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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe House Of Seven Gables - Chapter IX - CLIFFORD AND PHOEBE
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The House Of Seven Gables - Chapter IX - CLIFFORD AND PHOEBE Post by :stevepennington Category :Long Stories Author :Nathaniel Hawthorne Date :April 2011 Read :1114

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The House Of Seven Gables - Chapter IX - CLIFFORD AND PHOEBE

TRULY was there something high, generous, and noble in the
native composition of our poor old Hepzibah! Or else,--and it
was quite as probably the case,--she had been enriched by
poverty, developed by sorrow, elevated by the strong and solitary
affection of her life, and thus endowed with heroism, which
never could have characterized her in what are called happier
circumstances. Through dreary years Hepzibah had looked
forward--for the most part despairingly, never with any
confidence of hope, but always with the feeling that it was her
brightest possibility--to the very position in which she now found
herself. In her own behalf, she had asked nothing of Providence
but the opportunity of devoting herself to this brother, whom she
had so loved,--so admired for what he was, or might have been,
--and to whom she had kept her faith, alone of all the world,
wholly, unfalteringly, at every instant, and throughout life.
And here, in his late decline, the lost one had come back out of
his long and strange misfortune, and was thrown on her sympathy,
as it seemed, not merely for the bread of his physical existence,
but for everything that should keep him morally alive. She had
responded to the call. She had come forward,--our poor, gaunt
Hepzibah, in her rusty silks, with her rigid joints, and the
sad perversity of her scowl,-- ready to do her utmost; and with
affection enough, if that were all, to do a hundred times as much!
There could be few more tearful sights,--and Heaven forgive us
if a smile insist on mingling with our conception of it!--few
sights with truer pathos in them, than Hepzibah presented on that
first afternoon.

How patiently did she endeavor to wrap Clifford up in her great,
warm love, and make it all the world to him, so that he should
retain no torturing sense of the coldness and dreariness without!
Her little efforts to amuse him! How pitiful, yet magnanimous,
they were!

Remembering his early love of poetry and fiction, she unlocked
a bookcase, and took down several books that had been excellent
reading in their day. There was a volume of Pope, with the Rape
of the Lock in it, and another of the Tatler, and an odd one of
Dryden's Miscellanies, all with tarnished gilding on their covers,
and thoughts of tarnished brilliancy inside. They had no success
with Clifford. These, and all such writers of society, whose new
works glow like the rich texture of a just-woven carpet, must be
content to relinquish their charm, for every reader, after an age
or two, and could hardly be supposed to retain any portion of it
for a mind that had utterly lost its estimate of modes and
manners. Hepzibah then took up Rasselas, and began to read of
the Happy Valley, with a vague idea that some secret of a contented
life had there been elaborated, which might at least serve
Clifford and herself for this one day. But the Happy Valley
had a cloud over it. Hepzibah troubled her auditor, moreover, by
innumerable sins of emphasis, which he seemed to detect, without
any reference to the meaning; nor, in fact, did he appear to take
much note of the sense of what she read, but evidently felt the
tedium of the lecture, without harvesting its profit. His sister's
voice, too, naturally harsh, had, in the course of her sorrowful
lifetime, contracted a kind of croak, which, when it once gets
into the human throat, is as ineradicable as sin. In both sexes,
occasionally, this lifelong croak, accompanying each word of joy
or sorrow, is one of the symptoms of a settled melancholy; and
wherever it occurs, the whole history of misfortune is conveyed
in its slightest accent. The effect is as if the voice had been
dyed black; or,--if we must use a more moderate simile,--this
miserable croak, running through all the variations of the voice,
is like a black silken thread, on which the crystal beads of speech
are strung, and whence they take their hue. Such voices have put
on mourning for dead hopes; and they ought to die and be buried
along with them!

Discerning that Clifford was not gladdened by her efforts,
Hepzibah searched about the house for the means of more exhilarating
pastime. At one time, her eyes chanced to rest on Alice Pyncheon's
harpsichord. It was a moment of great peril; for,--despite the
traditionary awe that had gathered over this instrument of music,
and the dirges which spiritual fingers were said to play on it,--the
devoted sister had solemn thoughts of thrumming on its chords for
Clifford's benefit, and accompanying the performance with her voice.
Poor Clifford! Poor Hepzibah! Poor harpsichord! All three would have
been miserable together. By some good agency,--possibly, by the
unrecognized interposition of the long-buried Alice herself,--the
threatening calamity was averted.

