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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe House Of Seven Gables - Chapter VI - MAULE'S WELL
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The House Of Seven Gables - Chapter VI - MAULE'S WELL Post by :research Category :Long Stories Author :Nathaniel Hawthorne Date :April 2011 Read :695

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The House Of Seven Gables - Chapter VI - MAULE'S WELL

AFTER an early tea, the little country-girl strayed into the
garden. The enclosure had formerly been very extensive, but was
now contracted within small compass, and hemmed about, partly
by high wooden fences, and partly by the outbuildings of houses
that stood on another street. In its centre was a grass-plat,
surrounding a ruinous little structure, which showed just enough
of its original design to indicate that it had once been a
summer-house. A hop-vine, springing from last year's root,
was beginning to clamber over it, but would be long in covering
the roof with its green mantle. Three of the seven gables either
fronted or looked sideways, with a dark solemnity of aspect,
down into the garden.

The black, rich soil had fed itself with the decay of a long
period of time; such as fallen leaves, the petals of flowers,
and the stalks and seed--vessels of vagrant and lawless plants,
more useful after their death than ever while flaunting in the sun.
The evil of these departed years would naturally have sprung up
again, in such rank weeds (symbolic of the transmitted vices of
society) as are always prone to root themselves about human
dwellings. Phoebe Saw, however, that their growth must have
been checked by a degree of careful labor, bestowed daily and
systematically on the garden. The white double rose-bush had
evidently been propped up anew against the house since the
commencement of the season; and a pear-tree and three damson-trees,
which, except a row of currant-bushes, constituted the only varieties
of fruit, bore marks of the recent amputation of several superfluous
or defective limbs. There were also a few species of antique
and hereditary flowers, in no very flourishing condition, but
scrupulously weeded; as if some person, either out of love or
curiosity, had been anxious to bring them to such perfection as
they were capable of attaining. The remainder of the garden
presented a well-selected assortment of esculent vegetables,
in a praiseworthy state of advancement. Summer squashes almost
in their golden blossom; cucumbers, now evincing a tendency to
spread away from the main stock, and ramble far and wide; two
or three rows of string-beans and as many more that were about
to festoon themselves on poles; tomatoes, occupying a site so
sheltered and sunny that the plants were already gigantic, and
promised an early and abundant harvest.

Phoebe wondered whose care and toil it could have been that had
planted these vegetables, and kept the soil so clean and orderly.
Not surely her cousin Hepzibah's, who had no taste nor spirits
for the lady-like employment of cultivating flowers, and--with
her recluse habits, and tendency to shelter herself within the
dismal shadow of the house--would hardly have come forth under
the speck of open sky to weed and hoe among the fraternity of
beans and squashes.

It being her first day of complete estrangement from rural
objects, Phoebe found an unexpected charm in this little nook
of grass, and foliage, and aristocratic flowers, and plebeian
vegetables. The eye of Heaven seemed to look down into it
pleasantly, and with a peculiar smile, as if glad to perceive
that nature, elsewhere overwhelmed, and driven out of the dusty
town, had here been able to retain a breathing-place. The spot
acquired a somewhat wilder grace, and yet a very gentle one, from
the fact that a pair of robins had built their nest in the
pear-tree, and were making themselves exceed ingly busy and happy
in the dark intricacy of its boughs. Bees, too,--strange to say,
--had thought it worth their while to come hither, possibly from
the range of hives beside some farm-house miles away. How many
aerial voyages might they have made, in quest of honey, or
honey-laden, betwixt dawn and sunset! Yet, late as it now was,
there still arose a pleasant hum out of one or two of the
squash-blossoms, in the depths ofwich these bees were plying
their golden labor. There was one other object in the garden
which Nature might fairly claim as her inalienable property,
in spite of whatever man could do to render it his own. This was
a fountain, set round with a rim of old mossy stones, and paved,
in its bed, with what appeared to be a sort of mosaic-work of
variously colored pebbles. The play and slight agitation of
the water, in its upward gush, wrought magically with these
variegated pebbles, and made a continually shifting apparition
of quaint figures, vanishing too suddenly to be definable. Thence,
swelling over the rim of moss-grown stones, the water stole away
under the fence, through what we regret to call a gutter, rather
than a channel. Nor must we forget to mention a hen-coop of very
reverend antiquity that stood in the farther corner of the garden,
not a great way from the fountain. It now contained only Chanticleer,
his two wives, and a solitary chicken. All of them were pure
specimens of a breed which had been transmitted down as an heirloom
in the Pyncheon family, and were said, while in their prime, to
have attained almost the size of turkeys, and, on the score of
delicate flesh, to be fit for a prince's table. In proof of
the authenticity of this legendary renown, Hepzibah could have
exhibited the shell of a great egg, which an ostrich need hardly
have been ashamed of. Be that as it might, the hens were now
scarcely larger than pigeons, and had a queer, rusty, withered
aspect, and a gouty kind of movement, and a sleepy and melancholy
tone throughout all the variations of their clucking and cackling.
It was evident that the race had degenerated, like many a noble
race besides, in consequence of too strict a watchfulness to keep
it pure. These feathered people had existed too long in their
distinct variety; a fact of which the present representatives,
judging by their lugubrious deportment, seemed to be aware.
They kept themselves alive, unquestionably, and laid now and
then an egg, and hatched a chicken; not for any pleasure of their
own, but that the world might not absolutely lose what had once
been so admirable a breed of fowls. The distinguishing mark of
the hens was a crest of lamentably scanty growth, in these latter
days, but so oddly and wickedly analogous to Hepzibah's turban,
that Phoebe--to the poignant distress of her conscience, but
inevitably --was led to fancy a general resemblance betwixt these
forlorn bipeds and her respectable relative.

