now wilder than ever, with its growth of hog-weed and burdock),
stationed himself on the doorstep of the main entrance, and,
opening his show-box, began to play. Each individual of the
automatic community forthwith set to work, according to his or
her proper vocation: the monkey, taking off his Highland bonnet,
bowed and scraped to the by-standers most obsequiously, with
ever an observant eye to pick up a stray cent; and the young
foreigner himself, as he turned the crank of his machine, glanced
upward to the arched window, expectant of a presence that would
make his music the livelier and sweeter. The throng of children
stood near; some on the sidewalk; some within the yard; two or