But the worst of all--the hardest stroke of fate for Hepzibah to
endure, and perhaps for Clifford, too was his invincible distaste
for her appearance. Her features, never the most agreeable, and
now harsh with age and grief, and resentment against the world for
his sake; her dress, and especially her turban; the queer and quaint
manners, which had unconsciously grown upon her in solitude,--such
being the poor gentlewoman's outward characteristics, it is no great
marvel, although the mournfullest of pities, that the instinctive
lover of the Beautiful was fain to turn away his eyes. There was no
help for it. It would be the latest impulse to die within him. In
his last extremity, the expiring breath stealing faintly through
Clifford's lips, he would doubtless press Hepzibah's hand, in
fervent recognition of all her lavished love, and close his eyes,
--but not so much to die, as to be constrained to look no longer
on her face! Poor Hepzibah! She took counsel with herself what
might be done, and thought of putting ribbons on her turban; but,
by the instant rush of several guardian angels, was withheld from
an experiment that could hardly have proved less than fatal to
the beloved object of her anxiety.

To be brief, besides Hepzibah's disadvantages of person, there
was an uncouthness pervading all her deeds; a clumsy something,
that could but ill adapt itself for use, and not at all for ornament.
She was a grief to Clifford, and she knew it. In this extremity,
the antiquated virgin turned to Phoebe. No grovelling jealousy
was in her heart. Had it pleased Heaven to crown the heroic
fidelity of her life by making her personally the medium of
Clifford's happiness, it would have rewarded her for all the past,
by a joy with no bright tints, indeed, but deep and true, and
worth a thousand gayer ecstasies. This could not be. She
therefore turned to Phoebe, and resigned the task into the young
girl's hands. The latter took it up cheerfully, as she did
everything, but with no sense of a mission to perform, and
succeeding all the better for that same simplicity.

By the involuntary effect of a genial temperament, Phoebe soon
grew to be absolutely essential to the daily comfort, if not the
daily life, of her two forlorn companions. The grime and
sordidness of the House of the Seven Gables seemed to have
vanished since her appearance there; the gnawing tooth of the
dry-rot was stayed among the old timbers of its skeleton frame;
the dust had ceased to settle down so densely, from the antique
ceilings, upon the floors and furniture of the rooms below,--or,
at any rate, there was a little housewife, as light-footed as the
breeze that sweeps a garden walk, gliding hither and thither to
brush it all away. The shadows of gloomy events that haunted
the else lonely and desolate apartments; the heavy, breathless
scent which death had left in more than one of the bedchambers,
ever since his visits of long ago,--these were less powerful than
the purifying influence scattered throughout the atmosphere of the
household by the presence of one youthful, fresh, and thoroughly
wholesome heart. There was no morbidness in Phoebe; if there
had been, the old Pyncheon House was the very locality to ripen
it into incurable disease. But now her spirit resembled, in its
potency, a minute quantity of ottar of rose in one of Hepzibah's
huge, iron-bound trunks, diffusing its fragrance through the
various articles of linen and wrought-lace, kerchiefs, caps,
stockings, folded dresses, gloves, and whatever else was treasured
there. As every article in the great trunk was the sweeter for the
rose-scent, so did all the thoughts and emotions of Hepzibah and
Clifford, sombre as they might seem, acquire a subtle attribute of
happiness from Phoebe's intermixture with them. Her activity of
body, intellect, and heart impelled her continually to perform the
ordinary little toils that offered themselves around her, and to
think the thought proper for the moment, and to sympathize,--now
with the twittering gayety of the robins in the pear-tree, and now
to such a depth as she could with Hepzibah's dark anxiety, or the
vague moan of her brother. This facile adaptation was at once the
symptom of perfect health and its best preservative.