The girl ran into the house to get some crumbs of bread,
cold potatoes, and other such scraps as were suitable to the
accommodating appetite of fowls. Returning, she gave a peculiar
call, which they seemed to recognize. The chicken crept through
the pales of the coop and ran, with some show of liveliness, to
her feet; while Chanticleer and the ladies of his household regarded
her with queer, sidelong glances, and then croaked one to another,
as if communicating their sage opinions of her character. So wise,
as well as antique, was their aspect, as to give color to the idea,
not merely that they were the descendants of a time-honored
race, but that they had existed, in their individual capacity,
ever since the House of the Seven Gables was founded, and were
somehow mixed up with its destiny. They were a species of tutelary
sprite, or Banshee; although winged and feathered differently
from most other guardian angels.

"Here, you odd little chicken!" said Phoebe; "here are some nice
crumbs for you!"

The chicken, hereupon, though almost as venerable in appearance
as its, mother--possessing, indeed, the whole antiquity of its
progenitors in miniature,--mustered vivacity enough to flutter
upward and alight on Phoebe's shoulder.

"That little fowl pays you a high compliment!" said a voice
behind Phoebe.

Turning quickly, she was surprised at sight of a young man, who
had found access into the garden by a door opening out of
another gable than that whence she had emerged. He held a hoe
in his hand, and, while Phoebe was gone in quest of the crumbs,
had begun to busy himself with drawing up fresh earth about the
roots of the tomatoes.

"The chicken really treats you like an old acquaintance,"
continued he in a quiet way, while a smile made his face
pleasanter than Phoebe at first fancied it. "Those venerable
personages in the coop, too, seem very affably disposed. You are
lucky to be in their good graces so soon! They have known me much
longer, but never honor me with any familiarity, though hardly a
day passes without my bringing them food. Miss Hepzibah,
I suppose, will interweave the fact with her other traditions,
and set it down that the fowls know you to be a Pyncheon!"

"The secret is," said Phoebe, smiling, "that I have learned how
to talk with hens and chickens."

"Ah, but these hens," answered the young man,--"these hens of
aristocratic lineage would scorn to understand the vulgar language
of a barn-yard fowl. I prefer to think--and so would Miss Hepzibah
--that they recognize the family tone. For you are a Pyncheon?"

"My name is Phoebe Pyncheon," said the girl, with a manner of
some reserve; for she was aware that her new acquaintance could
be no other than the daguerreotypist, of whose lawless propensities
the old maid had given her a disagreeable idea. "I did not know
that my cousin Hepzibah's garden was under another person's care."

"Yes," said Holgrave, "I dig, and hoe, and weed, in this black
old earth, for the sake of refreshing myself with what little
nature and simplicity may be left in it, after men have so long
sown and reaped here. I turn up the earth by way of pastime.
My sober occupation, so far as I have any, is with a lighter
material. In short, I make pictures out of sunshine; and, not to
be too much dazzled with my own trade, I have prevailed with Miss
Hepzibah to let me lodge in one of these dusky gables. It is like
a bandage over one's eyes, to come into it. But would you like to
see a specimen of my productions?"

"A daguerreotype likeness, do you mean?" asked Phoebe with less reserve;
for, in spite of prejudice, her own youthfulness sprang forward to meet
his. "I don't much like pictures of that sort,--they are so hard and
stern; besides dodging away from the eye, and trying to escape altogether.
They are conscious of looking very unamiable, I suppose, and therefore
hate to be seen."