A nature like Phoebe's has invariably its due influence, but is
seldom regarded with due honor. Its spiritual force, however, may
be partially estimated by the fact of her having found a place for
herself, amid circumstances so stern as those which surrounded
the mistress of the house; and also by the effect which she
produced on a character of so much more mass than her own. For
the gaunt, bony frame and limbs of Hepzibah, as compared with
the tiny lightsomeness of Phoebe's figure, were perhaps in some
fit proportion with the moral weight and substance, respectively,
of the woman and the girl.

To the guest,--to Hepzibah's brother,--or Cousin Clifford, as
Phoebe now began to call him,--she was especially necessary.
Not that he could ever be said to converse with her, or often
manifest, in any other very definite mode, his sense of a charm
in her society. But if she were a long while absent he became
pettish and nervously restless, pacing the room to and fro with
the uncertainty that characterized all his movements; or else
would sit broodingly in his great chair, resting his head on his
hands, and evincing life only by an electric sparkle of ill-humor,
whenever Hepzibah endeavored to arouse him. Phoebe's presence,
and the contiguity of her fresh life to his blighted one, was usually
all that he required. Indeed, such was the native gush and play
of her spirit, that she was seldom perfectly quiet and
undemonstrative, any more than a fountain ever ceases to dimple
and warble with its flow. She possessed the gift of song, and
that, too, so naturally, that you would as little think of inquiring
whence she had caught it, or what master had taught her, as of
asking the same questions about a bird, in whose small strain of
music we recognize the voice of the Creator as distinctly as in
the loudest accents of his thunder. So long as Phoebe sang, she
might stray at her own will about the house. Clifford was
content, whether the sweet, airy homeliness of her tones came
down from the upper chambers, or along the passageway from
the shop, or was sprinkled through the foliage of the pear-tree,
inward from the garden, with the twinkling sunbeams. He would
sit quietly, with a gentle pleasure gleaming over his face,
brighter now, and now a little dimmer, as the song happened to
float near him, or was more remotely heard. It pleased him best,
however, when she sat on a low footstool at his knee.

It is perhaps remarkable, considering her temperament, that
Phoebe oftener chose a strain of pathos than of gayety. But the
young and happy are not ill pleased to temper their life with a
transparent shadow. The deepest pathos of Phoebe's voice and
song, moreover, came sifted through the golden texture of a
cheery spirit, and was somehow so interfused with the quality
thence acquired, that one's heart felt all the lighter for having
wept at it. Broad mirth, in the sacred presence of dark
misfortune, would have jarred harshly and irreverently with the
solemn symphony that rolled its undertone through Hepzibah's
and her brother's life. Therefore, it was well that Phoebe so
often chose sad themes, and not amiss that they ceased to be so
sad while she was singing them.

Becoming habituated to her companionship, Clifford readily
showed how capable of imbibing pleasant tints and gleams of
cheerful light from all quarters his nature must originally have
been. He grew youthful while she sat by him. A beauty,--not
precisely real, even in its utmost manifestation, and which a
painter would have watched long to seize and fix upon his canvas,
and, after all, in vain,--beauty, nevertheless, that was not a
mere dream, would sometimes play upon and illuminate his face.
It did more than to illuminate; it transfigured him with an
expression that could only be interpreted as the glow of an
exquisite and happy spirit. That gray hair, and those furrows,
--with their record of infinite sorrow so deeply written across
his brow, and so compressed, as with a futile effort to crowd
in all the tale, that the whole inscription was made illegible,
--these, for the moment, vanished. An eye at once tender and
acute might have beheld in the man some shadow of what he was
meant to be. Anon, as age came stealing, like a sad twilight,
back over his figure, you would have felt tempted to hold an
argument with Destiny, and affirm, that either this being
should not have been made mortal, or mortal existence should
have been tempered to his qualities. There seemed no necessity
for his having drawn breath at all; the world never wanted him;
but, as he had breathed, it ought always to have been the
balmiest of summer air. The same perplexity will invariably haunt
us with regard to natures that tend to feed exclusively upon the
Beautiful, let their earthly fate be as lenient as it may.