"If you would permit me," said the artist, looking at Phoebe,
"I should like to try whether the daguerreotype can bring out
disagreeable traits on a perfectly amiable face. But there
certainly is truth in what you have said. Most of my likenesses
do look unamiable; but the very sufficient reason, I fancy, is,
because the originals are so. There is a wonderful insight in
Heaven's broad and simple sunshine. While we give it credit only
for depicting the merest surface, it actually brings out the secret
character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon,
even could he detect it. There is, at least, no flattery in my
humble line of art. Now, here is a likeness which I have taken
over and over again, and still with no better result. Yet the
original wears, to common eyes, a very different expression.
It would gratify me to have your judgment on this character."

He exhibited a daguerreotype miniature in a morocco case.
Phoebe merely glanced at it, and gave it back.

"I know the face," she replied; "for its stern eye has been
following me about all day. It is my Puritan ancestor, who hangs
yonder in the parlor. To be sure, you have found some way of
copying the portrait without its black velvet cap and gray beard,
and have given him a modern coat and satin cravat, instead of his
cloak and band. I don't think him improved by your alterations."

"You would have seen other differences had you looked a little
longer," said Holgrave, laughing, yet apparently much struck.
"I can assure you that this is a modern face, and one which you
will very probably meet. Now, the remarkable point is, that the
original wears, to the world's eye,--and, for aught I know, to his
most intimate friends,--an exceedingly pleasant countenance,
indicative of benevolence, openness of heart, sunny good-humor,
and other praiseworthy qualities of that cast. The sun, as you see,
tells quite another story, and will not be coaxed out of it, after
half a dozen patient attempts on my part. Here we have the man,
sly, subtle, hard, imperious, and, withal, cold as ice. Look at
that eye! Would you like to be at its mercy? At that mouth! Could
it ever smile? And yet, if you could only see the benign smile
of the original! It is so much the More unfortunate, as he is a
public character of some eminence, and the likeness was intended
to be engraved."

"Well, I don't wish to see it any more," observed Phoebe, turning
away her eyes. "It is certainly very like the old portrait. But my
cousin Hepzibah has another picture,--a miniature. If the original
is still in the world, I think he might defy the sun to make him
look stern and hard."

"You have seen that picture, then!" exclaimed the artist, with an
expression of much interest. "I never did, but have a great
curiosity to do so. And you judge favorably of the face?"

"There never was a sweeter one," said Phoebe. "It is almost too
soft and gentle for a man's."

"Is there nothing wild in the eye?" continued Holgrave, so earnestly
that it embarrassed Phoebe, as did also the quiet freedom with which
he presumed on their so recent acquaintance. "Is there nothing dark
or sinister anywhere? Could you not conceive the original to have been
guilty of a great crime?"

"It is nonsense," said Phoebe a little impatiently, "for us to talk
about a picture which you have never seen. You mistake it for
some other. A crime, indeed! Since you are a friend of my
cousin Hepzibah's, you should ask her to show you the picture."

"It will suit my purpose still better to see the original," replied
the daguerreotypist coolly. "As to his character, we need not
discuss its points; they have already been settled by a competent
tribunal, or one which called itself competent. But, stay! Do not
go yet, if you please! I have a proposition to make you."

Phoebe was on the point of retreating, but turned back, with
some hesitation; for she did not exactly comprehend his manner,
although, on better observation, its feature seemed rather to be
lack of ceremony than any approach to offensive rudeness. There
was an odd kind of authority, too, in what he now proceeded to
say, rather as if the garden were his own than a place to which
he was admitted merely by Hepzibah's courtesy.

"If agreeable to you," he observed, "it would give me pleasure to
turn over these flowers, and those ancient and respectable fowls,
to your care. Coming fresh from country air and occupations,
you will soon feel the need of some such out-of-door employment.
My own sphere does not so much lie among flowers. You can trim
and tend them, therefore, as you please; and I will ask only the
least trifle of a blossom, now and then, in exchange for all the
good, honest kitchen vegetables with which I propose to enrich Miss
Hepzibah's table. So we will be fellow-laborers, somewhat on the
community system."

Silently, and rather surprised at her own compliance, Phoebe
accordingly betook herself to weeding a flower-bed, but busied
herself still more with cogitations respecting this young man,
with whom she so unexpectedly found herself on terms approaching
to familiarity. She did not altogether like him. His character
perplexed the little country-girl, as it might a more practised
observer; for, while the tone of his conversation had generally
been playful, the impression left on her mind was that of gravity,
and, except as his youth modified it, almost sternness. She
rebelled, as it were, against a certain magnetic element in the
artist's nature, which he exercised towards her, possibly without
being conscious of it.

After a little while, the twilight, deepened by the shadows of
the fruit-trees and the surrounding buildings, threw an obscurity
over the garden.

"There," said Holgrave, "it is time to give over work! That last
stroke of the hoe has cut off a beanstalk. Good-night, Miss Phoebe
Pyncheon! Any bright day, if you will put one of those rosebuds in
your hair, and come to my rooms in Central Street, I will seize the
purest ray of sunshine, and make a picture of the flower and its
wearer." He retired towards his own solitary gable, but turned his
head, on reaching the door, and called to Phoebe, with a tone which
certainly had laughter in it, yet which seemed to be more than half
in earnest.

"Be careful not to drink at Maule's well!" said he. "Neither drink
nor bathe your face in it!"

"Maule's well!" answered Phoebe. "Is that it with the rim of
mossy stones? I have no thought of drinking there,--but why not?"

"Oh," rejoined the daguerreotypist, "because, like an old lady's
cup of tea, it is water bewitched!"

He vanished; and Phoebe, lingering a moment, saw a glimmering
light, and then the steady beam of a lamp, in a chamber of the
gable. On returning into Hepzibah's apartment of the house, she
found the low-studded parlor so dim and dusky that her eyes
could not penetrate the interior. She was indistinctly aware,
however, that the gaunt figure of the old gentlewoman was sitting
in one of the straight-backed chairs, a little withdrawn from the
window, the faint gleam of which showed the blanched paleness
of her cheek, turned sideways towards a corner.

"Shall I light a lamp, Cousin Hepzibah?" she asked.

"Do, if you please, my dear child," answered Hepzibah. "But put
it on the table in the corner of the passage. My eyes are weak;
and I can seldom bear the lamplight on them."

What an instrument is the human voice! How wonderfully
responsive to every emotion of the human soul! In Hepzibah's
tone, at that moment, there was a certain rich depth and moisture,
as if the words, commonplace as they were, had been steeped in
the warmth of her heart. Again, while lighting the lamp in the
kitchen, Phoebe fancied that her cousin spoke to her.

"In a moment, cousin!" answered the girl. "These matches just
glimmer, and go out."

But, instead of a response from Hepzibah, she seemed to hear the
murmur of an unknown voice. It was strangely indistinct, however,
and less like articulate words than an unshaped sound, such as would
be the utterance of feeling and sympathy, rather than of the intellect.
So vague was it, that its impression or echo in Phoebe's mind was
that of unreality. She concluded that she must have mistaken some
other sound for that of the human voice; or else that it was
altogether in her fancy.

She set the lighted lamp in the passage, and again entered the
parlor. Hepzibah's form, though its sable outline mingled with the
dusk, was now less imperfectly visible. In the remoter parts of
the room, however, its walls being so ill adapted to reflect light,
there was nearly the same obscurity as before.

"Cousin," said Phoebe, "did you speak to me just now?"

"No, child!" replied Hepzibah.

Fewer words than before, but with the same mysterious music in
them! Mellow, melancholy, yet not mournful, the tone seemed to
gush up out of the deep well of Hepzibah's heart, all steeped in
its profoundest emotion. There was a tremor in it, too, that
--as all strong feeling is electric--partly communicated itself
to Phoebe. The girl sat silently for a moment. But soon, her senses
being very acute, she became conscious of an irregular respiration
in an obscure corner of the room. Her physical organization,
moreover, being at once delicate and healthy, gave her a perception,
operating with almost the effect of a spiritual medium, that somebody
was near at hand.

"My dear cousin," asked she, overcoming an indefinable reluctance,
"is there not some one in the room with us?"

"Phoebe, my dear little girl," said Hepzibah, after a moment's
pause,"you were up betimes, and have been busy all day. Pray go
to bed; for I am sure you must need rest. I will sit in the parlor
awhile, and collect my thoughts. It has been my custom for more
years, child, than you have lived!" While thus dismissing her, the
maiden lady stept forward, kissed Phoebe, and pressed her to her
heart, which beat against the girl's bosom with a strong, high,
and tumultuous swell. How came there to be so much love in this
desolate old heart, that it could afford to well over thus abundantly?

"Goodnight, cousin," said Phoebe, strangely affected by Hepzibah's
manner. "If you begin to love me, I am glad!"

She retired to her chamber, but did not soon fall asleep, nor then
very profoundly. At some uncertain period in the depths of night,
and, as it were, through the thin veil of a dream, she was
conscious of a footstep mounting the stairs heavily, but not with
force and decision. The voice of Hepzibah, with a hush through
it, was going up along with the footsteps; and, again, responsive
to her cousin's voice, Phoebe heard that strange, vague murmur,
which might be likened to an indistinct shadow of human utterance.

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