Phoebe, it is probable, had but a very imperfect comprehension
of the character over which she had thrown so beneficent a spell.
Nor was it necessary. The fire upon the hearth can gladden a
whole semicircle of faces round about it, but need not know the
individuality of one among them all. Indeed, there was something
too fine and delicate in Clifford's traits to be perfectly
appreciated by one whose sphere lay so much in the Actual as
Phoebe's did. For Clifford, however, the reality, and simplicity,
and thorough homeliness of the girl's nature were as powerful a
charm as any that she possessed. Beauty, it is true, and beauty
almost perfect in its own style, was indispensable. Had Phoebe
been coarse in feature, shaped clumsily, of a harsh voice, and
uncouthly mannered, she might have been rich with all good gifts,
beneath this unfortunate exterior, and still, so long as she
wore the guise of woman, she would have shocked Clifford, and
depressed him by her lack of beauty. But nothing more beautiful
--nothing prettier, at least--was ever made than Phoebe. And,
therefore, to this man,--whose whole poor and impalpable enjoyment
of existence heretofore, and until both his heart and fancy died
within him, had been a dream,--whose images of women had more and
more lost their warmth and substance, and been frozen, like the
pictures of secluded artists, into the chillest ideality,--to him,
this little figure of the cheeriest household life was just what
he required to bring him back into the breathing world. Persons
who have wandered, or been expelled, out of the common track of
things, even were it for a better system, desire nothing so much
as to be led back. They shiver in their loneliness, be it on a
mountain-top or in a dungeon. Now, Phoebe's presence made a home
about her,--that very sphere which the outcast, the prisoner, the
potentate,--the wretch beneath mankind, the wretch aside from it,
or the wretch above it, --instinctively pines after,--a home! She
was real! Holding her hand, you felt something; a tender something;
a substance, and a warm one: and so long as you should feel its
grasp, soft as it was, you might be certain that your place was good
in the whole sympathetic chain of human nature. The world was no
longer a delusion.

By looking a little further in this direction, we might suggest an
explanation of an often-suggested mystery. Why are poets so apt
to choose their mates, not for any similarity of poetic endowment,
but for qualities which might make the happiness of the rudest
handicraftsman as well as that of the ideal craftsman of the spirit?
Because, probably, at his highest elevation, the poet needs no human
intercourse; but he finds it dreary to descend, and be a stranger.

There was something very beautiful in the relation that grew up
between this pair, so closely and constantly linked together, yet
with such a waste of gloomy and mysterious years from his birthday
to hers. On Clifford's part it was the feeling of a man naturally
endowed with the liveliest sensibility to feminine influence, but
who had never quaffed the cup of passionate love, and knew that it
was now too late. He knew it, with the instinctive delicacy that
had survived his intellectual decay. Thus, his sentiment for Phoebe,
without being paternal, was not less chaste than if she had been
his daughter. He was a man, it is true, and recognized her as a
woman. She was his only representative of womankind. He took
unfailing note of every charm that appertained to her sex, and
saw the ripeness of her lips, and the virginal development of her
bosom. All her little womanly ways, budding out of her like
blossoms on a young fruit-tree, had their effect on him, and
sometimes caused his very heart to tingle with the keenest thrills
of pleasure. At such moments,--for the effect was seldom more than
momentary,--the half-torpid man would be full of harmonious life,
just as a long-silent harp is full of sound, when the musician's
fingers sweep across it. But, after all, it seemed rather a
perception, or a sympathy, than a sentiment belonging to himself
as an individual. He read Phoebe as he would a sweet and simple
story; he listened to her as if she were a verse of household
poetry, which God, in requital of his bleak and dismal lot, had
permitted some angel, that most pitied him, to warble through the
house. She was not an actual fact for him, but the interpretation
of all that he lacked on earth brought warmly home to his conception;
so that this mere symbol, or life-like picture, had almost the
comfort of reality.

But we strive in vain to put the idea into words. No adequate
expression of the beauty and profound pathos with which it
impresses us is attainable. This being, made only for happiness,
and heretofore so miserably failing to be happy,--his tendencies
so hideously thwarted, that, some unknown time ago, the delicate
springs of his character, never morally or intellectually strong,
had given way, and he was now imbecile,--this poor, forlorn
voyager from the Islands of the Blest, in a frail bark, on a
tempestuous sea, had been flung, by the last mountain-wave of
his shipwreck, into a quiet harbor. There, as he lay more
than half lifeless on the strand, the fragrance of an earthly
rose-bud had come to his nostrils, and, as odors will, had
summoned up reminiscences or visions of all the living and
breathing beauty amid which he should have had his home. With
his native susceptibility of happy influences, he inhales the
slight, ethereal rapture into his soul, and expires!

And how did Phoebe regard Clifford? The girl's was not one of
those natures which are most attracted by what is strange and
exceptional in human character. The path which would best have
suited her was the well-worn track of ordinary life; the
companions in whom she would most have delighted were such
as one encounters at every turn. The mystery which enveloped
Clifford, so far as it affected her at all, was an annoyance,
rather than the piquant charm which many women might have found
in it. Still, her native kindliness was brought strongly into play,
not by what was darkly picturesque in his situation, nor so much,
even, by the finer graces of his character, as by the simple
appeal of a heart so forlorn as his to one so full of genuine
sympathy as hers. She gave him an affectionate regard, because
he needed so much love, and seemed to have received so little.
With a ready tact, the result of ever-active and wholesome
sensibility, she discerned what was good for him, and did it.
Whatever was morbid in his mind and experience she ignored;
and thereby kept their intercourse healthy, by the incautious,
but, as it were, heaven-directed freedom of her whole conduct.
The sick in mind, and, perhaps, in body, are rendered more darkly
and hopelessly so by the manifold reflection of their disease,
mirrored back from all quarters in the deportment of those about
them; they are compelled to inhale the poison of their own breath,
in infinite repetition. But Phoebe afforded her poor patient a
supply of purer air. She impregnated it, too, not with a wild-flower
scent, --for wildness was no trait of hers,--but with the perfume
of garden-roses, pinks, and other blossoms of much sweetness, which
nature and man have consented together in making grow from summer
to summer, and from century to century. Such a flower was Phoebe
in her relation with Clifford, and such the delight that he
inhaled from her.

Yet, it must be said, her petals sometimes drooped a little, in
consequence of the heavy atmosphere about her. She grew more
thoughtful than heretofore. Looking aside at Clifford's face,
and seeing the dim, unsatisfactory elegance and the intellect
almost quenched, she would try to inquire what had been his life.
Was he always thus? Had this veil been over him from his birth?
--this veil, under which far more of his spirit was hidden than
revealed, and through which he so imperfectly discerned the actual
world, --or was its gray texture woven of some dark calamity?
Phoebe loved no riddles, and would have been glad to escape the
perplexity of this one. Nevertheless, there was so far a good
result of her meditations on Clifford's character, that, when her
involuntary conjectures, together with the tendency of every
strange circumstance to tell its own story, had gradually taught
her the fact, it had no terrible effect upon her. Let the world
have done him what vast wrong it might, she knew Cousin Clifford
too well--or fancied so--ever to shudder at the touch of his thin,
delicate fingers.

Within a few days after the appearance of this remarkable
inmate, the routine of life had established itself with a good
deal of uniformity in the old house of our narrative. In the
morning, very shortly after breakfast, it was Clifford's custom
to fall asleep in his chair; nor, unless accidentally disturbed,
would he emerge from a dense cloud of slumber or the thinner mists
that flitted to and fro, until well towards noonday. These hours
of drowsihead were the season of the old gentlewoman's attendance
on her brother, while Phoebe took charge of the shop; an arrangement
which the public speedily understood, and evinced their decided
preference of the younger shopwoman by the multiplicity of their
calls during her administration of affairs. Dinner over, Hepzibah
took her knitting-work,--a long stocking of gray yarn, for her
brother's winter wear,--and with a sigh, and a scowl of affectionate
farewell to Clifford, and a gesture enjoining watchfulness on
Phoebe, went to take her seat behind the counter. It was now the
young girl's turn to be the nurse,--the guardian, the playmate,
--or whatever is the fitter phrase,--of the gray-haired man.

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